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‘Ding’ Darling Days: Visitors experienced refuge in unexpected ways

By Staff | Nov 8, 2013

Belgian visitors Bjorn Dubois and Toon Timmers rent bikes to ride down Wildlife Drive. Mckenzie Cassidy.

Thousands of people from all over the world visited Sanibel Island for the 2013 “Ding” Darling Days.

Even though the threat of cancellation loomed over the weeklong festival because of a federal government shutdown, visitors still turned out in droves to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge for the celebration of nature and wildlife.

Organizers had cancelled Family Fun Day on Sunday, Oct. 20, and they were concerned that the public had perceived that as a cancellation of the entire event, but it had continued as scheduled and they were pleased with the overall attendance.

Birgie Vertesch, executive director of the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge, said there was a great turnout.

“We felt like it went really well, the weather was perfect and brought in a lot of people,” she said. “People got to experience the refuge in ways they might not have otherwise.”

Volunteer Ranger Ginny Kopperl leads visitors down the Indigo Trail. Mckenzie Cassidy.

The wildlife society is now working on the next “Ding” Darling Days scheduled for Oct. 19-25, 2014, which will be the festival’s 25th anniversary and special events will likely be featured to celebrate their anniversary.

“Ding” Darling Days offered various nature tours, wildlife presentations, and a Conservation Art Day featuring art contests, wildlife portraits by Dave Horton, cartoon lessons by Doug MacGregor, the “Ding” Darling Days Nature Photography Contest, Duck Stamp Artists, and more.

Education volunteers like Ken and Ginny Kopperl led groups of visitors down Indigo Trail during the festival, discussing the different types of mangroves and natural features of the refuge. The New Jersey couple volunteer at “Ding” Darling, as well as other U.S. parks and refuges including Grand Canyon National Park.

Education Ranger Becky Wolff led groups around the Bailey Tract and provided information on the environment and the state’s official tree, the Sabal Palm.

Visitors came from all of the United States to learn about Florida’s unique ecosystem and see the resident bird populations.

Tours down the Indigo Trail led to the new Wildlife Boardwalk. Mckenzie Cassidy.

North Carolina resident Mark Robertson, for example, wanted to see the Roseate Spoonbill and spotted some at one of the refuge ponds. Jim Boughton, an island native, said he looked forward to touring the Shell Mound Trail because it was nicely shaded and had many birds.

International visitors even came to the island for “Ding” Darling Days. Bjorn Dubois and Toon Timmers traveled all the way from Leuven, Belgium to attend. They rented bicycles and rode down the newly improved Wildlife Drive.

The Tarpon Bay Explorers, the refuge’s official concessionaire, offered free stand-up paddleboard lessons during the festival.

“Tarpon Bay provides the perfect venue for beginners to learn to love stand-up paddleboarding. It’s calm and you can see all the sea life underneath you,” said Wendy Schnapp, general manager.

Schnapp said it was the first year they offered free SUP lessons and they were looking forward to doing it again in 2014.

Even though organizers and visitors were disappointed with the federal government shutdown and the cancellation of Family Fun Day, the annual event was a hit.

For more information about “Ding” Darling Days, visit dingdarlingdays.com.

“Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge sponsors the festival with support from Tarpon Bay Explorers, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and other private and business partners.

“Ding” Darling Days 2013 sponsors included:

ROSEATE SPOONBILL: Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille.

GREAT BLUE HERON: Arthur Printing, Bailey’s General Store, Island Sun, Jerry’s Foods, Sanibel Captiva Community Bank, Sanibel Captiva Trust Company, Jim & Patty Sprankle, West Wind Inn.

REDDISH EGRET: Mike & Terry Baldwin, Big Red Q Quickprint, Caloosa Tent & Rental, Casa Ybel Resort, Cedar Chest Fine Jewelry, Rotary Club of Sanibel- Captiva, Sanibel-Captiva Kiwanis Club, ‘Tween Waters Inn.

SNOWY EGRET: Art & Susan Cassell, Barefoot Charley’s Painting Co., Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program (CHNEP), Congress Jewelers, Dan Hahn Custom Builders, Florida Weekly, George & Wendy’s Seafood Grille, Good Wheels, Grounds by Greenways, Island Events, Island Therapy Center, Mast Family Culligan, Nave Plumbing, Over Easy Caf, Panther Printing, Sanibel Art & Frame, Wendy & George Schnapp, She Sells Sea Shells, Winston & Barbara Spurgeon, Suncatcher’s Dream.