The thunder and rain in the night was a bit disconcerting. However, by early morning we just had a light fog over the land of palm trees and hibiscus. Don and I were leading a fun group of Venice Area Bird Association friends to J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Ding is located on Sanibel Island, a barrier island between the Gulf of Mexico and Pine Island Sound.
The refuge is named after Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, who was a famous political cartoonist a century ago. Darling was an ardent conservationist. He started the Federal Duck Stamp program and was named head of the U.S. Biological Survey (which later became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) by FDR. He was also a founder of the National Wildlife Federation.
The refuge named for Ding was established in 1976 to protect one of the county’s largest natural mangrove ecosystems. The refuge is known worldwide for its population of migratory and resident birds.
We drove through fog and drizzle, hoping for the weather to clear — and it did! By the time we reached Sanibel, the gray sky had magically disappeared and the sun shone brightly on our happy group of eager birders. We need to make haste as it is best to bird during low tide.
Everyone piled out of Don’s birdmobile and Andy’s van eager to start seeing the feathered gems out on the sandbars. Immediately we sighted pied-billed grebes and cormorants. We crossed the road and everyone was calling out the birds. It was great to see a yellow-crowned night heron, the first of three spotted that day. Another exciting spotting was a reddish egret. This is always a favorite bird of everyone. Sadly, we recently read this species is becoming less common due to the effects of red tide. We only sighted one reddish all day.
A flock of about 30 white pelicans were clustered together on one of the sandbars. They shared the bar with white ibises, snowy egrets, a great egret, a little blue heron, quite a few laughing gulls and several ring-billed gulls. We moved along to the next area where even more white pelicans were enjoying the morning sunshine along with several dozen brown pelicans.
We heard a kingfisher and finally located him in the mangroves quite a distance across the water. A sneaky green heron was buried in the mangrove bramble and obviously thought we could not see him … but we did! A tri-colored heron came skulking by along the bank. We had to have the scopes set up to identify the semi-palmated plovers, dunlins and red-breasted mergansers. The hooded mergansers are so much easier to ID with their outstanding hoods.
We walked the boardwalk out to the back bay. It was really odd that there were really no waders there, as the tide was quite low. We did see two interesting snakes. One was a Florida banded water snake and the other may have been a red phase Florida green water snake. Some of us find snakes more fascinating than terrifying. At least the red snake did not go after the tri-colored heron posing on a branch a few feet away.
Onward we went before the tide rushed in and covered the flats. We added wood storks and quite a few willets to the list. We also spotted mottled ducks and black-bellied plovers. Other sightings along the way were ospreys, red-bellied woodpeckers, a pileated woodpecker and a magnificent frigate bird. We ended up with 38 species of birds spotted at Ding Darling — not bad for just a few hours.
We went to have lunch at author Randy Wayne White’s restaurant Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar & Grill. A big thank you to Patty O’Rourke for this excellent suggestion. White is best known for his crime novels featuring Doc Ford. His first book, “Sanibel Flats,” was published in 1990. We had a very good lunch and were feeling sufficiently energized to try a new birding site on the island.
Periwinkle Park is an exotic bird lover’s delight. The aviary features many species of tropical and native birds, including toucans, macaws and other parrots, plus brown and ring-tailed lemurs. Our little band of 10 eager birders tramped down to the pond to see the many stunning ducks. Quite a few exotic species were in a lovely naturalized pond area. I was quite surprised to even see a redhead duck there. Many of the others were not familiar to me, but all were absolutely beautiful.
Periwinkle is worth a stop if you are on Sanibel. Park at the entrance and walk two blocks to the wildlife area. All of the birds were obtained through rescue efforts.
Thank you to my eagle-eyed friend Deb Johnson for helping out on this trip. And always a big thanks to the drivers, Andy White and Don Rippeon. If you want to come along on a future adventure, send me an email.
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.