Small Spits – ponds, creeks & lakes

BY KATIE SALZ, Program Manager, Tree Hill Nature Center
The St. Johns River runs from the south to the north, meandering just over 300 miles until it reaches Mayport and heads for the Atlantic Ocean. It starts as the St. Johns Marsh in Indian River County, 100 miles south of Orlando. At Tree Hill Nature Center, we have our own piece of the St. Johns flowing across the 50 acres for which we care. The Red Bay Branch and Howland Creeks runs across Tree Hill before meeting up with the Strawberry Creek. The Strawberry Creek flows into the Arlington River, which quickly joins back with the St. Johns for its last bit of journey to the Atlantic.
Neither Red Bay Branch nor Howland Creek is wide enough or deep enough to ever generate electricity or be used for transportation. Why then does Tree Hill Nature Center make an effort to educate visitors about these Creeks and take pride in their care? What is the importance of these comparatively small spits of water?
Water in these creeks is tidal, meaning it ebbs and flows in response to the tide. This is an important feature that plays a vital role in keeping groundwater, and therefore our drinking water, clean. Water percolates through these areas, allowing harmful bacteria and chemicals to be taken up by plants and beneficial bacteria. Red Bay Branch and Howland Creek also provide a unique kind of habitat. These waterways are necessary for use as a nursery by many species of fish and reptiles. These areas also provide essential habitat for amphibians, such as frogs and salamanders, which lay eggs and develop in these waters.
Creeks and ponds can be very tempting for little ones to play in, but be cautious. There are no lifeguards and plenty of snakes, turtles, and an occasional alligator. Avoid swimming or wading in unknown areas. The underwater terrain can change very rapidly. Also be cautious swimming in pond or creek water with any open cuts or wounds that might be prone to parasite infections.
There is usually great biodiversity in the areas surrounding creeks. Biodiversity comes from an abundance of different species of plants and animals native to Florida. I have developed an analogy to explain the importance of biodiversity to the students who explore Tree Hill Nature Center on field trips. I ask them to consider two different groups being asked to draw a rainbow. One group is given 6 crayons, all the same color. The other group is also given 6 crayons, but they are given different colors. They can easily discern the picture that would be brighter and more interesting. I explain that in the ecosystem surrounding our Creeks, the same is true, but we talk about resiliency and strength instead of brightness and interest.
Our waterways are the cornerstone of a healthy environment. We encourage you to tip your hat to them by reducing the use of fertilizers and insecticides on your lawn. Spend the morning in the shade of the Joseph A. Strasser Boardwalk at Tree Hill, observing all the critters that move through the corridors of our Creeks. For more information on how to protect and honor the St. Johns River, come by Tree Hill Nature Center and talk to our team of educators and naturalists. You can also learn more by checking out the St. Johns Riverkeeper at or North Florida Land Trust at

About Katie Salz