Florida has lots of fun travel opportunities – there’s Disney and Epcot, of course, Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, Key West, and Cape Canaveral. All of these are terrific. But our favorite spot in Florida is on the tiny island of Sanibel on the Gulf coast of Florida (that’s the west side).
Sanibel Island is most well-known for its sea shells, and they are truly amazing. The way the island is situated means that thousands of shells wash up on its shores and fill its beaches. There are places where you are literally walking on a layer of shells that is a foot or more deep! And that’s along a whole beach, not just in one small spot. There are all different kinds of shells in lots of different colors. And you can collect many (or as few) as you’d like.
I do love seashells, and collecting just a few is a big challenge for me – as evidenced by the time I came home from the Washington coast with about 500 sand dollars. It’s addicting! But when we went to Sanibel last year, the real reason we went was to see the birds at the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. We’d been there once before several years ago, but we were just junior birdnerds then, and we wanted to go back and spend a little more time there.
We stayed at the Island Inn and our room was great. It looked out to the ocean, had lots of space and had a kitchen. The property is right on the beach, serves a great breakfast (included) and other meals, has a common room with a piano, a library (with book trade and lots of area guidebooks), shuffleboard courts, and a nice pool. The price was a good value for Sanibel. But what we liked best about staying there was that it’s only four miles from the wildlife refuge. We were able to go over several times and see lots of different birds each time (the fee is $5/car and it might be good for more than one day, but we used our National Parks Pass which is also good there). We also saw an enormous alligator one evening at sunset. I mean enormous!
We were there at the end of June/beginning of July, and it was blazing hot, so during the day the birds weren’t super active, but there are always a few birds around. The Red-Bellied Woodpeckers seemed particularly active during the day. Woodpeckers are also particularly difficult to photograph, so no good photos of those guys by us, but you can see one HERE. We actually saw those in the refuge, but out on the island and down by the lighthouse we also saw Pileated Woodpeckers. Their bright red coneheads are pretty distinctive – Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology says, “The Pileated Woodpecker is one of the biggest, most striking forest birds on the continent.” Read all about them HERE. You might recognize them from cartoons if you’re of a certain age. Ahem.
Evening and early morning were the times the most birds were active. Birds we saw at those times on the refuge included four kinds of herons – Great Blue, Little Blue, Tricolored, Yellow-crowned Night; three kinds of Egrets – Great, Reddish and Snowy; Glossy Ibis; Anhingas; Black-necked Stilts; Cardinals; and Roseate Spoonbills.
The refuge is a one way driving loop road (8 miles) with water on both sides that is extremely affected by the tides. You can check at the entrance station what time high and low tides are and when the birding is likely to be the best.
For many of the birds there, you don’t even need binoculars because the birds are either (a) large or (b) close or (c) both! However, if you can bring your binoculars along, you definitely should, as it can really enhance what you’re seeing. With binoculars, for example, you’ll be able to see that’s a snake hanging out of the egret’s mouth as it’s dancing around!
When we were there, it happened that the best tides were in the morning, and we had also heard that there was usually a large flock of Roseate Spoonbills that didn’t fly off until about 9:00 AM. So we got up really early one morning and went out to see. It was a gorgeous morning – the light was soft and golden, the birds were active, and the day wasn’t hot yet (although it was still plenty humid). We spent quite a lot of time watching one Great Egret and one Reddish Egret run and dance and hunt for snakes. It was so entertaining.
Then we wandered down the road a ways, hoping to see the Spoonbills but all the while telling myself (the lie) that it would be fine if we didn’t get to see them. Happily, they were there! A large flock of about 40 birds was just waking up and were primping like it was Sunday go to meeting time. I have never seen a group of birds so busy preening. Of course I also don’t often watch any group of birds for an hour or more, and certainly not birds with that many feathers! When we first arrived, many of the birds were still in the shadow, as the sun had not risen high enough for the light to hit them, but slowly more and more of them were lit up with the gorgeous golden morning light and their color was spectacular. They’re very bright pink, but some of their feathers underneath are a much deeper pink, almost crimson, with some orange and yellow highlights. We watched and watched, along with many other wildlife photographers (I felt like I was on a National Geographic expedition), and then one by one, they began flying off. The photographers who’ve watched them many times would say, “oh, that one’s gonna go,” and within a minute, off it would fly. Off to where we had no idea, because we didn’t see one during the daytime anywhere, and it seems like they’d be difficult to camouflage!
You can also walk or ride a bike through the DDNW – the road is super flat so it would be a nice, easy ride – which we would have liked to do, but carrying all my camera gear in Florida in summer just did not sound like fun, and I really didn’t want to not have my gear with me there. Too many opportunities for amazing photos.
Sometime we’d like to return there in the spring during migratory bird season. I can only imagine how amazing it must be!
Are you a bird nerd? Have another travel passion? Enjoy your week or your weekend!