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Located on Sanibel Island FL, in the Gulf of Mexico, J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best places for birdwatching in North America.

Silhouette of heron
Silhouette of heron
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

More than 230 species of birds feed, nest and roost in the 3,075-hectare (7,600-acre) refuge. Their habitat encompasses open water, mangrove forests, mud flats, underwater sea grass, cabbage or sable palms, seagrapes, cord grass marshes, wax and salt myrtles, as well as West Indian hardwood hammocks.

Besides migratory birds, Ding Darling protects endangered and threatened species, including bald eagles, American alligators, Atlantic loggerhead sea turtles, American crocodiles, wood storks and Florida manatees.

Canoeing trips

The best time for birdwatching in the wildlife refuge is between November and April, in early mornings and late afternoons, when birds are most active. The best way to see birds is from the water.

Anyone can launch a canoe or kayak when Ding Darling is open, but negotiating the maze of mangrove channels without getting lost is a challenge. Mangrove islets are constantly sprouting up and changing shape, so no accurate maps exist.

We explored the mangrove wetlands and mud flats with Canoe Adventures. It's not surprising that owner, Mark Westall, has the nickname "Bird." The tall, slender man has paddled through these wetlands since the mid-1970s, when he started his business. He knows the waterways intimately and has a unique understanding of the birds on Sanibel Island.

Mark 'Bird' Westall loads canoe.
Mark 'Bird' Westall loads canoe.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Birdwatching tour

"The ideal time to see wading birds is at low tide," he told us, as we boarded his Grumman canoes. The brackish (part-fresh, part-salty) water was only mid-calf deep.

We made our way through a sun-dappled mangrove cay to open water. The air was still, except for the sound of our metal hulls parting the water, and a zee zee zeee, which Westall identified as a prairie warbler.


An osprey (also called a fish hawk) flapped past, grasping a fish in its talons. We learned to identify osprey by their brown eye stripes, white bellies, dark tails, back and wings.

"I started monitoring ospreys here in 1979," explained Westall. "We had 35 occupied territories, which was considered a healthy population for a 19-kilometre-long (12-mile-long) island like Sanibel. I now monitor 80 pairs, with help from 40 volunteers."

"Most nests are on artificial platforms that we built. These sites produce twice as many chicks as natural ones. They don't blow down as easily in storms, and raccoons find them harder to climb than trees."

Bald eagles

Now that the osprey population is increasing, Westall has diverted his energy to helping endangered bald eagles. A few weeks before our visit, he rescued an eagle chick that had fallen out of its nest.

"I repaired the nest and put the chick back into it. The parents returned to fledge the youngster. Although we have 40 bald eagle pairs in Lee County, they're still on the edge," he said.

"Ospreys are willing to have people around them, but eagles are still very sensitive. Because so many people are moving into the county, the eagles are going to have to accept them as neighbors. I think they will," he predicted. "We just have to give them time."

Brown pelicans

In front of us, a pterodactyl-shaped silhouette hang-glided above the water. Suddenly the brown pelican saw a fish and dipped his pouched bill into the water to scoop it up.

A great blue heron, stalking fish, stopped when he saw another heron approach, and raised his bill skyward. "He's telling the other heron that those are his fish," noted Westall. "Most of the aggression you see here is between members of the same species. But no one ever seems to get hurt.

"See that green-backed heron?" asked Westall. "When I was studying for an anthropology degree, my professors said that humans were the only creatures that used tools. If you observe that green-backed heron closely, however, you'll see him grab a leaf or insect and hold it under water as bait to attract fish."

Reddish egret
Reddish egret
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Bird behavior

A reddish egret, meanwhile, captured our attention with his drunken dance. "They can't wait for the food to come to them, so they go running around the mud flats like they're chasing something," described Westall. "Reddish egrets hope that the fish will panic and identify their hiding spots in the grasses."

A white-bellied tricolor heron became nervous as we approached. "Let's move farther away," suggested Westall.

"There isn't a fighter-pilot in the world who wants his enemy between him and the sun. The same applies to birds. I try to never point a canoe directly at a bird, or bump the sides with the paddle so it sounds like a gunshot. Food is a powerful stimulant. Birds will tolerate our presence longer if the feeding is good. But if we get too close, they'll spend more time watching us than eating."


An anhinga (also called a snakebird) torpedoed through the water beside us, spearing a fish with its dagger beak. His thin neck enlarged as he swallowed the fish. "Anhingas can swim so fast because they have no oil on their wings. Otherwise, they would be like us trying to swim underwater with life jackets." explained Westall.

"Anhingas have a hard time flying after fishing until they dry out their wings, so they've learned to climb trees." We looked up and saw the anhinga, on a treetop, spreading out his wings like Count Dracula's cape.

Red mangroves
Red mangroves
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll


Another black bird soared by, looking like he had both ends pared down by a pencil sharpener. "It's a cormorant," stated Westall. "People often confuse cormorants with anhingas. Cormorants have shorter tails, so they can stand on the ground, and turned-down beaks, which they use to grab rather than spear fish."

