In the fall of 2006, I assigned myself the task of photographing all the birds in the heron family, over 60 species of birds. I look forward to the travels in the coming years to achieve my goal. I chose southern Florida as my first stop since it is home to about a dozen species of herons, and they're pretty accessible. Plus, southern Florida boasts two morphs of the Great Blue Heron known as the Great White Heron and Wurdemann's Heron.
(...continued from Part Two.)
On Saturday, Carol and I were headed for Sanibel Island, home of J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The park opens at 7:30, so we started on our way around 6:45, making a quick stop at Dunkin' Donuts. Carol brags about their coffee, and since we don't have any Dunkin' Donuts in California, we had to make the stop. It's times like these that I wish I could appreciate a good cup of coffee. I used to drink a lot of it in years past, but decided one day to give it up cold turkey. If I had a cup these days, my photos would look like they've been double exposed.Sanibel Island is a subtropical barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. J.N. "Ding" Darling NWR is named after Jay Norwood Darling (1876–1962), a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist and conservationist who played a key part in President Eisenhower's Executive Order to create the refuge in 1945. J.N. "Ding" Darling NWR is part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States, and its 6300+ acres provides important feeding, nesting, and roosting grounds for over 220 species of birds. We arrived at the refuge shortly after it opened at 7:30. It was about 70 degrees, the sky was clear, and there was a slight breeze. Moments after passing through the entrance to Wildlife Drive, we made our first stop. The tide was coming in and filling an area to the left of the road. A few Lesser Yellowlegs, Western Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, and Willet hung out on a little island. Further out, near the mangrove trees, we counted White Ibis, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, and Great Blue Heron. We heard some loud grunting squawks, and as we looked to our right, a Little Blue Heron flew from the trees and right over us. To the left were Short-billed Dowitcher prodding. As we talked to a few birders from South Carolina, one of them pointed out a Spotted Sandpiper and got it in the scope for a good view. A Reddish Egret (thr first one of the trip!) flew in to feed. It was really entertaining to watch, as it would stop for a brief moment, spot a fish, and then take off running after it. After 10 or 15 yards it would stop again and look around. The heron kept repeating this, sometimes with a flap or two of the wings, acting like it was going to take off, but then it stop again. Occasionally it was successful, but it seemed like the effort-to-eat ratio was high compared to its relatives. The neck feathers of most egrets and herons (at least in the US) are fairly short, but those on the Reddish Egret appear longer, and sometimes look like a mane. We continued around the bend and hit the next clearing. It was a much larger area, with a different selection of birds. We added Red-breasted Merganser, Dunlin, Killdeer, Marbled Godwit, Anhinga, Brown Pelican, and American White Pelican. As I scanned the treeline with the scope, I caught sight of a few Roseate Spoonbills. This was another bird we looking forward to seeing. They were a little too far to get the fine details, let alone photos of, but it was good to at least see them.
Intermittently along the road there would be little stretches of water with small groups of birds feeding. At one place, we were able to watch four Pied-Billed Grebes as they cruised around, occasionally diving for some grub. At another area, a White Ibis and Little Blue Heron were looking for food, when a Snowy Egret came flying in and bullied his way around. A Black-crowned Night-Heron sat tucked into the mangroves and watched the melee. The trees on the side of the road were often dense. We heard a Red-shouldered Hawk call, and as it got louder, we were able to spot it though a brief opening.We stopped at a marked scenic spot and walked the boardwalk into some trees and onto a platform overlooking a beautiful view of mangrove trees. The water below looked only a couple of feet deep. With the exception of a Black Vulture, we didn't see any birds. As we walked back toward the car, a Great Egret flew toward us and landed in a tree about 10 feet away. Trying my best not to scare it away, I was able to set the tripod down and snap off a few shots. It hung around for about 5 minutes until it got bored and took off. It was awesome to see this big bird so close! As we continued on Wildlife Drive, listening and looking, but the dense trees along the side of the road left most of the birds with their privacy. We did, however, manage to spot a nesting Osprey. Toward the end of the loop, a few people were stopped, intently looking into the trees. We pulled over to see what they were looking at. Through a small opening, we could see a few perched Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. A few of us had cameras, so we adjusted ourselves for just the right angle, and when we were satisfied with a shot, let someone else hop in our place. That turned out to be pretty much the end of the loop. It was around noon, and Carol and I were getting hungry, so we headed back to the visitor's center to eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
The "Ding" Darling visitor's center is really nice. There's a help desk just as you walk in with park staff to answer questions and hand out maps and lists. Several displays explain the history and ecosystem of the refuge. The office and desk of Darling himself, along with a video of the man, really help in appreciating what he was able to accomplish. In addition to being a key figure in the purchase of the land on Sanibel Island, Darling was chief of the US Biological Survey, the forerunner of the US Fish and Wilidlife Service. He pushed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act through Congress and sketched the first stamp. Since the stamp was introduced in 1934, more than 119 million stamps have been sold nationwide, resulting in over $671 million raised for habitat conservation. According to the J.N. "Ding" Darling Foundation website, "Adjusted for inflation, the amount raised exceeds two billion dollars." For every dollar in stamps sold, ninety-eight cents goes toward the purchase of habitat in the National Wildlife Refuge system. Details by US state.After our short break, Carol and I hit Wildlife Drive again. This time, it was getting close to high-tide, and many of the birds we'd seen in the morning were gone. We managed to see our first Double-crested Cormorant of the day, bathing itself and then swimming over to a log sticking out of the water so it could climb on it and spread its wings to dry out. We also added Royal Tern. With the absence of birds, our trip through the refuge went much quicker. We stopped at the place where we'd spotted the Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. They were still there, and we watched them for about a half-hour. The birds were mostly in shade, but the slight breezes helped move the branches to get the small trickles of sunlight in just the right places.
J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is a wonderful place. I highly recommend it and look forward to visiting again in the future.
(Continue to Part Four)
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