Monday, January 26, 2009

Every Child Outside Everglades Exploration

What a week! We have a wonderful new president, a time of forward change and hope. It was such an historical week - an important time for our children to learn and to be aware of the happenings in the world. Our homeschoolers were not behind in their duties as young Americans and life-learners. While out in the middle of the Shark River Slough in the Everglades, we watched Barrack Obama become our president!
We stood around a black and white, battery operated, radio television (thankfully brought by Zainab) watching, while a group of tourists joined us. In the background, the alligators were thermo-regulating (getting warm), the birds were hunting or frolicking, and the tourists were snapping photos.

Inaguration Day - Tuesday - was the first of three days visiting The Everglades National Park ( ) and Big Cypress National Preserve ( with ECO - Every Child Outside, Nature Classes.
The next two blog entries are about our explorations at both the slough and the Cypress swamp.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Shark Valley Slough Exploration

As I look back at last week's adventures, I'm filled with such a satisfied feeling. Our ECO classes had such wonderful, exciting day trips to the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve, many of our explorers had never been there and had no idea that it was even there. I'm so happy to be the facilitator of such an experience.

As we began our journey and headed south on US 27 and then Krome Ave. - HWY 997, we were met with the very dramatic scene of thousands of dead Melaleuca trees. These snags are the result of a very expensive and time-consuming effort to rid the Everglades of this pesty tree. Each tree has been cut in the middle, injected with herbicide and left to die out. I know it sounds horrible, but it is necessary. The trees are also known as Punk Trees; we called them Paper Trees when I was a child. They hail from Australia and are adapted to drought conditions - they were brought here on purpose for that reason. Their job was to help drain the marsh so it could be used for farming, etc. Once we realized we needed to save some of the Everglades, we were left with Melaleuca and Australian Pine. Now they are a scourge and the cut and squirt process is the most successful as of yet - they spread seed under pressure and under fire. Anyway, it makes for dreary surreal landscape.
The birds love the snags. There are a large number of Red-shouldered Hawks and Ospreys, scanning the horizon from up high. Often, the Iguanas are sunning themselves along the canal and in the branches. You will also see vultures spreading their wings, egrets, and Anhingas. At sunset, along 997, the birds all line up, faces to the sun - there were about 500 Boat-tailed Grackels up there one day.

Our first stop was along Tamiami Trail, just west of the Miccosukee casino.

The Miccosukee - - have their reservations along Tamiami Trail as you drive west with their signature Chickees lined up. The Miccosukee and the Seminoles came here over 300 years ago-branching out from the Creek and Muskogee tribes. They are considered sovereign nations as they did not surrender to the American government when trying to be forced to moved to reservations west of the Mississippi river.

We stopped at the water gate just west of the casino. I wanted to show everyone an overview of the slough and give them an idea of how the water management system works,19853430&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL , and how the tamiami trail ( ) was built. Here at the eastern edge of the Shark River slough you can see the expanse of the sawgrass ( ) , see that the water is deeper in some areas, and see the tree islands dotting the landscape. A slough is a deeper area that allows for more water flow. It is a kind of valley - with only a difference in elevation of a few inches. The gradation in south Florida is so minimal that it would take a drop of water one year to flow from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay - but it IS flowing, it IS a river.

On Wednesday and Thursday, while at the water gate, we saw an eerie site - upside down frog legs moving in the current - no frog heads attached. I realized later that they must be from a frogging mission -someone caught frogs to be eaten, skinned them and threw the skins in the water. They filled with water and floated upside down to make a very strange garden.

After getting a good view and introduction to the water system we drove further west on Tamiami Trail - keeping a lookout for alligators and birds. We turned left to enter the Shark Valley Visitor Center of Everglades National Park - As we drove in we got to see many alligators, herons, and other birds immediately as we entered the park.

We took wonderful walks along the canal, spotting loads of wildlife - the most exciting being the alligators, especially the one that slithered out of the water and walked around.

