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Refuge to host 30th annual 'Ding' Darling Days

October 10, 2018
By TIFFANY REPECKI ( , Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

The J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge will kick off three days of fun-filled educational activities on Friday in honor of its namesake and in recognition of its resources for area wildlife.

The 30th annual "Ding" Darling Days will take place on Oct. 12-14. Co-sponsored by the "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Tarpon Bay Explorers, with support from other partners, the event recognizes National Wildlife Refuge Week.

"All refuges should be celebrating in some way at their site," Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland said.

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“Snakes Alive!” is one of the wildlife presentations on Oct. 14 for Family Fun Day.

Observed on the second full week of October - Oct. 14-20 this year - it aims to celebrate the great network of lands and waters that conserves and protects Americans' precious wildlife heritage.

Additionally, Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling's birthday falls in October on Oct. 21.

"We said, let's honor 'Ding' Darling. Let's call it 'Ding' Darling Days," she said. "So we'll also be celebrating his birthday, his life, his legacy."

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For the first time in years, the event will be spread over three days.

"We kind of condensed it," Westland said, noting that it used to take place over one week and two weekends but budget cuts and other factors came into play. "We're going to see if that really helps with attendance. Hopefully, we'll bring people over to spend the weekend and do something each day."

The event could also appeal to locals because it is out of season.

"You don't have to fight the traffic," she said. "You don't have to fight the crowds."

Each day of the event has a specific theme, with the free activities tied into it.

"Let's Get Outside Day" will kick off the festivities on Oct. 12 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., followed by "Conservation Art Day" on Oct. 13 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. "Family Fun Day" will wrap up the "Ding" Darling Days from 9:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 14. Westland noted that there are some new elements.

"Every year, we try to do something a little bit different," she said.

Two will include a spread of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's emergency response vehicles for an interactive visitor experience outside and the "Kidz Kool Zone" in the Visitor & Education Center.

"We got some feedback that they would like some more activities for little kids," Westland said of the new zone, which will feature puppet shows, DIY nature crafts and more. "And it'll cool them off."

The FWS area will cover firefighting, biology and law enforcement.

"I think that's a really exciting new element," she said.

In conjunction with "Ding" Darling Days, Tarpon Bay Explorers - the official concession to the refuge - will offer discounts on its Breakfast Nature and Sea Life, Sea Life and Nature, and Evening Sea Life and Nature cruises; Low Tide Paddling and Sunset Rookery Kayak tours; and Commodore Creek Paddle. Advance reservations required at 239-472-8900 or

Westland encouraged residents and visitors to come out and enjoy the activities.

"I know we've had some challenges with water quality issues over the last year - I think this is a good come back to 'Ding,' come back to the island," she said. "We are still here, we are open for business."

"Together we can all celebrate nature and get back that focus about why we all love it and have a passion for it," Westland added.


The day will feature free admission to Wildlife Drive for bicyclists and hikers from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., along with discounted tram tours of the refuge at $9.75 for adults and $6 for children. Private vehicles will not be allowed.

"The focus of Friday is exactly that - for people to get outside," Westland said.

"It is a whole different feel when there's no cars out there," she added of Wildlife Drive.

A free Bunche Beach birding tram will depart from the refuge at 8 a.m. to experience low tide at the active birding park across the causeway. For reservations, call Tarpon Bay Explorers at 239-472-8900.

At 9 a.m., Conservation Educator Sara Hallas will lead a free Beach Walk at Perry Tract, adjacent to Gulfside City Park; city parking fees will apply. The other free tours include a 9:30 a.m. Refuge Birds and Wildlife Tour Caravan with Ranger Jeff Combs, 10 a.m. bike tour of Wildlife Drive with Westland and 1 p.m. Hike and Storytime on the Wildlife Education Boardwalk with Ranger Monica Scroggin.

"We don't always get to lead them (visitors) as rangers cause there's only a few of us, so this is a special thing for us," Westland said.

Free Animal Olympics Games will be at the Bailey Tract from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

"It's more geared for kids," she said. "We just pick different animals that are found here and you have to, say, jump as far as a bobcat, so it teaches you about that animal - little informational stations."

At 1 p.m., a free showing of the Animal Planet's film "Million Dollar Duck" will take place in the Visitor and Education Center. Winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature and Jury Award for Documentary Feature at the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival, it follows artists as they compete in the Federal Duck Stamp Contest - the only juried art competition run by the U.S. government.

Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling launched the federal duck stamp program in 1934.

Westland noted that all of the duck stamp artwork will be on exhibit.


The day will feature Federal Duck Stamp and Junior Duck Stamp winners, other artists and cartooning, along with nature art activities and workshops, for a day devoted to Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling's legacy as the first duck stamp artist and Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist.

"This is completely to honor 'Ding' Darling as an artist and to remind people that conservation art is special and that was his whole deal," Westland said.

Three-time Federal Duck Stamp winner Bob Hautman, of Minnesota, will headline the day. Florida Junior Duck Stamp winner Anna Grace Swanson and Federal Junior Duck Stamp winner Rayen Kang will also be on hand. The first 100 youths to arrive will receive a free reusable bag with art supplies.

"We made sure that they're really good this year," she said.

There will be an opportunity to "Ask the Artist a Question" of wildlife artist Nancy Tome and cartoonist Dave Horton. Tome will do demonstrations in the Visitor & Education Center, and Horton will sketch individualized wildlife portraits starting at 11 a.m. for the first 50 visitors to arrive.

"We want kids to know that you can make a living in art," Westland said.

It will be free admission to Wildlife Drive from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., with plein-air artists set up along it. Discounted tram tours again will be available for $9.75 for adults and $6 for children.

"They could be painting, they could be sketching," she said. "It's whatever medium they do."

There will be chalk art drawing outside, thanks to Cypress Lake High School, and face painting.

From 3 to 4 p.m., visitors can pick between a Make & Take Nature Portrait class for 50 people with art intern May Jernigan or an outdoor Nature Sketching Workshop for 25 people with Tome, which will include a free journal.

"They'll want to sign up at the front desk when they get here," Westland said.

The Conservation Cartoon Awards will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

She explained that refuge staff visit six area schools each year and talk about drawing conservation cartoons, like "Ding" created. The children get ideas and then create their own conservation cartoons. Three winners are selected from each of the schools and their cartoons put on display for the public.

The "Ding" Darling Days Nature Photography Contest Awards follow from 12:30 to 1 p.m.

From 1 to 3 p.m., visitors can Meet the Champs - the duck stamp winners.

"It's really cool that not only do we honor the federal adult winner, but the junior winner," she said, adding that it helps to keep youth inspired about the positives of art.

Along with the meet-and greet, people can have their stamps signed.

The Refuge Nature Store carries the federal stamp; some junior stamps will be available.

Select gifts at the store will be 10 percent off for the day.

Visitors can also greet Blue Goose from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. with chances at prizes.

"That is our mascot for the refuge system," Westland said. "'Ding' Darling drew that mascot."


The day will feature free tram tours of Wildlife Drive, live wildlife presentations, archery clinics for ages 10 and older, a butterfly house and live music from the Americana Community Music Association from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., along with the new Kidz Kool Zone and FWS interactive visitor area.

"It's not just for families, it's geared for something for everyone," Westland said.

She noted that the free trams fill up quickly.

"So get your free spot right away," Westland said.

After a 9:45 a.m. flag-raising ceremony by local Boy Scouts, the refuge will celebrate the 142nd birthday of Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling by offering birthday cake in the Visitor & Education Center, followed by a reusable goodie bag giveaway for the first 250 children.

The Kidz Kool Zone will feature environmental puppet shows by Littleton Elementary School, Kids Animal Yoga at 1 p.m., story and crafts, DIY nature crafts, face painting and selfie photo station. There will be a youth scavenger hunt of the Learning Lavatories exhibit for a chance at winning five prizes.

"It's to promote the new educational bathrooms," she said. "It's only 10 questions."

In FWS interactive visitor area, there will be a swamp buggy and wildland firefighters, along with a water activity. There will be a station to try on the heavy gear and see the radios. Refuge biologists will be on hand with specimens, plus exotic species and plants. FWS law enforcement will also be onsite.

"Something that the kids can see and talk to them about what they do," Westland said.

Wildlife presentations outside under the "big top" will showcase snakes, birds of prey and animal ambassadors from the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Calusa Herpetological Society will also be present with programs.

Because Sunday entails activities in the refuge parking lot, parking will be offsite.

There will be free parking at the refuge's Tram Parking Lot on Sanibel-Captiva Road, with signs set up directing motorists. A free shuttle service will run continuously from the parking lot to the refuge.

For more information, call 239-472-1100 ext. 237.

For the full schedule of daily activities, visit

The J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is at 1 Wildlife Drive, Sanibel.



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