Friday, May 29, 2009

Escape to Jupiter - Part One, Jonathan Dickinson State Park

Every month or so I organize an all-day field trip to a place that is a bit further off the beaten path, so that people can explore and get to know areas they might not go to on their own.

This post tells of our wonderful experience at Jonathan Dickinson, the next one will tell of our exploding-good time at Blowing Rocks Preserve!

All along the coast in Martin County, you travel through small rolling hills of ancient sand dunes, part of the Jupiter Coastal Ridge System - the coast line from before the last ice age. It's a lovely and unusual thing to see undulating hills in South Florida, being that it is VERY flat here. The only hills we do have are land-fills, and of course, the ancient beach dunes (with a whopping 25 ft. above sea level being the highest natural spot south of Palm Beach). Tucked behind some of the dunes, west of the Atlantic, west of Jupiter Island, and west of US-1, lies Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

The eastern border is dominated by scrub land, with leaning and gnarly Sand Pines dotting the landscape. The land rolls and dips and is sandy, pokey, and kind of barren looking - typical Florida Scrub. This barren landscape is home to Hobe Mountain! Yes, I said mountain. It is about 50 feet above sea level at the top of Hobe Mountain (named after the natives here before 1500's). Climb the stairs to the top and you will get a wonderful view of the amazing expanse of this park, including the mile after mile of Pinelands, with the Loxahatchee River curving and meandering to the west; to the east, the Atlantic is ebbing and flowing in all it's power and the tranquil intracoastal snakes it's way in between beautiful homes and condos and the barrier island of Jupiter Island.

As you head west into the depths of JD State Park, you go down in elevation and enter the Pine Flatwoods. Surrounding the forests of pine are wetlands speckled with wild flowers and lovely grasses. Beneath the majestic Slash Pines, the forest floor is blanketed with Saw Palmetto, with White Tarflower decorating it's green, prickly covering. Beyond the Pines, the beautiful and scenic, and WILD-flowing Loxahatchee River comes into view.

This park is not to far from the ocean, so, the river here is a mix of salt and fresh water, known as brackish. The salt water intrusion is relatively new here - since people started managing and draining and filling and manipulating the flowing waters of the Everglades. Because of the salt water intrusion, the landscape of the park is changing, groves of Cypress trees are dying out in the eastern areas of the park - causing much dismay and frustration for the park naturalists and advocates.

I have been to JD park many times, including time as a young girl with the girl scouts - backpacking and camping. It is one of my many favorite spots.

Before my class I wanted to map out where we would go and what we would do, so my friend and I headed up there the Saturday before. It was so DRY and hot and sunny! The park is a hot place - since you are in the scrub and flatwoods. The earth was cracked and crumbly. Despite the heat there were tons of little toads jumping around. We had a lovely day and on the way home, it rained.

I don't think it has stopped for more than a day since.

We had a record breaking dry winter and spring here, and now we are making up for it! So, on Thursday, when it was time for our trip up to Jupiter, we were worried about the rain, but we went anyway. A couple of families almost turned around on the way there because we had to drive through a blinding, powerful, and long electrical storm. It was incredible and lasted for over 40 minutes of driving, be it slow driving. The lightning cut across the sky in great zig zags - a show that we had missed during the dry season.

After our extaordinarily dry winter, we Floridians were so ready for the moisture - like lizards in the desert, but then when it happens,it takes a while to get used to. We have to relax into the weather and allow the wetness- not fight it - or never go anywhere!

Luckily, all of our traveling naturalists made it safely to JD Park and met at the front entrance. I gathered the group near the front gate, directly west of the beach, to show them the sign that describes who Jonathan Dickinson was and the story of his adventures - he and his family were shipwrecked right off-shore here and walked all the way to St. Augustine. They endured near starvation, hostile tribes, and aggressive wildlife (and plants). Read more about his story - he wrote a journal about the whole experience(click on his name above). From there we drove about 4 miles to the back of the park near the nature center and river.

The ride in the park was one of those times when you feel like someone is watching over you and sprinkling a little fairy dust to make it a near perfect experience!

The day before some of us were supposed to go on a field trip to Lion Country Safari (canceled due to rain). Let me tell you, this was much better!!

The rain was cool and refreshing and had transformed the park from how it was earlier in the week. It was lush and verdant and exploding with life. The song of the frogs was phenomenal - a symphony of chirpings and burpings and cheepings - really wonderful. The flowers dotted the wetlands surrounding the flatwoods, the water was dripping and soothing; the kids felt free and stuck their heads out the windows to feel the coolness and to experience the feeling of being amongst trees - no traffic, no houses, no gas stations or shopping areas!

First, we saw the deer - a lone white tailed young buck standing at the side of the road, nonchalantly munching on the green grass. He fled after we hung out a bit too long. See if you can find him in the picture.

Then we saw the graceful and tall Sandhill Cranes, also feeding on the side of the road, maybe on bugs and worms and lizards, or frogs. They are very noble looking with their red crowned heads, we don't ever see them in Broward county, so it was a treat.

As we drove a bit further along, dancing to the beat of the frogs, we saw a Great Egret enjoying lunch in the newly filled pond along the side.

We stopped a ways up the road at a little pond I had spotted on the Saturday before. When I had gone there with my friend, before the field trip, there was just a few puddles of water left in the depression. Returning on Thursday, we encountered a true pond and not puddles, it was filling in and full of frogs and toads!! We got out the nets and buckets and set to work.
At first, the kids were a little shy and approached the area with trepidation; but once the first few were caught and looked at, the kids went to work and explored and searched and wandered about the pond. Some went in and traveled to the island in the middle (it was only a few inches deep), others walked the perimeter of the pond, looking at flowers and plants and occasionally finding a toad or frog.

At first we thought we were finding baby Gopher Frogs, but after further research and investigation, we realized it was the Oak Toad - there were thousands of them! For sure, we heard the shrill and eerie sound of the Southern Spring Peepers and I believe one was found in the pond, they filled the sound waves! Among others, we also heard the Southern Chorus Frog, the Gopher Frog, Fowler's Toad, and possibly the Spadefoot Toad (at night while camping). The combined sounds of their calls created a wild and beautiful cacophony of sound that enhanced our experience greatly - not to mention the fun of the chase and the catch.

After our visit to the pond, the skies were turning black and the thunder was approaching, so we chose to make a stop at the visitor/nature center back near the campground. We waited out the lightning storm while learning about the animals and plants and history of the area, coloring or looking at maps.

We left the nature center when the storm let up and headed to the parking lot near the Kitching Creek Trailhead. It was nearing lunch time and there was another storm looming in the distance, so we opted for lunch at the pavilion. The lunch was friendly and slow, with homemade apple cake and good conversation.

I set up my science activity that I had planned to go along with the day. The theme for the class was "Discover Your Senses". It was a day of sensory awareness - seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and even tasting new, yet primal things - things that are ingrained in our DNA: the smell of rain, the sound of frogs, the touch of bark, the taste of wild berries...

I wanted the kids to have a chance to test their senses. So I set up a few stations: smell, taste, and sound. The kids chose partners - each one taking a turn being blindfolded; they had to taste, smell, and listen to different, hidden things and see if they could figure out what it was. Taste was divided into sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and umami. They smelt cinnamon, lavender oil, and lemon. They heard coins and beans and water in different shakers. The teams wrote down their results and then shared them with the group. They were almost all accurate!!

As we tested our senses, the skies opened up and the rain came down.

Once the storm passed a Red-bellied Woodpecker visited a tree nearby, and a male Cardinal swooped in and around our pavilion.

The air was calm again and no thunder heard, so we cleaned up and ventured out to the Kitching Creek Trail.

