Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Trip Back in Time - Pine Island Ridge

Pine Island Ridge
Davie, Florida

This week I had an adventure, well several adventures, that opened my eyes, once again, to the beauty that can be found when you aren't looking for it. My explorations included coming upon a pair of courting giant swallowtail butterflies - twirling and spinning amongst the oaks, looking down into tortoise burrows, watching a Malachite butterfly rest upon a leaf, observing a very tiny and camouflaged praying mantis, and hiking somewhere I'd never been before. I discovered the Pine Island Ridge Trail in Davie and was able to share it with a wonderful group of homeschoolers.

I had visited a small portion of the trail very briefly last year, but didn't comprehend just how extensive, and beautiful it is. One of the reasons it is so beautiful - at least to me is it's location. It is literally right in the back yard of suburbia.
Pine Island Ridge is a narrow stretch of high ground - running mostly north-south in between Nob Hill Rd. and Pine Island Road in Davie. The trail consists of 8.5 miles of multi-use trail - some paved, some sandy, some grassy.

At one time, the island was surrounded by freshwater flowing down from Lake Okeechobee, now, it is an island amidst development- surrounded on most sides by manicured lawns and swimming pools. It is literally - "over the hedge"!

Once upon a time, many thousands of years ago - when ocean levels were higher, this ridge sat at the edge of the ocean - not 20 miles from the ocean like it is today. For hundreds of years the power of the ocean's waves pushed and pulled and guided the sand up and down the coastline -piling it up into tall dunes. Eventually trees and plants grew into this sandy soil and helped root them to the ground.

Quite possibly, one day, this ridge will be the coastline yet again.

Because of the height of the land, Pine Island Ridge has been an important home to creatures large and small for millenia, including people as far back as 5,000 years ago. It is believed that Paleo-Indians moved south into Florida about 12-14,000 years ago - when Florida was expansive and dry, and warm. Most of the continent was buried under ice at that time, so the peninsula was a welcome haven. The Tequesta natives had sites here for thousands of years, followed by the Miccosukee and Seminole Tribes in the last few hundred years. The ridge is home to many significant archaeological sites - giving us a glimpse into what life was like here hundreds of years ago.

The tribal land at the ridge became famous during the Seminole Indian Wars in the 1800's because it was the home and reprieve to Abiaka, a.k.a. Sam Jones - a famous tribal warrior and leader. Later, after Florida started attracting non-native residents from the north, the land became farms - particularly orange groves. You can still find sour orange trees along certain parts of the trail. In the 1980's, because of the importance of the archaeological sites, the state of Florida was able to obtain the ridge-land as environmentally-sensitive land and set it up as a preserve. Broward County Parks now maintains the land.

The ridge consists of upland ecosystems spotted here and there with Slash Pines, but mostly dominated by Live Oaks and Sabal Palm. The highest natural point in south Florida is here - towering 29 feet above sea level. The high ground makes it the perfect home for gopher tortoises.
If you know what to look for you might see their burrows all along the trail - tucked into the ground. We were able to see a well-used burrow on Tuesday - on the northern side of the trail, near Bergeron Park. The apron (the front yard of sand) in front of the sideways "D"shaped burrow had footprints all over showing recent to and fro movement of the tortoise.
Gopher tortoises are a very important keystone animal. They are keystone to an ecosystem because how they live effects most others in that natural community. They dig very deep burrows - up to 40 feet deep. These burrows provide a safe haven to some animals year round and temporarily to others in time of natural upheaval, like a fire. Here in Florida they are considered a "Threatened" species. It is important to take care of their habitats, they have been on the earth for 60 million years!! They should be teaching US how to survive! Unfortunately they live where we want to live - on high ground - so their homes have been bulldozed to the point of endangerment. Go to: to see how you can help.

The ridge is also home 52 species of butterfly, among them are the Malachite and Atala Butterflies. Malachites are famous and attract people from all over to this area of Broward to view them. We were lucky enough to see one today. They are very beautiful - they have a lovely green coloring reminiscent of an emerald. The other famous butterfly is the Atala - an insect that was believed to be extinct not too long ago. The Atala is born on, and survives on, the leaves of the Coontie Plant - which was also almost extinct. The Coontie has been planted once again around south Florida and the butterflies are returning. A colleague of mine has a great blog about them - she researches their numbers, here is the link: .
In addition to the tortoises and the butterflies, over one hundred birds have been spotted on the trail, and it is the home to hundreds and hundreds of insects and plants, 16 types of mammals, 12 different reptiles, and 3 kinds of amphibians. It is a little garden of eden hidden away in the vast urban jungle.

One of the many exciting things about today was finding something I didn't even know we had living here - a little, tiny brown and gray praying mantis. It was found on the skinny trunk of a Live Oak. I researched and found out that it is a gonatista grisea, or Grizzled Mantid, also called a Lichen Mimic Mantid. They are native to the area and are really cool!

With the kids, I focused on the upland ecosystems and the lives of the Gopher Tortoise and the Malachite Butterfly. The children had to be detectives as they wandered back in time - looking for clues as to how this ridge was formed. The first clue they came up with - after several hints - was the sand. Next, we found a conch shell hidden among the bracken - a token of the past. After some thought and deducing, the children guessed that the ridge used to be the coastal dunes. They closed their eyes and imagined the view. We definitely got our exercise and had a wonderful time hiking up the rarity that is a hill here in flat Florida.

We searched for gopher tortoise burrows as we walked. We found one on Tuesday, but not so lucky today. We had to go to a different section of the ridge the other day because Tree Tops is now closed on Tuesdays, so we parked at Bergeron Park and hiked behind there. We looked at a book about tortoises, talked about what to look for and found one within 5 minutes. I'll take the other class there again in the near future so that all the kids can see the burrow.

I incorporated a few other activities to tie the class together this week; for Tuesday's class I passed out scavenger hunt lists and had the kids use their eyes, ears, and hands to find different things. Today, Thursday's classes, we played "each one, teach one" and the "Metamorphosis Game". For "each one, teach one", the kids teamed up and had to teach each other about something in nature. I'm not sure how much they "taught" each other, but they went and found a spot and spent some time without me - so it was good. Some played with sticks, others sat in the grass or in the tree. The "Metamorphosis" game was fun, the kids played the part of the butterfly in it's different stages - egg, larvae, and butterfly; they had to play rock, paper, scissors with another child in the same stage, whoever won got to develop to the next stage. It was a very funny, fast moving game. I got the game from the AEOE website (From Paul Grafton's "Ecology of California Butterflies" workshop at the Spring 2006 AEOE Conference in Malibu).

At the end of all but one of my classes I shared a story- "The Tortoise and the Drum", from west Africa. The tale is about a tortoise who becomes too greedy and learns a lesson. Even the kids who thought they were too old for story time sat down and listened very attentively. Stories are always a great way to create a wholistic feeling - for connecting it all together into a thematic experience.

I feel rejuevenated after this week's explorations, filled with a feeling of respect and awe for the beauty all around us, and a love for the families that join in on the adventures.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Camouflaged Hike in the Woods - Hugh Taylor Birch

Hugh Taylor Birch State Park

Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

A day of camouflage and survival.

For our last homeschool nature class, we ventured once again to the hidden, little oasis that is Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, The state park is located on a barrier island - bordered by the Atlantic and the intracoastal. Its neighbors are hotels, high rises and restaurants. The land was donated by Mr. Birch because many years ago he foresaw the over-development of Ft. Lauderdale and wanted to preserve a small piece of "real" Florida, natural Florida - before it disappeared.

Across from the park - to the south, there is another little piece of old Florida - The Bonnet House, This historical house was built by Frederic Bartlett and his first wife, Helen Birch - daughter of Hugh Taylor Birch. The land was given to them by Helen's father as a wedding present in 1919.

