Wednesday, April 2, 2014

J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Great Blue Heron
Coming from the desert southwest, I was looking forward to my trip to tropical Florida.  It was a state I have never visited. So I knew it would be an overwhelming experience. Lots of new birds and new bird calls.  There were also lots and lots of tourists to avoid!  As a Spanish instructor, I found the Cuban culture around town (and their restaurants) to be quite exciting. Nothing gets the blood pumping faster than some wonderful Spanish speaking.  And of course.....the birds:)

Little Blue Heron followed by the White Ibis
My friend Sydney had invited me to come and stay with her.  She didn't have to do a lot of convincing, but I did warn her about my obsessive addiction to birds. She didn't mind at all:)

Snowy Egret
I'm the easiest person to have around the house.  She didn't have to do any planning because I had done all the research ahead of time.  My only concern was that I'd wear her out with all these bird searches!  I was absolutely shocked that she could keep up with my intense pace.  Most people, like my parents, grumble about me planning every second of their vacation.  It's the teacher in me. There is no moment like now because there may not be tomorrow. Eat, drink and bird!  No TV, some exercise......and a whole world to explore!

So one of the first places I knew we had to visit was J.N "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge is a protected area of mangrove swamp forest on an overpopulated island.  It also happens to be the number 1 destination of tourists....for it lies on the infamous Sanibel Island which connects to the even more popular Captiva Island.  The bridges and causeways were at times a nightmare with traffic.  People would be stuck in traffic for HOURS!  The secret?  Before dawn, get in your car and leave.  Generally, human tourists are lazy and won't leave until 9 or 10 AM.  But the fisher people and birders understand that 5 AM is the best time to find parking, empty roads, and lots of magnificent wildlife!

Tricolored Heron
Everything involving a road had a charge.  To get to Sanibel, we had to pay 6 bucks.  To get into "Ding", we had to pay another 5!  My goal for our first day visit was to find all of our egrets, herons and possible Roseate Spoonbills.  However, I found much more!  This post today reflects my inability to focus on the landscape.  I promise that my future work will include some of the beautiful vegetation.  I was just so excited to find new birds!

Reddish Egret
The refuge has a wonderful network of roads that wind through the mangrove areas. However, there was one thing I wasn't expecting.....NO-SEE-UMS!  I saw a birder get out of the car with a fine mesh net around his head and thought, "This isn't good."  And it wasn't.  The minute I stepped out of the car to observe the incredible pink birds known as Roseate Spoonbills, I was covered in these tiny bugs.  I felt them crawl all over my skin and I knew it was over.  

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
A week before my visit, there weren't any bugs but the weather had changed and everything became VERY WARM and HUMID.  These bugs are most active at dawn and that's when birders do their thing. 

A shot of pink courtesy of the Roseate Spoonbill

We arrived in time to see at least TWO Roseate Spoonbills!  One flew off and another stayed for a little while longer before it also disappeared. 

Even if you're not a birder, these odd pink birds will grab your attention!  Mission was accomplished!  My issue here is that these birds are common to many Florida birders, but they were new to me.  So I couldn't do the specialized birding that I do in Arizona, California, etc.  I heard the Mangrove Cuckoos but didn't see them.  I was with 2 other birders who counted them on their list.  I didn't do it because I wanted to see them.  Some will say count them and others will understand.  I made a note in my journal that I heard them.  Cuckoos are sneaky birds. And there were many other specialized birds that I knew were in the area, but they require a great deal of time and patience to find.  

Pileated Woodpecker
The refuge was wonderful.  We stopped at nearly every parking pull off to count birds. There was the infamous Shell Mound trail and overlook tower.  Needless to say, I could spend A LOT more time here, but I met my objectives and found every Egret and Heron on my life list.  Next time, it will be the specialty birds!

Fish Crow
My friend Sydney is amazing.  She is such a wonderful hostess and friend.  We had such a fun time together.  While on the trails, she learned about some incredible places to take her future guests.  We both laughed a lot about some of the spots we went to find birds.  Sometimes we were exhausted.  We brought lots of water to stay hydrated.  Sydney has the birding ability within her.  She's always loved birds and can spot them quickly.  For me, I need to hear them.  And like every team, birder or non-birder, I become the ears and they become the eyes.  Thank you Sydney for an amazing week in Southern Florida.  Next time we'll find the American Flamingos together and ride the Everglades!

Finally, here is a little historical information on this strangely named wildlife refuge. Established in 1945 as the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge, the refuge was renamed in 1967 in honor of pioneer conservationist and political cartoonist Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling. "Ding" headed the U.S. Biological Survey (forerunner for the Fish and Wildlife Service) and is also credited as one of the key people in the development of the National Wildlife Refuge System.


  1. Oh my what a collection of wonderful photos. That roseate spoonbill is amazing. Rubbing oil (avon skin so soft is one) on your exposed skin is good for deterring no-see-ums.

  2. What an awesome trip Chris with an excellent hostess. The photos are all beautiful! Great job!

  3. Chris, I enjoyed visiting Ding Darling myself.. The herons there are amazing, I loved the Ibis and the Spoonbills. Cool birds, great photos and post. Happy Birding!

  4. Wonderful post Chris with great photos and so many bird species :) Sounds like you had a great holiday with a brilliant hostess :)

  5. After being out at dawn for many game drives I can appreciate the early morning sightings. But I don't think I could handle the no see ums. You got some marvelous shots here and I'm sure you had a wonderful time.

  6. I often wonder what % of people on the road at 5 am are bird watchers or fishers!

    What a great set of birds.

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  7. How fun to explore Florida, sounds like you had a great time! The roseate spoonbills are beautiful and I love the yellow-crowned night-heron as well.

  8. I get a real sense of your excitement when reading this post, Chris, and I can fully understand why! Brilliant birds and superb photography! It sounds, to me, as if you'll be returning there soon.

  9. Chris, I love your child-like joy in observing nature and going on adventures! How I wish that we could have done this trip together, but I am so glad you got to go and that you were able to share the experience with your other friend! And now you know how wonderful Florida birding is! You must go back!

  10. What an incredible trip! I'm so glad you were so successful with your finds! Love the Roseate Spoonbill!

    Yes, I've used my air conditioner for a few days. Couldn't help it! :-) Got the windows open for the breezes again though. Planning a trip to Madera Canyon next month! Can't wait to see what I can photograph there!


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