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Free programs make refuge a popular attraction on Sanibel

August 2, 2010

The day, water, sun, moon, night - I do not have to purchase these things with money.

- Plautis

Many of us remember being told as a child to go outside and enjoy nature. Back then running in the grass, exploring the woods and trying to identify the various critters we encountered during our journey outside didn't cost a thing.

Article Photos

Carol Orr Hartman

Becky Wolff, “Ding” Darling environmental educator, second from right, and Lewis Irvine, far right, tour director for Tarpon Bay Explorers, locate and explain the life cycle of some of the smaller wildlife of the area.

The sky, lakes and plants carried no fee.

Today, all to often there is an expensive price tag attached to seeing wildlife and nature. Admission fees to nature parks can run a family several hundred dollars.

But for cash-strapped families and folks wanting to enjoy a bit of well, what comes naturally, the "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society - Friends of the Refuge and the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum are featuring free programs designed especially for families.

In conjunction with the Tarpon Bay Explorers, the "Ding" Refuge is offering three free education programs through Aug. 15.

This summer the new Family Birding Tram Tours, offered every Wednesday and Saturday at 10 a.m., is drawing crowds.

"The program is growing," said Supervisory Ranger Toni Westland. "I think parents are looking for free educational programs to go to."

The free tram tours are narrated by a Tarpon Bay Explorers and a "Ding" staff educators. This format helps everyone to learn about life on the refuge. Staff say program numbers seem to be up this year. Although European visitors and out of the area Florida residents comprise many of the tours, staff are seeing lots of locals this summer.

Newly hired "Ding" educator Becky Wolff said the tours always fill up.

The "Ding" staff hopes by offering fee programs that more people will take advantage of learning about nature and work to conserve it.

"There's a push in all aspects to get people outside," Wolff said.

The tours have become popular not just because they are free but because of the spontaneity of wildlife.

On a recent tour, Wolff said the group grew excited after a fiddler crab was spotted.

"You never know what you are going to see," Westland said.

And it the enthusiasm built from the tours that Westland and Wolff hope will make a difference in the future.

"The whole idea is to create future conservationists," Westland said.

The first 28 people to arrive for the tram tours score a free narrated birding tour along Wildlife Drive. During the program, participants can learn how to identify and count birds, then return to the Education Center to enter sighting data into the E-Bird Trail Tracker computer.

Those who wish to take the tram on a day other than the free days can make reservations at 472-8900. It costs $13 for adults and $8 for children 12 and under.

Here are some other free programs at "Ding"

n Reading at the Refuge, every Thursday at 11 a.m.: Attendees to each reading-and-crafts session will receive a free Nature Journal (one to each child) in which to record their impressions of their refuge visit and future nature encounters.

n Family Beach Walk, every Tuesday at 9 a.m.: In partnership with the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, the program convenes at Gulfside Park for a one-hour exploration of the refuge's gulf-front Perry Tract.

For more information on the refuge summer programs, call 472-1100, stop in at the Refuge Education Center or visit

The refuge is located on San-Cap Road on Sanibel Island.



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