We're impressed with the number of birds that we saw, but our guide isn't. "The population of wading birds is 90 per cent lower today in Florida, than it was at the turn-of-the-century," said Westall.

Environmental protection

"When I first came to Sanibel Island, it looked like it was raining fish in the shallow water. Birds would come so close to catch them that people in canoes would get splashed."

We looked down into the water and saw a little school of mullet, as well as a conch and a few sponges. Westall was happy to see the sponges. "The sponges used to be so thick that, at low tide, I was afraid we couldn't move the canoe through. Then someone came in here and harvested them. Now they're coming back. It shows you how the system heals itself."

Sanibel Island

"Sanibel is paradise compared to the rest of Florida," says Westall, about the subtropical barrier island. "It was originally zoned for 90,000 inhabitants, but the people took charge, incorporated, and reduced the population limits to around 20,000. The resident population of Sanibel Island is now about 6,300, but the island has enough housing units (including resorts, etc.) to sleep more than 18,000 people."

"Sanibel was also the first place in the world to make it illegal to feed alligators. Before that, stores used to sell marshmallows to feed the 'gators. Feeding an alligator around a child is a tragedy just waiting to happen."

Westall doesn't hesitate to speak out when it comes to preserving the ecosystem. He joined the city council in 1988 and even served as mayor of Sanibel for some time.

Inspired by Mark Westall and his Ding Darling canoe trip, we decided to spend more time touring the National Wildlife Refuge.

Visitors on tram tour observe birds in wetlands.
Visitors on tram tour observe birds in wetlands.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Tram tour

Wildlife Drive is a 6.5-kilometer (four-mile) one-way loop road through the Sanibel Island refuge. Beginning at the Education Center, the road is open daily, except Fridays, from early morning until just before sunset. Wildlife Drive allows visitors to view the mangrove forest habitat by car, bicycles, walking and guided tram tours.

During the 1.5-hour Ding Darling refuge tram tour, operated by Tarpon Bay Explorers, a naturalist explained Calusa Indian history and pointed out wildlife in the mud flats and mangroves.

With our binoculars and telephoto camera lenses, we spotted alligators, roseate spoonbills, white ibis and many other birds. A mottled brown red-shouldered hawk, perched on a tree limb, ate a frog by tearing off pieces with its beak.

Red-shouldered hawk eats frog.
Red-shouldered hawk eats frog.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Hiking trails

From Wildlife Drive, you can access three trails. On the 6.5-kilometer-long (four-mile-long) Indigo Trail, between the Education Center and the cross-dike, hikers can spot alligators, night heron, white ibis, raccoons and marsh rabbits.

The 0.4-kilometer-long (0.25-mile-long) Wulfert Keys Trail, off Wildlife Drive, brings hikers to Pine Island Sound for more bird watching, primarily, brown pelicans and osprey.

Shell Mound Trail is a 0.4-kilometer (0.25-mile) boardwalk through a hardwood hammock, near the end of Wildlife Drive. Interpretive signs inform hikers about ancient Calusa Indians, flora and fauna. Bird watchers may spot warblers and migratory songbirds here.

The Wildlife Education Boardwalk is a 200-foot-long trail through the mangroves that connects The Sanibel School to the Indigo Trail. The two-story observation tower is a highlight of the boardwalk. Hikers can use a spotting scope to view alligators and wading wetland birds.

Bailey Tract, located off Tarpon Bay Road, offers more hiking through interior wetlands.

Education Center

No trip to Sanibel Island, Florida, is complete without a visit to the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge Education Center. Interactive displays depict ecosystems, bird migration paths and the story of Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, who promoted wildlife conservation.

A 360-degree zoom video camera on the observation tower, near Wildlife Drive, transmits images of birds feeding and roosting. Visitors can buy field guides, bird identification books, water and mosquito repellent at the bookstore, and rent binoculars from the Information Desk.

Things to do at Ding Darling

We ran out of time before we could participate in all the activities at the Ding Darling wildlife refuge. Guided kayak tours bring visitors to the Rookery Islands, to watch birds roost at sunset.

Pontoon boat nature and sea life cruises, through the mangrove estuary, offer opportunities to view and photograph wading birds, coastal bottlenose dolphins and manatees in Tarpon Bay.

You can join a fishing charter or rent a pontoon boat, bait and tackle to catch snook, redfish and sea trout. Visitors can also rent bikes, kayaks and canoes.

Tricolor heron in flight
Tricolor heron in flight
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Driving directions to Sanibel

From Fort Myers, follow Summerlin Road across the Sanibel Causeway to Sanibel Island. Turn right on Periwinkle Way until it dead ends at Tarpon Bay Road, where you turn right.

At the four-way stop, turn left onto Sanibel-Captiva Road and follow it to the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, about 24 kilometers (15 miles) southwest of Fort Myers. The Education Center is located three kilometers (two miles) west of Tarpon Bay Road, on Sanibel Captiva Rd.


Ding Darling Wildlife Society: www.dingdarlingsociety.org

Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau: www.FortMyers-Sanibel.com

Visit Florida: www.VisitFlorida.com

More things to see & do in The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel area:

Captiva Cruises to Cabbage Key for Cheeseburgers