Not only are the wading birds beautiful, but they’re entertaining. Snowy Egrets lure fish by dabbling their bright yellow feet in the water, while Great Egrets stand as still as marble statues, waiting for the perfect moment to spear their prey.
Roseate Spoonbills hunt by touch—they swing their heads from side to side, searching the muddy floor of a shallow pond or marsh. When touch receptors in the bill sense fish or other food, SNAP! The bill closes.
Wood Storks are also tactile feeders and shuffle their big pink feet in the mud to scare up prey. If you want to see vast numbers of wading birds, there’s no better place than Sanibel Island.
Sanibel is unique in that more than half of the island is designated as a refuge for wildlife. I find this heartening, given that the island is prime real estate, and could have easily fallen to greedy developers instead of left as marsh and mangroves for wildlife.
With 15 miles of pure white sandy beaches (renowned for the best shelling in North America), 22 miles of bike trails crisscrossing the island, small charming shops and restaurants in lieu of chain stores, no stoplights, and a relaxed small-town feel, Sanibel is a refuge for people as well as wildlife.
Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge
One-third of the island is given over to J. N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge, named in honor of the man responsible for saving the environmentally valuable parcel of land that became the refuge. Darling, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and conservation activist, played a significant role in awakening the American public to our diminishing natural resources. An avid hunter, he recognized in the 1930s that America’s waterfowl needed help if they were to survive.
Darling accomplished a great deal toward that goal—he was instrumental in establishing the Federal Duck Stamp Program (requiring all hunters to purchase an annual hunting stamp, with the fees going toward land for wildlife refuges) and he was a driving force behind the creation of the National Wildlife Federation. His artistic skills came in handy when he designed the first duck stamp—two mallards landing in a marsh. I was intrigued to discover that Darling also created the flying goose logo, the symbol for the National Wildlife Refuges.
Our favorite time to visit Sanibel is in December, before Christmas. The weather is lovely and the migratory birds have arrived for the winter, but the snowbirds and winter-break vacationers have not.
The island and the refuges are uncrowded, and we bike everywhere—to the refuges, to the beaches, and to town. I don’t think it would be quite so bucolic January through March when the normal population of 6,000 can swell to an overwhelming 30,000. According to the locals, the main street becomes a parking lot, you can’t get a reservation at a restaurant, and the bike trails and refuge are bursting at the seams. We love it in December—we’ve been twice now, and are planning a return visit next year, probably for two weeks.
About The Campground
Periwinkle Park is the only RV park on Sanibel. It’s actually rather amazing that it exists, given the value of real estate on the island. Established 50 years ago, it’s about half mobile home park (with lots of cute park models) and half RV park, with lovely landscaping, spacious sites, cement pads, full hook-ups, good Verizon, laundry, a terrific location one-half mile from the beach, and a price to match ($55 per night).
If you’re curious (I was) here’s a list of the wading birds of Florida:
American Bittern, Least Bittern, Great Blue Heron, Great Blue Heron (white phase), Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Reddish Egret, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, White Ibis, Glossy Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Greater Flamingo.
I love the wading birds too….We have friends with a house near the gulf and a number of wood storks spend a ridiculous amount of time lounging on their lawn and looking in their windows! Evidently they have a sense of humor to match their prehistoric good looks!
I think our Florida timing is very off – you’re doing it all right. We’ve only been on Sanibel “in season” and it is a zoo! Circle around looking for a parking spot to get to the beach and then have to pay for the privilege. December sounds like heaven.
My pessimistic side wonders if “conservationists” lead the fight to protect wetlands and help wildlife thrive in order to have more available to hunt.
Sue, your experience of Sanibel “in season” only further serves to reinforce our plan to never be there January-March. It is truly wonderful in December, though.
The balance between hunting and conservation is an interesting one. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Duck Stamp program has been a resounding success, though. In fact, it’s regarded as one of the most successful conservation programs ever initiated. According to the National Wildlife Refuge Association, 98 cents out of every dollar generated by the sale of the Federal Duck Stamps goes directly to purchase or lease wetland habitat in the National Wildlife Refuge System…Duck Stamp sales have generated more than $800 million which has been used to purchase or lease over 6 million acres of wetland habitat in the United States.
my question is….is hunting allowed on those lands? If so then I still think the money spent on conservation, while wonderful for the ducks, serves a dual purpose and isn’t all together altruistic. I understand the need for conservation and I applaud it. Just the sort of hidden agenda that bothers me.
Some refuges allow limited and tightly controlled hunting, while many others do not. No hunting on Ding Darling, thank goodness! Although hunters obviously benefit from wildlife preserves, I’m happy that they have to buy permits to fund the preserves. My favorite wildlife preserves are those that don’t allow hunting, because then the wildlife isn’t disturbed. (Although there are some places that hunting is a necessity because the preserve can’t sustain the numbers of wildlife — for example, the herds of bison at Wichita Wildlife Preserve.)
