A great egret riding an alligator at Gatorland. (Michael DeFreitas North America / Alamy)

If I were a kid, I would have squealed and hopped up and down. Even as an adult, my jaw dropped when I rounded a corner into the natural rookery at Orlando’s Gatorland for the first time.

“Wow, wow, wow.”

A duo of tricolored heron chicks pecked their way out of their blue shells just feet from my widening eyes. Hundreds of other baby birds filled nests tucked into the trees and shrubs surrounding the gator-filled lagoon. Great egrets landed right next to me. A wood stork, fresh off the endangered species list, shadowed me along the boardwalk.

A frilly snowy egret, its lipstick-pink lore and orange-yellow feet on show for mating season, spiked its wispy head feathers and fanned its plumes while arching its body and poking its head in the air. It was just one of the hundreds of wading birds that come to breed in this unlikely theme-park setting.

The rookery, which covers 10 acres and includes a winding boardwalk, was established in 1991 when Gatorland dug the pond and began to breed alligators there. Over the years, more egrets, herons, wood storks, cormorants, anhingas and other birds flocked to it during breeding season.

Tiny tri-colored heron baby after it has hatched. (Barbara J. Saffir for The Washington Post)

“The birds figured out that the gators act like a security system,” said alligator wrestler Adam Hall, Gatorland’s resident bird expert. The roughly 150 gators in the pond keep out raccoons, snakes and other predators that might otherwise devour the eggs and chicks. As a result, there are now hundreds of birds nesting there. They have learned to endure shrieking kids and snapping photographers in exchange for the safety the rookery provides — boisterous humans apparently trump ravenous snakes.

“It’s like the Galapagos, as far as being able to get really close to the birds and their nests,” said Larry Rosen, president of the Kissimmee Valley Audubon Society. And except for some savvy nature photographers, the rookery, which flourishes from February to early June, is still largely unknown, even by most visitors to the popular park, which features about 1,400 alligators in addition to many other attractions.

As a kid growing up in Miami, I learned to steer clear of tourist-thronged theme parks. I had driven past Gatorland many times without even noticing it. I found out about it on a photography blog only after I got hooked on nature photography at home in Washington. Now I’m addicted to Gatorland’s magic.

“It has become such an incredible nature experience,” said Filip Hanik of Castle Rock, Colo., who first visited in 2008 and has returned since to observe the birds.

Jack Rogers, a geology and nature photography professor at Orlando’s Valencia College — and recent award-winner in the bird category of the Nature’s Best Photography magazine contest — uses Gatorland as an outdoor classroom for his photography classes. It offers “guaranteed opportunities that might not be available in the wild,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot better than beautiful birds in their breeding plumage.”

The best way to experience the rookery is to buy Gatorland’s Early Access pass, which provides entry at 7:30 a.m., 2 1/2 hours before most visitors spill into the park. Roughly a fifth of the birds nest on the close-in or west side of the lagoon near the boardwalk; at least two dozen nests are clearly visible within a few feet of it. The rest of the birds nest on the far side of the small lagoon.

The first thing you notice about the hundreds of white, blue-gray and black birds is the sound. It never stops, whether it be the youngsters’ rhythmic squawking — eh-eh, eh-eh, eh-eh — or the low, garglelike songs of birds trying to woo mates. Many birds nest within a few feet of one another, so one pair might have chicks while another just a few feet away is still, shall we say, honeymooning. There’s a lot of honeymooning there — from actual mating to the almost endless cooing and preening and what might be called bird cuddling.


Females and sometimes males sit dutifully on their nests with their eyes turned down, but they occasionally glance up and look directly into visitors’ eyes. Otherwise, the birds don’t stay still for long. They strut their stuff with mating dances. They chase each other from branch to branch. They fly overhead carrying sticks. Sometimes they land right next to visitors on the boardwalk. It’s as busy as recess in the school playground.

The rookery’s birds stagger their arrival. The superstar great egrets — elegant symbols of the National Audubon Society — start arriving by late January. Adult snowy egrets are hunkered down by March. They share the pond with double-crested cormorants, sporting aqua eyes and turquoise mouths; feisty wood storks; and fancy-dancing black-green anhingas. By April, cattle egrets, with their mating costumes of rusty orange “mohawk” feathers and rainbow-colored lores and beaks, and blue-gray tricolored herons, with their serpentine necks, have come to nest.

To actually see a chick hatching takes patience — and luck. But even casual visitors are guaranteed fascinating displays of avian behavior. When an adult flies back to its nest with a belly full of dinner, the hungry chicks yank on the parent’s beak, which stimulates the bird to regurgitate the food directly into the babies’ daggerlike bills. Some adults head to other gator ponds in the main theme park for fast food, snatching pieces of turkey hot dog from the alligators, sometimes in midair. (Visitors can buy the treats to feed the gators, but signs warn them not to feed other wildlife.)

The anhinga courting display is as carefully choreographed as a routine from “Dancing With the Stars,” only visitors can see it from 10 feet away. First, the bird stands on its webbed feet while fanning its silver-tipped tail and sticking it straight up. Then it flaps one silver-streaked wing and then the other, as if it were doing the crawl. Finally, it bends forward like it’s doing a curtsy while raising both its wings parallel with its tail. If the light is right, you can spy its eyes, encircled by blue and green.

At nightfall, hundreds more birds from outside the park swoop down to roost in the bird motel, Hall said. Because the gators are well fed, the big birds can safely stand right next to them in the shallow water and sometimes even land on top of the beasts, which can reach nearly 14 feet long. But if a baby falls out of its nest into the water, “it’s toast,” Rosen said.

The only other spot in the nation where birders can get reliably close to such a dense concentration of mating and nesting birds is the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park. While its rookery is smaller than Gatorland’s and its gators aren’t as chummy with the birds, it’s worth a trip to see the big, pink roseate spoonbills that nest there.

Before Gatorland, I sometimes viewed egrets and other majestic birds as icons rather than living creatures. I typically photographed them fishing alone or flying serenely along the Potomac River as though they were inanimate parts of the scenic summer landscape. But watching them interact up close — and witnessing their brief transformations with crayon colors and flashy feathers — led me to see them as individuals coping with real-life problems like food, shelter, friends and families. My time on the Gatorland boardwalk changed my perspective, transforming me from outside observer to next-door neighbor.

Does it ever get boring to visit? Not for Alma Jo Drain. The Kissimmee painter and photographer has been a faithful visitor since 1972. “It’s like a Lay’s potato chip,” she said. “You can never eat just one.”

If you go
What to do

Gatorland

14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando

407-855-5496

www.gatorland.com/public/experiences/photographers-pass

Gatorland is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Day passes for adults $26.99, children $18.99. A $10 upgrade buys an Early Access pass Thursdays-Sundays or a Late Access pass on Saturdays. (Season-long and combination photo packages are also available.)

What to bring

Wear comfortable shoes and a hat. Pack sunblock, bug spray, an extra camera battery and an extra memory card.

Birding resources

The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail:
floridabirdingtrail.com

Orange Audubon Society (Orlando): www.orangeaudubonfl.org

Kissimmee Valley Audubon Society: www.kissimmeeaudubon.org

Information

Orlando: www.visitorlando.com

Kissimmee: www.experiencekissimmee.com

Saffir is a freelance writer and nature photographer. Her book “Walking Washington, D.C.” comes out this fall.

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