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.

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