with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge Complex
Address:1 Wildlife Drive
Sanibel, FL 33957

Phone: 941-472-1100

Fax: 941-472-4061


Web page:GORP’s Ding Darling Information

How to get there: Drive approximately 15 miles southwest of Ft. Myers, FL, following the signs onto Sanibel Island.

Hours: Wildlife Drive open 7:30 AM to 5:30 PM every day except Fridays.
Best Time: Fall through Spring are excellent times for birds. Low tides are best for viewing shore and wading birds. Dawn and dusk are best times to view wildlife.
Famous for: Named after the cartoonist, environmentalist and father of the Duck Stamp, J.N. “Ding” Darling, the refuge is a diverse salt and fresh water habitat excellent for attracting waterfowl and wading birds.

How to visit: Drive the 5 mile auto tour route, stopping to explore hiking trails throughout the waterways. Birds accustomed to people. There is a tram service during peak visitation. Wear mosquito repellent and protective clothing. Visit the Visitor’s Center for more information and extensive natural history displays.

Wildlife: Approximately 238 bird species use the refuge habitats, as well as 51 species of reptiles and amphibians and 32 species of mammals. Several threatened and endangered species benefit from the habitats described: eastern indigo snakes, American alligators, American crocodiles, bald eagles, wood storks, peregrine falcons, west Indian manatees, and Atlantic loggerhead turtles.

Habitat: The refuge habitat is diverse. Salt water areas feature sea grass beds, mud flats and mangrove islands. Interior freshwater habitats offer open water ponds, spartina swales, and west Indian hardwood hammocks. Two brackish water impoundments totaling 800 acres are managed for mosquito control and are used extensively by waterfowl and wading birds.

Thursday, February 6, 1997
Ding Darling NWR, FL

Without a doubt, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Sanibel Island is one of the greatest birding places on the planet. At all times, in every direction, several birds were in view, usually by the dozens, sometimes by the hundreds.

In the parking lot at the visitor center, I awaited opening time, which is a quite late 9:00 (the Wildlife Drive is open 7:30 to 5:30, Saturday through Thursday). I saw a flash of red, and moved a little to the left to get a better view. I spotted a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the tree above me. Then he flew about a hundred feet, and I moved to follow. I thought I saw him, because I found more red moving in the tree where he went, but I was wrong. I had discovered a Pileated Woodpecker, and he methodically moved and pecked a few times on that tree. Both of these birds are considered common at the refuge in the winter.

The Wildlife Drive is a five mile one-way gravel road, plenty wide enough to allow parking on the side. It travels along a dike which was built in the sixties to control water levels and mosquitos. In the winter, the water gates are open, and the impoundment level fluctuates with the tide. During mosquito season, the contained water is trapped at a high level, and rain water replenishes that lost to evaporation. As you drive, the water on the right is open to the sea (although you can’t see that from the road) and to the left is the impound.

Roseate Spoonbill, photo by Brent VanFossenWading birds have the perfect combination of food and water to thrive. White Ibises by the hundreds wade and fly in all directions. Wood Storks, the big white birds with the dark gray heads, are common. All kinds of herons and egrets are there to be seen, including the comical Reddish with its dashing, stir-up-the-fish method of hunting. Roseate Spoonbills move their spoon-shaped bills back and forth sideways through the mud on the bottom of the water, feeling for their prey. When they touch something edible, the bill closes, and they have their meal.

Ospreys were easy to find, and one perched atop a tree about 75 feet from the road and stayed for half an hour. I watched them all day fishing, and they were frequently seen flying with a fish or nesting materials firmly in their grips. A Red-shouldered Hawk sat at the top of a Sabal Palm, and watched the cross dike area all evening.

White and Brown Pelicans were present, and stood in the water with Willets, Dunlins, Short-billed Dowitchers, Double-crested Cormorants, and Ring-billed Gulls. Lesser Yellowlegs and Killdeer were easy to find. I spotted Northern Cardinals, and Prairie Warblers. A friend was lucky enough to see a Peregrine Falcon fly over earlier today, also.

Tricolored Herons were absolutely fearless, and I saw them many times fly in croaking and land near a group of onlookers. At the cross dike trail, one fished all day long within 5 feet of birders and a photographer who shot straight down from a standing position at this little heron. I don’t care to see those photos, but you couldn’t criticize him for not being close enough.

Green Heron feeding, Photo by Brent VanFossenI spent some time today photographing a Green Heron fishing from a spot 6 inches off the water on a mangrove root. He would stand absolutely still until he saw what he wanted, then ever so slowly, he would move his bill closer, until “Splash!” and he had a meal. The cross dike trail, a 1/4 mile walk along mangrove lined water on both sides, was a consistently good spot for Green Herons, and I saw three there several times through the day. Bring a 500mm or longer lens, though, because they are across about 30 feet of water. Check out the Pied-billed Grebes here, too.

Not all today was birds, and I was checked out by three curious small raccoons. I spotted an American Alligator, Mangrove Tree Crabs, Fiddler Crabs, and a miniature 3/4 inch frog huddled on the leaf of a small plant.

Saturday, February 8, 1997
Ding Darling NWR, FL

Once again, Ding Darling doesn’t disappoint, and I saw most of the same species today as Thursday. I was at the refuge just a bit before 8:00, as the gates don’t open until 7:30. Okay, so I missed by half an hour, but tomorrow I will be there at 7:00.

At the start of the drive, about half way between the entrance and the Cross Dike, I found a Red-shouldered Hawk in the top of a tree just off the side of the road, 15 feet up. Maybe I should have stopped to shoot, but another photographer was already there and just setting up. I didn’t want to spook his prize, as he hadn’t started shooting yet, so I moved on.

I found Yellow-crowned Night Herons along some of the waterways, and Pelicans and wading birds in most of the same places as before. One surprise was the first pond on the right just after the entrance. Thursday, it was full of birds; Wood Storks and various herons and ibises, etc. Today, that area was almost completely devoid of birds, and I think it was because the water was higher. With the tides about 2 hours later, and the low tide not as low, there was more water here, and the birds couldn’t feed. That just reinforces the lesson that you will find animals where the conditions are right for food and water.

The Cross Dike was my first planned stop, as I wanted to shoot the Green Herons that hang out there. They were all right in position on the right side of the trail in the mangrove roots, and the light was full on them. I just had to wait for them to come out from behind the roots enough for a clear shot, and then catch the right moment. I was somewhat successful, but I want to go back and try again. I was also successful here with a Common Moorhen, a Great Blue Heron, and somewhat successful with a Tricolored Heron and a White Ibis.

Reddish Egret does his hunting for food dance, photo by Brent VanFossenAt the Red Mangrove overlook, I was fascinated watching two Reddish Egrets fishing, and I have to get some good photos of this active bird. When I grabbed the camera and set up, all that I had were some Great Egrets. I shot them with full front lighting, including their reflections in the blue water. One Reddish had left, and the other was in the shade. I waited for almost an hour in the hot sun, but they never came out. Tomorrow.

Mangroves of Ding Darling, Photo by Brent VanFossenAt the same spot, I watched the large and tiny fish in the water, saw a Horseshoe Crab move by, and found a Periwinkle about 10 feet up in a tree. Too high to shoot, but pretty to look at. It’s fun to listen to people try to figure out which bird they are looking at, and so many have no real idea. One woman today, and this is common, had the brochure showing 20 familiar birds of the refuge, and the Reddish wasn’t on the sheet. I pointed out which was which, and she was most appreciative. And I let a few people look through the lens at the birds. They are frequently amazed that even with the 700mm lens, the birds may still not be full frame. They think we are photographing eyelashes, and in reality, we may be waiting for the bird to move closer. But a big lens is a definite ego boost, and I think that may be the REAL reason I like to use it (right).

On the second pass through the Wildlife Drive, I found a small shorebird that I had seen Thursday, but wasn’t sure of the identity. I got a good look today from about 10 feet away at a small sandpiper along the first pond on the right, and was able to compare the bird with the field guide. This is definitely a Solitary Sandpiper, and the white ring around the eye was the final clue. Neither the Spotted Sandpiper nor the Lesser Yellowlegs has that ring. Add another bird to the list.

Around 12:30 with the light just awful, I headed for the Bailey Tract of Ding Darling to check out the spot for later. This is just down and across the road about 5 miles. It is a piece of property with three or four ponds and a canal around the perimeter. There is a one mile walking trail around the edge, and I took it. There were relatively few birds, but I saw White Ibises, Snowy and Great Egrets, a Tricolored and Little Blue Heron. I also saw a Common Grackle, a warbler with yellow on the rear, and heard the Red-winged Blackbirds. My warbler may have been the Yellow-rumped Warbler, but there are some lookalikes, and I didn’t notice the yellow on the head of mine. I only got a brief look.

Back on the mainland, I arrived at the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve at about 3:15, as this is the place that Mary Ann McDonald and her assistant, Dane, both told me about. Another pair of ladies today also told me that this was a favorite afternoon spot of theirs, so I had to go. You pay $3 for parking, and the park has about a mile of boardwalk past four or five ponds through Pine Flatwoods, Hardwood Transition, Flag Pond, Hardwood Hammock, and Cypress Slough communities. There are lots of epiphytes and bromeliads growing on the sides of the trees, and I am coming back tomorrow a little earlier in the day. One of my goals of the trip is to return with beautiful examples of natural habitats, and this is a perfect spot. They are even labeled right along the trail, and the guided brochure is excellent.

