A Foray in Fern Forest
Nature Preserve in Broward
There's a rustle in the brush as a gopher tortoise scurries toward her burrow and disappears. Our guide tells us the burrow may be 20 feet deep with a 40-foot long tunnel. He explains this tortoise is called a keystone species because "if you lose this one, you'll lose others who depend on it. When fire ravages the forest, animals that can't fly find safety in the tortoise's burrow, depending on the tortoise for survival."
Our guide is Rick McKenzie of Pompano Beach. For fifteen years, he has guided people over the trails at Fern Forest Nature Center in Coconut Creek, a 254-acre preserve operated by Broward County.
Along the trail McKenzie sees that a spider has spun her web between tree branches. He picks a small leaf from a tree, rolls it into a tiny ball, and throws it into the web.
Zap! In a nano-second, the spider lands on the tiny ball, thinking a bug had flown into her trap and lunch had arrived.
When she learns otherwise, she meticulously picks the leaf apart and rids the web of this debris. After all, bits of debris in the web would serve to divert other bugs flying this way. The spider spinning the web, incidentally, is always a "she," since only females can do this.
These are among many things you learn on a tour of the forest, where you can wander down trails on your own or join a guided tour every Sunday at 1 p.m. Admission is always free.
You'll learn that the forest is home for foxes, raccoons, squirrels, gopher tortoises, many butterflies and snakes, among other critters. You may not see some of those animals, however, as some come out only at night, others hide from humans, and some have natural camouflage that allows them to blend into the environment. You'll learn there are 91 species of birds in the forest, 49 species of butterflies and 34 species of ferns.
You'll also learn about a rather strange tree -- the strangler fig -- that, in effect, strangles another tree. Seeds carried in the breeze or in bird droppings land on a branch or fork in a tree where the seed germinates. Its roots then grow downward and wrap themselves around the host tree. As those roots grow into the ground, they deprive the host tree of needed water and nutrients. The strangler fig also grows a large canopy that deprives the host tree of needed sunlight, and the host tree dies with the strangler fig surrounding it.
There are four different trails in the forest, each with very different characteristics. A tour on any trail usually takes an hour.
An exhibition room houses a six-foot indigo snake and a smaller red rat snake in glass enclosures. There is also a model of the gopher tortoise and its burrow, a display of bugs and insects, bird nests, and information on the history of the forest.
The nature center includes a large pavilion where weddings and special events are held. Fern Forest is on Lyons Road in Coconut Creek, just south of Atlantic Boulevard. There is a fee for guided tours for large organized groups, but individual tours are free. Donations to support the nature center are welcome.
It is dedicated to environmental education, and volunteers are often needed to help the cause. A visit to the forest is a pleasant way for a family to spend time and learn more about plants and ecosystems.