Okay, I am convinced. Where do I sign? Have you made your reservations for next year already? SO many spoonbills. Such wonderful pictures.
Sherry, we haven’t yet made our reservations for next year…but I’m planning to do it this week! So glad you enjoyed the photos. We had lots of opportunities to see the spoonbills, but unfortunately, the lighting was less than ideal most of the time in the pond where they were hanging out. Still, it was fun to see them.
Makes me wonder what the evolutionary advantage there is in being pink….? Such a show.
Loved the shell reindeer!
love to you both!
Haha, that’s a great question, Nancy!! The spoonbills certainly don’t blend into their surroundings — except at sunrise and sunset. Wasn’t the shell art on the beach amazing? Love to you both, too. :-)
Their pink color is an effect caused by their diet of shrimp and crabs…. beautiful birds
I think Fort Desoto park up near Tampa/St Pete also has RV campground AND spoonbills
You’re absolutely right — it’s fascinating how their color changes depending on what they’re eating. The spoonbills we’ve seen on Cedar Key are pale pink instead of bright pink. Can’t figure out what the evolutionary advantage of being pink may be, though. No matter, they’re just so beautiful to see. Thanks for the tip on Fort De Soto park!
While I am not a birder, I really enjoy the big guys. That photo of the White Pelican and the Roseate Spoonbill is so cute. The Spoonbill is so small. The poor Wood Stork…what a strange head on a pretty body. Love the island!! And yes biking is fun. We sometime park at the end of Sanibel and bike around Captiva…less crowded (not to mention the Starbucks at the end). The best shell beach, for sure!
Pam, I was surprised to see how small the spoonbill is in comparison to the pelican — those White Pelicans are enormous! Biking around Captiva sounds fun — we’ll have to try that next year. We have a great time biking all over Sanibel — we rarely drive anywhere! It’s about 5 miles one-way to the refuge and another 4 miles around the loop trail — that’s one of our favorite rides.
You now have us thinking about trying to get into your park on Sanibel if we return to Florida for some next winter. Have you ever been there in November?
We were there in late October many years ago (pre full-timing) and it was lovely. But I think later is probably generally a better bet, as far as bird life, cooler weather, less chance of storms, and less bugs.
Couldn’t resist sharing your post on facebook with those spoonbills! What’s not to like about beach art with shells, giant whites beside the pink of spoonbills….and I know they are not small birds….exquisite photos…just when I think wow oh wow you add another photo or line of poetic prose and top the last favorite. Great sharing of your passions for life….miraculous indeed!
I thought of you when we discovered the beach art, Diana. Some wonderfully generous soul(s) spent a lot of time creating that beautiful ephemeral piece for everyone to enjoy. Made me think of our beach art project last year on Lopez. :-) So glad you enjoyed the spoonbills. oxoxo
the colours of those spoonbills is just magical, I want to photograph them too!
Jane, the spoonbills really are delightful creatures! I just wish the lighting conditions were better for photography at the refuge — we tried numerous times at various times of day, but there seemed to almost always be a glare.
Oh yes! You are satisfying my wading birds longing and thanks for describing how they hunt. And yes I’m going to tell the rest of your feathered friends that you are playing favorites!
We hit Sanibel Island too but you have the extravaganza for staying there. There was so much traffic when we were there that we spent only a day then out we went.
ML, I’m glad you enjoyed reading about the feeding behaviors of the wading birds — it makes watching them so much more interesting to me. You guys would really love staying on Sanibel if you should ever come back to Florida.
Great story and pictures. I enjoy reading the background about the area and birds. Cute spoonbills.
Thanks, Debbie. Discovering the “backstory” about people and places makes history come alive for me. And I love learning about wildlife behavior. It makes it even more rewarding knowing that people who read our blog enjoy the stories, too.
I hate to say that I lived in Pensacola, FL for almost 30 years but never made it to Sanibel. It looks beautiful! Maybe one of these days, if I can ever talk Jim into spending another winter back in FL.
Gayle, I moved away from Florida almost 30 years ago and have only in the past several years been spending long stretches of time here in the winter. Even if my folks weren’t here, Eric and I would still come to Florida — there’s no better place for kayaking and birding. It truly is paradise in the right season and in the right places!
I have to agree with you Laurel. The wading birds are some of my favorites as well. We loved our time on Sanibel Island and spent hours at Ding Darling. It was where I saw many of my “firsts” in the wading bird category. You are making me want to return to Florida. :)
LuAnn, it would be so much fun to spend time on Sanibel with you and Terry — or anywhere in Florida, for that matter! I hope you’ll really consider it. :-)
I also love Ding Darling and all the waders. And it is fun to bike. You guys are having too much fun! Ha!
We’re loving our winter in Florida! Maybe you guys will be here next year. :-)