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Published: October 3rd 2010
The truth is touring the J.N. ("Ding") Darling National Wildlife Refuge was not our first choice for the last day of our short trip to Sanibel Island. The main reason we decided to tour Wildlife Drive was because the Sanibel Thriller, which is touted as Sanibel and Captiva Islands' most exciting tour boat that circumnavigates both islands while luring acrobatic dolphins in its wake, was closed for the entire month of September. And as much as we wanted to be able to brag about having a Cheeseburger in Paradise on Cabbage Key, we decided to leave that for another day. So after being sold on the eco friendly tram that carts visitors through Sanibel Island's J.N. Darling National Wildlife Drive that we saw advertised in a brochure, Liz and I decided it would be worth shelling out the $13 per person to take the guided tour even though we could do it for only $5 in our car. However when I called to make a reservation, it became clear why I was told the day before that Sanibel and Captiva practically close down in September. Today was Wednesday and the tram would not run again until Thursday.
It seems like
wherever you go on Sanibel that you are never very far from the J.N. ("Ding") Darling National Wildlife Refuge regardless of where you are on the island. That is proably because it takes up about half the entire island. There are 6,000 plus acres of mangrove swamps, waterways, and uplands that includes the 2-mile Indigo Trail along a boardwalk (which we somehow missed) and the 5-mile Wildlife Drive. As one of the most visited refuge's in the country, it is home to alligators, racoons, otters, and hudreds of species of birds. In addition to taking the tram or driving, you can bike or hike the Wildlife Drive.
We began the drive at the Visitor's Center and before we had gone a half mile an SUV blew by us, despite the 15 mph speed limit. I am usually complaining about the slow drivers in Florida but you might as well skip the Wildlife Drive if you're in that much of a rush just to get through it. Oh well, I guess some people just like to be able to say they did something that was eco friendly rather than truly enjoying it.
It was a brilliant morning with a
refreshingly cool breeze whispering through the trees that tamed the normally stifling humidity. That made it bearable enough to putz along with the windows down and the sunroof open. The first sign of wildlife that we came across was a grey or blue heron standing in the shallow water all by himself. Then I began seeing the Roseate Spoonbills flying over head. Roseate Spoonbills are often confused with Flamingos because of their pink wings. We used to see them frequently flying across our small pond in our backyard or across the community lake. But they seem to have practically disappeared so we were stunned to see so many of them fishing or gracefully floating across the sky. After I quickly switched to the passenger seat to take some photos, I was caught one in mid air. I was also able to zoom in on another Roseate Spoonbill just as it was landing next to a few White Ibises. What a sight!
Just further up the road we came to an observation tower which afforded panaramic views of numerous birds of different species congregating around the mud flats. On our way again, we stopped briefly to snap a shot of
the common northern cardinal perched on a branch, and then we came across a great egret. It was obviously used to people and cars invading its territory because it allowed us to get closer than we should have been to take some photos.
A few minutes later we parked in front of the informative 1/3 mile Shell Mound Trail. The moment we stepped foot on the boardwalk, we were surrounded by mosquitos intent on feasting on us. Fortunately we brought our bug repellent as we never would have survived without it. It was worthwhile, though, since we were the only humans around and the birds were serenading us as we strolled along. From the interpretative signs we learned that the towering Gumbo Limbo Tree is one of the most recognizable trees on Sanibel Island. And the Shady Hammocks are raised areas of land where the Gumbo Limbo, Sea Grapes, Sable Palms, and Live Oaks are the resident trees that provide shade. These Hammocks on Sanibel are home to othe wildlife species including gopher tortoises, indigo snakes, and diamondback rattle snakes. The Red Mangroves that we saw dominate "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge and the Red Mangrove is one of the few trees in the world that can tolerate the tidal bathing of salt water.
Our last stop before exiting Wildlife Drive was the alligator viewing platforms. But there were no alligators to be found at either station. All in all it was a nice, relaxing experience. Sure there are more exciting attractions and things to so on Sanibel Island. But Wildlife Drive allowed us to see Florida in the natural state it is intended to be.
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