The scene along the canal reminded me of a possible scene at a mall- large amounts of teenagers -in this case teenage alligators - hanging out with each other. Most of the alligators were pretty young, some probably from last year's clutches. Despite their age, they were a site to be seen. We had to really watch the little children because I don't think they thought the alligators were always real.

My favorite animal was the juvenile Little Blue Heron. The Little Blue is white for the first year of its life. Some feel that is the case so that the young bird can hang out with the Snowy Egrets and follow them around for food. So, why doesn't the Little Blue follow grown-up Little Blue Herons? I don't know - I guess there is more success with Snowy Egrets because there are more of them. Well, I loved this baby bird because he kept trying to land on the lily pads to catch a fish and would fall in the water a little bit and was just so darn cute.

We saw so many birds: one Limpkin, several Little Blue Gnatcatchers, two juvenile Little Blue Herons, several adult Little Blue Herons, many Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Anhingas, and Cormorants, many, many Snowy Egrets, and hundreds of Ibis -on Tuesday hundreds of Ibis burst out of the trees and covered the sky for a few minutes - it was an awesome site, we also saw Red Shouldered Hawks and Ospreys.

The next part of our nature walk was the Bobcat Boardwalk Trail. This lovely trail meanders through a Bay head - a tree island in the middle of the sawgrass marsh. The Bay Head is named after the Red Bay, which is the dominant tree of this particular island. If Willow was more dominant it would be called a Willow Head. Now, I thought it was pretty close, there was an awful lot of Willow growing. We learned that: Willow provides relief for pain (aka aspirin), you can eat Coco Plum, Pond Apple, Sawgrass Tubers (if you have gloves), Cattail, Pickerel Weed, Duck Potato - all plants that were growing on the island. We learned that Periphyton is the beginning of the food web here in the marsh - it's an algae that provides food and cover to: baby fish, turtles, crabs, crawfish, and mosquito larvae. An amazing thing about these islands is the cover they provide for wildlife, even the wet islands like the Bay Head. Alligators build their warm compost heap nests and lay their eggs, birds of all kinds roost in the trees, and mammals have dry ground (well, sometimes) to find food. The Seminole and Miccosukkee tribes successfully avoided surrender by hiding out on these islands and then ambushing the soldiers as they came by.

The children were incredibly awed and excited. They couldn't move fast enough to see what bird or fish or animal we'd see next. They are already avid and achieved bird watchers and botanists and are itching to learn more.

This ends part one of our Everglades Exploration, the Big Cypress Swamp is next.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Anne Kolb Habitat

Anne Kolb Nature Center
Hollywood, Florida
January 15, 2009

Last week we visited Anne Kolb Nature Center in Hollywood, Florida, . This beautiful little spot sits at the eastern end of Sheridan street - with the Intracoastal Waterway on one side and West Lake on the other. West Lake is not a true lake, it is a leftover of dredging done in the early 1900's by Robert Young. Mr. Young was the founder of Hollywood. He built Hollywood Boulevard and Sheridan Street by dredging and filling. The mangroves were cut down and the limestone bedrock was blown up and dug out. The dirt that was dredged out became the fill for the road - it needed to be filled because it was mostly wetland. The hole that was made became the "lake". There are two other "lakes" further south - North Lake and South Lake - and they border Hollywood Boulevard.

The West Lake area was never developed and was acquired by Broward county in the 1970's due to the brave activism of a woman named Anne Kolb. Thanks to Ms. Kolb we now have one of the largest tracts of mangroves left in the area. In her honor, the county built an excellent, interactive nature center dedicated to its protector, with wonderful boardwalks meandering through several different areas of the mangroves surrounding it.

