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.