Carolina Wild Photo (the blog)

J.N. “Ding” Darling NWR

by on Apr.06, 2019, under Locations

A fearless Snowy Egret at Ding Darling NWR The fabled “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge was in my sights as we left Titusville, Florida on the morning of Day Six of our 9-day photographic expedition across Florida in March, 2019. Having spent a day and a half at Merritt Island NWR with some modicum of success, I was excited to be on my way to what it seemed was the Mecca of bird photography in Florida, if I was to believe everything I’d read about Ding Darling NWR.

Soon though, the tedious stop and go of continual toll booths around Orlando began to wear on the upbeat spirit I’d started the day with. Eventually that passed, as did Tampa, and we reached Fort Myers about 3:00 pm. With daylight to spare, we skipped checking into the motel and headed straight for Sanibel and the refuge. We paid the $6 toll to get onto the island at Sanibel, and arrived at the wildlife drive at 4:00 pm. With my national parks lifetime pass in hand I skipped the modest fee at the entrance booth and drove along the smoothly paved, two lane wide, one-way drive with plenty of time and daylight left to scout out this bird world wonder. After creeping along for the first 2 miles of the 4-mile long drive we had yet to find a single bird….. clearly not a good sign.

Roseate Spoonbill and White Ibis at Ding Darling NWR

Roseate Spoonbill at Ding Darling NWRThen, just past the viewing tower at the half-way point, the trees opened up to a view of water and we finally spotted life. About eight White Pelicans, a flock of Willets, two Common Mergansers, a couple of White Ibis and one Reddish Egret populated a sand bar out in the shallow water on the west side of the drive. This was not exactly the glorious bonanza I was expecting. Nothing was close enough for a worthwhile photo, which mattered not, because I was looking into the setting sun at silhouettes. The Reddish Egret, which was at the top of my list of birds I had come specifically to find, was the first I’d seen. But since the lighting precluded any worthwhile photography, we continued on for the remaining two miles of the drive, which was as devoid of life as the first two miles.

Reddish Egret at Ding Darling NWR

Maybe the place was mostly devoid of birds because of the late hour in the day, or maybe I had completely misinterpreted all the lavish praise I’d been reading about this place. In any event, I was here, and tomorrow would be another day. Hopefully an early start before sunrise would be the magic I needed. So we abandoned Ding Darling and headed back to Fort Myers to check into the motel, thankfully driving in the opposite direction as the evening traffic jam creeping through Sanibel trying to get back onto the island. I truly hoped returning to the island before sunrise the next morning would avoid any such traffic nightmare.

Reddish Egret at Ding Darling NWR

It was now 5:00 am on Day Seven, and we were up and packing to head for Ding Darling. The continental breakfast at the motel wasn’t even open yet, so we picked up a fast-food breakfast on the way to Sanibel. Thankfully the early hour got us through another $6 toll and into Ding Darling NWR with no traffic issues at all. We arrived at the gate just at opening time and crept along the wildlife drive for the first two miles with the same dismal results as the evening before. And again, just past the viewing tower we reached the same (and only) bit of bird life at Ding Darling.

Reddish Egret at Ding Darling NWR

As soon as we got out of the truck to set up our tripods we were immediately attacked by a swarming cloud of “no-see-ums”, which sent me frantically digging through bags and backpacks to find the mosquito repellant I knew was there… somewhere. In all my kayaking and photography adventures, on coastal islands, marshes and woods over the past 16 years, I’ve never before been swarmed like that by anything, including mosquitos. Eventually I found the repellant and some relief from the totally visible cloud of “no-see-ums”. As the sun climbed higher, the bugs eventually seemed to dissipate and left us to our photography.

Reddish Egret at Ding Darling NWR The clutch of White Pelicans were in the same spot on the sandbar as the evening before, and never moved the entire day. The flock of Willets never left either, except for a couple of frantic takeoffs when something spooked them. They quickly returned though. Eventually a Spoonbill flew in, and later a couple more Spoonbills joined it. The morning sun was behind us, providing the right light for shooting. We spent the whole morning in this one spot. The Spoonbills and lone Reddish Egret eventually moved close enough, and obliged us with some photogenic activity.

If there is one bird I really enjoy watching, it’s the Reddish Egret. Their comic antics chasing fish is a performance worthy of an Oscar. Tri-colored Herons have a propensity for similar antics, but they don’t quite meet the level of overdone slapstick like the Reddish Egrets. I could happily watch them all day. However, it turns out that half a day was enough for me this time. The only other birds in decent range of my 910mm reach was a fearless Snowy Egret, and an equally unflappable Little Blue Heron. Both of them waded along the edge of the drive, as close as 5 feet from myself and other photographers, who happily snapped their portraits while the birds patiently posed. Before long a jealous Tri-colored Heron joined the Snowy Egret trying to get his 15 minutes of fame. But even that wore out it’s novelty after a while.

Reddish Egret at Ding Darling NWR With plenty of shots to sort through, and the nice morning light now getting more harsh as noon approached, we decided to break for lunch and take a look at the visitor center. It was quite nice, with good restroom facilities. The one thing that struck me was an awesome display of impressive duck decoy carvings. Otherwise, it was the typical Show and Tell refuge displays of taxidermy. Since we did not expect any change in the cast of characters at Ding Darling, we decided to use the afternoon to try our luck at Estero Lagoon in Fort Myers Beach. But that’s another story… uh, I mean, another post.

Ding Darling did not turn out to be the wonder of all wonders I had expected. Though I got a few pretty good shots, I was generally disappointed in the lack of bird numbers, and serious lack of variety. So far, Florida had been overall unimpressive. Maybe Estero Lagoon would change my mind. (See also my location article for Ding Darling at

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