As a class we went off the beaten path a bit. I led our naturalists along one of the shorter boardwalks - The Mud Flat trail. While walking the kids were able to lick salt popsicles (the underside of the Black Mangrove leaf), observe the walking trees (the Red Mangrove and its "walking" roots), listen to the sound of the shrimps popping, and see the Mangrove Tree Crabs crawling. We tried to stand as still as possible to see if the fiddler crabs would come out of there holes, but the crabs were too smart and didn't want to face our big group. Our main lesson this morning was the idea of a habitat - learning who and what lived in that area and how they survived.

From there, the morning class went into the woods and the afternoon class went to the lake. The woods that the morning class went to were the Australian Pines. Australian Pines are an invasive, exotic tree that are slowly being erradicated all over south Florida. They were brought over, along with the Melaluca, to help drain water. They are from a drought ridden area in Australia and love water. However, they go crazy here in south Florida because there is SO much water. They grow and grow and grow and take over native flora and push out wildlife. HOWEVER, the kids love them - they provide a wonderful shady, wooded area that is so unusual here, and they can be broken easily to build into forts. There is something special about going into a forest with trees over your head and the children felt it immediately. They ran wild. While there in the cover of the trees, we attempted to do a Habitat Lap Sit - to see how everything needs to work together in order to accomplish a goal. Our kids are so many different sizes that it was very hard to do - which, I guess, was the point.

After passing through the very small grove of trees, we crossed the street over to the paved walking trail. This trail leads you southward, under Sheridan street along the Intracoastal Waterway. Once you get to the south side of Sheridan street the trail becomes a dirt trail and is really quite "out there". You feel like you are far away from the rest of the city. We entered the intricate mangrove waterways that are home to manatees, american crocodiles (s. Florida is the only place in N. America where crocodiles live), and many fish and crabs, osprey, hawks, the list goes on. If you ever want to get away while staying nearby, this is the place to go.

Our class spent the rest of the time throwing rocks into the intracoastal, trying to catch nonexistent fish with the nets and exploring in the mangroves along the edge. I'm always in awe of the amount of time children (and adults) can spend throwing rocks into water - it's such a satisfying game. We also tested the water. I wanted them to test the saltiness. We gathered some water in a tub and placed a raw egg in the tub of water to see if it would float. If it floats, the water is quite salty - the salt takes up more space causing the egg to float. Sometimes I like to be an egg in the ocean on a warm, still Florida day. The water from the intracoastal was not salty enough, and neither was the water in the mangroves. There is freshwater flow entering these waters from the west (Everglades and rivers), plus rainwater. The freshwater meets the salty water of the Atlantic and becomes brackish. If you read a past post - from John U. Lloyd, you'll see that we also tried this with the ocean water - which surprisingly wasn't salty enough either.

Now, my later class - which was mostly little fellows, went a different route. We continued on down the Mud Flat trail to its end. Along the way we sang the "Habitat" song, which was a hit, and licked salt off the leaves. At the edge of the lake we sat and enjoyed the flight of an Osprey looking for a fish for its lunch. Once back by the nature center, we went down to the mud flat and played in the water. We almost lost our shoes in the muck (muck is created by the decomposed leaves of the mangroves), got our pants wet, and tested the water. Guess what? It wasn't salty enough to float an egg! Besides throwing rocks into water and building forts, you can't beat playing in the water and the mud!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Web of Life at Chapel Trail Nature Preserve

Chapel Trail Nature Preserve
Pembroke Pines, Florida
January 8, 2009

This last Thursday proved my theory that people really want to get outside and experience nature. We had 28 children and 18 adults attend my morning class - WOW! It is very exciting and very daunting at the same time. As a naturalist I am thrilled that so many children and their grown-ups want to be in the beautiful outdoors, playing games, learning the names of plants and animals and beginning to understand how it all works. Everyone who goes outside and looks at what is around them is gaining something - gaining a Sense of Place and a Sense of Self. When we learn how something came to be and how it works and how it benefits us, we walk away more rounded, grounded and connected. We strengthen our own place in the diverse and very complicated web of life.

