3. J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
Set on Sanibel Island off the Florida Gulf Coast, J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is famous for its spectacular wading birds. The refuge’s mudflats, mangrove forests, and freshwater habitats attract some 300 bird species, including Roseate Spoonbills, Reddish Egrets, Wood Storks, and White Ibises. The refuge also lures people, lots of ’em: More than 800,000 nature lovers visit “Ding” Darling each year.
Wildlife Drive, a five-mile, one-way road, is a major attraction, especially to birders who aren’t able to walk long distances. “You are assured to see birds right from your car,” reports Temple Pearson of West Lafayette, Indiana. “Even if you are not a birder, you are sure to enjoy ‘Ding’ Darling.”
Photographers hone their skills at this 6,300-acre refuge. The waders make great subjects, and you never know when a good photo-op will turn into a terrific photo-op. “‘Ding’ Darling is my all-time favorite,” explains Don Polunci of Queensbury, New York. “Where else will a bird walk right under your tripod legs while stalking its prey? Once, a group of photographers were lined up along the road photographing a Roseate Spoonbill about 100 feet out in the water. Suddenly the bird flew over to the bank just 10 feet from the photographers and proceeded to walk down the line of photographers as if it were posing for all.”
Location: On the Gulf Coast of Florida, 20 miles southwest of Fort Myers • Best time to visit: December through April • Birds: Mangrove Cuckoo, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, White Ibis, plus ducks in winter, and songbirds in spring • Contact: J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge: (239) 472-1100; Audubon Society of Southwest Florida: (941) 339-8046; Naples Bird Club: (941) 649-9754
“Should you happen to be there at sunset, you may be treated to the unforgettable sight of small flocks of these breathtakingly beautiful birds [Roseate Spoonbills] gliding to a landing. Sometimes the rays of low light briefly transform their wings into angel flutters of pastel pink, carmine, and gold.” — “Sanibel Island, Florida” by Connie Toops, Birder’s World, October 1990, pp. 44-48