The trail runs through a Slash Pine Flatwood Forest, through a Cypress Dome, and along side Kitching Creek - a tributary to the Loxahatchee River. It is an easy trail, about 1.5 miles long. Along the way there is a good chance you will see some type of wildlife. The week before, when I went hiking there with a friend, we were startled by a loud "oinking sound" - wild pigs. We didn't see them, but we heard them - rummaging through the Saw Palmetto and wild Muscadine Grape. With the kids, we saw hundreds of Oak Toads and continued to catch them. As we walked, a falcon-like bird, black, and with a V-shaped tail flew in and perched on a branch.

I had no idea what it was, I thought it was a falcon, but it didn't sit like one, and it was small and so dark; and it was very hard to see it due to the glare.

I researched and investigated when I returned home and believe it to be a Common Nighthawk, which is not a hawk at all, but in the Nightjar family and closely related to te Whip-poor-will, which also resides in the park. Obviously the name is misleading, not only because it isn't a hawk but also due to the fact that it is often out during the day. It is an insect-catching machine, it has been shown that in one day a Common Nighthawk can eat over 500 mosquitoes, or more than 2,000 flying ants. They are our friends for sure. Listen to their call (go to the link attached to its name above), they sound remarkably similar to the Southern Spring Peeper frog!

The walk was cool at times, when the wet wind came out of the clouds or the rain sprinkled on us, but, when the clouds passed it heated up tremedously, giving us a preview into just how hot this ecosystem can get. As we walked, the kids participated in a sensory hunt: they had to smell, see, touch, and listen to various items I put on a list. For example, they had to smell something rotten, and hear the rain dripping (that was easy), or see a spider's web.

As we walked, we talked - about the plants and trees and flowers we saw on the way; like, Muscadine Grape, Slash Pine, Saw Palmetto, White Tarflower, Bog Buttons, Sabatia, Cypress. The White Tarflower was bursting out everywhere, it's sweet white and pink flowers adding beauty against the background of bristly Saw Palmetto. We learned the White Tarflower isn't so sweet, however; it's sticky-gooey nectar traps greedy insects that don't pay for their nectar by spreading the pollen - like ants and flies. It used to be common practice to hang Tarflowers in your home (before the invention of screens on windows) to trap flies - they get stuck in the nectar.

As we walked further, we came to wetter, lower ground. The Cypress trees became more common, as did the sounds of the frogs. We passed over a boardwalk - spanning the tiny Kitching Creek. Here, the Poison Ivy was abundant, the kids were warned to stay on the path. So far, so good - no one has acquired a rash from the plant during one of my trips.
The rain started coming down a bit heavier, and the kids were ready for the beach, so we headed back to our cars, piled in and caravaned out - on our way to Blowing Rocks Preserve!

Please read the next post so that you can travel with us!

Thanks to my parents for the wonderful pictures, once again!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Into the Past, a Day at Easterlin Park

Easterlin Park,
Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
Every Child Outside -ECO- Explorers
May, 2009

Visiting Easterlin Park in Ft. Lauderdale is like taking a step back in time.

It is a place of cultural and historical significance, being that the park was Broward County's first inland regional park - originally acquired in 1944 and named Cypress Park. The park didn't open to the public until 1965 and was later renamed after John Easterlin, a notoriously outspoken county commissioner.

It's story goes back even further in time - the knowledge of those years held in the memory of the ancient grove of Cypress trees that make Easterlin Park home, some of the trees having lived as long as 250 years! In that span of time - droughts, floods, hurricanes, and fires plowed their way through the forest - clearing out some of the foliage and trees, but leaving others standing. Wild animals hunted amongst the trees - maybe a panther found a deer, or a bear some berries; humans fought wars, chopped down thousands of cypress trees - up and down the coast, and bulldozed and paved; but, the trees here at Easterlin Park are still standing!

Up in northern Florida, there is a Cypress tree over 1,000 years old! Yes, that is old in comparison to what is left here in S. Florida; but, I am stunned and honored to know that trees more than two hundred years old still reside here, in the very well-developed land known as Southeast Florida. Everywhere else, the natural lands have been bulldozed over and over, paved, and covered with strip malls and houses.

