First named as a protected area in 1945 as Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge, the 6,400-acre refuge was renamed for Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and pioneer environmentalist Jay Norwood Darling in 1967. At latest count, J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is home to 245 different species of birds, more than 50 types of reptiles, and 32 different kinds of mammals, including manatees. The refuge's habitats include freshwater marshes, mangrove forest and swamps, open water, tidal flats, mudflats, and seagrass beds, and is part of the largest mangrove ecosystem in the U.S.
The "Ding" Darling Refuge features wonderful bird watching spots, bike and walking paths, winding canoe trails, and a four-mile scenic drive, all of which are lush with seagrape, wax and salt myrtles, red mangrove, cabbage and sabal palms, and other native plants.
With all there is to explore in the refuge, a visit to the FREE Visitor and Education Center is a great place to start. Here, you can pick up a booklet that highlights refuge points of interest, including an observation tower where naturalists will obtain the best view of flora and fauna.
Wildlife Drive is open Saturday through Thursday from 7:30am to a half-hour before sunset. Low tide, when birds feed, is the ideal time to visit. The Education Center is open daily 9:00am to 5:00 pm from November through April, and 9:00am to 4:00pm May through October. Fees are $5 per car and $1 per cyclist or pedestrian; ages 15 and younger bike and walk free. Interpretative tram tours of the sanctuary are scheduled through Tarpon Bay Explorers; reservations required at 239-472-8900.