J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island (Florida Nature Walks)

Have you anything to say to me
Won’t you tell me where my love can be
Is there a meadow in the mist
Where someone’s waiting to be kissed

Have you seen a valley green with spring
Where my heart can go a-journeying
Over the shadows and the rain
To a blossom covered lane

And in your lonely flight
Haven’t you heard the music of the night
Wonderful music, faint as a will o’ the wisp
Crazy as a loon
Sad as a gypsy serenading the moon

I don’t know if you can find these things
But my heart is riding on your wings
So if you see them anywhere
Won’t you lead me there

Skylark, Johnny Mercer (enjoy Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition)

We decided to spend this afternoon at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, which is just off the Fort Myers coastline in the Gulf of Mexico. The 5,000+ acre preserve was established in the late 1970s to protect one of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystems. It was named after the cartoonist Jay Norwood Darling, who was passionate about conservation.

I LOVE birds, and this park is all about the birds. On this outing, I was particularly interested in seeing a roseate spoonbill. When we lived just south of St. Augustine and visited the Alligator Farm Zoological Park (which has a massive rookery, in addition to an example of every crocodilian around the globe – I highly recommend it), I had wanted to see the spoonbills but was disappointed.

But not this time! There were spoonbills galore today. I even managed to snap a picture of one in flight! Seeing these brilliant pops of pink feathers throughout the wetlands was a delight. (Before you are impressed with my photography skills, I have to confess it was a complete accident that I captured this. I started squealing flipping through my album.) The other white birds you see are the American white ibis.

Roseate spoonbill swooping in for a landing

All three of us enjoyed seeing the strangler figs throughout the wetlands. Strangler fig is the common name for a number of tropical and subtropical plants that demonstrate a “strangling” growth habit up a host tree. In the deep, dark swamps and wetlands of this region, there is serious competition for light in order to survive. Sometimes the host tree ends up dying and rotting away, leaving a bizarre pillar of vines behind. The banyans that South Florida and the Florida Keys are known for are related to these plants.

Strangler Fig

Parts of the preserve include long boardwalks through the wetlands. Others are gravel (well, technically, crushed seashells) and paved trails. One of the boardwalks has a two-story shelter where you can look out over the waterways that snake through the park. One of the neat things about climbing up to the top of the shelter is you can see all of these exotic birds in flight. It will absolutely take your breath away.

(It’s also useful to note where the shelters are if you are walking or biking here during the rainy season, as they can keep you safe from the random but powerful squalls that come with being on the coast.)

If you are a novice birdwatcher, one of the awkward aspects about being in a place like this is you might not be able to identify many of the birds that play and rest here. The park staff have helpfully placed placards in the areas where a lot of birds gather to identify the species that frequent the preserve. But I found something superior to that. If you have an Android phone, you can snap a picture of the bird and click on Google Lens. Google will immediately tell you what bird you are looking at. It is remarkable. It is very accurate too. Google Lens was able to distinguish correctly among several different types of herons and egrets. An excellent homeschooling tool!

Tri-colored heron

The pelicans. Oh my, the pelicans. The park has a “nature drive” that you can pay to drive, walk, or bike. We accidentally ended up on part of it from one of our hiking trails. At the beginning of the drive (which was actually the end of our walk), there are large stretches of open water, with places to put in a kayak and folks fly-fishing. There were also more pelicans than I have ever seen in my life! Some of these birds were large enough to enroll in high school too. When they take flight through the mangroves, they reinforce the primordial feel of wild Florida, as their silhouettes look like pterodactyls.

Another shot of the boardwalks
Like a botanical boa constrictor

I have become a fan of the gumbo-limbo trees that are native to South Florida and the offshore tropical islands. (Some folks call this a “tourist tree,” as it’s bark is burnt red and peeling like the skin of tourists. Haha.) These are some of the most wind-resistant plants in the region, and many people plant them as a sort of hurricane fence for their property. In the Caribbean, they use the trunk to make drums and its sap is used as glue and varnish.

Gumbo-limbo trees

When you make it to the end of some of the paths, you have outstanding views of Pine Island Sound.

Pine Island Sound

I was kind of surprised to see there were a lot of alligators in the waterways in the park. I would not have guessed they would like a habitat with so much salt water, but apparently they do. I ended up a little too close for comfort with one while I was trying to snap a picture of the tri-colored heron above. The bird tipped me off to his presence, in fact, with a “not today, mister” squawk.

A tangle of mangroves
Our version of fall colors in Florida – red and orange sea grapes

After walking several miles in the park, we went out for dinner at The Lazy Flamingo off of McGregor. They are famous for their clam pots. Of course Elise had to have one, along with conch fritters.

All in all, a wonderful day. My skin is still warm from the sun… in January. Florida is the best.

Steaming clam pot

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