Monday, December 29, 2008

An Enchanted Winter Solstice in Florida

An Enchanted Winter Solstice
Thursday, December 18 2008
Enchanted Forest, Elaine Gordon Park
North Miami, FL

Nature class focused on the return of the light and the ancient history of celebrating in winter this week, in honor of the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year and the beginning of winter). We met at the Enchanted Forest (not Santa's Enchanted Forest) in north Miami. The park is a staple to the community and has been around for a long time. One of the highlights of going to the park is the horse stables, there are many beautiful horses waiting to be touched and loved by all the children. The kids couldn't get enough of them.

We met on the boardwalk, overlooking a waterway of brackish water, probably meandering down from canals and meeting with the water from the bay not too far away. Along the sides of this waterway are some of the oldest, tallest red mangroves that I have ever seen. Ibis were snacking along the sides, turtles were floating meditatively, and a huge orange and green iguana was camouflaged in the tree above us.

I showed the kids a small globe and demonstrated, with a great deal of help from the kids, how the earth tilts and how the northern and southern hemispheres have the beginning of winter and summer, respectively, at the solstice. We talked a bit about how the days are shorter in the winter and how the winter solstice would be the shortest day of the year.

During our nature walk through a lovely hammock filled with ancient live oaks, dahoon holly, strangler fig, gumbo limbo, and wild coffee, we discussed the ancient symbolism of some of the plants we encountered. For example, the oak. The oak is a tree that has been revered for eons. It is the tree of Jupiter, it symbolizes strength and endurance, and is the all important yule log. On midwinter eve, in lands across northern Europe, a fire would be lit with a branch from the oak. That branch would be passed around to light all the fires of the community. It stood for life - continuity and light. Withought light, people couldn't hunt or grow food, so the longer days of the summer were very, very important and people celebrated the fact that they were heading toward summer. Holly is another ancient plant, people believed that it enhanced fertility and cured disease. It bloomed in the winter, which made it a beautiful sight on dark, gray days.

As we walked the kids flaunted their nature knowledge by telling me what plants were what even before I asked. They are becoming expert botanists. One little naturalist even spotted a tiny black racer snake as we stopped to talk about limestone.

After our walk we sat in a semi-circle at the fire pit. It had wonderful benches for everyone - that way I had a "proper" audience! What's an audience without a story? So, we had a story. The kids all voted for a spoken story as opposed to a written one. I told the tale of how Grandmother Spider caught the sun. It is an old Native American myth explaining why we only have full sun part of the year (we have to share it with the other side), why the fox has a black tongue (burnt by the sun), why the possum has a bare tail (also burnt by the sun) and why the vulture has a bare head (again, burnt by the sun). I have to admit that I had an enraptured audience (adults included).

Then, we painted suns and stripes on the kid's faces - got a bit tribal! We passed out votive candles to each child, sat them in a circle, lit the candles and each child said what the sun meant to them. It was a beautiful ceremony.

Finally, I handed some oats and dried berries out to the kids and had them spread them around the forest. I know it was against the rules, but it felt right (except when the boys threw them into the water to feed the birds and turtles - I didn't want to actually "feed" the animals directly). It is a tradition in northern places to do this for the animals, especially when the winter is hard and frozen. This last activity dispersed us and sent us on our different ways, to celebrate our own traditions and share in the beauty and love of this holiday season.

This time of year makes most of us nostalgic. Traditions, customs and memories become center-stage and take over our minds, bodies, and homes. Trees go up, some as early as the day after Thanksgiving (or maybe even earlier - yikes!), lights get strung, red and green decorations adorn our houses. There are many different reasons for celebrating - Chanukah, Christmas, Winter Solstice, Kwanza, Saturnalia, Yule, Ramadan and many more across the world. Celebrating at this time of year is an age-old, timeless tradition and it is due to the light of the sun, or lack of it in the northern hemisphere.

Every year, twice a year, because of the way the earth is tilted on its axis, we have a solstice of the sun - one in winter and one in summer. The origin of the word, "solstice", is the Latin word, "solstitium", from sol, “sun” and -stitium, “a stoppage" - because it has been observed that the noontime elevation of the sun remains the same for a few days before and after the solstice. Astronomically speaking, solstice is when the sun is at its furthest point away from the equator. Here in the northern hemisphere, winter solstice happens when the sun is at the furthest point south of the equator that it will go, due to the tilt of the earth on its axis; that furthest point is when the sun is directly over the tropic of Capricorn. When the sun reaches that point either on December 20 or 21st of each year, the northern half of the earth gets less light and more cold. When the sun is over the tropic of Cancer on June 20 or 21st of each year, we have the summer solstice - the longest day of the year.

This phenomenon will make sense if you take a look at a globe and locate the equator, tropic of Cancer and tropic of Capricorn. Look for the northern hemisphere (above the equator) and the southern hemisphere (below the equator) and find the tropics. The southern hemisphere is opposite of us and they are just about to begin their summer!! They celebrate Christmas and New Years in the summer!!! Look at Australia, which hemisphere is it in? What about South America?

For me, the most important part of all the traditions is the winter solstice. On this shortest day of the year, my son and I got out our "evergreens and holly" - both symbolic of the circle of life and the returning of life, hung our lights - symbolizing the light returning and strengthening after the solstice, and prepared our gifts to be given - symbolizing celebration!

As a nature teacher and mother, I wanted to make the solstice special, a time to remember how the natural order of things influences our lives in so many ways.

Here in Florida we don't notice the dark and cold as much as they do up north, but it is obvious, it gets dark earlier, the air is drier and a bit cooler. We live in the place that people flock to in the winter. Instead of staying home by a warm fire, this is the time of year to get out and play in nature (sans mosquitoes, humidity and horrible heat).

