It was a balmy morning, just after 7am, and I was at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and Bird Sanctuary on Sanibel Island, a popular vacation spot in southwest Florida, sandwiched between the Gulf of Mexico and Pine Island Sound, known for its pristine beaches, shelling, fine restaurants and family friendly hotels.
The sun was rising and a faint smell of salt tinged the air. I stood at the edge of the shore photographing a large flock of white pelicans preening in the still, ankle-high water. To their right was a handful of roseate spoonbills. Next to me, hunting at the water’s edge, a heron paced back and forth. Small birds in the trees surrounding the inlet were chirping up a storm, a morning ritual I’ve missed living in the Big Apple.
Whenever I am in nearby Fort Myers visiting my father (about a 40 minute drive), the Refuge is at the top of my list of to-dos. It’s a great place for families, nature lovers, and photographers to spend the day.
There’s a wonderful eight-mile “Wildlife Drive” and three major hiking trails with a diversity of eco-systems, stunning views and an abundance of wildlife. Free public programs include a film series, lectures, and a selection of guided tours for nature photography, shelling, birding and/or wildlife, and more active options that involve hiking and biking. Water lovers will enjoy guided kayak, canoe and stand-up paddle board excursions.
If you’re considering a visit to the Ding Darling Wildlife National Wildlife Refuge, I’ve put some useful tips together to help you get the most out of your stay.
Stop at the visitor’s information center
I’m not typically a big fan of info centers but the one on Sanibel is worth a few minutes of your time – the people there were awesome. Instead of shoving brochures in your direction without so much as an upward glance, (don’t worry pamphlet junkies, they have them there too), they take the time talk to you about your plans, offer suggestions, and provide personalized directions on a map.
On my first visit, I told the woman with the bobbed hair and nice smile behind the counter that I wanted to take pictures and she made a real effort to point out spots along the route where I was most likely to see wildlife.
Take the Wildlife Drive
Unlike many wildlife sanctuaries in the area, Ding Darling is a drive-thru. You can walk and bike too but the majority of folks drive its one-way loop. When you see a place you like you can pull over, get out and commune with whatever nature happens to be in your vicinity.
You might think this would be a pain in the tuckus, I did at first, but it’s really kind of great, here’s why:
- You can move quickly (in comparison to walking the four miles of the refuge) from one area to another.
- You don’t have to carry all your crap. For me that meant my purse, camera, tripod, and multiple lenses. I just figured out what I needed at each stop and left the rest in the car.
- For kids, seniors and people with mobility issues it minimizes the effort while maximizing the pleasure.
- You can wait out bad weather without having to leave the park. I sat for 15 minutes listening to the radio during a brief rain shower and went back to shooting as soon as it was over.
There are no guarantees with wildlife, that’s part of the fun, every trip is a treasure hunt. But that also means you might see the jewels from a distance. Binoculars will go a long way to making your experience more enjoyable. There are viewing stations spread throughout the tour and in some places, stationary tourist telescopes are available.
Download the apps
There are multiple apps you can download that will enhance your experience.
Great for kids: They’ll learn more about the refuge and others that are part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, plus a nature trivia game that activates once you’re on the Wildlife Drive using your GPS to deliver information about wildlife and habitat in key places. You can also view, share and take photos; submit and access field tips (ie. Geo-tagged sightings in real-time); and win virtual badges. [iPhone and Android]
This app uses QR code technology to serve up ranger-led tours along the Wildlife Drive. You must down load the NeoReader app first. [iPhone and Android]
A GPS driven treasure hunt where your answers to questions will reveal the coordinates of a final location to claim a prize. Loaner GPS devices are available at the Visitor & Education Center.
The “IT” app for birders, with a real-time checklist program. You can also join a network of international eBird users to learn more about birds, their calls and habitats.
Avoid holidays and weekends if you can
Sanibel is a small island with two-lane roads and a lot of traffic on the weekends and even more on a holiday. Though the refuge during my visits—which included the Martin Luther King holiday—wasn’t pull-your-hair-out busy, compared to a week day, there is a huge difference in the amount of traffic and people exploring the reserve.
Bring a long lens
I had a few species come close enough for a point and shoot but overall they were pretty far away. A long lens (at least a 200mm if not longer) will serve you best.
Visit at low tide, early morning or just before sunset
At low tide, large birds such as roseate spoonbills, egrets, and pelicans, among a bevy of smaller birds, can be seen on the sandbars created by the receding water. A few of them are near the road, making it easier to see them without the use of binoculars. You can reference this handy-dandy tide chart for times.
Birds and other wildlife are more active in the early morning and just before sunset, which is perfect if you want decent photo because the light at that time is at its best.
Learn from the locals
As I mentioned above, the end of the day has some of the best light and that’s when the big guns come out (no it’s not what you’re thinking) I’m talking about the hard-core photographers, not professionals necessarily, but the locals. They sport cameras and lenses that would make National Geographic envious; the kind that resemble megaphones and can shoot up the nostril of an animal 100 feet away.
I bring this up because avid enthusiasts know a lot, and more often than not they like to share. Nothing beats help in the field. Chat them up.
Wildlife Drive Admission
$5/vehicle, $1/pedestrian, $1 bicycle
Open everyday except Friday. Hours vary depending on season.