Celebrate the Nature of Florida's Birding & Photo Fest

Events Like the Annual Florida's Birding & Photo Fest Are Just the Beginning

It may not surprise you that something eternal and endlessly worth learning about happens year after year in the Ancient City.

But it will amaze you how the occurrence reveals Florida like nothing else so close up and riveting.

It happens each spring, which is why the Annual Florida's Birding & Photo Fest takes place when (usually in April) and where (in and around St. Augustine and throughout Northeast Florida) it does. Field trips, wildlife photography sessions, lectures and exhibitions cover some 80 to 90 venues across St. Johns and neighboring counties from the Tolomato River to the sea and from Ponte Vedra to Washington Oaks Gardens State Park.

For optimal viewing, some gated sites open at dawn like they otherwise never do, while others, at recently set aside conservation lands, open to public groups for some of the first times ever.

Best of all, you don’t need to know the difference between a spotting scope and a spotted owl to have fun.

It’s in the marsh out back of the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park that your jaw drops and your emotions grab.

Barely beyond reach, hundreds – maybe thousands – of water birds pack tree limbs. Egrets, Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills and many kinds of herons all in showy breeding plumage nurture their nest eggs and cuddle their hatchlings. 

Where the birds nest, gators prowl. Small threat to the birds, though. In what seems at first like nature curiously turned against itself, the birds are there because of the gators. Birds and gators are indispensable to each other.

How this complexly works is that when the birds nest, nature triggers a rush of predators. Sure, out come the gators but it’s not the unreachable birds that occupy their proto-minds. Gators don’t climb trees. They’re staked out for those plump terrestrial predators that do – the far more nest-troubling raccoons, possums and snakes. Cr-r-rack! – they’re gator feed before they’re eyelevel with even the first downy chick.

Welcome to Florida eternally playing itself out. Welcome to wilderness that’s only a turnstile removed from the four-laner.

Gripping as beauty is among the menace, so too are the hands-on moments that pack festival days and nights and especially delight children.

Who can’t enjoy sifting sand during a session of virtuoso beachcombing, examining tiny seashells under a microscope, carefully handling stingray barbs and maybe finding the egg case – a so-called "mermaid’s purse” – of a clear-nosed skate that babies wash out of in birth?

You can hike nine miles of trails through the Guana River Research Reserve alone, some beneath wind-stunted cedars that form low bridges through the bush and end at oyster shell bars.

You can paddle 15 to 20 different runs through Anastasia State Park or south to Marineland where, at low tide, flats of the Matanzas River rise like so many flapjacks poured from a lumpy batter.

Photo buffs can immerse in sessions with leading wildlife photographers in workshops that combine skills training with conservation practice.