South Florida doesn't have many trees that lose their leaves and hibernate - most of our trees are "evergreens" all year, it's a bit different here. However, most of us come from somewhere else, and we want to be like everyone else in some way or another, so we have blow up snow men on our front lawns (well, not me), we have fake snow on our trees, and we crank up the air conditioner so that we can pretend it's cold outside in order to drink hot cocoa.

And we get outside....

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Nature Class Times and Locations through January

Hi Naturalists
Below is a list of proposed classes, locations, dates and times ( I can only confirm a class if I have at least two families signed up ahead of time) (leave a comment if you want to get in touch and don't have my info.)

Week of Jan. 5-9, 2009:
Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009: 10-12 am
Wakodahatchee Wetlands (repeat)
13026 Jog Road, Delray Beach

Thursday Jan. 8, 2009: 10-12 and/or 1-3
Chapel Trail Nature Preserve
19800 Sheridan Street
Pembroke Pines,Fl
(954) 450-6771

Week of Jan. 12- 16 2009:
Wednesday, Jan.14 and Thursday, Jan. 15: 10-12 and/or 1-3
Anne Kolb Nature Center

751 Sheridan Street
Hollywood, FL 33019
(954) 926-2480

Week of Jan.19-23:
Thursday, Jan. 22: all day caravan, meet at 9am.
Tuesday and Wednesday are options if there is enough interest

Field Trip to Everglades National Park and Big Cypress
Tamiami Trail

Week of Jan. 26-30:
Tuesday, Jan. 27, Wednesday, Jan. 28 and Thursday, Jan. 29: 10-12 and/or 1-3
Oleta River State Park
3400 N.E. 163rd Street
North Miami, Florida 33160
Phone: 305-919-1844

Snake Warrior's Island

December 11, 2008
Snake Warrior's Island
Miramar, Florida

Today we stepped back in time. Even though the islands and wetlands have been "re-created" here at Snake Warrior's Island, it could have looked like this hundreds of years ago. In the 20th century this land was a farm, it was drained and built up to grow oranges. Recently, before the park was built, this residential area was very prone to flooding. It makes sense if you think about it because it is supposed to be wetlands here. The Everglades was dominant here just a little over 100 years ago. Like, Long Key Natural Area and the Pine Island Ridge at Tree Tops Park, this region consisted of mostly shallow, sawgrass filled water, speckled throughout with islands where the higher ground lay. Snake Warrior's Island is one of those islands. Here the ground is naturally higher, part of the Atlantic coastal ridge. This higher ground allowed for harder wood hammocks to grow, like Live Oak in this case, and provided for wildlife and humans inhabit the land.

Long ago, the Tequesta Indians lived in this area, setting up their thriving communities on these islands and using dugout canoes made out of Cypress trees to navigate through the watery world. Later, after the ancient people had been wiped out due to war, disease, and flight, the Seminole tribe moved down here from Georgia and Alabama's Creek tribes. They were on the run from the American government. They chose well coming here to Florida. The Everglades provided them with the perfect place to hide and survive. Possibly, the Tequesta and Calusa Indians that stayed behind shared their knowledge with the Seminoles, teaching them about dugout canoes and how to survive the mosquitoes, snakes, alligators and never-ending water.

The American army, however had no such knowledge and they fell prey to the endless water full of plants as sharp as razors and mosquitoes that attacked in hordes. The Seminoles knew how to hide, and live, on these islands dotted throughout the landscape. They would hide in the trees and ambush the Americans as they came upon them unawares. The Seminole tribe never signed a treaty by force and never surrendered. They are a sovereign nation to this day.

One of the great chiefs was Chitto Tustenuggee, or Snake Warrior. He was a beloved leader to his people. His land was the land here in Miramar. His people thrived here on these islands, they brought agriculture - some of the main crops were corn, sugar cane, and bananas (sugar cane and bananas were both brought from the Spanish in the 1500's).

Eventually, the people were pushed off of this land, moved to reservations in Hollywood and the Everglades. However, their history is continuing to live on thanks to Broward County and the city of Miramar. Re-creating this wetland habitat has not only served to protect the cultural heritage of Florida's people, but it is also providing a much needed home for native plants and animals, a beautiful and healthy place for the local community, and protection from flooding. The wetlands prevent flooding in the neighborhoods by diverting the water into the ponds here at the natural area.

The plants and animals are diverse and healthy. It is a wonderful place to bird watch, we saw a large amount of Common Moorhens, Tri-colored Herons, a few Great Blue Herons, Ibis, and a flock of Great Egrets and some Snowy's. While out on our nature walk through the wetland environment, the kids and the moms and I practiced our sneaking skills. We had a pretty big group, which makes it kind of hard to get close to the birds. Slowly and quietly, and on our tip toes, we got as close as we could to an Anhinga sunning herself. The children did quite well. Some of them ran off, others chased moths, but most tried very hard to fine-tune their bird-watching skills. As we were walking away from the Anhinga, one naturalist noticed a little brown bird hiding in the grasses. This bird knew how to stay hidden until we got close and then flew far to the other side as soon as we came near. He was jumping around so much that we couldn't get a good look to see who he/she was. After researching, I believe it may have been a type of Rail, maybe a Virginia Rail.

Here at the island the grasses are thriving, cord grass, saw grass, and other reeds. Kaya and Lucas were especially knowledgeable of all the plants. Kaya taught me about the red algae growing on the water. The kids learned that they could make a delicious salad out here if need be - made up of Duck Potato, Pickerel Weed, Coco Plums, greens from the leaves of Spanish Needle, Cabbage Palm hearts, Cattails, and even the hearts of Saw Grass.