Chapel Trail Nature Preserve ( is a small, pristine wetland seperated from the great expanse of the Everglades just a few miles west. Of course, as you all know, most of south Florida was wetlands not too long ago. The high and dry land was the rarity and the wetlands were the majority. Now, after a lot of digging and draining in the early 1900's, the wetlands are few and far between and the strip malls and housing developments are all around.

The Chapel Trail wetlands were created by the Florida Communities Trust ( in the 1990's in order to meet the needs of the city of Pembroke Pines; they are required to save a percentage of land for parks and mitigation. The preserve is 459 acres of wetlands, including a boardwalk, interpretive signs, shady reprieves, and canoe rentals. The wetlands provide the city with a natural means of filtering and cleaning the water, natural flood control, and vital animal and plant habitat. As a bonus, and a very good one, the people of the community (including our nature class) are able to have a peaceful, accessible place to enjoy the wild life inherent to south Florida.

Our class was a noisy and a crowded one, let's just say that we didn't see a whole lot of birds out there - because of the kids or the environment I don't know. I'm spoiled by our trips to Wakodahatchee Wetlands ( - being that there are ridiculous amounts of birds residing in those wetlands, so I expect to see lots of birds everywhere now. We did see a Great Egret stealthily hunting its prey, and a horde of Turkey Vultures hovering above us - doing their circling dance of death. A cute little Mockingbird came and sang to us while we were learning about the food chain, it was ironic too, because I wasn't expecting a Mockingbird in the wetlands and I said I thought it was a bird traveling through from the north. But, no, it was our state bird - they are so common and so noisy, they mimick other birds instead of having their own call, and are even known to sing the song of the car alarm! Before the class started, we did see a northern immigrant - coming here for the warm weather and abundance of bugs in the winter - the Loggerhead Strike. If you are interested in birding, go to: They have a wonderful guide and a way to listen to the call of most birds. There are also a lot of activities and websites to research.

On the way we discussed how the animals that live in the wetland might fit in the food web. Where does the Red Shouldered Hawk fit? What about periphyton - a type of algae? What about bacteria? Chapel Trail Nature Preserve has become home to many local animals, including, alligators, snakes, turtles, birds, raccoons, insects, rabbits, and even deer. We were lucky enough to see a giant soft-shelled turtle and a very camouflaged Water Moccasin snake - also known as a Cottonmouth. I didn't see the head, so I can't say for sure that it was our venemous friend, but I'm pretty sure it was - probably a juvenile due to its coloring. However, the Brown Water Snake looks deceptively like a Moccasin. The shape of the head would have given us more clues. Most venemous snakes (pit vipers) have an "arrow" shaped head, while non-venemous have longer, skinnier heads. If we had seen the snake with its mouth open, we would have known for sure - seeing the white inside of the mouth - hence, the name, "cotton" mouth. The snake we saw almost looked dead, down in the reeds below the boardwalk. Even though it didn't move, the kids hung out looking at it for quite a long time.

On our way back, after a chaotic visit to the floating dock that almost sent our children into the water, I decided we needed to have a "silent" walk. The kids did wonderfully, they were as quiet as possible and did their best to use their "coyote"ears to hear the sounds and their "eagle" eyes to see the colors and shapes. By the time we got back to the parking lot, the kids were bursting at the seams. They needed to run. The only open area was the swail in the parking lot - so that is where we played. We "tried" to play the food web tag game, but it didn't really work the way it was supposed to, so I just let them chase each other and play death or life, they loved it.

Throughout the course of the hike I was,once again, very impressed at the knowledge that the kids are gaining about Florida ecosystems. They are starting to know the names of the birds and really know the plants - cocoplum, sabal palm, cypress, etc. Because they are gaining my respect as fellow naturalists, I have awarded the children that have come to at least four classes with a Young Florida Naturalist Certificate. We passed them out at the end of the class and the children were extremely proud.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Winter Solstice Collage

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