Old growth trees (whether they are 100 years old or 1,000) instill a sense of awe in us. I spent many wonderful hours sitting beneath the gargantuan beauty of the Redwoods when I lived in California, allowing my imagination to visualize what it may have been like to be under the same tree hundreds of years before.

The awe-inspiring feeling reminds us humans of how small we are, and how big the world is...and how magnificent. I don't feel belittled because of their enormity (not only in size, mind you), I feel empowered and full of wonder and warmth knowing they are still with us, sharing air and energy.

It is hard for young children to conceptualize hundreds of years, but when you tell them that the trees were here in this very spot way before TV and internet and computers and even phones and cars, they kind of "get it"! I think our group "got it" or thought seriously about it anyway. It is a mind-expanding idea!

As soon as the kids stepped out of their cars and into this world of trees, they were impressed by the beauty and wisdom of the place. After playing amongst the trees and at the playground, we began our day.

So that the kids could enjoy a sense of autonomy, I set up a "burma shave" hike for the first part of the nature walk. I learned about "burma shaves" in California as an outdoor educator. The story is that there used to be billboards along the highway advertising for "Burma Shave Cream"; each consecutive sign said something new, leading up to the final slogan. These billboards were before my time, so I never saw them myself.

For hiking purposes, the idea is to have instructions written on cards on the ground for the hikers to follow as they go along the trail. I wrote things like, "smile", or "hug this tree", or "walk like your favorite animal", along with informative tidbits about the forest, hints to observing things - like spider webs, and the aforementioned silly stuff.

Overall, the burma shave, or card hike, went well. It is relatively new to most of the families in my class, so there were a few bumps in the road, but it allowed the kids to walk on their own or with a partner and really "experience" the woods.

We ended at a wonderful, enchanted tree - a home to the woodland fairies known to frequent the forest (there are always fairies in old growth forests!).

The kids were able to climb and explore, some kids got really high up - a freeing and empowering experience!

The trail itself is lovely - a sweet surprise! I knew to expect old, burly Cypress trees, but what I didn't expect was the Royal Palms. They dot the forest, creating a tropical, almost Jurassic Park-feel. The palms are native here in South Florida and are extremely endangered in the wild. Another great place to see them in all their wild royal glory is down at Fakahatchee Strand near Naples.

Ferns, Elderberry, Dahoon Holly and Wild Coffee make up the understory of the forest at Easterlin Park; Strangler Figs hang down in all kinds of weird shapes and sizes - this time of year speckling the forest floor with beautiful pink and white flower petals; and Red Maple and Cabbage Palms fill in the middle, being a bit shorter than the Royal Palms and Cypress. The trail is sandy in the more upland areas, complete with a Gopher Tortoise burrow near the back; on lower ground, the forest floor is muddy and mucky - due to flooding from the once free-flowing Middle Canal (used to be known as Middle River). When the canal was a river, it would flood in the rainy season, causing the Cypress forest to flood, a condition that Cypress thrive on.

The theme for this class was photosynthesis - the method a tree uses to create their food for energy. It is a fascinating and complex process, but one that children love to learn. They innately understand the importance of trees, but when they realize how connected we are - that what they breathe out (CO2) helps the tree, and what the tree "breathes" out (O2) helps us, they understand on another level and respect and appreciate the trees more.

We played photosynthesis tag, a wonderful game where the children play the different parts present during the photsynthesis process, like: sunlight, chlorophyll, carbon dioxide, hydrogen and oxygen - each part represented by a different color headband; the object is for the children chase each other and to link together in order to create carbohydrates, or sugar. The game takes for ever to explain - twice as long as the actual game, but it really solidifies their learning so that when they play the game, it is like a light bulb going off in their brains, it clicks and they say,"aha, I get it now, I see how plants photosynthesize", and they remember it.

With every tree that is touched and every plant that is named, an understanding develops and love and appreciation and respect grows.