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06.03.2011

Wood Stork in breeding colors headed to the next with nesting material. This is the only species of stork found in the US and has only a few endangered nesting colonies in the US. St. Augustine Alligator Farm rookery Florida, USA. | Sigma Product Used: 50-500mm F5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, Focal Length Set: 290mm, Camera: 12 megapixel, Shutter Speed: 1/1250, Aperture: f8.0, Exposure Mode: Manual, ISO Setting: 640 Subject distance: 18 m, Copyright: Image Copyright 2011 Robert OToole.

One question I seem to get all the time is what is good reliable place to visit on your own or participate in a workshop to improve your bird photography, especially birds in flight?

To improve your photography a bird breeding colony is always a good place to visit on your own or an even better to participate in a workshop. I hope I can motivate you to give a colony a try, come back to follow this blog and maybe participate in one of my workshops in the future. Each year I lead a spring workshop at the St Augustine Alligator Farm bird colony so let me know if you would like to join me in the future. I will be leading a Sigma workshop there in April 2012.

These beautiful birds have just started nesting at the St Augustine Alligator Farm last year and now have a total of 16 nests this year. This is a great place to see them up close in detail and to catch different behaviors like this quick territorial battle over a perch.

These are ten reasons why I think you should consider a trip to a bird colony.

1. The sheer numbers of birds
A huge amount of birds can usually be found at a breeding colony. At St. Augustine Alligator Farm bird colony in Florida has well over 600 nests this year (Look for a Sigma workshop here in spring 2012).

2. Superb flight photography opportunities
The nesting patterns at colonies create reliable flight paths that are used all day long. This means that can enjoy plenty of practice to improve your flight photography.

3. Good variety of subjects
Most colonies have quite a few different kinds of birds. At St. Augustine Alligator Farm bird colony this year you can find at least eight different species nesting there this year to photograph. Great egret, Wood stork, Roseate spoonbill, Tri-colored heron, Snowy egret, Cattle egret, Little blue heron, and Green heron.

Here I used fill flash here with high speed sync (FP mode) to help fill the shadows and bring out under wing detail. During breeding season nesting adults like this Great egret will bring nesting material back to the nest all day long with the same consistent flight pattern. St Augustine Alligator Farm rookery Florida, USA. | Sigma 50-500mm F5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, Focal Length Set: 210mm, Camera: 12 MP, Shutter Speed: 1/1250, Aperture: f8.0, Exposure Mode: Manual, ISO Setting: 1600 Subject distance: 14 m, Image Copyright 2011 Robert OToole

4. Different types of behaviors are easy to see and photograph
The opportunities for behavioral action images are almost unlimited.

5. Close-up subjects
Due to the unbelievably close subject distances at colonies a 70-200mm lens is all you need for close ups and flight photography. Longer lens will also work well also to isolate subjects.

6. Habituated tame birds
Thanks to the large numbers of visitors at popular colonies (like SAAF and Gatorland) the birds are amazingly easy to photograph without being frightened.

Wood Stork landing to collect nesting material. Not only to the birds follow the same flight paths again and again like the Great egret above returning to the nest, they also do the same to collect the plant material from the same place over and over. St. Augustine Alligator Farm rookery Florida, USA. | Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, Focal Length Set: 210mm, Camera: 12 MP, Shutter Speed: 1/2500, Aperture: f8.0, Exposure Mode: Manual, ISO Setting: 800 Copyright: Image Copyright 2010 Robert OToole

7. Easy access
Many colonies (such as SAAF) and others have boardwalks for easy access and some even allow photo roller cases.

8. Early entry and late exit times
Some colonies including SAAF offer early and late hours for photo pass holders and even earlier and later hours for workshop participants.

9. Colony status updates
Being able to follow colony status online can really be a time saver to plan a trip this year or to plan a future trip. To give you an idea of what I mean check out the St. Augustine Alligator Farm bird colony blog.

High Key Great Egret in a superman pose. Flash in high speed sync (FP mode) was used here to bring out details and add sharpness. St. Augustine Alligator Farm rookery Florida, USA. | Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, Focal Length Set: 270mm, Camera: 12 MP, Shutter Speed: 1/1600, Aperture: f8.0, Exposure Mode: Manual, ISO Setting: 1600, Subject distance: 15 m

10. Workshops 
Most colonies offer different workshops at different times of the year. This can be an excellent way to learn new techniques or to just polish your current skills. Participating in a Sigma workshop you will be able to get hands experience to make images with select Sigma lenses and to receive one on one help to get the most out of any Sigma lenses you might already own. In my business right from the start we made the decision to lead workshops instead of aiming for the being published in magazines. I still do have images published for advertising and editorial of course, but our main focus is on leading workshops (and most other established nature photographers have done the same). It seems like more and more you can find a lot of photographers on the web who have only been shooting for only six months already teaching workshops, it’s a developing market that is very confusing for people just starting out with photography or simply people looking for an interesting workshop to join. So consider the workshop leaders occupation, background and experience before you choose a workshop.

A few Cattle egrets like this one gave my workshop group at least fifteen chances to catch it returning to the nest with building material. The birds here don't show any affects of the close distance to the photographers at all and in fact the successful fledgling numbers are excellent. St Augustine Alligator Farm rookery Florida, USA. | Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, Focal Length Set: 150mm, Camera: 12 MP, Shutter Speed: 1/2000, Aperture: f8.0, Exposure Mode: Manual, ISO Setting: 640 Subject distance: 6 m, Image Copyright 2010 Robert OToole

Let me know if you are interested and would like to find out more about a future Sigma workshop at St Augustine Alligator Farm bird rookery in Florida. Also let me know if there is a tip or nature photography technique you like to see in a future blog post.

If you would like to know more or to join my free newsletter list, please email me.

Please contact me if you know of any large photography group or club that would like me to give a Sigma sponsored nature photography presentation (at no charge to the group).

For more information or to find out about my workshops please email me at Robert@RobertOToolePhotography.com or visit my site.

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  1. Robert, I’m a fan of your work, and blog. I’ve learned quite a bit just from reading your tips on wildlife photography. Thank you for sharing your best practices, and please continue to educate us!