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