Monday, March 30, 2009

A Day in the Life of a Raccoon - Greynold's Park

ECO - Every Child Outside Nature Class
Greynold's Park, North Miami, Florida
March, 23, 26, 2009

In North Miami, tucked behind the railroad tracks, is a beautiful and stately county park - Greynold' s Park.

As you enter you feel part of an older Miami - the more tropical, overgrown and peaceful Miami.

The road passes by giant Banyan trees,
acres of mangroves,

a tranquil lake,

stretching Gumbo Limbos,

majestic Royal Palms,

and lovely old Live Oaks.

Once upon a time this land was home to the Tequesta people - as was most of the higher ground in South Florida. The Oleta River, which at one time twisted and turned along the eastern side of the land - it is now dredged and runs like a canal, was used as a transportation waterway for the Glades natives. Later, the Seminole Tribes used the river and the dry, high hammocks as a trading post.

In more recent history, after all the native peoples were pushed out to the Everglades or elsewhere, the land was turned into a rock quarry. Convicts were used as a labor force to blow-up and dig out the ancient coral rock below the ground. The rock was then used to build roads and buildings in the early 1900's.

In 1933 the land was given to Dade county. The Civilian Conservation corps is responsible for constructing the park. The rock castle in the middle of the park is one of the structures the corps built; it sits high upon a mound, which at one time was the highest land-point in the area. The rock used to build it, of course, came from the quarry. It is beautiful limestone rock, telling the story of when the ocean used to be here.

When standing on the castle, you overlook majestic hardwood hammocks, mangrove forests, the quarry lake, the Oleta River, the Boat house and the golf course.

Below lies two lovely trails, the Hammock Trail and the Conservation Corps Oleta River Trail. On Tuesday we chose to walk the Hammock Trail first. It was one of those times that I used poor judgement and didn't turn around. There was tons of Poison Ivy - all along the sides, just at hand level to a 3 year old. I haven't heard that anyone broke out in a rash, which I am so thankful for, but am sorry that I chanced it. I was really hoping to see the raccoons in the trees like we did last year - following us from on high, lounging in the bosom of the grand Live Oaks. But, the coons chose not to show themselves (except for very briefly after class) on the day we were learning about them...oh well!

Of course, the hammock trail was beautiful, even with those leaves of three around.

We cemented our learning of hammocks and played the "Who Am I" game, reading a fact about a specific animal's adaptation and trying to guess the animal. For example, "I have 5 fingers on my very sensitive hands and feet and can live almost anywhere." "Who Am I?" Yes, you guessed it...the raccoon. The kids were great at guessing. We discussed how the hammock would be where the raccoons would nest and do some foraging of grubs, fruits, and insects.

Once out of the trees, we came upon the huge field of Royal Palms.
The place is lovely and makes you feel small, no wonder they are royal. We found a raccoon foot print in the mud and talked about when he/she might have been out hunting and foraging.

I returned to the footprint on Thursday without going through the poison ivy. We went the road way instead. After examining the footprint we moved on to the Oleta River trail.

I told the kids how they, too, could one day work for the conservation corps and travel around building trails, I had a lot of excited kids, ready to get to work.

The trail runs along- side the Oleta River
and the quarry lake - through the mangrove swamp.

This swamp is the perfect place for the raccoons after dark, going out to dig around in the mucky muck, feeling for crabs and crayfish, and maybe climbing in nests for eggs. Raccoons are very successful omnivores, eating just about anything - including "trash" as all the kids say. I let the children know that the "trash" is actually un-eaten food left by us humans and that they don't actually eat the plastic, etc. I reminded them that it was up to us not to leave it behind and not to feed them so that they eat what is healthy for them as a wild animal.

One thing I learned about raccoons which I find so fascinating is that they can determine what an object is before they actually touch it - with their vibrissae - whiskers at the top of their fingers. The vibrissae are so sensitive that the raccoons know exactly what they are touching and can almost always find what they want. Their hands are also very adept at digging and lifting and taking apart (as we all know). The reason we think they are washing their food is because it looks like they are when foraging. They are mimicking their natural digging/foraging routine while in captivity, when they "wash" their food.

