I recently took advantage of Allegiant Airlines cheap fares from Springfield to Orlando to work on my bird photography techniques, get some shooting hours under my belt with my new 600mm f4 lens and conduct a real world test of traveling with new equipment in anticipation of more extensive and demanding travel scheduled for later this year.
Gatorland is a tourist attraction on the southern edge of Orlando near Kissimmee. It oozes tourist kitsch all revolving around alligators. Watching alligator feeding or wrestling is definitely not my cup of tea, but what they do have is the largest and most easily accessible wild wading bird rookery in east central Florida. The rookery is on the outer edge of the park and serves as the 10 acre breeding marsh for Gatorland’s alligators. According to the Gatorland website, “Literally thousands of native Florida birds make their home in this natural habitat. Currently, a dozen different species of birds nest within Gatorland’s rookery, and over 20 different species of birds use the area for roosting or feeding. Of these, 8 species are listed either as a Species of Special Concern or Endangered by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act.”
The birds like the rookery area because the alligators under the bird nests afford protection from predators — opossums, raccoons and snakes.
There are boardwalks through the rookery area that keep the gators from munching your legs (your legs, and your tripod’s) along with several covered cabanas for protection from sun and rain and a large tower should you wish to get eye level shots of incoming birds in flight.
The best thing about the rookery is that you can buy a special photo pass to the rookery area that allows you access before the park is open to the general public and after the park is closed. This allows you to catch the best light in the early morning and early evening. While these times afforded the best light and shooting, it made for long days — staying from sunrise to sundown. During the less than optimal midday light, I practiced my bird flight photography and scouted out the area for young birds in nests. On several early mornings the alligators in the swamp would start booming in unison — somewhat eery and unnerving. This courtship behavior bellowing can be heard up to a mile away. My favorite time of the day was the early evening. The light was good, and the action hot. Hundreds upon hundreds of birds would flock to the swamp in the evening light to roost. Bottom line, I got good shooting time under my belt with my 600mm, plenty of birds-in-flight photography opportunities, and time to work on fill-flash technique when photographing birds.
Mike Godwin, the person in charge of the photographer access program (and an excellent bird photographer himself) is usually available during the special shooting hours and is helpful in answering questions or offering tips.
My traveling went off without a hitch. I was initially a little apprehensive of what traveling with the 600mm would be like but I now have my system down. I’m really liking my Kiboko Bag from Gura Gear that I use as my carryon bag. I can stuff it full of camera bodies, several lenses, a flash, assorted filters, camera batteries, flash batteries AND my 600mm (minus the lens hood). The massive lens hood ends up in a duffle bag along with my Gitzo tripod w/Wimberley Head, Kinesis large lens pack and Kinesis pack frame that disassembles completely flat. So far I haven’t had any problems fitting the Kiboko Bag onto the regional jets that often fly out of the Springfield airport. On occasion, the airline person on the jetway will want me to gate-check the bag but I assure them that the bag will fit in the overhead, and so far it always has. Other things that I like about the bag are the easily accessible backpacking straps, the ergonomically offset carrying handle and the removable rain cover.
I am now confident that I’ve got a reasonably workable system for transporting my equipment for my upcoming more extensive trips — Hawaii in July and Alaska in November.