On the other side of the wetland lies a beautiful, but somewhat young, Live Oak Hammock. It is stuffed full of beautiful, shady trees, making a fantastic home for the squirrels and birds (among many others) and a reprieve for local people. Here, we stepped back in time and became native children. Children who lived in the wild and off of the land needed to be very observant and stealthy and always aware of what was going on around them. They needed to know how to hide, protect themselves, and help provide for their community. Native tribes across the America's had many games that the children would play in order to develop those skills necessary to survive in their environment, and just to have fun.

Our kids became native kids for an hour. We played a few games, with a bit of a modern influence that they really loved. The first game was a memory game. Each child had a partner and a blindfold and a bunch of pennies, buttons, and marbles and such. The child without the blindfold had to create a "pattern" with the items. The partner was then able to "look" at the pattern without the blindfold in order to memorize it. Then the pattern was destroyed and the partner had to re-create it by memory. This game is wonderful to do anytime. Kids love it and it develops observation, memory, and mathematical skills. They did really well at this and could have kept at it over and over.

Next, we played "Firekeeper". One of the jobs that children would have in a tribe was that of fire-wood collector. The kids would be sent out into the forest to pick up the best sticks for kindling. I sent our kids out in the Oak hammock, on a mission to collect two pieces each. Of course they wanted to collect more than that. They were even trying to bring over huge branches. I think it is in their DNA to do this task, I swear they could do this for hours and hours. Then we made a fire circle, or pile of the wood collected. One child was chosen to be the "fire-keeper". The job was to protect the pile from thieves (the other children). The catch was that the fire-keeper is blindfolded. The other children had to sneak up on the keeper and attempt to steal one piece of wood at a time without being tagged. The fire-keeper had to remain seated and had to touch someone if they felt them. Of course, most of the wood eventually gets taken, but sometimes most of the kids also get out. There are always some really stealthy, sneaky kids who plan ahead (in this case - Zak) and get alot of wood. The child who is the fire-keeper has to use all of his senses, besides sight, which helps to strengthen the skills needed to survive. The thieves learn how to be quiet and how to work together if need be. It was great fun.

The last game we played was a version of the "Ball and Triangle" game played by the Penobscot tribe of the northeastern United States. Traditionally they used birch bark and acorns or some other nut, we used cardboard and clay and string. Before class I cut out a bunch of cardboard triangles and cut holes in the middle and attached a string. The kids made a ball out of clay and attached it to the string. The goal of the game is to get the ball through the hole. Each time they got the ball in the hole, the child was awarded with a bean. I was so surprised at how many times they got it in and how excited they were to be awarded with a bean!! I have to compete with video games and such, but am happy to say that kids really do love the simple stuff! They were able to take their triangles home, maybe they are crumpled up in a corner by now, but it doesn't matter because they were well loved for a few short moments.

Friday, December 12, 2008

For the Birds!! Wakodahatchee Wetlands

Wakodahatchee Wetlands
Delray Beach, Florida
December 4, 2008

Well, once again, I'm posting one week after our outing, it takes alot of discipline to sit down and write. Traveling to Orlando, to the land of plastic, delayed my time even more. I know there are beautiful things near Orlando (like all of the springs and lakes), but where we were was all mini golf, water slides, and chain stores. Next time we are going to the springs!

Anyway, back to Wakodahatchee Wetlands. I would rather go there any day!! What an amazing and gorgeous place. It was as if I had called ahead and ordered all the animals to be out frolicking. The wetlands are bursting at the seams with birds, turtles, alligators, and iguanas. Such a tremendous amount of wildlife for a place that just a few years ago was just a water catch for the local utilities company. Well, it still is, but now it is flourishing. A bit over 10 years ago the Palm Beach County Water Utilities decided to recreate wetlands that had once been dominant in the area. In 1996 the task was completed.

Now, about 50 acres of land is designated as wetlands and serves to further filter the water while also providing a beautiful place for native plants and animals. Every day about 2 million gallons of treated water is pumped into the wetlands. The water continues to be filtered as it runs and sifts through the native flora. Plants such as: Pond Apple, Alligator Flag, Pickerel Weed, Duck Potato, Cord Grass, Muhly Grass, Water Lily, Duck Weed, Cypress, Willow, Red Maple, and Buttonbush, make up the wetland plant communities. Along the outside, on the higher ground, you will see Sabal Palm, Live Oak, Dahoon Holly, and many more.

We started our walk with a game, called "Did you know, or D'Juno". I had some cards with rhymes on them, directing the kids to different areas along the boardwalk by clues. When the kids found the area, they had to read the inside information, which was an interesting fact about the wetland ecosystem. For example, one card may have said: "D'juno that "Wakodahatchee" translates to "created water" in the Seminole language? The game was great fun, occupied the kids while also relaying important knowledge. Next time I'll do more, they wanted to keep it up.

As soon as we walked onto the boardwalk, we saw birds. Right along the edge were some cute little Common Moorhens scooting around and yelling at us. The Moorhen is black with a red beak and they make quite alot of noise. Then we noticed something in the water, it was a Soft-shelled turtle coming up for a little peak. Once we noticed that one, we saw maybe 50 turtles, maybe more. The majority were Soft-shelled and the others were Florida Cooters, Yellow-bellied Sliders and maybe some Alligator Snappers that were hanging out on the bottom. The Florida Cooters were lined like sentinels along most of the logs that were sticking out from the water, sunning themselves to warm up and get energy for the rest of the day.

Down below the boardwalk as we walked, we continued to see bird after bird... Purple Gallinules climbing the alligator flag to eat their favorite seeds: little, cute Grebes bobbing in and out of the water; a lone Green Heron fishing along the stems of the reeds; and beautiful, ducks with blue on their wings, called Blue-Winged Teals stopping in along their migration. Up, overhead, an occasional Tri-colored Heron could be seen swooping across the water to land in a favorite hunting spot - no longer visible as its colors melded into the colors of the reeds. Great Egrets and White Ibis dotted the green grasses with their white backs; the Ibis pecking at the ground with their beaks feeling for whatever tasted good; and, the Great Egrets standing still in their silent hunting meditation, preparing to strike as quick as lightning when a fish swam by.

