The alligator’s scaled back barely breaches the surface of a still backwater pond in J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). Wary of my presence, this ancient reptile slips beneath the surface and melts into the pond’s murky depths. The long-legged wading birds foraging nearby raise their heads and consider their options. Most of them resume foraging; others take flight to gain a bit of distance.
J. N. Ding Darling NWR on Sanibel Island off Florida’s Gulf Coast protects 6,400 acres of subtropical mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes, and West Indian hardwood hammocks. It is one of the most visited NWRs and among the top ten best birding destinations in the U.S. In the 1940s the refuge was nearly paved over for fifty cents per acre, but J. N. Darling, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and eventual head of the U.S. Biological Survey (precursor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), managed to save the area. In 1967 the refuge was named in Darling’s honor.
John and I scan the pond with our binoculars. There are white ibis in small groups, yellow-crowned night-herons crouched in mangrove trees, great and snowy egrets standing like statues in wait for unsuspecting fish, and reddish egrets dancing in the shallows. The reddish egrets are frenetic foragers, running and dashing about in pursuit of small fish and crustaceans. Their legs thick as mangrove roots, their bills sharp as daggers.
We fall on a flock of drab shorebirds congregated a sandy island. We spend an hour or more sorting them from one another. Dunlin from red knots and greater yellowlegs from willets. There are black-bellied plovers and short-billed dowitchers, too. At first, the task seems impossible, but birders must be patient. They must be willing to say on occasion, “I don’t know.”
J. N. Ding Darling NWR is one 560 wildlife refuges in the U.S. Together, the NWR system comprises 150 million acres from the Caribbean Islands to Alaska. That is nearly twice the area of the National Park Service (NPS), yet NWRs are often less well known with far fewer visitors. For this reason, they are indeed refuges, for people and wildlife alike.
One reason for fewer visitors may be the lack of services in refuges. You will not find a hotel or a restaurant. Many refuges only boast one small visitor center. The larger refuges will usually have an education center and small gift shop, but they offer little else other than wildlife viewing, which is all anyone really needs in a wilderness area.
The NWR system operates under a different philosophy than the NPS. The mission of the NPS is ultimately one of preservation (despite hotels and restaurants), whereas the NWR system is one of conservation. The goal of preservation is to maintain the condition of a resource in its natural state, without inference by humans. In contrast, conservation allows for the “wise use” of resources. This is why hunting is allowed in many refuges and not in national parks (although in rare cases hunting is allowed in some NPS units). Refuge managers also often take a “hands on” approach to wildlife management with an emphasis on acquiring and maintaining wetlands.
Wetlands are acquired through the Federal Duck Stamp Program – a program that was founded by J. N. Darling in 1934. All duck hunters must purchase an annual federal duck stamp, with ninety-eight percent of all proceeds going directly toward acquiring and protecting wetlands, as well as putting high quality private land into conservation easements. The Federal Duck Stamp Program provides a means for hunters to contribute to the conservation of the wildlife they harvest. But you don’t have to be a hunter to purchase a duck stamp. The stamp also serves as an entrance pass to any refuge in the system. Plus, they are miniature works of art.
Every year artists compete for the honor of showcasing their craft on a Federal Duck Stamp. The stamps are even considered collector’s items.
John and I tally the day’s bird count – 55 species. We giggle as we recall that since January we’ve seen only half as many species around our Wyoming neighborhood. But just this week mountain bluebirds and sandhill cranes have returned to Yellowstone. Soon we’ll be listening to their songs from our backyard before heading to work in the morning. As John and I make our way out of the refuge a pair roseate spoonbills fly overhead. Their pink feathers the color of Florida sunsets.