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Sanibel Island Wildlife: What You Need to Know

Sanibel Island Vacation Rentals
February 10, 2020

Sanibel Island wildlife is famous across the world and it’s easy to see why with over 200 species of birds on the island along with many other animals and creatures. From common birds and animals to rare finds, Sanibel has something to offer for nature lovers of all levels. For interested travelers that haven’t yet visited Sanibel Island, it might not be obvious why it’s known as such an attraction for wildlife. 

Thanks to over 6,000 acres of protected land, Sanibel Island wildlife is able to thrive. The protected wildlife is contained with the J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge. The refuge has been a pillar of the island since 1945 when it officially became recognized by the U.S. government. Even outside of the protected land, birds, animals, and creatures can be found across the island.

Whether you’re a lifelong nature lover or it’s a new hobby you’re looking to indulge, you can’t go wrong with exploring the wildlife on Sanibel Island. Take a look through our complete guide below to learn everything you can expect to find while visiting Sanibel Island. 

Nature and Sanibel Island Wildlife

It’s important to know that over half of the entire island is dedicated to refuges for wildlife. This means that there is so much for you to see and explore as you make your way through. There are landscapes which range from marshland to estuaries and even bayous. There’s even mangroves which are absolutely teeming with life. 

Some of the creatures there include rosette spoonbills and flamingos. There are also manatees and alligators. You’ll need to look hard if you want to spot them, as they often lurk just beneath the surface. All of this ultimately means that there is an abundance of life, so when you do make the trip, you can be sure to have the best time. Biking on Sanibel Island is popular as many visitors choose to take in the wildlife while riding their bike. 

Wildlife Habitats on Sanibel Island

Sanibel Island wildlife really is in abundance. There’s so much for you to take in and when you arrive, it won’t be long before you spot some of the creatures that the island is famous for. 

The freshwater marshes consist of wetland habitats. These do not contain any kind of saltwater and they are also non-tidal as well. Some of the common plants that can be found here include the Giant Fern, Sand Cordgrass and Cattails. Wading birds and waterfowl can often be seen here as well. You can easily access this area on the Bailey Tract, which is also one of the best ways for you to spot alligators as well.

Another habitat that you can find here is the mangrove forest. This is a natural habitat and it really does define the refuge. It’s one of the biggest and most underdeveloped ecosystems around. Mangroves provide a very unique habitat for animals including a huge variety of birds. There are also fish, crustaceans, mollusks and more. 

Next, there’s the open water. A lot of people don’t realize this, but the open water really does help to shape the land. There are a lot of people who work hard to make sure that the levels are providing a good habitat for birds. The tidal flats and the mud lands in a lot of the refuge provide home to various animals such as insects and crustaceans. The tropical hammock and hardwood areas were once home to Calusa Indians and if you look very hard then you may see some of the shell mounds. Today, this is part of the refuge and it is a great place for you to see songbirds. 

The Gumbo Limbo trees and even Strangler Figs can be seen in this area and the tourist tree is also in this area. The tourist tree can be identified via the peeling bark which is very similar to sunburn. Lastly, there’s seagrass beds which are very productive for the ecosystem. The thick grasses provide a high level of protection for a lot of the sea creatures and the grasses are a very important food source. The roseate spoonbill is very recognisable with its bright pink feathers, and is one of the most photographed species of birds on the island. 

This bird can often be seen hunting in areas like this, which is a sight to be seen.

  1. Wetlands, rivers, lakes, pools and coastlines attract animals such as the roseate spoonbill, alligators and loggerhead turtles.
  2. Forest and wooded areas encourage migrating birds, bobcats, racoons and oryzomys.
  3. Beaches are home to a host of wildlife, including crabs, iguanas, various species of turtle and more.

J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

The island is curved and this allows room for Tarpon Bay. This is on the northern side of the island and it is also linked to the mainland. There’s a short bridge on Sanibel island and this links it to the Captiva Island. The gulf-beaches are iconic and known for whelks, scallops, sand dollars and more. This attracts a lot of wildlife including a huge variety of birds and even bald eagles.

If you want to see the birds in their natural habitat then you may want to go to the beach and the reserves. Some of the more common birds include herons, pelicans, terns, seagulls and more. In terms of habitat, there are plenty of unique plants that grow on the island. This includes mangroves, palm trees, sea grapes and sea oats. Take a look below to see some of the most-seen animals that live on the island. 

  • Birds- some of them include the Mangrove Cuckoo, the American White Pelican and Reddish Egret
  • Mammals- Sanibel Island Rice Rat, bobcat, Marsh Rabbit and River Otter
  • Reptiles- Turtles and Tortoises, Snakes and Lizards

All in all, Sanibel Island is full of things to see and wildlife to spot. If you have ever even thought about visiting before, don’t wait. Now is the time for you to change that because if you're a wildlife lover then this is the best way for you to spot various creatures that call this island their home.

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Birds on Sanibel IslandBirds on Sanibel Island

Sanibel Island really is full of things to do and see. If you want to find out more about the birds on the island then there’s the American White Pelican. This is a giant of the refuge and it’s a fantastic example of a Florida snowbird. This only visits in October through April. These pelicans can usually be found in the various lakes and rivers. 

The Reddish Egret is another example of a bird that can be found on the island. This bird is known for dancing comically as it chases its prey in the shallow waters. Reddish Egrets will also create shade over the fish so that the fish thinks that they have a safe place to go. Instead, it’s actually the Egret which is trying to catch its next meal. 

Next up, there’s the Roseate Spoonbill. This bird is native to the island and is often confused for a flamingo. The pink intensifies with age and they swoop back and forth to try and feed on any tasty morsels that might be in the water.

These are just a few of the many birds on Sanibel Island that you'll find

Mammals in Sanibel Island

The island is also home to a huge range of mammals. Some of them include the Sanibel Island Rice Rat. This can actually only be found on the island and it is classed as being a threatened species. The main reason for this is because of competition and habitat loss. It’s also known for being a target by predictors. 

Other animals include the bobcat. The bobcat is the only cat species that is native to Florida, other than the Florida panther. Bobcat populations look to be stable right now and they are very active at night as well so you need to keep an eye out for them in the earlier hours of the morning.

  • River Otter
  • Raccoon
  • Marsh Rabbit
  • Bobcat
  • Sanibel Island Rice Rat
  • Manatees
  • Dolphins

Other mammals include the marsh rabbit. This lives in some of the swamps in the local area and they are very similar in size when compared to the European rabbit. They are very strong swimmers and interesting to watch. 

Another animal you might see is the raccoon. Racoons are a very common sight and even though they are nocturnal, they are often seen taking advantage of any low tides. This helps them to get a seafood snack. They are incredibly social animals and they are often seen in family groups. River otters are medium-sized and they have very dark fur. They can often be found on the Indigo trail. 

Reptiles in Sanibel IslandReptiles in Sanibel Island

During your time on the island it’s not uncommon for you to come across a wide range of reptiles. When springtime hits, you’re likely to see a population of loggerhead turtles on the beaches. This is normally when the females come to the beaches to lay their eggs. This is a sight to be seen and it’s lovely to see them following their natural instinct. 

As the warmer weather hits, alligators and iguanas also roam the wetlands. The island is known for hosting the occasional American alligator. One American crocodile has been spotted there in the past and she was known as Wilma, by the locals. She died in 2010 of old age and there’s a memorial dedicated to her at the refuge. A new crocodile was introduced not long later because it was found on a private property. Alligators can often be seen swimming through the waters in the refuge. 

There are also many turtles and tortoises. They carry their home and they are very aquatic. The Gopher tortoises are known for their extensive burrows which go deep underground. The Ornate Diamondback Terrapin is near-threatened and it’s unique in the fact that it can live in somewhat brackish water habitats. 

Snakes are crucial for controlling any rodent population. It’s important to know that all of the snakes in Sanibel are not venomous and they will only attack or act aggressively if they are threatened. Some of the snakes in the area include the Yellow Rat Snake. This can be found in a huge range of habitats but they are especially known for their tree-climbing abilities. Lizards on Sanibel have colour-changing capabilities and they are very similar to chameleons in this way. They are able to go from green to brown and this helps them to blend into their surroundings. 

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Amphibians on Sanibel Island

One of the most common amphibians that you’ll find on Sanibel Island is the American Green Tree. This frog comes in various shades of green, so it’s likely to mistake this frog as different types. Even though they are known as tree frogs, they prefer to spend a lot of their time in wet environments. This includes ponds and even lakes. 

Some of the other amphibians on the island include:

  • Indo-Pacific Gecko
  • Tropical House Gecko
  • Cuban Tree Frog
  • Ground Skink
  • Squirrel Tree Frog

Some of the amphibians on the island also include the Eastern Narrow-Mouthed Toad. This amphibian is a frog, even though the name includes the word toad. It’s terrestrial, which ultimately means that it spends most of its time on land, and it’s a very accomplished digger. They live near ponds, streams and swamps and their breeding season happens during the rainy spring season.

