Monday, September 28, 2009

Mangroves, Coco Plums, and the Autumnal Equinox: A Day at Hugh Taylor Birch

Welcome to Fall everyone!! Well, it's been almost a week since the first day of Fall, but it's slow to happen around here anyway. There has been a slight change in the weather...the breezes are a bit cooler, the nights balmy and sweet, and the winds are picking up - lessening the humidity.

We are still having thunder storms and some afternoon showers - a welcome event that clears the air and cools down the still-high temperatures. The September Equinox, or Autumnal Equinox, here in the Northern Hemisphere, happened Tuesday, September 22 at 5:03 pm in Florida. The sun held over the equator causing almost equal night and day, hence the term "equi-nox" - equal night. The sun will be heading down south now, down under - providing spring for the folks down there. Here we will have less sun, giving us fall and winter.

The seasons are minimal here, less pronounced, especially for people that have moved here from the north. The signs are less obvious and take a keener eye to spy them out. Florida's wet season is almost at it's peak, so lakes and streams, estuaries, and wetlands are full to the brim. Birds are beginning to migrate through on their way south for the winter. Song birds will enjoy our warm weather here for the fall and some will stay through the winter. Keep an eye out for little, colorful birds that weren't here all summer. September and October are especially abundant in Hawks. Raptors pass through or winter over, providing us with especially good bird watching. Our population of wading birds also increases, filling our wetlands with Wood Storks, egrets, herons, and more.

Taking a walk in the forest at this time of year will also show signs of Autumn. Look for fruit - the sign of plenty - what we reap in the harvest.
Many plants are burgeoning with fruit (edible fruit to make it even more exciting) - look for Sea Grapes and Coco Plums and Laurel and Strangler Figs. A few weeks ago you might have found flowers bursting all over the mangroves, now you will find seed pods filling every nook and cranny of these salty plants. If you look down at the ground, you might notice baby mangroves trying to take root in the mucky soil.

Spiders are everywhere, this is the height of their annual season. Look up and you might see many, many Golden Orb Weaver webs dotting the forest canopy. Unfortunately, mosquitos are still in season as well, they took advantage of our warm blood during our walk, leaving many of us with welts -reminding us of our lovely fall walk. My son and I were also left with streaks of poison ivy - not sure where we encountered it, luckily haven't heard from anyone else getting a rash.

Our day began with simple lesson about the equinox. Using a small globe and a ball, I described how the sun positioned itself for the equinox. They were very excited about holding the props. We then headed out on our walk. We admired and sampled the ripe Sea Grapes on our way. There was a mixed reaction, some kids loved them, others thought they tasted horrible. We also sampled Spanish Needle, which is a lot like Spinach, and talked about the ripe berries of the Wild Coffee Plant, so aptly name Psychotria Nervosa. I didn't want any nervous kids, so we stayed away from eating them.

As we walked along the trail, the scenery changed, the elevation lowered, the ground got muckier and we noticed lots and lots of mangroves. Hugh Taylor Birch State Park in Ft. Lauderdale is a barrier island, an old one. It is surrounded by the intracoastal waterway and the Atlantic ocean. In the middle is a Hardwood Hammock and a Mangrove Estuary.

The walk provided an excellent pathway to learning the specifics of our 3 types of mangroves:

Red - with it's walking roots and cigar-shaped propagules, or seeds,

Black - with it's salty leaves that we love to lick and it's pneumatophores reaching out of the ground,


White - with it's bite out of the top of the leaf and it's beautiful seeds.

We were excited and thrilled by the spiders and crabs - land, fiddler, and mangrove tree crabs; and we were grossed-out (including me) by some weird, slimy, long, and skinny red muck worm.
As we began our hunt for the snake, we found that the ground wasn't just mucky, it was WET. The tide must have been high and the water was flowing in through the mangroves. It was SO FUN. We waded through rushing, swirling water, fascinated by the forest around us. We stopped to watch spiders and crabs, to listen for birds and popping shrimp, and to partake in lots and lots of Coco Plums.

Too bad for the Thursday class and the folks that stayed behind (there wasn't high tide on Thursday), because it made my day and the day of the gang of kids I had with me (and the moms too, I'm sure).

