Our second full day in Florida was spent almost entirely on Sanibel Island, which with its neighbor Captiva to the north forms a crescent off the coast of Fort Myers (a causeway connects Sanibel to the mainland). Sanibel is home to a series of gorgeous beaches, almost no chain restaurants, and the “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which covers over 6000 acres on the northern side of the island, facing the mainland and adjacent to the Pine Island Sound.
The Education Center at the refuge is a great place to start your day. You can learn about J.N. “Ding” Darling, a Pulitzer-prize-winning political cartoonist who had the foresight in the early twentieth century to use his influence to make sure that the State of Florida didn’t sell the entire island off to developers. The refuge was established by Harry Truman in 1945 and was renamed in 1967 for Darling five years after his death. A replica of Darling’s studio is on view in the center and it includes many of his cartoons and sketches.
Directly on the migratory path for hundreds of species of birds, the refuge is also home to myriad reptiles, mammals, amphibians, and plants; the Education Center has information about the ecosystem and hands-on activities for children designed to highlight the types of plants and animals that spend time in the area. The boys were easily engaged here for a half an hour and probably could have spent more time:
Travel-with-kids tip: The center is staffed by volunteers who can share information about many aspects of the refuge and surrounding area, including ideas for touring the refuge with your children. You can also pick up any number of brochures and a geocaching flyer designed to help families locate and identify wildlife.
Promising we would return later to check out the gift shop, we headed out for our tram tour courtesy of Tarpon Bay Explorers. It started under a ficus tree next to the parking lot, and our guide, Don Parsons wasted no time but started teaching us right away. I’d always thought of ficus as something people put in their cubicles at work to let get dusty but as Don pointed out, they in fact bear fruit – figs! (Please excuse my surprise, but this was a total duh moment for me so I thought I’d share). He impressed the boys by telling them he’d eaten the figs from that tree and that they tasted pretty good.
After Don had given us the outlines of the refuge’s history and topography, we hopped on a tram and headed onto Wildlife Drive, a four-mile road that (as Don informed us) actually runs along the top of a dike, which is part of a revolutionary system to keep mosquitoes at bay. One side of the dike faces the Pine Island Sound and is tidal; the side closer to the rest of the island is simply still water. Both provide homes for all kinds of wildlife without giving mosquitoes the dry space they need to breed. You can read online about the more recent innovations that include the use of caryophyllene or even bacteria to keep mosquitoes away. There are some plants such as citronella that naturally repel insects, especially mosquitos. Many people used candles or incense with this smell to keep them away from campsites and gardens. If only it was as easy as using the services of an Olathe pest control, for example, to help get rid of the mosquitoes. It clearly works as we certainly didn’t encounter any on the crystalline day we were there. The significance of this became apparent when Don explained that Wildlife Drive was the work of one man many working alone for years because his entire crew quit after the first day on the job, refusing to work in such a mosquito-infested place.
On this brilliant and cloudless day, miraculously low in humidity, it was hard to believe that time on Sanibel was ever anything but a breezy pleasure.
Travel-with-kids tip: If you’ve got a wiggly little one, I wouldn’t recommend the tram tour, which would be long for a toddler or even a child as young as Teddy who isn’t interested in animals. Happily there are other ways to explore the refuge, including hiking, biking, and kayaking trails. You can also pay a fee and drive yourself. Stop at the Education Center to pick up a map and chat with a volunteer who can tell you the best places to stop and observe wildlife.
We stopped and got out of the tram at Mangrove Overlook, where Don explained the function of these amazing plants, which do so much to protect the coastal wetland: Providing food and habitat for animals, purifying the water (and giving off quite the sulfuric stench as they do!), and protecting the coast from storms. We had kayaked and walked among the mangroves the day before on the other side of the sound and it was great to have Don show us the difference between the three different types of mangrove (white, black, and red). He pointed out how the seedlings surround the main trees and explained how they can also travel incredible distances to start mangrove forests halfway around the globe. Looking at the roots of the red mangrove, it is easy to see why they are called “walking trees.”
