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Tritaik offers ‘Ding’ insight during special Tram Tour

By Staff | Nov 11, 2009

One could tell from the number of out-of-state vehicles making their way through the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Monday that this was no ordinary day.

In fact, the folks from Missouri, Illinois, New Hampshire, Georgia and points elsewhere couldn’t have picked a better day to visit the refuge, as the second day of “Celebrate Sanibel!” Week included free admission and a complimentary Tram Tour with facility manager Paul Tritaik.

With a capacity crowd of 30 participants aboard the Tarpon Bay Explorers open air tram, Tritaik and field guide Don Parsons headed out onto Wildlife Drive for a 90-minute adventure, pointing out some the the natural wonders and wildlife which calls the 6,400 acres preserve home.

As his lecture began, Tritaik noted that Sanibel – approximately 12 miles long and five miles wide – has an average elevation of four feet. The four mile road which winds it way through “Ding,” a composite shell surface installed to help lessen the marshy waters that attracted mosquitoes, took about four years to complete back in the early 1960s.

He also pointed out some of the foliage native to the area seen throughout the refuge, including cabbage palms, sea grapes, strangler figs, saw palmetto and wild coffee.

“You wouldn’t want to make your morning cup from that!” joked Parsons. “It’s name is actually Psychotria nervosa… does that give you a clue why?”

The first fowl encounter of the day was a pair of roseate spoonbills nestled among a flock of white pelicans.

“Roseate spoonbills are one of the common birds you’ll see here at the refuge,” Tritaik explained. “This is one of the few places in the world that they aren’t considered rare. You don’t really see them that much outside of Florida.”

The brilliant pink feathers of the spoonbill, Tritaik noted, were once coveted by bird poachers because of the value for fancy feathers and bird plumes created by makers of women’s hats around the turn of the century. The Audubon Society urged the public not to purchase any accessories adorned with feathers and, in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt – a frequent visitor to Southwest Florida following his term – signed a bill establishing the National Parks System.

Tritaik also spoke about Jay Norwood Darling, an editorial cartoonist and conservationist who lived on Captiva in the early 1930s, who helped establish the refuge which currently bears his name. The Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge was originally dedicated in 1945, renamed for Darling 22 years later.

Just before Mile Marker 1, the tram stopped at Red Mangrove Overlook, where participants were invited to see, touch and – in one experiment, taste – nature. Tritaik noted that both the red and white mangroves secrete salt as waters are drawn up through their roots. He invited folks to wet the tips of their fingers, rub them on a leaf and sample the salty residue.

At the water’s edge of the boardwalk, a tour-goer asked why mullet swimming nearby would frequently leap above the surface.

“Actually, they’re not evading predators,” said Parsons, with the sound of splashing fish permeating the background noise. “I’ve heard a number of theories, one of them being for oxygen and another to help rid their bodies of parasites. But I think my favorite theory is that they just want to see where they’re going.”

The tour continued following the brief stop, with other bird species – anhingas, wood storks, little blue herons, great egrets and brown pelicans – pointed out from time to time. Tritaik also noted the presence of the refuge’s most famous reptile inhabitant, a 30-year-old female crocodile, which had been seen in recent days.

“People who come here want to see three things: roseate spoonbills, alligators and our crocodile,” said Parsons. “If they see two out of the three, they’re pretty happy campers.”

Monday’s 1:30 p.m. group did not see any alligators or its rare cousin, but gave Tritaik and Parsons an approving round of applause at the conclusion of the tour.

“This was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it,” said Tritaik, who had never conducted a tour through “Ding” before. “It’s a great way to share our observations and excitement about nature with people who appreciate that.”