We eventually got to the spot where the snake was lying in the path. There were still flies, but not as many and the snake had some bits missing. HOWEVER, on Thursday, to our surprise, all that was left was pile of white vertebrae and one inch-long piece of skin. Those decomposers sure move fast. We made sure to sing the decomposition song in honor of their job well done!!!
Upon our return to the field and picnic area, we played Sharks and Minnows, the kid's favorite game, and enjoyed the amazing beauty of the big banyan tree ( a true wild playground). It was a beautiful start to the Autumn Season...

Thank you to the websites I borrowed the pictures from: and

More pictures from the nature families coming soon....

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Virginia Key: Crabs, Seagrass, and Sunshine

What a beautiful, sparkly day we had out at Virginia Key Historic Park and Virginia Key Beach Park in Miami, in Biscayne Bay.
The weather is beginning to cool, there is a breeze in the air and less humidity. Now, mind you, the temperature change is miniscule, but those couple of degrees make a HUGE difference here in South Florida.

Virginia Key Historic Park is a gem- what a amazing place, and an example of how we can take- back something special and restore it to it's beauty and glory. The park is on the eastern side of Virginia Key - a barrier island in Biscayne Bay in Miami. In the early part of the 1900's Crandon Park opened on Key Biscayne. It offered a beach, a beautiful park, equipped with a train for the kids and a carousel, a zoo, and much more. It was, and is, nestled amidst the mangroves on hundreds of acres. In the 1940's the "coloreds" or "black" folks - humans of African descent were not allowed on the "white" beaches (a sad legacy, indeed), so they built the "coloreds" their own beach - 82 acres. It too, was equipped with a carousel and a small train for the kids, as well as a dance hall and restaurant. The beach was a huge success with the community and became and important part of the tradition of Virginia Key and the people who visited there.

(can you see the crab?)

After all beaches were open to everyone, the "colored beach" at Virginia Key became a dumping ground for everyone's unwanted items, people dumped stuff on top of mangroves, in the water, and filled the place up with trash. The park itself became the beach for nudists and others and fell into neglect. In the 1980's there was an initiative by the community to restore the beach and its history to the community. It was successful. Committed and dedicated people cleaned it up and have turned the area back into a gorgeous place for local people to frequent (of any race or background) and are restoring the natural spaces back to their origins as much as possible.
While cleaning out all the trash that negligent people dumped there, the workers uncovered 50 foot tall Mangrove trees, trees that are possibly 100 or more years old!
They were hidden under trash and exotic invasive plant species that had taken over. Now baby mangroves are growing in and filling the fresh salt water that is flowing in from the bay.
The neighboring park - Virginia Key Beach was also restored after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The park and many, many volunteers took out tons of exotic, invasive plants that were trying to push out the native Coastal hammock species.
To their excitement, the workers found that many endangered plants were still thriving and holding on under the barrage of tropical exotic growth. An example is the Biscayne Prickly Ash that they found. Now, to my pleasure and for the benefit of all, the hammock has a wonderful trail, with interpretive signs throughout labeling the many different plants native to the area.
We will be planning a trip back that way in cooler weather to take advantage of the walk. This time we just wanted to get in the water!!!

SO, we did.

There is so much life, it is teeming, bursting, with hundreds and hundreds of critters -thousands that we can't even see.

Biscayne Bay is special in that way, it is shallow and covered with grasslands - turtle grass, manatee grass, and many more.
(look for the spotted baby barracuda in this picture)
The grasses are an important food to the sea creatures - manatees and turtles included. Green Sea Turtles are called "green" because their meat is green due to the heavy amounts of sea grass and weeds they ingest.
The sea grass creates a nourishing mini-forest for all kinds of little critters - crabs, shrimp, fish, more crabs, more shrimp, more fish!
Sponges line the sandy bottom and schools of mullet dart about. Baby Barracudas stand still watching and waiting, and gulls and pelicans dive down to raid the plenty. Crabs crawl in and about the rocks, fish hide in their caves, and limpets, barnacles and chitons dot the rocks along the jetties. We saw green shrimp, pink shrimp, brown shrimp - in fact, Biscayne bay is vital to the shrimp industry. The shrimp we want to eat grows up in the seagrass beds.

