Tips for Visiting J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel

Sanibel Island is a barrier island near Fort Myers, Florida with access via a causeway charging a $6 toll for vehicles (2019 prices). Over two-thirds of this tranquil vacation destination is designated as a wildlife habitat with a large area lying within the J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge. Visitors to Southwest Florida should definitely plan to spend a few hours–or even a full day–at the refuge where huge flocks of migratory birds rest, breed, and nest during the cooler winter months. It’s also a place to spot local Florida wildlife including shoals of jumping mullet, fiddler crabs, shrimp, and horseshoe crabs. You may even see evidence of some of the 35 species of mammals on the island including racoons, squirrels, bobcats, otters, marsh rabbits, and Sanibel Island rice rats. Tips for visiting J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel, Florida. Must Do Visitor Guides | MustDo.com

Tips for visiting J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, Florida. Photo by Mary Carol Fitzgerald. Must Do Visitor Guides | MustDo.com

Photo credit Mary Carol Fitzgerald

Birdwatching on Sanibel Island

Bird lovers and nature photographers will be in their element at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. It has sightings of over 245 bird species from common ospreys, egrets, many types of heron, pelicans, terns, and red-shouldered hawks to rare species. You may be lucky enough to see roseate spoonbills sifting the shallow lagoon waters with their spoon-shaped beaks, spot a bald eagle swooping low over the water for his next meal, or spotting bright cardinals, warblers, and flycatchers in the surrounding mangroves and greenery.

Rosette Spoonbill bird Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge Sanibel, Florida. Photo by Jennifer Brinkman. Must Do Visitor Guides | MustDo.com

Photo credit Jennifer Brinkman

Your first stop should be at the Visitor Center to pick up their free Bird Checklist. It not only lists all the birds, it also shows their seasonal appearance. The birds are grouped into their families and include waterfowl; loons and grebes; frigate birds and gannets; cormorants and anhingas; pelicans; shorebirds; gulls, wading birds; warblers; woodpeckers and more. It also provides information on the best area of the Refuge for birding.

Visitor Center J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge Sanibel Island, Florida. Photo by Mary Carol Fitzgerald. Must Do Visitor Guides | MustDo.com

Photo credit Mary Carol Fitzgerald

The “Big 5” that most birdwatchers will want to tick off their bucket list are the American white pelican, mangrove cuckoo, reddish egret, yellow-crowned night heron, and the native roseate spoonbills, and with a little patience and luck they can all be seen on Sanibel Island.

Great Heron with chicks. Tips for visiting J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel, Florida. Photo by Jennifer Brinkman. Must Do Visitor Guides |

Photo credit Jennifer Brinkman

Ways to Explore J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

You can walk, cycle, or drive through the refuge along the four-mile Wildlife Road for a nominal fee–$5/vehicle, $1/pedestrian, $1 bicycle (2019). There are places to pull off to watch birds and commune with nature. Alternatively, take a guided tour in an open-sided tram. A naturalist will make stops at various observation areas to point out scuttling land crabs, alligators, and nesting birds. Tours last about 1¾ hours and you can book ahead or hop aboard from the parking lot. In addition to the wildlife drive there are three major hiking trails offering a diversity of eco-systems, fantastic views, and an abundance of wildlife. Visitors and water lovers will enjoy exploring the shallow bay waters on a guided kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard excursion.

Tips for visiting J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida, USA. Photo by Debi Pittman Wilkey. Must Do Visitor Guides | MustDo.com

Photo credit Debi Pittman Wilkey

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is also the starting point for other tours including fishing charters, nature cruises, and sealife tours. They can all be arranged through Tarpon Bay Explorers’ office on the Ding Darling Refuge parking lot.

Best Times to Visit J.N. “Ding” Darling on Sanibel

If you’re planning to visit this amazing wildlife refuge on Sanibel Island, you should try to avoid Fridays as the Wildlife Drive is closed to allow for maintenance and to give the wildlife a chance to feed undisturbed for one day a week. Also, keep in mind that Sanibel is a small island with two-lane roads and traffic can get pretty heavy on weekends and holidays. The park opens at 7 a.m. Saturday through Thursday and closing time varies between 5:30 and 8 p.m. depending on the time of year. The Visitor & Education Center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. January through April and until 4 p.m. May – December and admission is free. You’ll find great interactive wildlife exhibits, a hands-on area for children, free films, lectures, guided tours for nature photography, shelling, birding and/or wildlife, and more.

You’ll find great interactive wildlife exhibits, a hands-on area for children, free films, lectures, guided tours for nature photography, shelling, birding and/or wildlife, and more at Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel, Florida. Photo by Mary Carol Fitzgerald. Must Do Visitor Guides | MustDo.com

Photo credit Mary Carol Fitzgerald

You’ll find great interactive wildlife exhibits, a hands-on area for children, free films, lectures, guided tours for nature photography, shelling, birding and/or wildlife, and more at Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel, Florida. Photo by Mary Carol Fitzgerald. Must Do Visitor Guides | MustDo.com

Photo credit Mary Carol Fitzgerald

To ensure maximum wildlife sighting opportunities during your visit, it’s best to plan your visit during low tide, early in the morning or just before sunset.

Great Heron with chicks. Tips for visiting J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel, Florida. Photo by Jennifer Brinkman. Must Do Visitor Guides |

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Nita Ettinger is Co-publisher for Siesta Publications Inc. and the Editor in Chief for Must Do Visitor Guides. Must Do Visitor Guides provides Southwest Florida visitor information through printed magazines and the website MustDo.com. Must Do magazines are published bi-annually and are available at no cost in Sarasota, Lee, and Collier County Chamber of Commerce, visitor information centers, select Southwest Florida hotels, and wherever free publications can be found.

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