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.

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