When scooping with a net, it is easy to think that nothing is found. So many times we looked down and thought, "oh darn, didn't find anything...but wait, what's that thing jumping, oh, it's not a piece of seaweed, it's a shrimp!"...

~Or, empty the net into a bucket, nothing there but a dead sponge...the bucket gets left on the side to settle, upon re-examination we notice that the bucket is now full to the brim with little floating, crawling, swimming creatures - pipe fish, crabs, plankton, shrimp, fish....
The little babies in the class love to watch the life unfold and come out, they sit and watch the fish or crabs in the buckets with such wonder and amazement, I love it.

The sea beds are also home to the Florida Spiny Lobster and Blue and Stone Crabs - all delicacies and important parts of the Florida economy. One moms deftly caught a large Blue Crab - a mama crab,with orange egg sacs - or roe - covering her back. So, seabeds are important...we need to stop dredging and filling and developing!! We have cut up the bay and sectioned it off and dredged it all up so that boats can pass through with ease. In the process we have neglected the place.
The kids and parents that entered the bay and discovered it's beauty may think about this and work to change the way we do things. We saw that change in action at the historic park - we saw and appreciated the success and the love that was given to preserving not only the land, but the legacy of the land and its people. It's not impossible.
On the way back to our cars - at the historic park, we had an encounter with a very silly, and way-too-tame Sandhill Crane.
These birds frequent the Everglades and up north in Palm Beach and beyond, but are rarely around these parts. The bird was very tame and wanted us to feed it. It walked right up to the kids, as you can see it was just about as tall!! But, how cool - what an experience!!!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Naturalist Know-How and Nature Journals

Well, I'm back!! It's been just about an entire season, the summer season that is, since I have posted here on the blog. There were quite a few reasons for the hiatus - one being that I only had a few outings during the hot, humid, and buggy months of summer, the other reason being that I built my website this summer. I've been done for a few weeks (well, not done as it is ongoing), but I needed some semblance of a break from sitting in front of the computer for too long!!
Posting on the blog is important to me and I'm challenging myself to get back on here more often, even if it is for short posts. I'm researching ways to integrate the blog into my website, but haven't gotten there yet, so will stay with blogspot for now. Please check out my site if you haven't yet:

So, now for the post about nature journals...

Two weeks ago, I, The Nature Teacher, restarted the Fall ECO-Every Child Outside Homeschool Explorers Class. This year I am calling our class, Nature with the Seasons. All of the classes touch on the seasonal fluctuations, whether they are mild or extreme, and incorporate the idea of living in tune with the seasons. For the first class we learned what it means to be a naturalist - not a naturist (another name for a nudist), but a naturalist - one who studies nature. Being a naturalist means being a person that wants to learn how the natural world works and to learn to observe all its beauty, ugliness, and intricate workings. A naturalist may use art as her medium, or poetry, or photograpy, or science, or all combined. There aren't any restrictions, just respect and love for the natural world.

We touched on various suggestions for how to be a naturalist, like, keeping a nature journal, sketching, observing, and listening. We read about a few famous naturalists that have influenced our world: Charles Darwin, John Muir, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, Rachel Carson, to name a few. Then we put together our nature journals. I found a great idea for doing this from the Handbook of Nature Study blog. The method was simple and the results look great. I'm hoping everyone is using their journals, we'll have a time to share them later in the season.

After creating the journals, some of the kids went off on their own to write in it, draw pictures, or just sit in nature. We held class at West Lake Park in Hollywood, Florida. It is a lovely park with a estuarine lake, a short, but sweet little walk by the lake, and an excellent playground and splash park. We were able to take a short nature walk to introduce everyone to the concept of nature observation (lots of new families this year).
It is so inspiring and refreshing to me how extremely excited the kids (and the adults ) get when they see a spider, or a leaf, or a little fish. It becomes a brand new experience - they see something in a different way as a naturalist - on any other day they might walk right by that same spider and not even notice it, but when they become a naturalist, they see it and stop and look at it like it has never been seen before...Amazing and beautiful.