Fish in Sanibel Island

The Sheepshead fish is a very notable fish and a lot of this comes down to its black stripe. The stripe runs vertically down the ivory body and it gives the fish a zebra-like appearance. One surprising feature of the fish is that the teeth are very similar to that of a human. The fish has incisors and the back teeth strongly resemble molars. This gives the fish a somewhat toothy grin and it also helps it to have a strong and powerful bite. The teeth are designed to eat plants, invertebrates and vertebrates. 

Another fish is the Snook. This was once listed as being a species of concern due to overfishing but now it’s very common. The species live along the coast and in estuaries as well, but it also has the ability to survive in inland rivers. A lot of this comes down to the fact that they have a high tolerance for freshwater and saltwater. One of the main weaknesses of the common Snook is that it’s very sensitive to temperature changes. This often means that large populations of the fish die-off when the weather takes a turn for the worst.

The J.N. Ding Darling national wildlife refuge is truly one of a kind and if you are an animal lover, then you’ll love the Sanibel Island. Some of the fish and wildlife on the island are endangered species, which is one of the many reasons why the education center is continually trying to protect and encourage the population to grow. 

Some of the other fish that can be found close to the island include the mullet, which can be seen jumping out of the water. They have a very unique diet which makes them difficult to catch with a traditional hook and line method. The Red Drum fish is known as one of the most popular fish when it comes to sport. It’s often identified because of the spot that is at the base of the tail. It also makes a drumming sound when it’s pulled out of the water. 

With so many fish to be found on the island, it should come as no surprise that fishing on Sanibel Island is a popular activity for many visitiors and locals. The great thing about the island is that they have a fantastic fish and wildlife service that really encourages the growth of the population. 

Insects and Invertebrates on Sanibel Island

Invertebrates are animals that don’t have any kind of internal skeleton. That being said, a lot of them do have an exoskeleton. This gives their bodies some degree of protection and it also helps them to keep their shape. 

Some of the invertebrates that can be found on the island include arachnids. The Golden Silk Orb Weaver is a large black and yellow spider. This is known for producing golden webs. There’s also the Spiny Orb Weaver. This spider carries some resemblance to a crab and it has red spines with black spots. 

Of course, there aren’t just spiders on the island. There are also stunning butterflies as well. There’s the Gulf Fritillary and this is bright orange. The Mangrove Buckeye has orange and brown wings with very large “eyes”. It’s very distinctive and a treasure to see. Crustaceans include the Sand Fiddler Crab and barnacles too.

A gastropod is essentially a mollusk with a shell. The shells can easily reach 24 inches and they can be white, dark brown or even grey. The Mangrove Periwinkle is a small snail that is seen in the mangrove forests. The colour can range from blue to red, yellow, brown and grey.

Endangered Species on Sanibel IslandEndangered Species on Sanibel Island

There are also various endangered species on the island as well. Some of them include the Loggerhead sea turtle. This can be identified by the large head and it can easily weigh over 200 pounds. It feeds on mollusks, small marine animals and even sponges too. The biggest threats to animals like this are the loss of their nesting habitat and even marine pollution. 

There’s also the smalltooth sawfish. This belongs to the same family as rays, sharks and even skates. Sawfish actually have gills which can be found on the underside of the flattened body. They also have a saw-like rostrum that is used for crustaceans and hunting fish. The degradation of the estuaries and even overfishing have really caused the population to drop.

Another animal is the manatee. They are drawn to much warmer waters and they are also known for feeding on submerged and floating vegetation. They have very muscular lips which can actually move independently. Threats include loss of their seagrass beds, red tide or even cold stress. 

Lastly, there is the wood stork. The wood stork is easily one of the tallest wading birds and it can be seen throughout Florida. This bird stands at over 4 feet tall and it’s one of the most interesting endangered and threatened species.

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Invasive Species on Sanibel Island

It’s important to know that non-native species are ones that do not appear in a particular environment. They are introduced by humans either by accident or even on purpose. After this, they will then have developed a stable breeding routine which can skyrocket their population.  It’s possible for a lot of native species to be seen as being invasive as well. This is quite often because they cause a degree of environmental harm or because they have no predators. Non-native species have been, over the years, the biggest threat to the Refuge system and the wildlife conservation program is designed to try and stop this from happening.

In conclusion:

  • Invasive species are hard to control.
  • It’s possible to have a native species that is invasive.
  • Most invasive species are introduced on purpose to control other invasive species, and others are introduced by accident.
  • Many invasive species are capable of breeding and can quickly spread throughout an environment.

So invasive species do in fact exist within the wildlife reserve, but everything is being done to try and control them as much as possible. 

