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.
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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.
It’s like the Galapagos, as far as being able to get really close to the birds and their nests.
Larry Rosen, president, Kissimmee Valley Audubon Society
“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.
“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.
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.
The rookery’s birds stagger their arrival: great egrets in late January; snowy egrets, cormorants, wood storks and anhingas by March; cattle egrets and herons by April,
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.
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.
Before Gatorland, I sometimes viewed egrets and other majestic birds as icons rather than living creatures.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.
Going to Gatorland’s rookery
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.