As we stopped to get some shade under the gazebo, we noticed a beautiful and giant Great Blue Heron perched up high in a Pond Apple tree just to our left. At first I was sure it was a Night Heron because its head was all scrunched down, but then it stretched its lovely, long neck and we saw its true form. Later we saw her flying back to her roost with a long branch - an amazing sight. She's setting up her nest. The herons and egrets all have their breeding plumage right now and will be nesting over the next few months -setting up roosts all over the trees. The kids were in awe of this bird and how close we were to her. I thinked they were shocked at how big Great Blue Herons are.

Speaking of big, as we were walking further we saw the king of the skies (or so I think), the Wood Stork. The Wood Stork is not the most gorgeous bird while on the ground and standing still (in fact it is really quite ugly and prehistoric looking), but when the Wood Stork takes off and soars through the air, it is a most remarkable and beautiful sight. Their wing spans can be up to 6 feet long and they are striking with their black and white markings and their long beaks. We only saw one stork while there, which is not encouraging as they are endangered. They make their way to Florida and south every winter to breed.

Now the other king of the wetland is the Alligator. There was a huge, big daddy alligator sunning himself on the bank right in the middle of the first section of wetlands. They are cold-blooded and therefore need to thermo-regulate to become warm and to get enough energy for later - just like the turtles and the iguanas. We also saw another alligator close to the trail, seeming to be people-watching very slyly out of the corner of her eye. I say "her" only because she was smaller than the other, but it's really hard to tell female from male.

Later, as we walked and enjoyed the plants and the abundance of wetland birds, we were treated to two Red-shouldered Hawks cavorting in the skies above us - probably setting up nest. High above them was an Osprey playing in the currents. And even further up were the Turkey Vultures. Turkey Vultures can soar higher than most and can smell death from 10 miles away, so they were on the hunt circling and searching.

The children were fascinated and truly loved the beauty that was shown to us this day. Kim, Lauren's mom fell head over heels for this place, we'll need to get her back there, AND out to the Everglades!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Hike in the Hammock

November 20, 2008

Hugh Taylor Birch State Park

Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

Because I'm posting about our walk a week later, it's taking me a few minutes to clear my brain and see back that far! All the Thanksgiving cooking and eating yesterday has made my brain mush.

Last Thursday we had a wonderful walk on a glorious fall day in Ft. Lauderdale. We visited Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, a preserved fragment of what Ft. Lauderdale Beach may have looked like before mass development. The park is a barrier island - a lush tropical hammock hidden amongst condos and restauarants and bars - a superb piece of "real" Florida.

Most people who visit here only see the outer border of the park. There are always people riding bikes, rollerblading, walking, or fishing along the perimeter of the hammock. I took our kids deep into the interior (well, it's really not that deep). We met at the GINORMOUS (is that word in the dictionary yet?) Banyan tree that sits right next to Pavillion 1. This tree is a paradise for children. There are vines to swing on, big thick limbs to perch on, and little nooks and holes to hide in. This old mama of a tree is not a native, but she has truly made herself at home. We read a lovely story about the life of a tree and then got ready for our walk.

Taking more than 10 children, plus their moms on a quiet, serene hike in the woods is not always possible, so we opted for the noisier, kind of chaotic-type walk. It's more important to me that the kids just get outside and breathe fresh air and get away from tvs and computers, any time spent amongst the trees is worthwhile. The kids in the group ran the gamut, we had the fast walkers who wanted to keep going and really trek, and we had the kids who just didn't want to be there, who wanted the playground instead, but each one of them will now have a memory of walking in the woods in south Florida!!

Along the way through Hugh Taylor Birch park you see many different ecosystems. First, we were in the sandy, upland type environment, full of Wild Coffee, Morning Glory, Strangler Fig, Napal Palm, and some visitors - Surinam Cherry and several types of fig trees (cousins to the Banyan and Strangler) from as far away as Africa. As we walked into the shade of this part of the fores, we, in front, saw a falcon gliding through the branches - maybe chasing a Mourning Dove.

The trail is very overgrown, which lends to its jungle-like feel. As we walked further, we must have lost elevation - maybe a foot, which is alot in this area. Looking down by our feet, hundreds of crab holes dotted the trail. Land Crabs reside in the big holes and Fiddler Crabs in the little holes. The crabs especially like one particular area where there is a big tree that went down and left behind a gaping root hole that is now an ephemeral puddle.

Further along, there is a stretch of dead snags back behind the trail. These dead trees were probably Australian Pines - a non-native that is being eradicated from all state parks due to its invasive qualities. However, these snags make great homes for owls, food for beetles and many others, as well as perches for the birds of prey that visit; and, they add an eerie, mystical quality to the trail.

Next, we came upon some marshy, muddy mangrove areas. Since the park is on a barrier island, the tides come in and affect the freshwater lagoon and flood over some areas of the park. The mud is drying up quite a bit now, we are in the beginning of our dry season here in Florida. The dry air makes the weather beautiful and cool, but turns the grass dry and lowers our water table enormously. The great weather also fills the roads with snow birds (not of the winged variety).

After passing through the "tunnel", the area where the old train may have travelled through, we went up a "hill" (no, our ears didn't pop) and into a hardwood area of the park. Here there are Mahogany Trees, Gumbo Limbo - also known as the tourist tree, and other varieties of tropical hardwood. The hard working Rangers were in there clearing the very overgrown trail and leaving a decoration of leaves and branches behind.

On the way back, the kids opted for the road vs. the trail. As we walked we chanted the "sun, soil, water, and air" song and stopped to see the Letterbox that is hidden among the tendrils of another giant fig tree. The kids then played for a long time at the playground while also chasing off a very hungry and determined racoon. The weather was perfect, as was the company.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Mystical Tree Tops

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A View Up High

To the tops of the trees!
Nature Class
Tree Tops Park, Davie, Florida

Thursday we entered the mystical and beautiful, lush upper world of a Florida Live Oak Hammock. Tree Tops Park, of Broward County Parks and Recreation, is one of those rare places in south Florida where you actually feel like you are "in the woods" when you are there. Upon entering the nature trail, you step into an ancient beach dune system that is part of the Pine Island Ridge System (same ridge as Long Key). On this dry, sandy, "high" ground live the Florida Live Oaks. These trees can survive far into their "hundreds' and are absolutely remarkable. Spanish Moss and Bromeliads live amongst their branches, Resurrection Fern covers their limbs like fur, birds and squirrels play chase for their fruit - the acorn- and hundreds of animals call them "home".

Most of the time while nature walking, the focus tends to be on the plants and animals that are at our eye level. Today I wanted the focus to be up high, to the tops of the trees.

As we walked along the trail we learned about the many native plants that surrounded us. Many of the plants at Tree Tops are edible in one way or another, so, we discussed how the plants may have been eaten. For instance, Poke Berry or Poke Weed: this plant is very abundant here. In the times of the pioneers it was a very important plant. It is eaten in the spring, just after it shoots up out of the ground. Because it is toxic in any other form, the spring is the only time you can enjoy it! Have you heard of "Poke sallat"? Other edibles include, acorns, Wild Coffee, Spanish Needle, Sour Oranges, Coco Plum, Elderberry, and many more.

Above the trail are the many fur-lined branches of the Oaks, providing both shade and beauty. The day proved hot and still, so the shade was very welcome. The birds seemed to be sleeping in the stillness, our only aviary friends were the Turkey Vultures out flying on the scent. As we entered further into the Hammock, we came to a little island meadow - surrounded by the trail. We stopped here to play and enjoy the beauty of the park. First, I directed the kids in a game about squirrels searching for trees to live in, unfortunately the game was very boring. So, I thought quickly and made up a new version of a Photosynthesis relay game I know of. I divided the kids into teams - squirrels, blue jays, and acorns. The little ones and a couple of moms were the acorns! The squirrels and the blue jays had to compete for the acorns by seeing who could get the most the fastest. The game demonstrated how these two animals compete for the all-important acorn. The junior naturalists seemingly enjoyed themselves despite the technical difficulties.

Next, chaos kind of broke loose. Now, there is order in chaos, so it turned out okay. After I showed the kids a Gopher Tortoise burrow (so cool!), they discovered the "Tree House". Tree Tops Park has a wonderful canopy view tower so that visitors can observe life in the tops of the trees. Unfortunately, this tower is a little on the rickety side!!! Imagine 20 kids racing to the top of it, yelling and excited and then getting to the top and realizing it moves and shakes around!! Now imagine the moms! That was the chaos. Luckily the tower remained and the kids were able to calm down and enjoy the view. The children that stayed up high got to get a good look at how the epiphytes grow on the limbs and to see the eternal lines of spider webs weaving their way through the forest.

The children down on the ground came upon the giant fig tree that is spreading its tendrils out down along the trail. This fig is not a native fig like the Strangler Fig, it's a Banyan tree. They make for wonderful playgrounds. Not only can the kids climb in among it's many arms and legs, but they can swing on their far reaching vines. There is one vine that hangs just above the railing of the ramp up to the view tower. It is set up perfectly for a child to climb up, take hold of the vine and swing. My son and I discovered this on another day and I was so excited to share it with the class. Let's just say, they LOVED IT! I had to quit my job as helper after each child had their second turn - it tired me out. What a bunch of monkeys we have in class!!!

Collage of Secret Woods Nature Class

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Spooky, Slimy Secret Woods

A blog about nature class 10/30/08

Secret Woods Nature Center

Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

Because it was the day before Halloween, I invited the kids to come in costume - so, we had some witches and skeletons and a couple of knights in our midst. Our mission was to discover some of the darker sides of nature, including crabs lurking in their holes, decay and decomposition, and the inhabitants of the slime in the mangroves. The class was excited and animated throughout the two hours and really enjoyed the beauty of Secret Woods.

The park itself is a small, hidden little treasure, tucked away in Ft. Lauderdale. As you walk down the nature trail from the parking lot, the first diversion is the Butterfly garden. This garden was planted over the last few years and is doing extraordinarily well. Among the many butterflies are the Atala Butterfly, which not too long ago was thought to be extinct. This small, black butterfly lays its eggs in the Coontie plant, the caterpillars feast on the leaves before they metamorphosize into butterflies. The plant was almost wiped out, and along with it the Atala. Now people are planting Coontie and the butterflies have returned. Further along the trail, you come to the Nature Center. It is an engrossing, cozy little center that informs the visitor about the history of the area, including how it was a trading area for indians and settlers before it was urbanized.

The New River used to be a free flowing fresh water river coming from the Everglades heading to the Atlantic. The Seminoles and Miccosukees, and I'm sure Natives before them, used the river as a passage to the ocean. Settlers, including the Stranahan family, later traded with the natives, by way of the river. In 1906, Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, in his mission to drain the Everglades, began dredging the New River to turn it into a canal - so that more water would be diverted to it in order to drain the area. The landscape changed dramatically, this area where Secret Woods lies is one of the last "natural" sections of this once flourishing ecosystem.

