St. Louis + Destination


Travel & Nature Photojournalism

Despite having visited Sanibel Island more times than any other out-of-state destination, I had never toured the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge until our most recent visit. Due to the ongoing government shutdown we were not able to explore the refuge fully, but were able to see some areas of the park. Operated by independent contractor Tarpon Bay Explorers, the refuge’s tram tour was in service. Along with our naturalist guide and a small group of other families, we spent our New Year’s Eve morning touring the grounds, learning about mangroves, local and migratory birds, tree-dwelling crabs and the refuge’s recovery from the recent, devastating red tide.

The Indigo Boardwalk Trail

Southern Black Racer Snake

A non-venomous Southern Black Racer snake slithers past us along a trail.

Named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge was founded in 1976 by the Ding Darling Wildlife Society. Ding (a nickname derived by contracting Darling’s last name) was a passionate conservationist, and often made nature conservation the topic of his cartoons. An important figure in the early conservation movement, Darling was appointed as the head of the U.S. Biological Survey by President Franklin Roosevelt and went on to leave a lasting legacy in wildlife conservation.

A large Egret stalking prey

Ever-patient, a large Egret stalks prey with incredible precision in the murky and shallow waters below.

An Anhinga fans out its wings to dry

Right: An Anhinga fans out its wings to dry.

I was excited to find a beautiful Anhinga bird drying its wings at the refuge. I have seen a few of these birds sunning on the island, but did not know the reason. The Anhinga bird, unlike many water-faring birds, lacks a waxy feather coat and as a consequence, its wings become waterlogged. At first I thought this was a Cormorant, but later learned a few key differences between the two. While Anhinga birds have long, thin beaks and long tails, Cormorants have shorter, hooked-beaks and short tails.

A lonely Pied-bill Grebe sits in shallow waters.

Pelicans on a small sandbar

White Pelicans rest on a shallow sand bar.

Roseate Spoonbills, White Ibis, and White Snowy Egrets

Left: A group of White Egret and White Ibis perched among the mangrove trees. Right: A rarer sight, beautiful Roseate Spoonbills line the mangroves along a canal.

A Tricolored Heron

A Tricolored Heron jumps among the mangrove roots to stalk tiny fishes in the water below.

I was fascinated to learn about Mangrove Trees on our tour. Our naturalist shared an interesting story of an early Sanibel Island resident, who, upon removing mangrove trees from his property, learned the hard way the importance of their intricate root system. Mangrove trees survive both in salt and freshwater, with their porous roots looping above and below the waterline. A habitat for many fish and invertebrates, the mangrove root system serves as a protective nursery for small creatures and its mangled, tangled roots protect the shoreline by reducing the effects of erosion.

A Snowy White Egret perched in a tree

I loved the contrast between this Snowy White Egret and the surrounding mangrove foliage.

A group of Snowy White Egrets and White Ibis in a Mangrove tree

A group of White Ibis and White Egrets perched in the mangroves.

A group of White Ibis patrol the grounds

This trio of White Ibis did not seem to mind my close presence.

In the picture above, you will see roots shooting upward from the ground. These aerial roots contain actual pores called lenticels that open to “breathe” air into the roots, and close as the water levels rise to prevent drowning.

Red Mangrove Overlook

Mangrove Tree Crabs

One of the more surprising sights were these adorable Mangrove Tree Crabs. One might mistake these tiny crustaceans for spiders until closer inspection. An omnivore, the Mangrove Tree Crab feasts primarily upon mangrove leaves but also carefully observes the waters below for small shrimp, tiny fishes, and clams to eat.

Cross Dike Pavilion


An Osprey has made a nest in one of the many man-made perches.

We did see several Osprey at Ding Darling. I had become quite acquainted with their high-pitched calls during our visit. We mostly observed them in the distance, diving to the waters below for fish.

We were thankful to be able to tour Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge during our most recent stay on Sanibel Island. Thank you Tarpon Bay Explorers and our enthusiastic and very knowledgeable naturalist for teaching us so much about the refuge inhabitants and plant life.

View more photo tours of Sanibel Island: