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J. N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge

By Staff | Nov 14, 2019

Photo by Richard Fortune

Established in 1945, the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is named in honor of Jay Norwood Darling, one of America’s first true environmental activists. A cartoonist from Des Moines, Iowa, he briefly headed the U.S. Biological Survey (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) in the mid-1930s. While in office he helped establish and coalesce the National Refuge System into the well-managed organization it is today, and, more importantly, in 1934 he proposed and implemented the Federal Duck Stamp program. Revenues generated through the sale of these annual Duck Stamps to hunters and conservationists alike have helped to purchase and preserve millions of acres of crucial wetlands habitat throughout the U.S.

Your visit to this 8,000-acre refuge should start at the J.N. “Ding” Darling Educational Center, located at the entrance to the 4.2-mile Wildlife Drive. This spacious interpretive center has no admission fee and helps visitors grasp the complex ecology of the mangrove forest, as well as the history of the National Wildlife Refuge system. The center has several art galleries that show the works of various wildlife artists and photographers, and a well-stocked gift shop carries an assortment of field guides, children’s nature books, binoculars, spotting scopes, gifts, and memorabilia.

Once on Wildlife Drive, you will quickly see why the “Ding” Darling refuge is one of the most visited in the nation. The road, a converted dike originally constructed to control the spread of saltmarsh mosquitoes, winds through expansive tidal flats. The water on the south side of the impoundment is brackish, while saltier water is found along the northern edge. The optimum time to visit the refuge is during periods of low tide, when the mud-bottom flats are exposed and the wading birds take full advantage of feeding opportunities.

There have been an impressive 238 species of birds observed in the “Ding” Darling Refuge. These include the elusive mangrove cuckoo, roseate spoonbills, white pelicans, hooded and red-breasted mergansers, reddish egrets, and wood storks. More than 50 different reptiles and amphibians can be seen in the refuge, including ornate diamondback terrapins, mangrove snakes, alligators, and American crocodiles. Mammals, mollusks, fish, and insects are also plentiful in large part because of the rich productivity of the surrounding mangrove forests.

While the vast majority of “Ding” Darling’s 850,000 annual visitors concentrate their refuge experience along Wildlife Drive, the property includes two additional sites on Sanibel that offer unique perspectives on this maze of tidal flats, mangroves, uplands, and spartina marshes. These often-overlooked sections are Tarpon Bay, located two miles before “Ding” Darling’s main entrance, and the Bailey Tract, which is located in the central part of Sanibel, a bit south of the entrance into Tarpon Bay on Tarpon Bay Road.

Tarpon Bay is a 950-acre site that offers visitors a chance to get out on the water and experience this pristine mangrove forest first-hand. The concessionaire, Tarpon Bay Explorers (TBE), offers canoe, kayak, and bike rentals, pontoon excursions, guided and self-guided tours of the Commodore Canoe Trail in Tarpon Bay, and tram tours along Wildlife Drive. TBE operates a limited-access boat ramp for canoes and kayaks and a shop selling everything from sunglasses to nature-related gifts to Florida postcards. Tarpon Bay is one of the best fishing spots in Lee County, and professional fishing guides can be hired directly through TBE. While canoeing or kayaking Tarpon Bay, be on the lookout for dolphins, manatees, blue crabs, and even the occasional sea turtle.

The Bailey Tract is a 100-acre preserve that is distinctly different from the mangrove forests and wetlands of the larger refuge. Its trails offer visitors almost three miles of hiking opportunities through an assortment of buttonwood forests, spartina marsh, and freshwater ponds. Here you can look for sunning alligators, anhingas, black-necked stilts, osprey, falcons, red-shouldered hawks, and during their annual spring and fall migrations, scores of warblers feeding on the wax myrtle and insects that thrive in this upland habitat.

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge offers various programs throughout the year, sponsors a lecture series during the winter months, and hosts the annual “Ding” Days Festival every fall (generally in mid-October). Additional information and detailed maps of the refuge trails are included in the companion book to this work, called Living Sanibel: A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands.