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

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