Before nature class, some of us were able to visit the Bonnet House for a wonderful homeschool field trip. The teachers there are fabulous and so in love with the house and grounds, their enthusiasm was infectious. It is a lovely home and the grounds are a wonderfully preserved little piece of what the area once looked like. I highly recommend the tour followed by a visit to the state park.

Our homeschool group gathered at the "Big Tree" - the tree next to Pavilions 1 and 2 of the park. The Big Tree is a GIANT ficus, or fig tree. It is the cousin of our native Strangler Fig, but haling from elsewhere - maybe S. America or even Africa. The tree makes a great meeting area because the kids can climb, play, swing, hide, jump, or sit still within its limbs.

I'm sure the children could have played in the tree the whole day, but I had to call them out and circle them together. We introduced ourselves and shared our favorite camouflaged animals: iguanas, snakes, lizards, raccoons, spiders, rabbits, and many more. We talked about survival and the different methods animals may use to hide in order to not become dinner. Because children are such excellent hiders, this topic is always one of interest and excitement.

In fact, the theory is that children make forts and hide because of thousands of years of needing to be protected from predators while moms and dads were busy hunting and foraging. Haven't we all built a fort in the living room or in the back yard? If you think about it, all these "forts" have a lookout point, a hidden place from which the child can "watch" and see. Play is survival!

We then organized ourselves to conduct an experiment by playing a game. The game is sometimes known as "In Plain Sight". We divided into two groups - the birds (the predators) and the insects (the prey). The birds went to play in the tree once again, while the insects were distributed. Each insect had a handful of small pieces of pipe cleaners. The pipe cleaners were made up of 20 (each) light green, dark green, blue, red, white, yellow, brown, and black. The insects were shown an area of grass, hedged by shrubs on the sides, where they needed to "sprinkle" the pieces around - finding spots where they were most hidden (on the grassy ground only). Then the insects went to the tree while the birds came for dinner. The birds had 3 minutes to find as many "bugs" as they could. Then we switched teams. We found that brown and black won hands down. We found the "least" amount of brown and black bugs, therefore, more brown and black bugs will mate and reproduce, and thus, evolve.

After our game, we circled up again to discuss survival and hiking. The kids were extremely knowledgeable about how to be safe and responsible hikers. We decided that we should: stay on the trails, respect the animals and plants, stay quiet, follow the teacher, listen and look, eat before hiking, carry water and a snack, and have proper shoes and clothes. We were then ready for our hike.

Now, as is human nature, it's easier to say than to do. Our kids were wonderful and had a great hike, but boy were we a loud group, a hungry group, a lively group and a big group. I always seem to have a big group when I go to this park. The trails are narrow and twisty and don't allow for a crowd to all gather together. Despite the size and noise of our hikers, and the heat, we had a great walk. Impressively enough, I was even able to convince the group to have a "silent" walk on the way back. It worked quite well!

There were all kinds of holes and places where animals might have been hiding - camouflaged by the leaves and branches of wild coffee, strangler fig, palmetto, coco plum, sea grapes, and oak. Raccoons may have been hiding behind their masks waiting to steal our lunches, land crabs were possibly lurking deep in their holes - colored with the grays and greens of the trees above them, owls might have been snoozing in the snags of the dead trees scattered through the park, lizards and snakes were probably silently running and slithering past; all unbeknownst to us. The trail was dry, crunch and hot. We are at the peak of the dry season here in Florida and we have had a couple of freezes. The plants are showing it, the wild coffee looks the saddest, it is so wilty and droopy - it needs a cup of coffee!

Some of us were lucky enough to see the trail of honey bees - buzzing back and forth - buzzily building a new hive in a gnarly hole located at the near bottom of a Live Oak tree. We calmly and peacefully stood and watched. I peeked in the hole and think that the bees are in the beginning stages of building and that the hive is deep within the trunk of the tree.

