Southwest Florida was experiencing monsoon winds and heavy rains several days previous to Venice Area Birding Association’s planned trip to Ding. Don and I were worried the trip was going to have to be canceled. However, the weather report called for sunny and 70. The only other thing of concern was whether the water would be too high for the waders to feed on the flats.
Three carloads of eager birders converged at the J.N. ”Ding” Darling welcome center. After using the facilities and 10 minutes of browsing in the fabulous gift shop, we were finally on our way to one of my favorite birding sites in Florida.
As we exited the parking area, I first heard then spotted a red-bellied woodpecker creating a ruckus. Don drove on to the main entrance to Wildlife Drive. We have a golden pass that gets us into all national refuges, and so we were waved through by the guard..
It was a bit overcast, and the remaining breeze reminded us of the past several days when cold blustery winds ripped through our area. But all of this was forgotten when we saw that the tide was low and the recent torrential downpours had not interfered with the water level.
For birders visiting Ding, it’s all-important to be there at low tide. This is prime time for all of the wading birds to feed — and that’s just what they were doing. The excitement surged for our group of 12 when we saw hundreds of birds dotting the flats.
The scope was set up and immediately our group was calling birds for Don to record. We always keep a birding list for the day. You’ll really need a birding scope for this refuge, as many of the birds are quite far and difficult to see real well. Having a high-powered zoom lens on your camera is also helpful.
We spotted a pied-billed grebe immediately, and then great egrets, great blue herons and white ibis. Brenda spotted a roseate spoonbill in the far distance. We tried to relocate it in the scope but could not. No matter — roseates were at almost every stop. Low tide provided an excellent feeding opportunity for the semi-palmated plovers, the killdeer and both ring-billed and laughing gulls.
By the time we decided to cruise slowly to the next area, it was actually warming up a bit and some of us shed a layer of clothing. We jumped out of the cars and were treated to a flock of white pelicans. It is always a pleasure to see the return of these huge birds.
We spotted a flock of dunlins in their winter garb digging into the muck. Dunlins have a slightly downward-curved beak and have legs. In winter, their backs are a dull grayish-brown tone, but they appear quite different during breeding season.
It is really a good idea to carry at least one bird guide with you to verify your sightings. On this day, I had two books with me. It’s good idea to check several bird guides. If the pictures are artist’s renderings, the images may all appear a little different and the coloring may even vary.
Some years back (actually, more than some), I was in Cape May with my old birding group. We were viewing a purple sandpiper out on the rocks. I was a bit dismayed that the image in my Peterson field guide did not look like the same coloration. All of my friends pulled out their Peterson guides — and lo and behold, there were not two alike as we compared a half-dozen guide books. We decided the ink they used for printing was constantly changed. So, this is why I usually have two bird guides when leading a trip.
If you are a new birder, several good guide books are very helpful. My favorite is the National Geographic Field Guide to North American Birds, but this book stays home. The ones I usually have in the car are Peterson’s Field Guide ( I have one in each car) and the small edition of Sibley (the eastern region). My next one may be the Kaufman guide. The small waders are difficult to ID, especially in winter plumage, so the field guides are quite important if you want an accurate list.
We walked to the next area and added a small flock of long-billed dowitchers to our list. We also saw ospreys, a bald eagle, cormorants, turkey vultures, sanderlings, least sandpipers, fish crows, least bitterns, willets, a small flock of blue-winged teal, and one sleeping roseate spoonbill.
Our next stop was the Mangrove Overlook. A short walk through the beautiful mangroves opens to a viewing platform. Usually at low tide we see hundreds of waders, and we were not disappointed. We added a reddish egret to our list. It is always fun to watch their erratic dance-like movements across the flats. This species is quite difficult to get in the scope as they never stand still for long.
We sighted quite a few yellow-crowned night herons. One in particular was all scrunched down, and I had to name him Scrooge as he looked so grumpy. We only spotted one black-crowned night heron, but after all, it was daytime.
As we were exiting, we had to stop to see a huge mixed flock of snowy and great egrets frenzy-feeding in a shallow creek. They sure attracted quite a crowd of birders. Their bright white plumage was stunning against the dark water and dark green foliage. It was quite a nice parting gift after three hours at Ding. It took us three hours to drive four miles. That means we had a lot of good birds.
On the way home, Don took us on the scenic route. We were extremely excited to see 20 kingfishers on the wires and a short-tailed hawk. We also sighted quite a few wood storks along the way feeding in the flooded ditches. What a great day … it was nature’s holiday gift to us.
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.