While there were not many birds, I was able to photograph at close range a Tricolored Heron at the Otter Pond overlook. And I shot an Anhinga in breeding plumage, and some adult and immature Black-crowned Night Herons were at Pop Ash Pond. The immatures were within 15 feet of the blind, but it was hard if not impossible to eliminate the branches from the photos. This little habitat gem of a place deserves more time, but it closes promptly with a padlock at 5:00pm. Opens at 8:00.

Cape Coral Burrowing Owls

Owl's Nest sign near Burrowing Owl, photo by Brent VanFossenBaby burrowing owl peeks out, photo by Brent VanFossenAfter much searching I finally found one of the last Burrowing Owl nests in one of the remaining barren lots awaiting construction. A sign was posted over the nest and next to the For Sale sign with a SOLD marker on it. I was able to work with the owls for several evenings, capturing their glory in the setting sunlight. I’m sure now, writing this a few years later, Burrowing owl, photo by Brent VanFossenthat the lot is now a home for two or four people and the multi-generations of this owl family are homeless or searching for a home they may never find again.

On a sad note, I went at the end of the day to Cape Coral to find the Burrowing Owls that the ABA Florida Bird Finders Guide had described. At the intersection of Sands and Cape Coral, many new homes were being built, some occupied, and the remainder of the land was divided up with lots of “for sale” signs posted. I saw no signs of the owls, and it seems that another wild habitat has been replaced by a subdivision.

Sunday, February 9, 1997
Ding Darling NWR, FL

I awoke this morning to cloudy skies, and was a little disheartened because I was looking forward to morning light on the birds at the refuge. I should not have worried. By the time I crossed the Causeway to Sanibel Island, the sun was out, and the Brown Pelicans were soaring. I arrived at the refuge just after 7:30 and began the drive.

Red-shouldered hawk, photo by Brent VanFossenThe first good bird I found was a Red-shouldered Hawk about 35 or 40 feet up in a tree. The light was wonderful and I made a few photos, but he was really too far for a good shot. I continued down the road and found another Red-shouldered Hawk on a much closer perch. The branches were perfect, part of an old leafless snag. The sky was blue between the white clouds. The light was ok to excellent, depending on the movement of the clouds, and it was just a matter of waiting for the right combination of light, sky, and pose for the photos. I was in good company, and before the bird flew, there was about $75,000 of camera equipment in view and lots of photographers to match. Just before he left, he let out a series of about half a dozen squawks, spaced about one second apart, and I shot each. This was a great situation, and I can’t wait to see the results.

Not far away, I joined some of my new acquaintances photographing an Anhinga just off the road, preening. The light was excellent, until I arrived, and the clouds came in. Just after the fellow in front of me left, the light came back, and I made a series of images of this beautiful bird, waiting each time for the catch light in the eye.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron, photo by Brent VanFossenAt the Cross Dike, I found a Yellow-crowned Night Heron right along the canal beside the trail. He was on the left side, and overlooked by most of the people. I got the big lens, and laid down in the wet dirt to get the low angle I needed. From a standing or sitting position, the reflections on the water was white, which washes out the colors of the bird. Not very attractive. But by getting as low as the tripod allowed (lens about 10 inches off the ground) I was able to place the heron in front of the dark green foliage reflection with full front lighting, and the pictures should be terrific. The heron was a perfect subject, and continued to pose and fish within about 30 feet of me. And then, after about a roll and a half, he turned and fished toward me, until he stood about 5 feet away for the next 10 minutes. I always feel honored when an animal trusts me enough to approach, and I didn’t betray that trust with any sudden movements. After he had flown to join a friend down the canal, I got up, wiped my wet and sandy bottom, and put the equipment back in the case.

Alligator in water, Photo by Brent VanFossenOne of the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife rangers gave a talk at 11:00 about crocodilians: alligators and crocodiles and their differences. The American Alligator is a very dark green, appearing almost black. It has a shovel-shaped head, and lives in mostly fresh water. It can be found as far north as the Carolinas, and in all of the Gulf states. It can live quite a way inland, and inhabits all of Florida. The American Crocodile appears gray in color, and has a narrower head. It
prefers salt water, and is found only near the tip of Florida along the coast.

Particularly interesting was their nesting behavior. The alligator builds a nest mound in which the female lays her eggs. She covers them with vegetation, and the vegetation decays and heats the eggs. All the eggs are identical, as reptiles don’t have X and Y chromosomes, and the eggs near the top of the nest get the most heat and become the males. The cooler eggs at the bottom develop into females. The crocodile digs a hole for the eggs, covers them, and the warmer eggs develop into the females, just the opposite. In both species, the males are bigger than the females, and average 12 to 15 feet at maturity. The females grow from 9 to 12 feet long.

I spent the afternoon at the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve photographing habitats, as I had planned. It was not as productive as I had hoped, but I got some good photos.

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