On Tuesday, when the group was small, I was able to sit and share a story. We learned the tale of how the Owl got its big eyes. The story is an old legend, told by the Iroquois:

It is a great, funny story - check it out.

I chose the folk tale because I feel that the owl has wonderful camouflage and survival skills. The large eyes allow the bird to hunt at night, a time when most birds are asleep. If you have ever seen an owl during the day, you'll have seen how well their colors may have melted them into the colors of the tree where they may have been perched.

Another thing we did on Tuesday which we couldn't do on Thursday, for a couple of reasons, was play "Thicket". Our group was just a bit too big on Thursday, AND, I was timid about playing again because my son broke out with a possible case of poison ivy while playing in the foliage on Tuesday! I scanned the area thoroughly, didn't find any - but poison ivy is a very wily plant and may have been camouflaged! It wasn't worth the risk.

Thicket is a super fun game. There is one predator who counts while the rest of the group hides in a designated "thicket". The predator has to stand in one place and try to find the prey from their spot. They aren't allowed to step away at all - only squat down and lean sideways. It's pretty hard, especially with a small amount of prey. To make it more difficult, the kids were dressed in camouflaged clothes, the ones wearing gray, black and brown blended in to the trees and ground perfectly.

Once again, it was a wonderful day. I am refreshed at the end of each class, knowing that each person, no matter the age is looking at the outdoor world in a new way, therefore, gaining a new respect and appreciation for the places outside their doors.

Yours in nature, Christy

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

In the Water - Oleta River State Park

ECO - Every Child Outside, Oleta River State Park in N. Miami, Florida, January 27, 29, 2009
Oleta River was once a free-flowing river, heading east from the Everglades to mix and mingle with the coastal waters of the Atlantic, forming a Mangrove Swamp and estuary. The park still shows a bit of it's old self, with huge Mangroves throughout the park and a lovely little lagoon filled with crabs, jellies, fish, urchins, snails - to name a few, and dolphins frolicking in the bay. The river is now straightened into a canal; but, the estuary, and a good deal of mangroves, are still in existence and are thriving and protected. This estuarine ecosystem is a nutritious nursery - protecting and feeding the baby fish that then feed humans and their fishing interests. The habitat also creates a healthy and happy home to many other babies of the ocean environment - sharks, turtles, crabs, shrimp.

The focus of the class was on limestone and coral. I wanted to give the children an understanding of the foundation of Florida. We discussed the state's natural history - briefly illuminating the repetitive inundation and depletion of the ocean waters of the Florida Plateau and its effect on the land. Because the Florida Plateau was under water for millions of years we have a deep layer of limestone very close to the surface. Limestone is made up of ancient corals and shells - calcium carbonate leftover from ages past. Almost anywhere you go in south Florida you can look on the ground and find rocks and shells that give you a glimpse into the ancient oceanic past.

The next part of class was to explore and discover life in the lagoon, so I supplied nets, buckets and shovels - to encourage digging and catching. Luckily there were a few animals here and there who decided to cooperate and show themselves and allow our young marine biologists to catch them.

We took our nets, buckets and shovels and headed for the water. I found out later that most of my students didn't know they were possibly going to get into the water, therefore, they weren't dressed in bathing suits. That didn't stop the kids - they got in and got wet and had a blast. Each class was different, the morning class was at high tide. I thought it would be harder to find critters because the rocks were covered, to my surprise, we found more life. The incoming tide brought in the jellies, a surly and upset puffer fish, and a baby trigger fish.