The trail through the mangroves was peaceful and tranquil. We searched for crabs, but were unlucky. I'm thinking they are quiet, waiting for the heat and rains to come. The mangroves here, mostly red, are quite old and well-established. The water is replenished by both the ocean and the freshwater coming down from the everglades. The Oleta River is dredged, but it still allows flow from the River of Grass. On the eastern coast, the Atlantic rises and falls, sending ocean water up through the intracoastal and Oleta River estuary (see my post about Oleta River State Park). The combination of salt and fresh creates a brackish environment, perfect for the mangroves...and their inhabitant -the American Crocodile.

These quiet monsters are known to live here, but rarely show themselves - due to their shy natures.

We saw evidence of the tides - at 8am the trail was dry and at 10 am it was filling in with water (luckily we were on a boardwalk).

At the end of the mangrove walk we came upon a sign of decomposition - a rotting tree trunk- and had to sing the song "Decomposition, I break down, I get down, muncha muncha". Then we helped the tree along and banged it up a bit.

We got lucky in the "crab-observing" department

and found a Mangrove Tree Crab by the rotting log.

We observed two lovely edibles - the Saw Palmetto and the Elderberry.

The Saw Palmetto has saw-like stems and is cousin to the Sable Palmetto (or Cabbage Palm), the berries are edible. It was flowering and fruiting, so we got to see two stages.

The Elderberry's flowers and fruits are edible, but the berries are toxic.

They are okay cooked or made into wine. If you stand under an elderberry at sunset, you might see the sprites of the forest.

The rest of the trail wound through a higher, drier hammock, alongside the lake, past a rough and tumbley pile of limestone rocks that had to be conquered by our determined explorers,

and across a quaint covered bridge.

Before the quaint bridge there is a floating dock on the river side. The kids became adventurers.

We piled on and they started rockin and rollin.

At first I thought, "STOP", but then I thought, and said, "GO FOR IT". And they did. What fun, they let loose, no one got hurt, and the kids will never forget that feeling.

After the bridge we spied a Knight Anole

(an immigrant reptile from Cuba) and a fiddler crab - strutting it's stuff across the trail. We peeked through the slats of the bridge to the water below to observe fish and oysters - a sign of a healthy ecosystem.

Not a raccoon in sight.

The kids ran and played and climbed, then we headed back to the picnic tables and playground.

They listened to the story of how the raccoon acquired his mask
and some of the kids made their own raccoon puppets out of brown bags. We recited raccoon poetry and sang a song and then we played.

I organized an activity so that the kids could experiment with touch, and understand the raccoons a bit better. I had three buckets filled with sand.

In the sand I buried pennies, rocks, shells, game pieces, and some other random stuff. The kids took turns trying to find stuff.

First, they had to do it blindfolded and with oven mits on, then with lighter gloves on, then with a fork or spoon or shovel, and then bare-handed. Of course, bare-handed was easiest. They could have sat for hours digging in that sand - especially the little ones.

I had a teacher suggest to me once to entertain my son by giving him a big bucket filled with rice or marbles or something -with treasures hidden within.

It was a very wise suggestion.

These beautiful pictures were taken by Kim.


  1. you are too kind to the limestone. I suppose it's all relative but I don't know if I would call it beautiful! Nice post and I think I need to go to Oleta - never been there (and there are secret geo treasures hidden there...) Last time I was at Greynolds a family of four raccoons climbed ON a couple who were sleeping on a bench. Good times.

  2. But we have to be kind to the holds us up. I think it's beautiful, especially when it is filled with fossilized coral. Oleta is a great place, if you like to mountain bike, they have excellent trails. I, too, was cornered by raccoons last year while at Greynolds, they just didn't show themselves this year.


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