You can see the "New River", which is now really a canal, off of the "New River Trail" at Secret Woods. Nature, of course, won't be daunted and has blossomed around this little wild oasis. Mangroves are thriving near the water and act as nursery and home to hundreds of different kinds of creatures, the most often seen are crabs, mullet, and wading birds. Golden Orb Weaver spiders cling to the branches of Mangrove, Cabbage (or Sabal) Palm, Cypress, Strangler Fig, White Stopper, and many more native trees. Along the trail, land crab holes dot the soil and dead and decaying snags play host to all kinds of fungi, lichen, and worms and beetles. Wild coffee, Coco Plum and Spanish Needle embellish the sides of the trail, displaying the wild and natural beauty of Florida.

As the kids and I meandered down the trail, we stopped and inspected life (and death) in action. We saw many different examples of decomposition in its different stages and learned the "Decompsition" song (written by Steve Van Zandt - my old boss). We examined the holes of the crabs and later played the Land Crab Migration game. Each child was a land crab that had to make it to the ocean to mate - despite obstacles such as, urban development and cars. It was very enjoyable for all, including the moms who got to play the part of ocean reprieve. On the way back we played a classic environmental education game, the Burma Shave. Along the trail I layed cards down. On each card was written an instruction , like: "find a spider and observe it" or, "walk or talk like your favorite animal" or, "howl like a wolf" or, "lay down and enjoy nature". Each child either went on their own, or with a person who could read for them. My favorite was the last - "hug a tree". Jules, P.J.'s mom, got some great pics of our tree huggers.

Nature class is fast becoming a favorite; it seems that the children (and their adults) are really appreciating the beauty of south Florida that lies just outside our front doors.

Oh, I can't forget my favorite part. I got very excited about doing something "spooky, slimy" and purchased some items that weren't very "eco" (plastic stuff made in China, I'm sure)! I conjured up some slime soup and filled it with eyeballs and worms and spiders and bats. The kids got to dig into the slime and pick out their treats to keep. The slime was made of corn starch and water, very easy to do.

Overall, it was a very spooky, slimy, secret day.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Long Key Nature Center Photo Collage

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The Native Peoples and Their Watery World

Long Key Nature Center

Davie, Florida

October 23rd, 2008

Today for our class we visited an ancient lush island located in the sea of suburban Davie. The place is called Long Key. The land here was once a central home to the Tequesta, then the Seminoles and then white settlers growing oranges. Now, housing developments outnumber orange groves and Broward County has stepped in and reclaimed this jewel in order to preserve it for future generations. Long Key is essentially a large island - part of the Pine Island Ridge system - a system of leftover ancient dunes that have become our uplands, our "high" ground. If we were to stop controlling the water, they would be true islands once again. The upland area of Long Key is home to a beautiful Oak Hammock, lush with native plants and animals and surrounded by vibrant re-established wetlands. The land and the animals are thriving - it is truly an oasis. To learn more, go to the website:

Today was the perfect day to be out. The forecast predicted an 80% chance of rain, but we gambled and went anyway and were so thankful that we did. The overcast skies kept it cool and made for a very pleasant day of nature wandering. The wildlife loved the cooler weather too, our group of naturalists spotted a Great Egret, cute little Moorhens, a Tri-colored Heron, and the biggest Iguana I've ever seen. We saw how a wetland acts as a sponge and a filter and as a nursery for the young. In the forest we saw giant Golden OrbWeavers behaving as guardians of the hammock and an unknown fungus that looked like lace. We became Native American children today and played games that would have sharpened our skills as hunters and gatherers in the past. We learned that wild coffee (psychotria nervosa) might make you have "nervous psychosis" and that if you knew how to get the poisons out, you could eat the Coontie plant.

After our games and wanderings, we spent an enjoyable visit in the Nature Center. It is a wonderful place to go - very kid-friendly, state of the art, and educational, it really tied together all that we learned outside.

Florida and water go together, especially here in south Florida. Go back 100 years or even less and you would need a canoe to navigate across the land. The land is a peninsula, and, therefore surrounded by water on three sides: the Gulf of Mexico to the west, the Florida Bay to the south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. We have Lake Okechobee and all the rivers to the north adding more water to the landscape. Each rainy season (May to November) we get about 54 inches of rain creating a very wet state indeed. In fact, Florida has more natural fresh water springs than any other state!! We are just bursting at the seams!!

You are probably wondering how we manage to live here...... well, it took many, many years and a lot of digging! I won't go into details now but if you want a good read about the way it all works, read "The Swamp" by Michael Grunwald. Basically, we dredged into the limestone and diverted the water into canals - which are controlled by locks. Now, the flow from the Everglades is controlled by the South Florida Water Management District. In the last 100 years, we have lost about over 50% of our wetlands - a very short time for such tremendous losses.

Wetlands are vital to the Earth, and of course, to Florida. The habitats we have are dependent upon them for survival. Without the wetlands our fresh water source - the Floridan Aquifer would be threatened. These vital waterways filter and strain out pollutants and dirt as the water flows through them, pre-treating the water before it seeps down into the limestone bedrock that makes up the Florida Plateau. The water also cleans itself before it runs to the sea, lessening the phosphates and other things that may flow into the salt water ecosystems. Currently, because our water is tainted with pollutants and phosphates - due to overpopulation of people and lack of wetlands, the bay and ocean systems are suffering.

Wetlands serve as breeding grounds and home to many Florida species, especially birds. In the spring the trees dotting the wetlands and ponds are filled with nests, cradling the young of herons, egrets, and many, many more. The plants and trees provide shelter, camouflage, and food. When it gets cold in the north, Florida wetlands are an essential stopping ground for migrating birds. Wetlands also play a very important role as a spawning and nursery habitat for fish and shell fish populations.

