Destination Tips

Tips for Visiting the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island

silhouette of birds and rainbow ding-darling-national wildlife-refuge-on-sanibel-island-florida

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.

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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.

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If you’re considering a visit to the Ding Darling Wildlife National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, 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.

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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.

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I thought this would be a pain in the tuckus, but it’s really kind of great.

Heres why:

  • It’s easy to 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.

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Bring binoculars

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 app

Discover Ding Game App

Get the most out of your visit with the Discover Ding Game App. The game is designed to inspire visitors to explore the refuge and become more in tune with their surroundings. In addition to a scavenger hunt-style game, you can earn points for virtual pages, see and share photos, and post your own wildlife sightings that GPS enabled so that others can share your encounter with you.  Also included are fun facts about the flora and fauna, the history of the refuge, an alert giving users a heads up to unique sightings, trail closings and other real-time information. Plus, a nifty Resource page that includes information about local services including restaurants hotels rentals etc.

To Use: Download the Discovery Nature app,  iOS or Android, then look for the “Discover Ding” icon to find the specific download for the refuge.

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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.

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Photography enthusiasts

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 Sanibel Island 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.

silhouette of birds in water ding-darling-wildlife-refuge-on-sanibel-island-florida-7

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 closed Fridays 7:00am — 5:30pm

Visitor & Education Center Hours

9:00am — 4:00pm

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Tips for visiting the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, Florida. Where and when to go. What to bring.



79 replies »

  1. Thanks for these great tips, and beautiful shots, Susan! This adventure is on my list for a near future as I can easily drive there from home.

  2. Hi Susan, just reading through some of your older posts so I’m a bit late to the party. My top tip would be for people wanting to photograph the stunning spoonbills. Be there at the end of the day for the last hour or thirty minutes that the refuge is open for. This is when they fly in and spend some time in the shallows. It is a great time to get those in-flight shots.

  3. I have been watching this blog very closely and must say how fantastic it really is. Like many have said, you have a talent for both photography and writing. A truly wonderful and enjoyable blog ❤.

      • It was on the island… this was back in the late 70s and early 80s. It was across from the Dairy Queen, not that far after coming across the bridge. The RV park had a path going to the gulf side beach. Had a bunch of birds as well. Nice park- and fairly big.

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  5. I especially love the first one… What a unique perspective.

    On Mon, Feb 13, 2017 at 8:50 AM, The Insatiable Traveler wrote:

    > Susan Portnoy posted: ” It was a balmy morning, just after 7am. 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” >

  6. Wonderfully informative post of Sanibel and Ding Darling, Susan. And your photos are extraordinary, as always. I have had the delight of spending a week on Sanibel and environs. We enjoyed Ding Darling every day; we also enjoyed a nature visit to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in nearby Naples (board walk). And I highly recommend buying this fantastic book written by Charles Sobczak “Living Sanibel” for a wonderful field guide and information-packed adjunct to the trip. We were determined to see manatees while there (in Feb.), too, and did; at Lee Co. Manatee Park in Ft. Meyer; though it’s not idyllic and photo-taking is challenging due to red tannic waters.

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