Have you ever had something you’ve enjoyed for years but pretty much took it for granted…until the day you found out it was actually rare and valuable? Then suddenly you looked at it anew with full appreciation? Well, it’s surely happened to all of us…and I experienced it again just a couple weeks ago.
I’ve visited the nearby Audubon Bird of Prey Center in Maitland Florida off and on since the 1980s…way back before marriage, kids or even digital cameras! I might not be a ‘birder’ but I do love raptors and I’ve long enjoyed this facility since it allows me to photograph close-ups of Bald Eagles. After my visit, I thought about writing a blog but I figured, heck, there are facilities like this everywhere, why would my subscribers, especially those who live far from Central Florida, want to read about this one when they could just visit their local facility?
Well, after a few minutes on the internet, I learned how wrong I was. It turns out that this is the premier raptor rehabilitation center east of the Mississippi. Since 1979 they have treated more than 17,000 injured or orphaned raptors, averaging about 650 admissions a year. In fact, they just released their 500th Bald Eagle last month! The center includes a state-of-the-art clinic with its own X-ray equipment and a 100-foot-long flight cage, all of which contribute to their 40+% success rate at rehabilitating raptors.
Ok,I guess everyone doesn’t have a place like this nearby. So, let’s look at some pictures and learn a bit about this treasure.
First of all, The Audubon Center for Birds of Prey is tucked away on a small, 3 acre, heavily shaded lot nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood. Although only about 20 minutes north of Orlando, you would never know it is there unless you were looking for it (Actually, I drove right by it my first time without even seeing it!) It is a quaint, clean and well laid-out facility housing more than 20 species of raptors, including Bald Eagles, Caracaras, Red Tailed Hawks, Ospreys, Barn Owls, Barred Owls, Kestrels and many others. Although the birds currently being rehabilitated can’t be seen by visitors (they don’t want them to become accustomed to humans) the Center has 20 non-releasable, permanent ‘residents’ that you can observe.
The center has a series of large aviaries that houses many of the birds. Unfortunately for us shutter-bugs, those aviaries are covered with thick gauge wire enclosures that don’t lend themselves to good photographs. However, if you photograph birds that aren’t close to the wire and use a wide aperture (f2.8 or 3.5) you can often throw the wire so out of focus that it isn’t really visible.
The good news is that there are usually 7 or more birds kept outside of the enclosures when the center is open. They are placed on perches about 10 feet or so from the walkway…which obviously makes for wonderful photography. In addition, you can also photograph another half dozen species of smaller raptors that are housed on the back porch of the Audubon House (the 1920s bungalow that is the center of the facility).
To me, however, the crème de la crème is the “Viewing Room” (I used to call it the “Shooting Gallery” but my wife pointed out that perhaps it wasn’t a politically correct term for a bird rehabilitation center). This is a large room with three windows that faces an open-air side porch where many of the larger birds are kept on perches (Eagles, Owls and Hawks). To make it even better, there are binoculars and comfortable chairs right in front of the windows. In other words, you sit in a chair, in an air conditioned house and photograph magnificent raptors that are 10-30 away. The windows aren’t in direct sunlight, so you don’t have to worry about reflections. And to help make this near perfect, the staff will even let you open the center window so you can photograph without any glass between you and the raptors.
Usually I have to hike thru sweltering woods while being attacked by blood-thirsty mosquitos to get good Eagle photos. So I truly appreciate the “Viewing Room”…Nature photography has never been so good!
If you visit the Center a few times, you will get to know some of the ‘residents.’ My favorite is “Paige.” Paige is a majestic female Bald Eagle. She isn’t a petite little lady either…at 10 pounds she is among the larger eagles you will ever see. Unfortunately she has a permanently injured wing and will never be released into the wild. You would never know it by looking…she conducts herself with pride and is incredibly impressive.
Another of my favorites is Cinnamon. She is a Red-Tailed Hawk with lots of personality who always seems to turn her head sideways to get a look at me when I arrive. Maybe she thinks I’m Brad Pitt, but then again she is near-sighted…
If you like to photograph wildlife, you will love this place and if you are a birder, you will absolutely be in heaven. Admission is only $5 and you should plan on spending 1-2 hours….
Did you know?
In 1973, Florida had only 88 remaining nesting pairs of Bald Eagles. Now we have over 1,400, the most in the lower 48.
“Today in Central Florida alone we have more eagles and eagle nests in that area than in the entire 48 states in 1965,” said Charles Lee, director of advocacy at Audubon of Florida, to the Winter Park / Maitland Observer.
Clearly the staff and volunteers at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey have made a difference!
The Audubon Center for Birds of Prey is located at 1101 Audubon Way in Maitland. Center hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. It is closed Mondays and holidays. Admission is $5 for adults and $4 for children, except for those under 3, who enter free
Directions: From Interstate 4, take exit 88 and head east on Lee Road. Take the first left onto Wymore Boulevard and then a right onto Kennedy Boulevard. Turn left onto East Avenue. Audubon Way will be the third left, and the Center is immediately on the right. See this link for a Google Map.
Tips for Photographers
1) Although you can get much closer to these birds than you ever could in the wild, you still want a long lens. A 300mm lens will allow you to get shots that will fill your frame. However, if you want a head shot that will fill your viewfinder, you are going to need something close to 600mm
2) Bring your monopod or tripod, especially if you are hefting a heavy lens. Otherwise your arms will be turning to jelly by the end of your shoot. There is plenty of room and your tripod won’t get in the way.
3) A speed of 1/125 is usually fast enough since the birds are resting on perches.
4) I usually shoot at my widest aperture. Even so, I often have to tweak the exposure in post-processing since the shots at 1/125 are a bit dark.
5) I’ve never used a flash here, but I might try a “better beamer” or similar product next time to provide some fill flash. However, I’ll be sure to first ask the staff for permission (I didn’t see any signs saying “No Flash Photography” but I would want to make sure first!)
6) Although I like to be there at opening (10am), I might try late afternoon next time. If so, the birds in the garden outside the “Viewing Room” would be shaded by the house. This would prevent the ‘hot spots’ from sunlight thru the dappled leaves. An overcast day would be ideal, but those are rare here in Central Florida.
7) It is rarely busy but visit during the week if you can. Also, call ahead to see if they have any groups planned to visit that day, if so, just schedule around them. Note that they are closed on Mondays.
8) Take your time. If you want to capture unusual or interesting behavior, you need to be patient and not just pop a few shots of each bird and head for the parking lot. The eagles, for example, will occasionally start calling to each other, when that happens, you can get really interesting shots of them with screaming with their beaks stretched open. Besides, the whole place has a quiet, laid back atmosphere, the staff is friendly and it is rarely crowded (especially during the week)….so don’t rush, this is far different from visiting a theme park (thank God!)
8) Talk to the staff and volunteers. These folks are super friendly and they love to talk about the birds. Plus, the more I learn about each individual bird, the more their photos mean more to me.
10) While you are there, walk out onto the dock that extends to a gazebo over the lake. During the summer, water lilies bloom there and you can get interesting shots from the elevated deck. Check out these shots.
If you are ever in the Orlando area (and everyone seems to visit here at some time or another), take a break from our world-class theme parks and treat yourself to a bit of the natural Florida at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey.