Florida's Special Places: Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park

Audubon of Florida science and policy staff including Executive Director Eric Draper gathered at Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park Saturday to reflect upon the importance of keeping Florida’s state parks open, and the role this particular park plays in our lives.  For the staff of Audubon’s Tavernier Science Center, Dagny Johnson offers one of the few places in the Florida Keys where it is possible to take a long, quiet walk through the woods.  It is also a break from their grueling work in the mosquito-infested mangrove forests of the Everglades.

The park contains the largest contiguous tract of West Indian tropical hardwood hammock—over 2400 acres—anywhere in the United States.  The park was created not only to preserve this unique forest, but also to protect the spectacular coral reefs in nearby John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which are sensitive to turbidity and pollutants that accompany land development.  The Park was renamed in 2001 to honor Anna Dagny Johnson, the citizen activist that led efforts for 25 years to preserve this beautiful tract of forest for future generations to explore and enjoy.

Dagny Johnson offers a chance to view species of birds found only in extreme Southern Florida or the Keys, though for the exception of wintering Gray Catbirds, most birds were quiet for our mid-day visit.  White-crowned Pigeons are found year-round feasting on berries provided by the tropical trees, while Black-whiskered Vireos and Mangrove Cuckoos are southern specialties that can only be seen here during the breeding season.

Invertebrate species are also plentiful.  Many species of butterflies dance in and out of the trees’ shadows, and the sighting of a rare tree snail is always a treat.  Golden silk orb-weaver webs decorate the trails, the spiders seemingly oblivious to those of us who duck underneath their masterpieces that glitter in the sunlight.  In total, Dagny Johnson is home to 84 protected and rare plant and animal species.  Perhaps one of its cutest, the Key Largo woodrat, seldom makes an appearance but depends upon the habitat the park offers for its survival.

Not only the site of preserved land, Dagny Johnson also hosts active habitat restoration efforts, led by Audubon’s Keys Environmental Restoration Fund (KERF).  Once designated to become a large residential development, areas of disturbed land are found in pockets throughout the park.  These areas are in the process of being restored to they way they once were, by returning the land to a more natural grade and planting tree species, such as mangroves and upland species, which once grew there.  These efforts ensure that Dagny Johnson will continue to offer valuable wildlife habitat for rare endemic species, and the countless migratory birds that utilize the park during their fall and spring migrations.

Dagny Johnson not only offers a unique escape for those that live on the small islands in the Florida Keys, but for new visitors a chance to discover the beauty of a tropical hardwood hammock.  This is one of Florida’s Special Places, one that was almost lost, and access to it allows people to connect with nature and realize why we must protect it.

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