Florida, in all its watery-glory has been home to humans for thousands of years. The warmth and prosperity of the land here has encouraged settlements for the last 10,000 years!!! Over the course of thousands of years, the land we now live upon has changed dramatically. For millions of years, Florida was under the ocean, building up sediment, then for hundreds and thousands of years, the coastlines changed back and forth, creating islands or large plateaus of land. All of these changes were the result of many different ice ages - either forming or melting. About 15-20,000 years ago, we had our most recent ice age, the oceans receded and the plateau of Florida was revealed. At this time, Florida was much larger than it is now, cooler than it is now, and much drier. Further north it grew very cold and was covered in ice, the animals moved southward, with the humans following. The people followed the game - deer, giant sloths, mastodons, saber toothed tigers, and many more prehistoric creatures, the humans thrived but many of the animal species didn't, possibly due to overhunting.

Moving southward, the human populations settled into areas throughout Florida. About 5,000 years ago the largest tribe in south Florida was the Calusa settlement on the west coast of Florida, near Naples. The people there were tremendously successful, they were so adept at hunting and gathering that they never developed a need for agriculture, like the rest of the world's people. Fish and game were plentiful and able to nourish the natives to become fierce, intelligent people with elaborate religious rituals, beautiful art, and finely-engineered tools and weapons. Among the tribes the Calusa controlled were the Tequesta Indians. The Tequesta lived on the east coast of Florida, from West Palm to Miami and the Keys. The site here at Long Key is an ancient home to the Tequesta tribe, dating back at least 3-5,000 years ago.

Before the Florida government succeeded at draining the Everglades, this area in Davie was a series of islands surrounded by the slow-moving fresh water. Before that, going back thousands and thousands of years, these higher areas of ground were our ancient coastlines, where sand built up as dunes. The Tequesta lived here peacefully - harvesting from the local plants, like: coontie, wild coffee, various palms and greens; hunting the local animals, such as, white-tailed deer, rabbits, squirrels, alligator, fish, turtles, manatees, whales, dolphin, fish, crabs, shellfish, and many, many more. After the Spanish arrived, they lived in relative peace but were wiped out, along with the other tribes, by disease, slavery, and warring. The Spanish brought us cattle, wild pigs, banannas, and sugar cane.

Soon after the ancient tribes were gone, the Seminole and the Miccosukee Indians moved in. They came from the Creek and Muskogee Indians in Alabama, Georgia, and northern Florida. The Seminole name comes from a Spanish word, "Cimarrone" - or "runaway". Miccosukee literally means "pig-farmer". These groups of people moved into the wilds of south Florida because it was so "wild" and wet and they were hopeful that they would escape the white man's soldiers. They successfully hid for many years, never lost a war and are still living here in south Florida today.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

John U. Lloyd Photo Collage

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Salt of the Sea and the Muck of the Mangroves

October 16, 2008 - Thursday
John U. Lloyd State Park
Dania Beach, Florida

Finally, we are seeing a change of seasons, after a very long summer of heat, humidity and thunderstorms, the weather is shifting. Today, under blue skies we explored the beauty of the barrier island ecosystem. The breeze kept us cool and refreshed and reminded us of the coming of Halloween and Thanksgiving.

The changes are very subtle here and you have to be familiar with Florida in order to recognize them. Even a drop in a few degrees beckons feelings of Autumn to us Floridians. People start flocking outside, heading to the beach, going camping, maybe a little hiking, or just walking more around their neighborhoods. Then we get the folks coming from the north, leaving the grey cold to enjoy the best time of the year in Florida. I always say that summer here is like winter elsewhere, people stay home more because of the heat and rain and mosquitoes - we curl up with a good book in the air conditioning and wait out the storms! Not quite like a warm fire, a bowl of soup and a book in a winter storm, but the best we have!

Now, back to our nature class. Today was our first homeschooling class after the summer and the turn out was wonderful, including very determined and curious racoons and squirrels. There are alot of new families who are so excited to get out in nature and discover what Florida has to offer, and I am so happy to have them in my class.

John U. Lloyd State Park is a beautiful strip of beach stretching from just North of Dania Pier to Port Everglades Waterway. The Atlantic borders the east, the intracoastal the west, creating a barrier island ecosystem. Along the Atlantic coast side, the beach is long and skinny, caused by tidal erosion, sometimes at low tide, pools of water form - creating fantastic areas to play and dig. The beach is anchored up the shore by the very important dunes. The state park has done a wonderful job restoring these dunes and replanting dune grasses, like the hearty Sea Oats that are everywhere. The dune plants hold on to the sand and prevent it from eroding rapidly. The dunes create a natural barrier and protect the land beyond from the wind and tides. They create an environment for all kinds of critters - beach mice, snakes and other small reptiles, rabbits, insects, nematodes and many amazing plants.

Just inland from the dunes is a calm, shallow and protected inlet of brackish water. The water flows in from the coast on one side and the intracoastal on the other. The intracoastal is fed by both the ocean and fresh water coming from the Everglades. This brackish environment is perfect for sustaining a mangrove habitat. These mangrove forests are the cradle of life in the ocean. Babies of all kinds of animals, including crocodiles, sharks, most fishes, crabs, sea turtles, and birds begin their lives in the shallows of these forests.

The outstretched legs (also known as "prop roots") of the Red Mangrove provide shelter and food; like, mussels, little fish, algae, bacteria and fungi, and small invertebrates. The water below the mangroves is a rich soup of nutrients made up of a recipe of decomposed leaves and branches, animal droppings, and decomposed life forms. This peat is trapped by the roots of the mangroves and serves as a delicious formula for the beginnings of life.

