The Scrub Heads

Birding at “Ding” Darling

On Wednesday, March 16, 2016, we did a 5-mile wildlife drive through J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island off the Gulf coast. The Refuge is located within an estuary where the mixing of saltwater and freshwater creates an inviting habitat for birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, and invertebrates.


The Refuge consists of broad tidal flats and mangrove forests. Tidal flats appear during low tide when the shallow water goes out revealing the underlying sandy or muddy shores. These are often ideal roosting and feeding areas for shorebirds and wading birds. Meanwhile, the mangrove forests protect these tidal flats as well as the mainland from large, intense breaking waves with their dense and sturdy prop roots. These prop root communities also provide sanctuary for young fish while the thickets of mangroves are additional resting areas for herons, egrets, and ibises.

A cattle egret along the side of the road.

The Refuge turned out to be a great place for birding (bird-watching). Towards the beginning of the drive, we saw an anhinga and reddish egret on the branches of mangroves and a bald eagle and swallow tail kite flying above. Then we came upon double-crested cormorants, shorebirds, and pelicans resting on mudflats. The most abundant were white pelicans and willets. The former were easily distinguishable by their bright orange pouches, white plumage, and long necks. In contrast, the latter was harder to identify since several species of shorebirds have similar plumage. For this reason, typically proportion, shape, behavior, and call are more important than plumage color in determining shorebird species1. The ones we saw had long, straight thick bills, which are characteristic of willets. Within the cluster of willets on the mudflat, we also spotted a single lesser yellowlegs; its bright yellow legs (hence the name) stood out in the crowd of dark blue-greyish legs of the willets.


Towards the end of the drive, in addition to brown pelicans, cormorants, and herons, we also saw mangrove tree crabs and male fiddler crabs. But the real highlight of our trip to “Ding” Darling was definitely seeing a couple of bottlenose dolphins up close.

Mangrove tree crab on a red mangrove
Bottlenose dolphin at Wulfert Keys Trail


Species list:

  • Plants:
    • Black mangroves
    • White mangroves
    • Red Mangroves
    • Strangler fig
    • Cabbage palm
    • Sea grapes
    • Spartina
  • Birds
    • Anhinga
    • Reddish egret
    • Bald eagle
    • Swallow tail
    • Cattle egret
    • Willets
    • Red-breasted merganser
    • Little blue heron
    • White pelican
    • Double-crested cormorant
    • Laughing Gull
    • Osprey
    • Lesser yellowlegs
    • Snowy egret
    • Little blue heron (immature)
    • Sandpiper
    • Tricolored heron
    • Brown pelican
  • Invertebrates
    • Mangrove tree crab
    • Sand fiddler crab
  • Mammal
    • Bottlenose dolphin





Snorkeling at John Pennekamp Coral Reef

Everglades National Park Part 4: Anhinga Trail

Everglades National Park Part 3: Flamingo Visitor Center

Highland’s Hammock

Everglades National Park Part 2: Gumbo Limbo, Pa-hay-okee, West Lake and Mahogany Hammock

Everglades National Park Part 1

On March 14 2016, the Advanced Class took a trip to Everglades National Park. To the untrained eye this place would seem similar to a series of savannas or prairies. However, they are actually freshwater marshes dominated by miles of saw grass. Although these marshes are usually flat, with any increase in local topography there is growth of hardwood trees. There are many points of interests within the park these are the ones we visited:

  • Gumbo Limbo Trail
  • Anhinga Trail
  • Pa-hay-okee Trail
  • Flamingo Visitor Center
  • West Lake
  • Mahogany Hammock

The Everglades is a popular place for bird watching. In these six sites alone we saw nearly 25 different species of birds, some of which we will highlight in the upcoming posts.

Spotting the Difference: Slash vs. Sand Pine

Spotting the Difference: Saw vs Scrub Palmetto

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