A century old, St. Augustine Alligator Farm is still a thrill
For years, I’ve seen stunning photographs of birds taken at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm rookery.
Meanwhile, my love of things Old Florida means I am always intrigued by surviving vintage roadside attractions.
So when I visited St. Augustine this June, I needed to check out the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. The historic marker out front confirmed the St. Augustine Alligator Farm is one of the oldest of the old-time attractions – it was founded in 1893! It’s a federally recognized historic district unto itself –the one- acre St. Augustine Alligator Farm Historic District.
In keeping with its colorful past, it hypes a new adventure (zipline over the crocodiles!) and sells all sorts of Floridiana (exit through the gift shop!)
If I hadn’t had a free pass as a travel writer, I’m not sure I would have sprung for the hefty $22.95 admission.
But I’m so glad I did.
What I found was an impressive zoo experience with a mind-boggling array of gators, crocs and exotic birds, extensively identified with lots of scientific background.
And the bird rookery? In all my Florida ramblings, I’d never gotten so close to so many birds and nests of so many varieties.
It was amazing. Many says it’s the best rookery in the state for photographers.
From mid-February through July, the rookery is a noisy, sometimes smelly, densely populated congregation of all sorts of Florida birds nesting and raising chicks together. On my visit, the birds were oblivious to the visitors — flying, fighting, feeding, flirting. Underneath, alligators patrolled, some begging for the dog food visitors feed them. (It’s OK here but never in the wild.)
You’ll see photographers with long lenses at work. But the nests are so close to the boardwalk, you can shoot impressive photos of chicks in nests with just your Iphone.
While it looks natural and the birds are free and wild, the St. Augustine Alligator Farm swamp area is essentially man-made. In the 1970s this swampy alligator habitat was expanded. In the process, the attraction also created what must be the Ritz Carlton for birds, because from then on, the swamp became the annual nesting site for hundreds of birds.
“The birds nest out in the swamp specifically because of the alligators,” says Education Curator Katie Girvin. “The birds nest above the alligators because they provide the birds with protection for their nests.” Like having alligators in your castle’s moat, I guess.
Each spring, the rookery attracts eight species of birds – great egrets, woodstorks, snowy egrets, roseate spoonbills, tri-colored and little blue heron and cattle egrets. (Green herons nest in another section of the park near the crocodiles.)
The roseate spoonbills started nesting here in good numbers in 2010. St. Augustine is quite a bit north of their traditional habitat, and their numbers have grown to dozens of nests and chicks.
The St. Augustine Alligator Farm rookery, a stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail, has excellent signage to help you identify what you’re seeing.
My schedule forced me to breeze through the rest of the Alligator Farm, but there was much more to see there than I expected – so many types of gators and crocs. (The St. Augustine Alligator Farm is the only facility in the world exhibiting living specimens of all 23 crocodilian species.)
I loved the museum-quality exhibit devoted to Gomek, a 2,000 pound crocodile who was the much loved star attraction until he died in 1997 of old age. Gomek, stuffed in all his glory, was “the most famous reptile the world has ever known.” (Skeptical? Ok, name another.)
The park, which touts its extensive involvement in scientific research and accreditation by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, has hourly wildlife shows, ranging from alligator feedings to a rainforest shows with exotic birds.
I saw lots of happy people.
Visiting the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park
999 Anastasia Blvd, St. Augustine.
Website for St. Augustine Alligator Farm
Admission: Adults $24.95; children 3 to 11, $13.95. Tickets are $1 less purchased online.
Photographers: Annual passes and two-day early-entry photo passes can be purchased. (As of 2014, it was $89.95 for a photographer’s annual pass, good for admission an hour early at 8 a.m. in spring and early summer.)
Here’s the calendar of expected bird nesting in the rookery.
Things to do near St. Augustine:
- St. Augustine Castillo de San Marcos: This national Park is the #1 thing to do in the area.
- Augustine Pirate Museum: Fun for history lovers and kids
- Anastasia State Park is a coastal treasure for camping and its beaches. It has an archaeological site where coquina was quarried to build the St. Augustine Fort. Anastasia State Park is located off A1A, 1.6 miles south of the Castillo.
- Colonial Spanish Quarter Museum:A living history museum recreating the life in St. Augustine in 1740. Costumed interpreters bring life the St. Augustine that was an outpost of the Spanish Empire. The Colonial Spanish Quarter Museum is only a five minute walk from the entrance of the Castillo.
- Augustine Lighthouse and Museum: The 1874 lighthouse is the second highest lighthouse in Florida.
The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum is located 1.5 miles south of the Castillo just off route A1A.
Things to do near St. Augustine:
- Fort Matanzas, 14 miles south, is a smaller Spanish fort built 50 years after the Castillo de San Marcos. It’s a great stop because you take a small boat to the fort past spectacular scenery. And it’s free.
- Princess Place Preserve, a nearby county park with an 1888 hunting lodge once owned by a princess. Good hiking and camping. Free.
- Washington Oaks Gardens State Park: Historic gardens plus unusual, beautiful coquina-rock beach.
- Flagler Beach, an Old Florida beach town.
- Faver-Dykes State Park for paddling and camping
- Fort Mose Historic State Park: The site of the first legally sanctioned free African settlement in United States. Fort Mose State Park is three miles north of the Castillo just off US-1.
Updated March 2014