We saw some more large spiders (thanks to Don we learned that they aren’t poisonous) and also watched tree crabs scuttle up and down the mangroves moving unnervingly like cockroaches. Walking to the end of the boardwalk, we gazed out at the still, smooth water, its surface broken occasionally by a mullet leaping into the air (“show offs” as Don called them). Don told us that during the winter months the quiet lagoon is full of birds, sometimes thousands of them as far as the eye can see. And I thought that I’d definitely brave the winter crowds and pay high-season rates for that experience.
Travel-with-kids tip: Whether you are taking a tour or planning to drive the Wildlife Drive yourself, time your visit to maximize wildlife viewing. The drive opens at 7 a.m. most days and if you’ve got an early riser, getting out there first thing is one way to make sure you see lots of animals, which it’s best to do from inside your car (the car acts as a blind because the animals are used to them). The road is closed on Fridays to give the wildlife a break from us humans, and there are no tours on that day, so plan accordingly. And don’t forget your binoculars!
The rest of the tour took place in the tram, but Don stopped often to point out birds. We saw a Snowy Egret:
An Anhinga (easy to identify because of its “piano-key” wings):
A Double-Breasted Cormorant:
And an Osprey:
But the biggest miracle was the sighting of two Roseate Spoonbills, apparently much trickier birds to spot than the others. Teddy had seen them listed on the map that accompanied our kayak tour the previous day and was determined to see this huge, pink bird (I think because it is the same color as flamingos and a, well, spoon-shaped beak, which he has produced in pictorial form many times since our trip). I didn’t get a good picture of the spoonbill because it was so far away, but Teddy was satisfied by glimpsing their rosy hue, even if it was from a good distance. He considered our entire visit a success, especially since immediately afterward we saw the back end of an alligator as it scooted away from us like we could eat it. Perhaps if we wanted to get some good closeup shots of wildlife, we could have considered the products from this list of the best trail camera for the money.
Don was a fantastic tour guide throughout – able to spot and identify all kinds of wildlife at a distance while simultaneously regaling us with stories and information about the refuge, which he knows intimately. At his website called Nature in My Pocket you can see pictures of his many sightings (include a great spoonbill shot).
We returned to the Education Center when the 90-minute tour was over and Tommy and I used the computer there to log all our bird sightings:
I definitely recommend this activity, as not only was it satisfying to catalog everything we saw, it helped us to learn and remember what the birds looked like.
Travel-with-kids tip: The refuge is a place you could easily return to over several days if you are staying in the area. Spend mornings there hiking and then head for Bowman’s Beach for swimming and shelling right up the road. Or rent bikes to cycle the island and spend part of your time in the refuge. Another idea would be to sop by Tarpon Bay Explorers, which is adjacent to the refuge, let the kids check out their touch tank exploration program, and then take a guided kayak tour of the refuge’s Commodore Creek water trail.
I hope you understand after reading this why today I’m dreaming of sunny days at “Ding” Darling, perhaps some of them spent in a kayak or canoe, others on Wildlife Drive. If I could get down there right now, it would be a great time to do it as the refuge is celebrating “Ding” Darling Days. Every day this week there are loads of activities on offer including free and discounted tours and cruises from Tarpon Bay Explorers and a Conservation Art Day on Saturday, October 23. I could easily spend an entire week getting to know this beautiful place and its occupants.
This was just one part of our day on Sanibel Island – stay tuned for my report on the beach and also a visit to the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife Healing Visitor and Education Center.
So what are you dreaming of this Monday? I hope you’ll share your link below, remembering in your own post to link back to this page. See About Monday Dreaming for more information.
And if you’re interested in some additional outdoors activities around Sanibel, please see these great tips about what to do in the Fort Myers area from Kara Williams, who had a lovely (and romantic) visit there with her husband while the kids stayed home.
Many thanks to the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau for covering most of the costs of our trip and to Tarpon Bay Explorers for providing us with such a great guided tour of the refuge.