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Gatorland – Alligator Breeding Marsh & Bird Sanctuary

Rating: * * * * 1/2
Type: Observation platforms and walkways through a wildlife sanctuary
Time: As long as you wish
Short Take: Bring your binoculars

This is one of Gatorland’s more recent attractions and one of its most successful, in its own low-key way. The concept was ingenious: Build a natural setting in which some 100 female and 30 male alligators would feel free to do what comes naturally and provide a steady stream of new alligators to enthrall visitors and serve the growing market for gator meat and hides. But because birds like to nest over alligator holes for the protection they provide against predators like raccoons, opossum, snakes, and bobcats, Gatorland hoped for a bonus population of wild birds. They built it . . . and they came.

So happy with their surroundings are the gators, that some females have taken to setting up their nests underneath the wooden boardwalk, prompting Gatorland staff to build additional barriers at these points to keep protective Mama ‘Gator and Foolhardy Tourist safely apart.

Today there are over 1,000 bird nests in active use at Gatorland. Here you will find the magnificent, bright white great egret with its majestic plumage alongside the more dowdy green and blue herons. There are also snowy egrets, cattle egrets, and tricolor egrets. With a bit of luck you might also spot an osprey perched high in a pine tree, surveying the alligator pool below and weighing his chances for a fish dinner.

The Alligator Breeding Marsh has three entrances. To the north near Lilly’s Pad and to the south near Pearl’s Smokehouse you can gain access to the wooden walkway that runs the length of the alligator lake. In the middle of the park is a bridge that takes you directly to the Observation Tower. Starting in June you will be able to see alligator nests, some remarkably close to the walkway. Shortly after the eggs have been laid, Gatorland staffers remove them to an incubator to insure hatching. Signs left behind document the date of laying and the number of eggs.

Large, shaded gazebos with wooden benches offer a chance to rest, relax, and contemplate the serenity of the preserve. It’s hard to believe some of Florida’s scariest critters are basking just feet from where you sit. You’ll see plenty of gators from the walkway. They wallow in the mud, float almost submerged in the water, and sun themselves on logs and the opposite shore. But for a really great look, you’ll want to climb the Observation Tower.

The Observation Tower is a three-story affair located in the center of the walkway. It is accessible from the walkway, of course, but you can also reach the second level via a bridge directly from the park’s central spine. An elaborate zigzag ramp next to the bridge makes the tower’s middle level accessible to wheelchairs.

If you brought binoculars to Florida, don’t forget to bring them to Gatorland. Climb to the top level, where signs point out the direction and distance to major Florida landmarks. Look straight down at the alligator lake and you will see dozens of 10-footers clustered around the base of the platform.

Look across at the opposite shore and you will see more gators amid the foliage; the longer you look, the more you’ll see. Look at the trees in spring and you will see dozens of egrets tending their nests. Look closer and you will see the drabber species well camouflaged amid the leaves. A quarter will get you a brief look through a telescope mounted on the railing but when a hawk appears in the high branches, the line gets long.

Tip: For the latest information on who’s nesting here, visit the discussion Forum on the Gatorland web site.

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