The Venice Area Birding association’s rescheduled trip to Sanibel’s J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge was a great success. Luck was upon us for sure. Our first trip was canceled due to inclement (actually, downright nasty) weather. The rescheduled trip was on a sunny and somewhat breezy day — much better for spotting lots of birds.
Don and I have been leading yearly winter trips to this beautiful refuge for years. This year, our group was a bit smaller due to Covid and cancellations. However, Josh Olive joined us for the first time. Josh is an outstanding photographer besides being a wonderful editor, and he did not pay me to say that. His amazing camera is larger than my Maltese, Max.
Our group met and the bird caravan started out on Wildlife Drive, a paved road that goes through mangrove and grassflat habitat. You can walk, bike or drive your car through here. It’s an excellent birding opportunity for people who have limited physical mobility.
Wildlife Drive is four miles long. We stop at all of the open water areas along the way and also visit the first boardwalk to see who might be foraging on the flats. When we plan a trip here, Don always surveys the tide charts and chooses a low tide — the better to see lots of wading birds out feeding.
Our first stop brought us lots of white birds: White ibis and great egrets stalking the mud, and laughing gulls flying overhead. We also spotted both little blue and great blue herons. A tri-colored heron was spotted foraging in the distance.
A small group of pied-billed grebes were spotted diving close to the shore line. These cute little grebes are always a favorite to spot. Locally they can be found around either fresh or salt water all winter long. They were in winter plumage, which means no ring around the beak and their coloring is more brownish than black. They also have a white chin.
We always anticipate viewing American white pelicans at Ding along with brown pelicans. It’s fascinating to see the size difference — the white pelicans are much larger than their brown cousins. Although we did not see as many white pelicans as we often do, we did have our scopes on a small flock of white pelicans basking in the warm sun.
At one of our stops, we had several reddish egrets. They are always a pleasure to see and are not as common as our other herons and egrets. One was doing the egret dance across the shallows. Maybe it was a male trying to impress a female. There was another reddish egret not too far away, but we had no way to tell if it was a female or male.
Deb, our eagle-eye birder, identified a spotted sandpiper, which we all got a good look at through one of the spotting scopes. It was great having all the scopes set up, since most of the birds were way out there. Usually the birds are closer to the road, but not this time. Through the scopes, we picked up anhingas, double-crested cormorants, ospreys and another tri-color heron.
At another stop we were greeted by a huge flock of fish crows. “Are you fish crows?” I asked. “Uh-uh,” they answered (they always lie). We never fail to get a laugh from these loud and gregarious birds.
Our famous editor found us a green heron as the heron was skulking under the mangroves very close to the road — a very nice sighting. Then we had a yellow-crowned night heron even closer. In fact, that one was so close we could have poked it with a stick, were we so inclined. This is the more common of the night herons seen at Ding; black-crowneds do show up, but not as often.
Several of us watched a belted kingfisher hover over the water hoping to snag a tasty tidbit, which it then did. We believed it to be a male as we did not see any rust color on its belly (the “belt” that gives the bird its name). This would be one of the few birds that the female is more colorful than the male — just the opposite of most other bird species.
I spotted a bird far off on a nest but couldn’t get a positive ID in my 60x scope. I could see a white head and was hoping for an eagle, but others said osprey. Josh also saved the day with his long, long lens. The photo was fuzzy, but we knew for sure it was an eagle. Later, Claudette snagged us an immature eagle flying overhead.
We also needed the scopes to pick up several black-bellied plovers and ruddy turnstones. We added least sandpiper and a nice flock of willets. Larry’s good eye discovered a lone short-billed dowitcher in a flock of willets (it takes a real bird nerd to know the difference, let alone to actually spot it in the field).
Several other of the more common birds were also sighted: Mourning doves, black and turkey vultures, several small warblers (probably butter-butts, more correctly known as yellow-rumped warblers). Ducks can be abundant here, but the only two duck species we sighted were hooded mergansers and mottled ducks. We looked for the elusive mangrove cuckoo but, alas, it was not to be seen on this day.
All too soon we hit the end of the road, so off we went to the Island Cow and dined al fresco. We always have some good laughs and good times with our VABA group — and now we even have a resident photographer, if we can convince him to come hang out with the old folks.
If you’re planning a trip to “Ding” Darling Refuge, they’re closed on Fridays. Wildlife Drive is one way. It is truly worth the $10 fee charged for vehicles, and they take the Golden Age Pass. My suggestion is avoid going on weekends, as it would be much more crowded. And remember to go at low tide if you can!
Abbie Banks is a member of the Venice Area Birding Association, a group of folks who want to enjoy the environment and nature without the cumbersome politics of an organized group. For more info on VABA or to be notified of upcoming birding trips, visit AbbiesWorld.org/references.html or email her at Amberina@aol.com.