No matter how many times
you see a great blue heron, the
stately bird is always an impressive sight as it
slowly walks through the shallows in search of a meal.

Strictly for the Birders

Long a haven for birders, the barrier islands of Southwest Florida play host to a breathtaking array of winged creatures, as well as a two-legged species in passionate pursuit. An island chapter of the National Audubon Society was, in fact, responsible for the creation of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) and its aggressive program of protecting island wetlands. That successfully preserved land now totals more than 1,000 acres, habitat for everything from the rare horned grebe to peregrine falcons.

The local Audubon Society offers birding courses January through March of each year. Up to 250 birders happily nest at the Sanibel Community Center each Thursday night during the Audubon winter lecture series. Guided field trips, led by an Audubon member, visit island beaches, the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, and other sites of interest. For more information on Audubon courses, the lecture series, or guided trips, call 472-2155 or 395-0510.

Birdwatchers can purchase binoculars from at least three Sanibel merchants. Photo Sanibel carries National Audubon Society-endorsed 8x40 Bushnell custom binoculars, the tool without which a true birder never leaves home. Occasionally, Photo Sanibel has spotting scopes in inventory. Its owners offer their personal expertise to both frustrated and inspired nature photographers. 1571 Periwinkle Way, 472-1086.

You'll also find binoculars at Sanibel Light Tackle Outfitters. It carries a nice, compact model with silent motorized zoom from 7x to 15x power. 2025 Periwinkle Way, 472-2002.

Bailey's General Store carries binoculars by both Bushnell and Tasco. (If a bevy of birds brings out your creative side, Bailey's also stocks a full complement of art supplies.) Tarpon Bay Road at Periwinkle Way, 472-1516.

One trip down Wildlife Drive, the road that winds through J.N. "Ding" Darling's 6,000 acres, will only whet the interest of a true birder. Lucky visitors will spy the staggeringly oversized white pelicans visiting these barrier islands during the winter. Others will be spellbound by the roseate spoonbills and their brilliant plumage. Low tide is best for viewing, as are the early morning and evening hours. The visitors center offers a birdwatcher's checklist compiled by U.S. Fish & Wildlife staff, specifically for the Ding Darling Refuge.

Educational programs and guided walks in both the nearby Bailey Tract and on Wildlife Drive are hosted by the refuge staff and volunteers. The two environments have distinctly different feathered inhabitants.

Though many residents and visitors can remember only a few years back when access to the refuge was free, at $5 per car, it is still the best vacation value in the state of Florida. Hikers and bikers pay only $1. The refuge is open at 7:30 each morning, and closes a half-hour before sunset. The visitors center is open from 9 to 5 daily. Just don't make the mistake of planning your trip through the refuge on Fridays. It's closed for a much needed weekly respite from humans. Sanibel-Captiva Road, 472-1100.

Sanibel's Tarpon Bay Marina is a required stop not only for birding, but also for book browsing. Enthusiasts will find Stokes' Beginner's Guide to Birds, by Donald and Lillian Stokes, which ingeniously separates birds by color. The National Audubon Society's Pocket Guide to Familiar Birds of Sea and Shore is a handy reference, as is its Field Guide to North American Birds. Tarpon Bay also sells several Peterson's Field Guides. Their renowned author, the late Roger Tory Peterson, was a frequent visitor to Sanibel.

Because its watery trails lead directly into the J.N. "Ding" Darling Wildlife Refuge, Tarpon Bay's canoes and kayaks make great front-row seats for birdwatching. Paddlers can silently glide right up to all sorts of birds in their natural habitat. Tarpon Bay Marina's "sunset trip," conducted by a naturalist who does all the paddling for his four lucky passengers, visits the rookery islands in Tarpon Bay. After your tour, sit on the outdoor deck and take in the stunning view; gourmet coffee, ice cream, and drinks are available. Tarpon Bay Marina, 472-8900.

Canoe Adventures & Wildlife Tours is a small island concern operated by one of the island's most dedicated naturalists, Mark Westall. Generously giving his time to the island he loves, this favorite son served as a Sanibel city councilman for several years. In between wilderness treks, he even managed the immense responsibilities of the Sanibel mayoral office, all the while protecting island wildlife habitats.

But there's a little something else about this affable fellow that just might make him irresistible to those in search of feathered friends. Who could resist a guided tour from a man, a pilot no less, best known to locals as "Bird"?

Westall makes regular excursions into the refuge, up the Sanibel River, and to Captiva's uninhabited neighbor, Buck Key. As a special bonus, you'll probably get some inside information on one of Sanibel's most favored bird species, the osprey. Westall is a founder of the International Osprey Foundation, whose mission is to monitor and protect that beautiful "sea hawk." Westall would love to take you along on one of his trips. 472-5218.

Don't overlook the trails at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. Traversing 41/2 miles, the trails are the setting for SCCF's "Walk in the Wetlands," a guided tour held two to three times daily. Visitors may also make a self-guided trek into this lovely bird habitat. Sanibel-Captiva Road, 472-2329. Closed Sundays.

While Sanibel's Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge makes it the center of attention among birdwatchers in the area, the birds also venture out to other Southwest Florida barrier islands. The Barrier Island GEO (for Geographical Efficiency Operations) Park system, encompassing 2,864 acres of state park land on islands in Lee and Charlotte counties-including Gasparilla, Cayo Costa, Don Pedro, and North Captiva-plans to offer guided birding tours this winter season. 964-0375.

White pelicans are a favorite of birdwatchers in and around Gasparilla Island. Grande Tours Inc. in Placida, on the mainland side of the causeway to Gasparilla, will help you find these big, beautiful cousins to the brown pelicans, as well as many other popular species. Life-long resident Marian Schneider started out doing sightseeing tours by boat around Gasparilla, but has seen interest in birding and wildlife tours explode. Grande Tours' boats explore the Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserve. "We have every bird here that Ding Darling has," says Schneider. A favorite stop is a spoil island, christened Pelican Island, along the Intracoastal Waterway east of Boca Grande. White pelicans flock there during the winter. 697-8825.

Happy birding, and don't forget to save time for your favorite snowbirds this season time flies! -LBM