Seasonal Wildlife in Sanibel Island

Every animal that is at the refuge is wild and therefore it’s important that they are respected. Some of them can cause harm, so it’s important to exercise caution when interacting with some of them. Keep your distance and also make sure that you don’t threaten them with your body language. 

The wildlife on Sanibel Island does cycle through seasons. Between January and March is the best time for you to view birds. There really is an abundance of wading birds, raptors, waterfowl and more. Alligators can be seen on colder mornings and neotropical birds migrate through March. Between April and June you may find a peek of a snowy plover as they nest on the beaches in Sanibel. Through the end of summer, birding tends to be less popular. You will still be able to see wading birds and even shorebirds too. 

Manatees are visible in Tarpon Bay all throughout the summer.  Alligators can be seen at dawn and also at dusk as well. As for the other months, between October and December, you will see shorebirds and even colonial birds too. Pelicans and other migratory birds arrive in way more numbers and there’s even an Annual Christmas Bird Count.

If there's certain seasonal wildlife you're interested in seeing, be sure you're visiting at the right time. Our article, When is the Best Time to Visit Sanibel Island provides additional information on differences between the seasons on Sanibel Island.

Need to check availability of a perfect Sanibel vacation rental?
Take a minute to complete a short form and submit it to us so we can check the availability of the property you desire.

How to Enjoy Nature and Sanibel Island Wildlife

It’s very easy for you to explore Tarpon Bay and the Sanibel Island on your own or even with family. You can kayak down the marked creek trail and when you do you will be able to see a huge range of animals. It’s very interesting to do this and you will also have the option of going past all of the mangrove trees as well. 

Kayakers even have the option of paddling into the Bay in order to see some of the birds or rookery islands. Here you will also see manatees, dolphins and more. Kayak fishing is a fantastic way for you to try and reach any fishing holes that might be a bit harder to reach. You can rent a double or even a single kayak. Fishing equipment can be rented but you will need to pay an additional fee for this.

If you choose to go paddleboarding then you will be able to see what lives in the sea grasses while also being able to soak up some of that Florida sun. If you do go paddling then you will also be able to see fish, dolphins, stingrays and also manatees. If you go to the provider in Tarpon Bay then you’ll see that they have two models of board. There’s one for beginner paddlers and there is another for experienced ones. 

A day on the pontoon gives you the chance to spot manatees that like to munch on sea grass while also being able to spot some great fishing spots. The best thing about doing this is that there is a huge range of prime fishing areas and the operation of the boat is very simple indeed. You don’t need to have any kind of license with this and it’s a great way for you to see everything you want.

Riding bikes along the Wildlife Drive or even around the refuge is a great way for you to see everything you have ever wanted to see. Bikers might also be able to go to any destination including the Bailey Tract and even the Lighthouse too. 

Unfortunately, mother nature can alter out plans sometimes. Rain will be the likely culprit if this happens to you on the island. If this happens to you, there's no need to worry as there are plenty of things to do on Sanibel Island when it rains.

Fishing on Sanibel Island

Have you got a keen interest in fishing? Maybe you just don’t know where all of the spots are. Either way, there are so many saltwater fishing charters which give you the chance to capture everything from redfish to snook and even mangrove snappers as well. You will also find sheepshead and more too. The best thing about going fishing in this area is that the guides know the area like the back of their hand and they go there every single day. For this reason, you can count on them to give you all of the help you need.

Some of the highlights of fishing on Sanibel Island include:

  • Saltwater fishing
  • Fish that range from snappers to sheepshead and more
  • Experienced guides in the area
  • Fishing equipment available to rent or included on fishing charters

Mangrove estuaries are some of the most productive and diverse ecosystems around. It should be noted that over 200 types of fish call this area their home and there are also live gulf shrimp as well. If you want to catch larger fish then this is also possible so you won’t have any problems there. The redfish and the spotted seatrout are some of the most popular fish that are caught in the area. There are even some species of shark as well. 

Walk on the Wild Side in Sanibel Island

So it’s more than possible for you to see Sanibel island wildlife when you visit the area and it’s a great way for you to see some of the most unique wildlife in the world up close and personal. If you want to pay a visit to Sanibel Island then the best way for you to do this would be for you to book a vacation rental. 

At Royal Shell Vacation Rentals, we are proud to call ourselves experts in the Sanibel area. We have a professional team of rental specialists who know the market more than anyone. This helps us to offer a unique experience that can’t be compared. Our team of experts have the experience to match your idea of a dream vacation to the perfect Sanibel Island Vacation Rental.

If you want to find out more then please get in touch with us today. We have the top vacation home rentals on Sanibel Island. Contact us today to find out more. We can’t wait to help you with your trip and are excited to work with you to make sure that you have the best experience.

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