J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
Synonymous with Sanibel, the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is second only to the islands’ beaches in popularity with visitors. It is one of the most visited refuges in the country today, and it’s no wonder. Whether you hike, bike, paddle, boat or drive, the refuge’s bountiful wildlife will provide hours of joy to wildlife watchers. But don’t forget to stop in at the Education Center for fun, well-presented lessons on what surprises the refuge has in store.
Wildlife Drive is generally the first wildlife experience people have on Sanibel Island. The drive is actually set atop dikes created to assist with mosquito control. The road leads past tidal mud flats and mangrove forests. Here roseate spoonbills, white ibis, little blue herons, reddish egrets, brown pelicans and other colorful birds can be seen feeding, resting and preening. Low tide is the best time for watching birds in a frenzy of feeding.
Toward the end of the drive, a small tropical forest rises from atop an old Calusa Indian shell mound. There is a one-third mile walking trail around the shell mound itself. Just after the trailhead is Alligator Curve.
Across a small canal are afternoon basking spots frequented by gators in winter. Don’t let a sleeping alligator fool you, and don’t try to rouse it. Respect wild animals and give them safe distance.
The Center for Education at the refuge is definitely the place to start your trip. In the state-of-the-art exhibits, a tiny indigo bunting hides in a gumbo limbo tree; a baby alligator peers out from spartina and sawgrass; fiddler and horseshoe crabs are depicted rummaging around the mud flats under mangrove trees; a birders’ room is lined with a huge photographic mural of many of the common birds seen from Wildlife Drive.
Theodore Roosevelt declared a tiny pelican rookery the first National Wildlife Refuge in 1903. During the next 20 years, small rookeries were preserved throughout Southwest Florida. Pine Island, Matlacha, Island Bay and Caloosahatchee National Wildlife Refuges are some of the first rookery island sanctuaries for wading and water birds.
The Sanibel sanctuary story begins with editorial cartoonist Jay Norwood Darling. A frequent winter resident, Darling recognized the unique characteristics that defined the Sanibel-Captiva area. Many of his original sketches still hang on the walls of the Old Captiva House at ‘Tween Waters Inn, where Darling and his wife Penny frequently stayed.
In addition to being a cartoonist, Darling was an avid conservationist. His cartoons in the 1920s show his growing concern over dwindling gas supplies, soil erosion, piles of junked cars and clear-cutting original growth forests. He supported reforestation, habitat restoration and world peace. He understood the need for sound science to make good management decisions. He was instrumental in starting the Federal Duck Stamp Program, conceived the National Wildlife Federation and envisioned a network of refuges that supported birds on the migratory flyways. Darling also founded cooperative research and education training programs at land grant universities.
In 1945, it was efforts led by Darling that created a lease of land that would be known as the Sanibel Refuge. In 1948, the state legislature declared Sanibel and Captiva as Sanctuary Islands. Mr. Darling continued to influence the expansion of the refuge to the Bailey and Perry Tract and inspired others to become involved in the preservation of the Islands. In 1967, these lands became the Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge is second only to the beaches as an island attraction with 800,000 visitors annually. It is in the top ten most visited refuges in the nation. Tarpon Bay Explorers, a concessionaire to the refuge, provides tours with trained naturalists who will spot the wildlife for you and share fascinating information about all you will see. There are tram, electric boat and kayak tours through the refuge. People can also enjoy hiking, biking and boating on their own. Call 239-472-1351 or 239-472-8900.
Pine Island Sound is a great place to fish. The mud flats are banquets for long-legged and short-legged wading birds. The upland woods are a haven for songbirds and tropical migrants. The surf is combed by shorebirds darting in and out of the foam. Birds of prey glide overhead. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service is minding the shore of this delightful haven.
The refuge’s face is always changing. Sunlight, tides and wind, minute by minute, influence the scenery and wildlife. In fact, residents will tell you the refuge never looks the same.
However you get there, however you explore, the refuge should not be missed as part of your island adventures.
The gate to Wildlife Drive generally opens one half hour after sunrise and closes one half hour before sunset. The drive is closed on Fridays. The Education Center is open 9-5 November through April and 9-4 in the summer.
The refuge has an entrance fee program that includes $5 per car and $1 per person for walkers and bikers. If someone in your car possesses a Golden Eagle, Golden Access or Golden Age Passport, the fees are covered. If you are making more than one visit, there are passes available. Tram tours are $13 per adult and $8 per child.
Visitors are advised to check in at the Education Center to watch an introductory video, interact with the exhibits, and get the latest information before embarking on the drive. Call 239-472-1100. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society, a non-profit “friends of the refuge” group, operates the engaging Center and its treasure-filled bookstore. To become a Friend of the Refuge, call the center or visit www.dingdarlingsociety.org. Members receive a 10% discount on bookstore items and Tarpon Bay Explorers tours.
The Tarpon Bay access is open 7 days a week. There is no entrance fee and costs vary depending on activity. Guided tours and rentals by boat, kayak, canoe and bike are all available. Call 239-472-8900.