On the northern edge of Sanibel Island, off the Gulf coast south of Fort Myers, the 6,200 acres of J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge sometimes seem as crowded with people as with wildlife. One of the most frequently visited national wildlife refuges, it is a southwestern Florida must-see.
The 5-mile-long Wildlife Drive, off Sanibel-Captiva Road, leads through the heart of the refuge. Low tide in conjunction with sunrise or sunset is the best time to visit: low tide provides increased foraging areas for shorebirds and waders, and sunrise is when the large flocks of herons and egrets take flight.
About 250 species appear on Ding Darling’s bird list: Roseate Spoonbills, Mottled Ducks, Ospreys, Red-shouldered Hawks, Brown Pelicans, Royal and Sandwich Terns, Anhingas, and all of south Florida’s herons, egrets, and ibises are seen year-round. Black-bellied, Snowy, Wilson’s, Semipalmated and Piping Plovers are seen in season. Sought-after species include the elusive Mangrove Cuckoo and the Black-whiskered Vireo, both of which are easiest to find in late spring and summer. The drive is also a good place to spot basking alligators at any time of the year, but it is closed on Fridays.
The Bailey Tract, located on the south side of Sanibel-Captiva Road and separate from the rest of the refuge, is a likely place to see Smooth-billed Anis, rails, and spring migrants. A short trail system (1 3/4 miles) provides access to the area. Other walking trails include the 1/3-mile Shell Mound Trail off Wildlife Drive and the 2-mile Indigo Trail near the visitor center.
Two mangrove-lined canoe trails run through the refuge. The 2-mile Commodore Creek Trail is accessible from the marina east of the visitor center; the 4-mile Buck Key Trail is across Roosevelt Channel on the east side of Captiva Island.
Have you been to this park? How many stars would you give it?