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.