Once the tide subsided, we were able to get on the mildly treacherous and sharp rocks to find limpkins, chitons, snails, hermit crabs, shore crabs and sea urchins. The sea urchins are my favorite. We had to walk around the jetty to find them tucked under the rocks - they are purply-black and super cool. In the sand, under rocks, and in the seaweed we found many sand bugs and some crabs. The kids were fascinated with the fossils in the limestone and throughout the day were "discovering" many different samples of rocks and shells.
We collected everything together and viewed it in clear buckets filled with water.
The children got to hold the hermit crabs on their hands and touch the sea urchin's spines. The puffer fish deflated and waited patiently to get out of the bucket. When the class was done we released the animals back to their watery home, said "thank you" and moved up the beach to play a lively game of Sharks and Minnows.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Big Cypress Exploration Collage

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Big Cypress National Preserve Exploration

Big Cypress National Preserve Exploration

After having a wonderful and wildlife-rich experience at Shark Valley Slough, our group got back on Tamiami Trail and headed further west through the Miccosukee Reservation, on into Big Cypress Forest. The delineation between slough and forest was clear, the marsh abruptly ended and the swamp began as the Cypress trees began to show themselves. Upon first look one might think that the Cypress trees are dead and/or dying, such is not the case. Cypress Trees are one of our few deciduous trees – meaning they lose their leaves in the fall and stay barren until spring returns. It must be an old habit the trees can’t shake – reminiscent of ancient times or just left over from the evolution of Cypress trees further north; or, maybe our trees have evolved for the habitat in Florida – losing their leaves to benefit the forest floor and their boarders – the epiphytes.
Epiphytes are bundled up high along the tall, skinny trunks of the Cypress trees - finding any nook or cranny they can in order to receive enough sunlight and nutrients to survive.
Wild Pine Bromeliads are flowering this time of year, taking advantage of the increase in sunlight. Their red flowers are beautiful against the grey background of the bare Cypress trees. Spanish moss hangs decoratively all over the branches, dipping elegantly into the water. People who visit here often remark that the Spanish moss in Big Cypress competes with the famous Spanish moss adorning the Oak trees of the South (aka north of Orlando and south of D.C.). Epiphytes are “air-plants” and live connected to the branches of tall trees. They are not parasitic – meaning they don’t “take” anything from the tree, they just share space. Orchids are our most famous air-plants. Big Cypress is famous itself for being the native home to many different types of Orchids. The orchids have almost been wiped out due to illegal foraging and marketing of these beautiful flowers. The book, The Orchid Thief is based on the black market for orchids, as is the movie, “Adaptation”.
As we drove westward the children began noticing the abundance of wildlife hanging out along the canal that runs parallel to the road. Some of the birds are obvious – like the snowy egrets. The trees seem to be a favorite to the snowy egrets; they are prolific and line the branches in large numbers. Less obvious are the Great Blue Herons who stand further back - hidden amongst the trees, the Tri-colored Herons who flit inconspicuously along the canal, and the many other birds who take advantage of the canal. We were lucky enough (especially on Tuesday and Wednesday) to see many Wood Storks – some flying majestically above or standing unsteadily on the high branches of the trees. The more the children looked, the more they began to see, they observed alligator after alligator, big and small, either swimming or lying in the sun on the bank. Then they noticed the turtles – lined up on branches, right next to the gators, or swimming and popping their heads out. We weren’t fortunate enough this trip to see an Otter, but they are known to frequently frolic in the area.
Our next stop was the photo gallery of Clyde Butcher.
His gallery is located on a Cypress Strand.
Cypress Strands are absolutely gorgeous and one of my favorite ecosystems of the area. The strands are created when there is an increase in water flow in that particular area. In this instance it is because the road forms a bridge- allowing for more water to flow down from the north. Tamiami Trail only allows water flow at certain spots along the highway. When there is an increase, the water levels are higher, the trees are more numerous and much larger. The group of larger trees creates a type of island in the swamp – an island of water (especially in the winter when most areas are drying up). From a distance you can see the difference in size more clearly.
The photos in the gallery are phenomenal. Mr. Butcher uses an old-fashioned box camera that he lugs through the swamp, standing (sometimes in waist-deep water) and waiting for the perfect light or the perfect bird. His shots are black and white and are processed in Venice, Florida. See his website: , for more information, he is incredible.

The previous owners of the land were orchid farmers and built paths through a small area of the swamp behind where the gallery now stands. These paths are a great way to explore the cypress swamp without getting wet. The trail winds through a hydric swamp that is almost dried up, passing by many small Cypress trees that are filled with epiphytes.

The mosquitoes love this area to breed their eggs and baby frogs, alligators and water snakes are common residents. On Thursday we were thrilled to meet one of the resident photographers, he was taking photos and offered to show the kids a Brown Water Snake that had been hit by a car and then rescued by a local guide.
The snake is resting on the gallery lands.

After enjoying the beautiful photography and exploring the forest area, we left to our final destination. On Tuesday and Wednesday we went to the Oasis Visitor Center, part of Big Cypress National Preserve. On Thursday I mixed it up a little and took the group to the Kirby Storter boardwalk. The Oasis Visitor Center is a great place to go while touring the Everglades. It is part of the National Park system and provides visitors with a film, a book and gift store, kid’s activities, and a mini museum.

Outside there is a picnic area and a walkway over the canal where you can get a really good look at the alligators, fish – like Alligator Gar, and birds.

We played games and let the kids run their bodies around after a long day in the car, and then we sat down to a challenging version of Everglades Bingo. The kids answered all questions brilliantly and were then awarded with their “Young Everglades Naturalist” awards from our group - ECO, Every Child Outside.

The Kirby Storter hike is beautiful and a new discovery on my part. Wednesday evening after our second trip I decided to check out the boardwalk as I hadn’t been there before. My son and I went on a lovely evening walk and I decided to include the walk in our trip the next day. So, on Thursday, instead of heading to the Oasis Visitor Center, we headed a bit further west and stopped at this beautiful Cypress Prairie.

As we began walking we heard the cry of a Red-shouldered Hawk nearby. After a quick search we realized that there were two beautiful hawks soaring above us, playing in the wind. They may have been dancing for each other as part of a mating ritual, or screaming to scare us away, or just playing in the sky on a beautiful, sunny afternoon. Whatever they were doing, it was a joy to watch them.
The wet prairie is a unique ecosystem in the Everglades. It is mostly dry this time of year, but in the summer it can fill with water. Dotted throughout the grasses are Cypress Domes. Cypress Domes are small islands of Cypress trees that grow in a circle, with the tallest trees or the highest ground in the middle, creating a dome-like appearance. Grasses, such as Muhly Grass, Saw grass – which is actually a sedge, and many other types of grass-like plants surround the Cypress trees, creating the look of a savannah. This habitat is home to wild pigs, Florida Panthers, Florida Black Bear, White-tailed Deer, Rattle-snakes, and many more.
As we walked further in on the boardwalk, we came to the center of a Cypress Dome.
Within there were huge, old Cypress Trees, with knees about 4 or 5 feet tall, telling the story of times when the water-level must have been very high.
The bulging buttresses of the trees themselves also told this tale – a Cypress tree will buttress where the water stops over many years in order to protect the tree from falling over.
As we walked I noticed a group of trees that I couldn’t name.
After consulting my naturalist teacher I think they may be Pop Ash.
They don’t regularly grow here from what I’ve learned…nature works in mysterious ways.
At the end of the boardwalk trail there is a pond. It is extremely shallow now, at this time of year, but must fill up with life in the summer rains. We were entertained while there by a juvenile Great Blue Heron standing and waiting for a fish and by a gluttonous Anhinga – who was determined to eat as many fish as possible. In the span of 5 minutes I think the Anhinga ate between 7 and 10 fish! It was an hysterical sight. Some of the fish were almost as big as the bird.

After looping back, we stopped and sat under the Chickee - a traditional shelter built by the Miccosukke and Seminole Natives. They use Cypress trunks as the structure and fronds of the Cabbage, or Sabal Palm for the thatch. They are a wonderful place to sit and get out of the heat or the rain. The temperature is usually 5-10 degrees cooler. We played bingo and watched as a Young Everglades Naturalist certificate was rescued from the claws of the Saw grass.

Our trip was fantastic and the kids were amazing! I can’t wait to go back!