First of All –
- First birds galore: sandwich tern, roseatte spoonbill, reddish egret, dunelin, sanderling, mottled duck, yellow crowned night heron
- First crustaceans: horseshoe crab, tree crab
- First alligator seen in Florida
- First time encountering construction zone flaggers who stopped traffic to let bicycles pass
- Miles Cruised today: Power: 7; Sail: 0
- Total Miles Cruised to date: 2,233
- Hours Underway: 1 1/2
- Fuel: NA
- Morning House Battery Reading: 12.58
- Wind Speed: 10-12 ; Wind Direction: NE
- Daily High Temperature: 85
- Water Temperature: 72
I’m up early, with just a hint of dawn to the east. I heat coffee water, quickly eat a couple of cinnamon rolls, and then load my fishing gear into the dinghy and shove off. I take the hand held radio so Sandy and I can talk if need be. It’s a little breezy out where the boat is anchored, but close in toward the mangroves, where I want to fish, it’s more protected. I motor to the upwind end of the shore, shut the kicker off, and drift. I start out casting a surface popper, and work it all along the edge of the mangroves, but without luck. The mullet are jumping all over the place, but I know that they are algae feeders and won’t hit a lure. I change to a rapalla lure and try it down near the shallow entrance to Tarpon Bay, which we explored yesterday afternoon. A large fish jumps at it but misses. I get another bite a bit later, but again miss the fish. A tern flying by at just that moment doesn’t miss, however. He swoops down and snatches my lure up in his beak. He hangs on until he’s about 15 feet above the water before deciding he doesn’t care for plastic fish. I’m relieved that he didn’t run afoul of my treble hooks. I decide to call it quits around 9:30, and motor back to the boat. We get under way and carefully motor out of our anchorage rounding the tip of Sanibel Island and carefully feeling our way into the narrow channel which leads to Tarpon Bay. We’re coming in just before low tide, but depths range from 4 feet to 9 feet and we have no trouble getting into the bay. Channel markers lead us across the bay to the Tarpon Bay Explorers Nature Tours and Rentals center. We anchor the boat a hundred yards offshore and dinghy in. We’re greeted by a friendly employee who shows us where we can tie up our dinghy. We arrange to rent bicycles, and then have a picnic lunch at a nice shady table. We pedal along a beautiful 2 mile long paved bicycle path, which parallels a busy boulevard, and turn in at the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge entrance. We’ve visited many National Wildlife Refuges in the past, but Ding Darling must truly be one of the real gems of the system. And how fitting that it be named in honor of one of the real giants in the history of the conservation movement. Ding Darling drew editorial cartoons for the Des Moines Register newspaper for more than 50 years. His work was nationally syndicated, and through his art, his keen insight, and his deep appreciation for our nation’s natural heritage, he called attention to the great conservation issues of his day. He was appointed as the first director of the US Biological Survey, the direct antecedent to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. As director, he initiated the Federal Duck Stamp program, and personally drew the design for the first duck stamp. This program, now in its 82nd year, has generated millions of dollars which have been used to purchase critical waterfowl habitat areas. How fitting that this wonderful refuge bears his name.
Once at the refuge, we check out the visitior center, which features exhibits on both the wildlife of the area as well as on the life of Ding Darling. We sign up for a guided tour of the refuge. We board a large tram, with shade roof overhead but open air sides, which are designed to maximize wildlife viewing opportunities. Our guide is enthusiastic and very knowledgable. We’ve arrived at low tide, which is an ideal time for viewing birds. The exposed sand bars attract large numbers of pelicans, egrets, ibises, cormorants, shorebirds, and gulls. I’m particularly hoping that we’ll get to see the roseatte spoonbill, which is the only pink colored bird native to North America (pink flamingoes can be seen in the wild in Florida, but are most likely escapees from zoos). At our first stop we’re rewarded with a great sighting of a spoonbill, and quite close to the road. While viewing it, another flies in to the sand bar and lands. They are unique and beautiful birds, and we feel fortunate to have seen them. Another rare bird we see on the tour is the reddish egret. We’re told that Ding Darling is one of the few places where this bird can be seen. We see several alligators along the way, including one who is out swimming. Usually they’re just laying on the mud banks sunning themselves. Seeing the clean water and lush vegetation, and the thriving wildlife in this rich ecosystem, we can’t help but appreciate the vision and dedicated efforts of people like Ding Darling who labored to set them aside for future generations.
After our tour we have just enough time to return to the visitor center to see what we missed the first time through. We also make a quick stop in the gift store to shop for grandkids, before hopping on our bikes for the ride back. Along the way we come across a work site on the trail, where a crew is running a large rotary mowing machine which is cutting back the dense vegetation. The equipment completely blocks the bike path, but not to worry. A pair of flagmen are present, and their sole job is to stop traffic so that bicycles can safely pass the work zone. That’s a real switch. Back at the Explorers center we turn in our bicycles and dinghy back to the boat. We aren’t permitted to moor overnight on Tarpon Bay, so we motor out to a cove just outside the refuge boundary and drop the anchor. It’s dead calm outside, and the cruise across Tarpon Bay is beautiful, with dolphins surfacing and pelicans flying to roost on the small mangrove islands. For dinner we barbque some great hamburgers and are entertained with a stunning sunset, which is magnified and reflected by the glassy smooth waters of Tarpon Bay.