Mangroves are special trees because they can survive not only in water, but in salt water. Across the world there are over fifty different types of mangroves, there are three in Florida, the Red, the Black, and the White. The Red mangroves grow closest to the water and have the "prop roots", or "spider legs", as I call them, they also have the long skinny seeds, called propagules that we see floating in on the tides or littering the beaches. Their seeds can live for at least a year while just floating around. If they happen to find a shallow, muddy area along the coast they will take root. The Black mangroves are notable because the backsides of their rounded leaves are coated with a yummy layer of salt - in the sun they sparkle. Young naturalists love to lick these like salt popsicles. The Black mangrove is expelling the salt for survival. Another way to recognize the Black mangrove is by its "cable roots", which look like sticks popping out of the mud, they are like a snorkle for the tree, providing oxygen while submerged. Further behind the Red and Black mangroves are the White. The White mangroves grow more in the drier, elevated areas, don't have prop roots and have sharper looking eliptical, yellowish green leaves.

Mangroves thrive in salt, why is the sea salty? There are many different legends all over the world which elaborate on various reasons: there is a magic grinding mill from Norway that is infinitely grinding salt into the ocean, and there is the case of the giant from the Phillipines who spread his legs across the ocean so the people could walk across and share his salt - after putting his foot in an ant pile he couldn't keep his legs on the ground and subsequently all of the salt spilt into the ocean. (Go to this link to read the full story: ) Can you come up with your own story?

In our times, we know (or think we do) that the salt comes from mineral and sediments ground away from the earth by water and wind. The salt is carried to the ocean by rivers and deposited into the ocean. Each day water is evaporated and the salt remains, creating fresh water for rain and salt water for the ocean. Some scientists now believe that our oceans would be ridiculously salty if earthquakes didn't continue shaking it all up and redistributing the salt, see the article: The Shaky Solution for a Too-Salty Sea, by Carla Helfferich on Of course, humans and other animals consume the salt, which is absolutely necessary for our survival, and help in its dispersal.

After hearing the story of the giant and his salt and then taking a wonderful nature walk on the boardwalk through the mangroves the kids and I did a little science experiment. We collected water in jars from the ocean, the inlet, and the bathroom sink. Then we put an egg (uncooked) in each jar. The idea was that the egg in the ocean water would float due to the density of the salt in the water. However, none of the eggs floated. Our scientific reason for this was that the fresg water from the great amounts of rain we have had recently has diluted the seawater a bit. We think the flow from the intracoastal has also lessened the salt content.

Our class ended at the beach. We played sharks and minnows to the great approval of most of the kids, others went exploring or swimming, or just relaxed on this beautiful day. The naturalists found sponges, pieces of coral, and one giant seed pod (still unknown). They played tag with the waves and watched an osprey hunting for fish.

It was a beautiful day.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Scooping Up the Bay

Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Crandon Park, Key Biscayne, Miami, Florida
Alternative Homeschoolers
Naturalists: Cedar, Roman, Mick, Ryan, Isabella, Rose, Christian, Ricky, and their moms.

Biscayne Bay is a beautiful stretch of clear blue, shallow water. It hugs the southeast corner of Florida, separated by barrier islands and mangroves. Biscayne Bay is fed by the freshwater flow from the Everglades, creating an estuarine environment. The bay is naturally very shallow and alternates between sandy, almost barren stretches and grassy underwater meadows.

We met in the parking lot in front of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Nature Center. The class started in the nature center, exploring the touch tank, the books, shells, skeletons, and bones. We then moved out onto the beach with our buckets, shovels, and nets. The kids got right to the scooping, led by fearless and curious Therese. Cedar immediately found a giant Moon Jelly. Later we realized they were everywhere, alive and dead. We pulled up seaweed with Portuguese Man o' Wars and carefully placed them aside. We placed all of our finds (very gently) in buckets and clear containers for viewing. We replenished the water occasionally and left them in the shade for protection.

After the first finds, the kids were very excited and dedicated to their task. We went out to the grassy meadow and really found the treasures. We began scooping up loads of crabs and shrimps. We found hermit crabs, snails, many kinds of shrimp, and baby spider crabs (wearing their decorations of algae). Then Roman scooped up we thought was a needle fish, I looked at it later and realized it wasn't a needlefish. I thought it looked like a seahorse, but Therese said it was different than the seahorses they saw there before, I was very curious. After perusing my guidebook we decided it could possibly be a trumpet fish - but the tail was different. I looked it up online after returning home and am pretty sure it was a pipefish. It was super cool looking. I thought it was distressed in the container because it was upside down, but I read later that they suck up their food like a vacuum, so it was just doing its thing.

Rose and Isabella found some shrimps, the most fabulous we found were the brilliant green shrimp. They were beautiful, tiny and deep, deep green. My research was frustrating. I haven't figured out exactly who they are. They might be what we call the "green shrimp", but the site I found said it was from India and I couldn't find any information saying they were in Florida. I will keep looking.

We found a little puffer fish who blew up at us when we put it in the container. Someone scooped up a bunch of stuff with a beautiful lion fish hiding in the sargassum. We also saw lots of little slug like creatures stuck to the seaweed. Overall, the findings were abundant. Imagine all of the life that we couldn't see with our human eyes. Next time we will have to bring a microscope.

We set up all of the buckets in the shade on the table so that we could check everything out. The kids were so fascinated. It was very exciting for them. They were very respectful and loved releasing them when we were done. We thanked the animals and sent them back to their water wonderland.

Then it was playtime. I had planned games and activities, but the kids just wanted to swim and dig and run around. They had a blast. Rose, unfortunately was in the wake of a man o' war and felt its sting. I found it after, it was very small and its tentacles were an incredible deep blue. Rose was hurting badly on her arms. The lifeguard put vinegar on her rash and Dora shared her Burt's Bees salve, which helped a bit. Time is the only cure for the poison. Rose was very brave and now has an exciting story to share on her next visit.

The day was beautiful, a perfect "winter" Florida day - about 75 F, sunny, with a slight breeze. It really doesn't get much better.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Beginning

"In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught." (Baba Dioum, 1968.)

How will I teach so that there will be understanding?