Right now in southern Florida, on the subtropical barrier island of Sanibel in the Gulf of Mexico, there are over 6,400 preserved acres of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes, and West Indian hardwood hammocks, filled with thousands of species of wildlife, just waiting to be seen, exploring the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
From the beginning, I knew I wanted to visit Sanibel Island during my recent trip to Florida. I’ve read so much about the ecology and natural beauty of this place, that I just had to see it for myself. While sketching out a rough plan about what I wanted to do on the island, I came across the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which turned out to be an inspiring and educational trip through some of the best birding territory I’ve ever seen, and overall became the highlight of the island.
We arrived at the refuge just in time to catch the 1 p.m., tram tour down Wildlife Drive, which is a four mile road through a portion of the park accessible to visitors. You can also drive your own car through, but I was there to learn, not just see, so the tram provided my partner Fernando and I a great opportunity to enjoy, relax, and see things that we may have not otherwise noticed without our knowledgeable, friendly, and hilarious tour guide, Dexter Norris.
The Ding Darling NWR is world-famous for its spectacular migratory bird populations, and provides an important habitat to over 245 species of birds. So it wasn’t a surprise that right off the bat we spotted a white ibis spying on us through the branches (pictured below), and two yellow crowned night herons, an adult (pictured on the bottom right) and a juvenile (bottom left), poking around in the vegetation.
In fact, right now is the yellow crowned night herons’ nesting time (April-June), so some of the refuge is zoned-off to give these guys some extra protection.
An interesting fact I learned from our tour guide, Norris, is that the yellow crowned night heron is one of the bird species that actually resorts to a cooling tactic called, “gular fluttering.” It’s basically like a “panting” for birds, as the heron flutters its throat muscles they lose heat. Below is a quick clip (20 seconds) from the tour as Norris talks about gular fluttering and how you can impress your friends at the bar now, or not. (Sorry, the video is a bit shaky).
As we chugged on through the estuary, a double crested cormorant flew over the tram, landing in the brackish water to our left.
These amazing birds are brilliant divers for fish. They have less preen oil than other birds, so their feathers can get soaked and weigh more, unlike other waterfowl such as ducks. Seems like a challenge for a bird that spends its life at the water? Well, have you ever tried to dive into water with a life-jacket on? Essentially, this makes it easier for cormorants to dive into the water and hunt underwater with agility and speed, (1). That’s why many times you’ll see them standing in the sun with their wings spread open to dry off.
As the cormorant waded off with his other cormorant buds, Norris spotted an exoskeleton of a horseshoe crab that someone (or something) left near the shore.
Horseshoe crabs are older than dinosaurs, with ancestors dating back over 450 million years ago! Yep, true living fossils. Another interesting fact we learned from Mr. Norris is that these animals actually bleed blue, due to the traces of copper in their blood.
Another species of crab we found were a group of sand fiddler crabs hanging out on the shoreline. Checkout this short clip (32 seconds) about these frisky little guys, as Norris explains to us how, “boys will be boys.”
Small platforms sit high on tall wooden poles around the area. They are man-made structures built to encourage osprey, a raptor bird species, to make a nice little home out of them.
These beautiful birds of prey have made an amazing comeback from endangerment within the last few decades. In the 1960’s, a cheap pesticide called DDT was used on farms which washed into oceans and into the fat of fish (the osprey’s diet source), which led to thinning egg shells and endangerment of the species. After a decade, the pesticide was finally banned in 1972 and soon after, researchers, naturalists, and conservationists began building these tempting nest platforms in Sanibel Island for osprey, in order to encourage the species to bounce back and regain its lost population. Today, the osprey population has grown by 400% on the island! Now, many people set up these nesting platforms near their homes just so that they don’t make a nest out of their house, because since they’re a protected species you can’t mess with their nests, and “recycled” fish can get pretty stinky!
We made our way to the Mangrove Overlook Boardwalk, which is exactly like it sounds; mangrove trees line the shores allowing animals to take refuge and grow alongside these strong, supportive trees. The refuge is part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States. “It’s a real legend,” Norris says as he views the cluster of tangled mangroves alongside the boardwalk, “They help with everything out here, and they’re the best hurricane protection around.”
Below is a short (less than one minute) clip of Norris talking to us about the mangroves and their seeds.
Along the twisted roots standing out of the water, little mangrove tree crabs circle the limbs trying their best to hide from us. A tricolored heron watched us from the shallow red water dyed from fallen mangrove leaves. And a female golden silk spider clings to her tough golden web, holding down her territory as we walk by her on the mangrove covered boardwalk.
Across the way, a reddish egret danced in the water trying to snatch up a meal. “They’re easily one of the most animated birds out there,” Norris says.
They are sometimes referred to as the “drunken heron” due to their comical method of running, jumping, and spinning to scare and basically herd fish into their feeding arena.
Below is a minute and a half long clip of the reddish egret we spotted hunting for a meal. Norris explains the unique hunting tactics of this birds, and trust issues.
Unlike many other herons that have made an impressive come back from population endangerment, the reddish egret is still currently classified as “nearly threatened,” (2).
In fact, tens of millions of birds were taken at the height of the feather-trade years, between 1870 and 1920, (3). This was known as “the plume trade.” It was considered fashionable to wear these beautiful feathers, so there became a huge market for them. There was also a high price for them too. The plumes were basically worth half their weight in gold. Norris tells us just a single egret feather was sold for about $50. “Great Egrets were hunted nearly to extinction for their plumes in the late nineteenth century, sparking conservation movements and some of the first laws to protect birds,” (4). Today, these gorgeous birds are doing pretty great though, now holding a conservation status as: least concern. We saw many in the refuge, and they were quite the show-offs, in an adorable way!
The birding was spectacular, but small animals aren’t the only creatures you can see roaming through the Ding Darling NWR; manatees, sharks, dolphins, sea turtles, bobcats, and alligators are known to hang out at the refuge too. Even a crocodile was known to have lived here for many years!
However, this is the wild, so there’s no guarantee you’ll catch all these critters in action, but regardless if you find these animals or not, the refuge has a wonderful (and free) Visitor and Education Center where you can learn about all of these species and their important roles in the environment of Sanibel Island.
I felt like a kid again in the Visitor and Education Center. There are interactive exhibits on refuge ecosystems, migratory flyways, the National Wildlife Refuge System, and a hands-on area for children (or young-hearted adults)!
There’s also a very special exhibit for Mr. “Ding” Darling himself. “A political cartoonist with an eye toward conservation, Jay Norwood ‘Ding’ Darling was instrumental in the effort to block the sale of environmentally valuable land to developers on Sanibel Island. That parcel of land today has turned into the J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge,” (5).
Today, the memory of Mr. Darling still lives on at the refuge, and in people like me who have fallen in love with this special place.
To find out more information about the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, please visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s website at, www.fws.gov/refuge/JN_Ding_Darling.
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