To photographers, Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island means birds – and long lenses.
Many people carry long lenses and drive in from mainland Florida. I took a path less traveled, arriving offshore by boat and paddling a kayak to Ding Darling, where I used lenses shorter than 200 mm.
To start the adventure, I’d left an anchored boat outside the park, and took an inflatable kayak with a shallow draft, trying to paddle quietly so no noise would disturb the wildlife. To photograph, I put down the paddle, picked up the camera, braced against the kayak, and just drifted in silence with the current.
Great white herons, osprey, glossy and white ibis, night herons, tri-colored herons, white egrets, oystercatchers, American storks, and roseate spoonbills are just a few of the 250 species of birds in the park. In a kayak, you are on the level with your subject. If you are lucky, you are at dolphin level, as they can surface with a breath that will thrill you.
Before sunrise, egret flocks led by lone pelicans flew overhead. Dolphins passed by the boat. The calls of white herons made the somber pelicans seem quiet by comparison. Cries from birds I could not identify seemed to come from all directions.
While the island is also a shell hunters’ paradise, you can’t keep any shells found in the park boundaries, and anyway, the real treasures are leaving the motors behind and turning off civilization to drift or paddle on the water with nothing between the wildlife and your spirit.
IF YOU GO. You can have other adventures in Ding Darling. As I paddled in, a soft breeze jostled the mangrove leaves, and 2- foot- long mullet leapt in graceful arcs out of the water.
You may fish in Ding Darling, or rent a boat or bicycle. There is a boat launch if you have a boat. You’ll find a nature center, 5 mile walking trail, and marked canoe trails.
Photography and Text by
James Austin, M.A., A.C.E.