Explore Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

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This birding hotspot in Florida is well-known for wading birds. Discover three ways to experience Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

Ding Darling Wildlife RefugeBoogich/Getty Images
A flock of roseate spoonbills wade in the water at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel Island, Florida.

Sanibel Island is a haven for beach-lovers, but it’s also home to one of the best national wildlife refuges for birding, the J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge is wonderful for birders of all levels, since this birding hotspot includes a 4-mile long wildlife drive where dozens of species and hundreds of birds are easily visible from your car. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is well-known for wading birds, which gather there in large numbers during low tide.

Birding at Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge

Over 245 bird species populate the refuge, and some are specialties of southwest Florida. On any given day, you’ll see great blue herons, little blue herons, great egrets, snowy egrets, tri-colored herons, white ibis, roseate spoonbills, and many more. Learn about the 10 egrets and herons found in North America.

Many birders add to their life lists at Ding Darling, spotting fliers such as the American white pelican, mangrove cuckoo, reddish egret and yellow-crowned night-heron. Stop by the visitor center (check for COVID-19 closures) to find out where in the refuge these magnificent birds have been hanging out recently.

Songbirds gather here too, especially those that love insects, since the mangroves here harbor mosquitoes and no-see-ums by the millions. Definitely wear bug spray. Raptors like ospreys and bald eagles are likely spottings, too.

Ding Darling Wildlife TrailDaxus/Getty Images
Explore the Ding Darling Wildlife Drive by bicycle.

Wildlife Drive

Explore the 4-mile Wildlife Drive at Ding Darling within your own car, or hop on the 90-minute tram tour guided by a trained naturalist. Your guide will point out water birds and shorebirds, maybe even alligators and otters! You can also explore the road by bicycle.

Bailey Tract Wetland

Walk through Bailey Tract, a 100-acre wetland. Trails of various lengths mean there’s a hike for everyone. Common bird sightings include white ibises, egrets and herons. But also look for ducks, bitterns, rails, American kestrels and, during migration, warblers.

Tarpon Bay by Boat

Cruise Tarpon Bay and the backwaters aboard a boat, kayak or canoe via Tarpon Bay Explorers, a partner of Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge that offers low-impact and educational guided tours. Updated safety measures are in place, but check tarponbayexplorers.com for more information.

Learn about the best coast to coast birding hotspots for every season.

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Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find her reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.