Florida Bird Photography (Part I)

Florida is rapidly becoming my favorite place to photograph wading birds, shorebirds, gulls, terns and for that matter any bird who loves water. Florida, is about 20% water, making it ideal for these various species of birds.
If you look at a map of Florida, pick out Orlando and draw a line west of the city and east of the city, you essentially have a belt consisting of heavy bird populations year around, but specifically in the Spring and Fall. In the first blog entry, I am going to specifically look at Orlando and what it has to offer in the springtime, and finish up in the next installment with Fort Desoto in western Florida.
Located in the Orlando area is a long running attraction called Gatorland. Gatorland is essentially that.  It is a chunk of land with a high number of captive alligators.  So what do alligators have to do with birds?  Well, I am glad you asked. In essence there is a semi-symbiotic relationship between the alligators and the wading birds.  You see, the alligator is a formidable foe for any animal, and so the fact they are there in the bird rookery, protects the wading birds from egg predation.  That's right, the gators protect the newly hatched chicks from the evil predators lurking nearby.  In return, the gators try to lunge at the birds from time to time to see if they can get a snack.  It is a win-win for both animals.  Don't worry the birds win most of the time.
So, the fact has been established that wild birds come here for protection during the breeding season, but I didn't tell you just how many.  How about hundreds, all in a small rookery, with gators lurking in the waters below.  It is something amazing to behold!
The rookery itself is a small area in the back of Gatorland that was designed so visitors can view the birds and the alligators pretty much living in peace and they are very photographer friendly.  They offer day passes, photography passes and ticket add-ons to satisfy anyone's needs.
What Types of Birds Can I Expect?
During my visit, I saw almost entirely, wading birds. The liittle blue heron, great egret, snowy egret, wood stork, great blue heron, osprey, red-shoulder hawk and black vultures were all in attendance. 

As you enter the rookery, you walk along a boardwalk, which winds down the west side of the pond.  To the east, is a large pond where the alligators live and surrounding this pond are an abundance of plant life native to Florida. The birds can't resist this flora for nest building.  Literally, you are surrounded by birds at almost every step.  In the morning the sun will come up over the eastern side of the rookery, and illuminate the western nests and boardwalk, while in the afternoon, the sun shines on the far side of the pond.  The morning time is best for taking shots of the nests themselves, and gathering portraits of the birds.  Late afternoon is excellent for flight shots and environmental shots of the birds across the pond.  Don't worry these birds are highly accustomed to humans and do not fear you hurting them or their chicks.

What Gear Do I Need?
The list of equipment you need is relative to what kinds of images you wish to capture.  If you only want portraits of birds and shots of their nests, then a 70-200 would be the perfect lens.  However, if you want shots of birds in flight, I highly recommend a long telephoto zoom such as the Sigma 150-600 or the Canon 100-400.  As far as bodies, I recommend taking advantage of the full frame camera, if you have one, because it will give you the sharpest and cleanest image quality.  Personally, I love my 1 Series camera and used it quite effectively (in my opinion).  You may also want to bring a flash with a soft box attached, for portraits in the shadows, but that is completely optional.  Fill flash did help a time or two for me.  If you want to reach the far side of the pond for shots, I recommend a 500-600mm lens with possible use of a 1.4x teleconverter.
Sample Shot List
Here is a sample shot list that might help you:
  • Tight head shot portraits of the herons/egrets in the morning hours along the boardwalk
  • Flight shots: birds landing, taking off and in transit between nest and food sources
  • Parent and chicks shot: look to take these in April and early May
  • Shots of birds taking sticks to build nests : look to take these throughout the spring breeding season, but particularly in early April and late March.
  • Possible silhouettes as night falls

So that is pretty much it for Gatorland.  It is a great opportunity to photograph wild birds nesting and carrying out other important mating rituals.  You can spend a week here and get the photography pass for $80.00 and it is money well spent!  You will not be dissapointed here.


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