JN Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL

The JN Ding Darling nature preserve in Sanibel Island FL, is an absolutely phenomenal natural wonder!

Visitors to Florida should not miss this natural wonder! The sanctuary is government owned and managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. There are about 20 staff at this particular nature preserve. It is one of 550+ preserves, in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

ding darling sign, wildlife refuge, florida bird sanctuary, ding darling This wildlife sanctuary, is a spectacular Florida nature preserve, created to protect endangered and threatened wildlife and birds. It is located on Sanibel Island Florida, and is part of the biggest non-developed ecosystem of mangroves in all of the U.S. It is best known for migrating birds, seeking food and shelter along their lengthy journeys.

Upon entering the Ding Darling refuge, there’s Wildlife Drive, an 8 mile road that winds it’s way through the area. Cars, bicycles and walkers are allowed on this road. Various trails, such as the Wulfert Keys Trail, Shell Mound Trail and the Indigo Trail, branch off from the main road. Visitors may park anywhere along the right side of the road, to wander around and look at the creatures and the scenery throughout the preserve.

roseate spoonbill, florida bird, pink bird, beautiful water bird

The Ding Darling Education Center

The Education Center, or visitor’s center, is a very worthwhile stop. This center was financed solely by donations by ‘Friends of the Refuge’. There’s lots of high quality, informative exhibits, hands on activities and loads of information.

I visited the center after my journey through the refuge, although a visit prior to the tour, would have been useful too. A pre-tour visit could provide good insight and ideas of what one would expect to see and also a better understanding of the overall layout of the preserve. Be sure to pick up a ‘bird checklist’, which will help identify various birds.

Tram Tours

A tram tour is available, operated by the Tarpon Bay Explorers. There are guides to point out the highlights and help identify the birds and wildlife, and zoom in with high powered equipment, some of the creatures that are far away. The tram tour trip is about 1.5 hours long, and leaves every 45 minutes. These tours are available at an added cost, of $13 per person.

Things to do at the Ding Darling Nature Preserve

flamingos, pink birds, florida birds, ding darling

There are opportunities for canoeing, kayaking, bicycling, photography, birding, boating and fishing too. The Tarpon Bay Explorers also offer kayak tours. Salt water fishing is popular here, especially for snook, redfish, spotted sea trout and sheepshead. Of course, the Florida state fishing laws apply. No boat motors are allowed in most of the area.

Tips for Visitors, JN Ding Darling
National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island FL

1. Arriving when the gates open first thing in the morning is a good idea, as many of the birds and critters that hide for the day, are still feeding. It’s an ideal time to capture photographs of these guys, too. Early evening is also a good time to see more ‘creature activity’. Try to visit at the optimum times, if possible. The best months to see birds in the preserve are between November and April.

2. BRING A CAMERA, preferably with a zoom lens, camcorder and binoculars. I didn’t take my binoculars and THAT was a mistake. An absolute must to see everything there is to see.

3. Allow plenty of time for the tour. At least 2.5 hr, or as much time as possible. There’s lots to see and take in.

4. Try to visit at low tide, or change of tide. More wildlife can be seen, as there’s more food available at this time.

5. Take a picnic. It’s a beautiful place for a picnic. There are no food vendors on the preserve. Or stop at Cheeburger Cheeburger near the sanctuary.

What Will I See at this Sanibel Island FL
Nature Preserve?
I saw alligators, crabs, red-shouldered hawks, bald eagles, egrets, ibis, turtle, jumping fish, lots of other birds and crawling critters on my visit in mid-March. sign @ wildlife refuge, recent sigings at ding darling, ding darling animal sitings I also saw a MANATEE which was the highlight of the tour! I was on the second level of a wooden tower, overlooking a small lake. I saw what looked like a sand bar, when some movement suddenly caught my eye! This ‘big boy’ had blotches of black on his back, which provided good camouflage. The black spots on his back were likely scars from boat propellers. These fellas move pretty slowly, and often suffer multiple wounds from boat motors, as they are unable to move away from boats.

This guy was absolutely massive! He was cruising the shoreline very slowly and eating water grass. I carefully left the tower and walked to the shore, and stood quietly and watched him feed. I was humbled by this absolutely stunning view of this massive, water creature! Truly amazing. And not 5 minutes prior to the sighting, I met someone on the trail, who made mutterings about ‘not very much to see here, is there’!

Here’s some of the creatures and birds you MAY see at the preserve. Several of the species are either threatened or on the endangered list.

wading bird, water bird, louisiana blue heron, ding darling

Roseate Spoonbills
American crocodile
Horseshoe crabs
Bald eagles
Wood storks
Red shouldered hawk
White Ibis, Glossy Ibis
American White Pelican
Brown Pelican
Snowy Egret, Great Egret
Great Blue Heron, other herons, Double-crested Cormorant, Royal tern,
Mangrove Cuckoo, Vultures, Hawks, Coots, Moorhens, Rails,
Various shore birds, Owls
Hummingbirds, Woodpeckers
50+ species of reptiles
American alligator, Raccoons
Mangrove water snake
Yellow Rat Snake
Snapping turtles, mud turtles, loggerhead sea turtles

The JN Ding Darling Wildlife Preserve is NOT a Zoo!
sign @ wildlife refuge, crabbing sign, crabbing rules, ding darling wildlife refuge From time to time, I hear and read derogatory comments about the preserve. The comments are generally expressions of disgust and disappoint because they paid a 'whopping' $5 to visit the preserve, and weren’t rewarded with multiple sightings of birds and animals!

Remember. These creatures and birds are NOT in captivity. The JN Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge isn’t a zoo. There’s no guarantee that a particular number or certain species of critters will be seen. Nature lovers will be in awe of the delightful scenery, creature sightings and nature photography opportunities.

Timing is everything. So is luck! Visit the preserve at the optimum times recommended,and take the time to observe and be patient.

In my opinion, this is one of the BEST Florida attractions, and greatest things to do in Naples Florida on a Naples vacation!

The sights and sounds and quiet beauty of this natural slice of paradise are truly wonderful! A fine opportunity to see nature up close, and at it’s best!

florida birds, ding darling, sanibel island, migrating birds resting

Other Things to Do in Florida

There’s plenty of things to do in Florida! Other natural attractions in Florida include the Everglades, the Mote Aquarium, Big Cypress, Dry Tortugas, and the John Pennekamp State Park, just to name a few.


$5 per vehicle $1 per walker/biker, 15yr old+

Hours of Operation

Closed Friday
November, December, January, February 7am-5:30pm
March 7am-6pm
April 7am-7pm
May 7am-7:30pm
June, July 7am-8pm
August 7am –7:30pm
September 7am-7pm
October 7:30 am-6:30 pm


1 Wildlife Drive, Sanibel Island, FL 33957 239-472-1100

For more information, about the JN Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge,

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