White-crowned Night Heron Reflection
Bird Photography,  Nature,  Travel

Bird Photography at J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

White-crowned Night Heron Reflection (Above Photograph)

J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is one of the premier bird photography destinations in the United States.  The Ding Darling refuge is located on Sanibel Island in Florida.

The address for Ding Darling is 1 Wildlife Drive, Sanibel, Florida which is located right off the main road on Sanibel Island – Sanibel Captiva Road.

On a 5 day visit to Sanibel Island in January, I visited the refuge 7 times.  There is a $5 entrance fee per vehicle to Wildlife Drive, and the fee is good for all day.  Wildlife Drive is a 4.25 mile one way drive along mangrove forests and backwaters.

Roseate Spoonbill Flapping its Wings

Roseate Spoonbill Flapping its Wings

Wildlife Drive is the main attraction in Ding Darling and for good reason.  One can see and photograph a variety wading birds, shore birds, waterfowl and song birds along Wildlife Drive.  Osprey are also prevalent along Wildlife Drive.  I saw 5 Ospreys on one trip along wildlife drive.  I also saw several mammals while riding along Wildlife Drive including two River Otters and a Marsh Rabbit.

The best times to visit Ding Darling Wildlife Preserve is at low tide when the birds are feeding in the shallows.  I’ve been told that morning is better than evening for bird photography, but I’ve had good luck at both times and both sides of the road.

Ding Darling is a great place for birds in flight photography as the birds fly back and forth across the road to get to different locations in the refuge.  Ding Darling is also a terrific location for bird reflections as the waters are generally shallow and calm in the refuge.

White Pelican Reflection - Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge

White Pelican Reflection

The water is shallow on the left side of the 3rd lake pull off past the observation tower.  I’ve seen White Pelicans, Roseate Spoonbills, White Ibis, Cormorants, and Great Blue Herons here even at high tide.

I use the term “lake pull off” to describe the large pull off areas that give open access to the lakes and backwaters.  I numbered the pull offs from the beginning of wildlife drive to the end.

Birds at J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Below are a list of the birds that I saw and photographed along Wildlife Drive and where I saw them.

  • Ospreys – Throughout the park, but I’ve seen them several times at the first lake pullout.  Twice I had an Osprey coming right at me with a fish in its talons while driving along Wildlife Drive.
  • White Ibis – at all of the pull offs and sometimes feeding right along the road.
  • White Pelicans – mainly at the 3rd lake pull off
  • Roseate Spoonbills – in the late afternoon at the 3rd lake pull off
  • Reddish Egret – at any of the 1st 3 pull offs
  • Cormorants – at any of the pull offs
  • Anhinga – throughout the preserve
  • Little Blue Heron – throughout the preserve
  • White-crowned night heron – at any of the 1st 3 pull offs
  • Black-crowned night heron – at any of the 1st 3 pull offs
  • Hooded Mergansers – 3rd lake pull off
American White Ibis Fishing for Crabs

American White Ibis Fishing for Crabs

Also, don’t forget about the walking trails.  Ding Darling has several walking trails.  I photographed an Eastern Screech Owl – Red Morph on the trail between the visitor center and the booth where you pay admission.  I also photographed a rare White-crowned Pigeon along the Shell Mound Trail.

There is also the Bailey Tract Trail that is part of Ding Darling but located on the other side of Sanibel Island. 

Written by Martin Belan

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