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....

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