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Slower season still features things to enjoy, explore at 'Ding' Darling

June 13, 2018
By TIFFANY REPECKI ( , Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

Residents and visitors to the islands can find several programs and activities available at the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge in the off-season, including a weekly beach walk.

Every Friday, the refuge hosts a Family Beach Walk at 9 a.m. of the Perry Tract. In honor of World Oceans Day on June 8, the one-hour guided exploration included something extra - a beach cleanup. About 20 people - adults and children - took part, learning about sea life as they collected shells.

Refuge Conservation Educator Sara Hallas kicked off the walk with a brief introduction, then highlighted the special day and talked about the impact plastic has on marine wildlife. She noted that birds pick up plastic because they think it is food, and sea turtles and whales will also ingest it.

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Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland recently hosted the first Reading in the Refuge summer program at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge with the topic of sea turtles.

"This is why we do this," Hallas told the group, referring to educating the public.

Participants had the chance to examine marine specimens - from seahorses and worm casings, to dozens of sizes of different seashells - before heading for the beach. As the group hit the water, they were soon treated to an unexpected surprised as a dolphin rushed toward the shoreline chasing fish.

Now through Aug. 4, the refuge will offer four weekly programs for individuals of varying ages - all for free. In addition, there are a number of ways the public can spend their time enjoying the refuge.

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"We gear the programs for all ages and for families to come out and enjoy," Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland said. "Our big push is to keep kids learning over the summer."

She noted that parents seem to seek educational experiences when school is out.

"The free ones are especially great, and ours are free," Westland said.

She added that people are welcome to come and go as they wish during the programs.

"And there's no signup for any of these," Westland said.

The Family Beach Walk offers participants the opportunity to learn about the beach ecosystem. The group meets at the refuge kiosk at Gulfside City Park on Sanibel, then heads out toward the sand.

"We have a portion of the refuge over there," she said of the Perry Tract.

Participants are invited to bring a shell bag to collect keepsakes.

"Whatever you're finding on the beach - we're discussing it, we're picking it up," Westland said. "People can collect shells, but only if they're empty."

Information about shorebirds, shells and more is provided.

"We do discuss nesting sea turtles," she said. "We show them a nest."

While the beach walk is free, the city's parking fees do apply at the rate of $5 per hour.

"Kids of all ages can get something out of these experiences," Westland said.

On Wednesdays at 10 a.m., Reading in the Refuge takes place in the refuge's Visitor & Education Center. The 45-minute program consists of a wildlife-themed story from a naturalist and a craft about an animal from the estuary. It is designed for pre-K through sixth grade, but all ages are welcome.

"It's a different topic every week," she said. "We cover sea turtles, manatees, alligators, birds."

"It's always native local things that they would see," Westland added.

The featured storybook is educational and usually available at the refuge's Nature Store.

"We usually have artifacts about that species," she said.

The craft, which they make and take home, will highlight the species of topic.

"Then we challenge the kids to go home and teach someone about that animal," Westland said.

Another get out-and-explore program is the Indigo Trail Walk on Thursdays at 10 a.m. Naturalists lead the one-hour tour for all ages, identifying and discussing the ecosystem's plant and animal species.

The program also takes participants along the Wildlife Education Boardwalk.

"You're going to learn about the plants and animals," she said.

"You're going to look for signs of animals," Westland added, citing scat and footprints.

Participants will meet at the flagpole in front of the Visitor & Education Center.

"There's a resident alligator. We've seen river otters before, we've seen a bobcat on the trail," she said. "You never know what species are going to be there, which makes it a new adventure every time."

Currently, there are four species of nesting birds viewable from the trail.

"You can see the babies in the nest, and they're like 10 feet from you," Westland said.

There are yellow-crowned night herons, ospreys, little green herons and ahingas.

"Also, there's tricolored herons building nests," she said.

Westland noted that the birds should be nesting through the end of June.

On Saturdays at 11 a.m., the refuge offers Wildlife Wonders in the Visitor & Education Center.

"Sometimes the Florida heat is tough on people, so we want people to have the option of an outside program or inside program," Westland said.

The ranger-led program lasts for 30 minutes and goes over the refuge's ecosystem.

"We call it Wildlife Wonders because we have so many cool things to experience and see," she said, adding that there will be skulls to touch and furs to rub. "She picks a different topic event week."

Westland noted that the program is more "come and learn about a different animal."

"We're highlighting the animals that you can see here, that are unique to the island," she said.

Along with the scheduled programming, there are multiple options for exploring and enjoying the refuge on one's own time. Every day of the week except for Friday - even holidays - Wildlife Drive is open to vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians. The cost is $5 per vehicle and $1 per biker or hiker.

"People can keep their receipts and come through as many times as they want (in one day)," Westland said.

While the popular bird sightings decrease going into summer, the trip can still be worth it.

"You can still see things out here, but you need to visit during low tide," she said. "This is the type of time of year when you're going to see manatees in the water. That's kind of the fun exciting thing."

There is also the potential to spot a dolphin.

"Some people come out and enjoy the sunset," Westland said.

Fishing is always an option.

"They can fish anywhere on Wildlife Drive," she said, adding that there are eight spots along the roadway where the water runs under it. "The best fishing is at our water control structures."

Westland noted that visitors can even get off the beaten path, so to speak. There are two designated launch sites for kayaks and canoes, but they can be launched anywhere along the right hand side.

For those planning to bike or hike, officials stress being prepared.

"The heat can really sneak up on you," Westland said.

The options are a four-mile loop or eight-mile loop, which includes the city's Shared Use Path.

Volunteers and staff at the Visitor & Education Center can help with preparations.

"So it's a safe time out there and they enjoy it," she said.

For the tide schedule or Wildlife Drive gate times, visit the refuge online or call 239-472-1100, Ext. 2. Westland noted that the tides are recorded two weeks out, while the website lists them months out.

"Go paddle around, fish, observe," she said. "Do whatever you want to do."

In addition to the Indigo Trail and Wildlife Education Boardwalk, there are two other options worth checking out along Wildlife Drive - the Caloosa Shell Mound Trail and the Wulfert Keys Trail.

"All of those are open and those are good little adventures you can take," Westland said.

The Wulfert Keys Trail leads out of the mangroves to the Pine Island Sound.

"You'll be staring out at the Pine Island Sound open water," she said.

Sightings during the warmer months can range from tarpon and sea turtles, to sharks.

"It's very different than looking at mangroves and what you'll see in the mangroves," Westland said.

She noted that it seems to be a popular spot for regular and fly fishing.

"I see a lot of fishermen out there," Westland said.

Unlike the other trails at the refuge, the Shell Mound Trail is shaded. She explained that visitors will have the opportunity to see actual untouched Caloosa Indian mounds and learn about the culture.

"You can learn about the native peoples that were here," Westland said. "You can learn about how they lived, what they ate and the tools they made."

There is also the Bailey Tract, but it is temporarily closed for a restoration project.

In partnership with the refuge, Tarpon Bay Explorers offers low-impact, educational and recreational opportunities for the public. There are guided nature tours and fishing charters, along with various rentals, including bicycles, kayaks, canoes, Hobies and standup paddleboards, even pontoons for rent.

"They are the official refuge concession. They are trained naturalists and biologists," she said. "They provide services and education that we just cannot provide due to limited staff."

Westland recommended trying a paddleboard for those who have not.

"We're seeing manatees out there and dolphins," she said. "This is the time of year when you're going to get that opportunity."

For more information, call 239-472-1100 or visit

For more about Tarpon Bay Explorers, call 239-472-8900 or visit

The J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is at 1 Wildlife Drive.



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