The J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge ( www.fws.gov/refuge/jn_ding_darling/ )is located on Sanibel Island, off the coast of the southwestern Florida panhandle. It is a 5200 acre refuge established in 1976 to protect one of the country's largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystems in the U.S. I had the opportunity to visit the refuge as a part of a Road Scholar ( www.roadscholar.org ) program held January 4 - 9, 2015.
Because of the immensity of the refuge, Road Scholar had arranged for us to have a private tour by the official refuge concessionaire, Tarpon Bay Explorers ( www.tarponbayexplorers.com/ ) .
Our group of 28 folks from all over the United States boarded the open air shuttle shown in this photograph, to drive through the various private roads of the refuge, that allow you to get up close and personal with the wildlife. Speaking of getting "up close and personal", if you are traveling alone on a Road Scholar program, you have the option of being assigned a roommate, or purchasing the higher priced "Single Room Supplement" option. I chose to be assigned a roommate, and this cute lady (who I persuaded to turn around and look at the camera for this photo), was my roommate. She was from north of New York City, and was an absolute delight to get to know. At the end of the week, we both realized that getting to spend time with someone from a completely different region of the country, was about as educational as the tourist attractions and historic sites we visited!
One of the many enjoyable aspects of a Road Scholar trip is meeting very interesting people. I was especially thankful to meet this couple from Tennessee, who demonstrated wonderful Southern friendliness to me. It was especially nice to get to talk to them because their daughter has some of the same credentials after her name, as I do---M.S., R.D. (which stands for "Master of Science and Registered Dietitian").
As luck would have it, the seventy degree temperatures we had all week, took a nose dive on the day we were scheduled for the open-air trolley ride, so I was thankful I had lots of winter attire from my road trip, driving from Arkansas to southern Florida.
Therefuge is famous for its bird population, and has the tagline, "America's Birding Hotspot". One of the commonly seen birds in the refuge is the Great Egret. The Refuge is part of the "Atlantic Flyway". Flyways are routes that the birds fly (migrate) to get to their winter and summer homes. There are four different flyways in the USA: Atlantic, Mississippi, Central, and Pacific.
National Wildlife Refuges are located along the flyways so birds can use them to rest and eat, while making their long journeys. Refuges are important stopover sites for migrating birds. Likewise, the refuges give visitors an opportunity to see wildlife that might otherwise be too remote for viewing. Since nearly a million people visit refuges each year, it is important that visitors follow the rule of "Leave nothing, but footprints; take nothing, but pictures."
This elevated viewing tower is just one of many "photo blind" locations where dedicated wildlife photographers and birdwatchers can set up their tripods, to get some prize-winning wildlife photos.
When you look at the gigantic size of the lenses on this couple's cameras, it is a pretty good clue that these are some SERIOUS photographers!
Our guide told us that the mud flats visible in this photo are usually covered in water, and full of birds. However, on the day we were there, the recent dry weather and the strong winds, were causing all the birds to huddle on the far side of the viewing platform out of the path of the wind ( the small white dots that you can see in the distance in this photo, are the birds).
Just about four feet from the pavement where our trolley was driving, this very long alligator was out "soaking up some rays", as they say in Florida. We were cautioned NOT to feed alligators because it causes them to lose their fear of humans. This may cause them to approach humans, thinking the human will feed them. In fact, we were told there had been two human fatalities on the island recently, because of attacks by alligators.
Once back at the Refuge Visitor Center, many of the folks enjoyed shopping at their gift shop that was stocked with all kinds of Florida souvenirs, as well as items related to wildlife.
This antique sign was part of the Visitor Center Museum exhibits, and provided the perfect visual aid for one of my First Place 4 Health ( www.FirstPlace4Health.com ) memory verses that says, "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble." Psalm 46:1 .
The museum provided an "arts and crafts" area, where visitors could make rubbings with crayons and paper, of various types of wildlife found in the refuge. I made some of the rubbings, got the Information Desk Volunteer to stamp it with the official , dated Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge stamp, and "Voila", I had a (FREE!) souvenir of my visit!
For those that prefer to do their wildlife viewing from the comfort of the indoors, there is an area overlooking the refuge that has large windows, binoculars, and explanatory kiosks available to tell you the names of what you are seeing.
I did not realize until I made this visit to Sanibel Island, that J.N. "Ding" Darling, played a significant role in the development of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He is credited with initiating the Federal Duck Stamp program, and designed the first stamp. He was instrumental in securing funding for the National Wildlife Federation in 1936. I am thankful for his realization of the need to protect habitat for the animal species that make their home here.
Education of our youth to the importance of the plant and animal kingdom on earth, is of prime importance to seeing that we do not lose species, due to hunting or habitat destruction. That is why I was thankful to see numerous exhibits in the Visitor Center Museum that engaged youngsters to feel and touch things that might otherwise be "off limits" to little hands! In addition, the Refuge sponsors numerous contests for students to foster their creative talents, while at the same time, raising their awareness of God's great outdoors. We saw examples of photography contests, scenic artwork contests, as well as a contest that used "cartoon art" to get a conservation message across.
It is especially appropriate that the Refuge sponsor cartoon art contests, since J.N. "Ding" Darling was a cartoonist, who signed his work with the nickname "Ding". His studio has been re-created as a part of the museum exhibits. He won two Pulitzer Prizes in the category of editorial cartoons.
After learning that Ding Darling established the Duck Stamp to protect waterfowl, and that funds generated from the sales of the annual Duck Stamp issue go toward the purchase and operation of National Wildlife Refuges across the country, I have a much greater appreciation for the framed duck stamp wall hangings I often see in doctors' offices and people's homes. I am thankful for the efforts of these Duck Stamp purchasers, and everyone, who made a visit to this refuge on Sanibel Island so enjoyable---it gave me "Miles of Smiles"!! Tricia