All posts by Rob

About Rob

Rob Diaz de Villegas is a senior producer and editor for WFSU-TV. Rob covers ecology, managing the National Science Foundation funded In the Grass, On the Reef project. Previously, Rob produced and directed WFSU’s music program, outloud. He has also produced a number of ecology and music related documentaries and was selected the PBS Producers Workshop, a program that grooms up-and-coming producers to create programs for national broadcast.

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Father & Son Wakulla River Adventure

Having just finished a video and blog post on Wakulla Springs, WFSU Ecology Producer Rob Diaz de Villegas heads down the Wakulla River with a novice EcoAdventurer. As kid's lives become ever more entwined with technology, many have lost a connection with the outdoors that had once been a staple of childhood. With that in mind, Rob brought his son Max, hoping to build a love of water in him.
Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

“Is this the road to the Apalachicola River?” Max asks as we come to the flashing red lights where Highway 98 crosses our path.

“Well, actually, yes,” I tell him.  “But today we’re going to the Wakulla River.”

To Max, all rivers are the Apalachicola.  For five days in 2012, daddy left home and went kayaking to make some videos on that river.  I had left home for conferences and out of town shoots before, but here was something that the then one-year-old Max could understand- daddy was going down a river in a kayak.  At the end of that trip, as we rolled into Apalachicola the town, I could make out the shapes of a toddler and an adult walking down the floating dock by Veteran’s Park.  It was a sight that ranked up there with Alum Bluff, the Dead Lakes, and Sand Mountain in my mind’s Mount Rushmore of RiverTrek 2012.  I knew then that when he was old enough, I would make the trip with him.  We’re not tackling the 106 mile Apalachicola just yet, though.  Today, we’re traversing a much more manageable six miles of the Wakulla.

Max and I are on our way to San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park to meet RiverTrek coordinator Georgia Ackerman and new ‘Trekker Katie McCormick.  When we get there, a gaggle of blue shirted volunteer types crowd the entrance.

“Are you here for the Coastal Cleanup?” asks a park ranger as we walked up.  Ah yes, Coastal Cleanup Day today.

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The convergence of the Wakulla and St. Marks Rivers at San Marcos de Apalache.

We have a little time to kill before Georgia shows up with the boats, so I take Max to the convergence of the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers, which is just off the southern tip of the park.  We stand there looking at where the rivers flow into productive marshlands, buoys of all colors bobbing over hidden crab traps.  Max sees a way to get down closer to the muddy bank, and I follow him down.  I smile at myself for his wanting to get closer to the water, and closer to the muck.  That’s why I wanted to bring him today.

A couple of days earlier, the organizers of the Sharing Water Conference came by WFSU-FM to appear on Perspectives.  I chatted with them afterwards.  These are mostly retired folks; their childhoods perhaps different than those of kids today.  “When we were kids,” Jack Carswell said, ” our parents would just send us outside and we’d go play in creeks.”  Dr. Anne Holt recalled a recent excursion into Monticello’s new urban forest park, a patch of forest near the center of town.  She was walking behind two high school girls doing volunteer work to get the park ready.

“I’m scared.  Are you scared?” One girl asked.

“Yes.” the other replied.

Dr. Holt is incredulous.  “They’re just a few blocks from the courthouse, and they’re scared.” It’s not news that kids spend too much time on screens, that they don’t exercise enough.  And at a time when issues related to climate, water, and ecological resources are at the center of major legislation, voters are becoming more out of touch with the out of doors.  That’s why Main Street Monticello Florida made registration to the Sharing Water Conference free, and why they want a younger crowd to take interest.

When I decided to take Max on a kayak trip, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about his one day being a well informed voter when it came to water issues.  Not just yet, anyway.  I just wanted him to be out there.

max-in-kayakGeorgia picked our trip route for the day.  At six miles, it would take 2-3 hours depending on our pace.  This would give us a little more time than our previous Lake Bradford canoe jaunts.

On any paddling trip, you have to figure out your shuttling arrangement- whose car is at the put in spot and whose is at the take out, and how do all of the people and boats get back to where they need to go.  Paddling with a three year old presents one additional challenge, which is making sure a car seat is wherever Max is.  This is why we ended up strapping it to the back of the kayak.  My dry bag almost covered it; we had to wrap the rest in garbage bags.  Kayaking with a Fred Sanford chic.

Having figured out the car seat question, packing was simple.  Plenty of water, plenty of snacks, plenty of sunscreen.  And of course a personal flotation device.  We go to our put in spot at the upper Wakulla bridge, where another group of coastal cleanup volunteers looks ready to start.

We head out in a tank of a tandem, a good sturdy boat.  Georgia gave Max a kid’s paddle, which he initially pokes into the water but mostly just holds.  I realize that it had been a year since we had taken Max out on a canoe, before the baby.  Then, Max sat in his pregnant mother’s lap.  I notice him sitting in the front cockpit by himself, and I notice that he isn’t his usual animated self.

“The kayak’s wobbling,” he says.

“It’ll do that a little,” I tell him.  But this kayak really is a big, heavy vessel.  I see a motor boat coming up ahead, and I warn Max so that the wake won’t startle him.  The ripples barely move us.

manatee-signMoving down the river, we see signs posted from people’s docks asking motor boats to slow down for manatees.  I have told Max that seeing them is a possibility, reminding him that we’ve seen them on the Wakulla Springs boat tour and that this is the same river.  But I don’t want to get his hopes up.

After about an hour, we approach the 98 bridge, this time from the water. Georgia tells us that this is a good spot for a bathroom break.  Before the bridge there is a man in what looks like a kid’s kayak, his toes dangling in the water.  He’s smoking a cigarette.  I speed up to get Max past the smoke.

When we get to the other side of the bridge, I park the boat and ask if he has to go.

Don’t I know any better?  Before bed, before school, or before a car trip, I don’t ask.  I tell him that it’s time to go.  But this time, I ask, and he says “No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

The man in the small green kayak comes up.  “I’ve been out here since four,” he says.

“See any manatees?” We ask him.

“I saw five, a family of five.”

“Nice!”

“Do you have a personal flotation device?” Georgia asks.

“I’m an adamant swimmer,” The man says.

“By law you’re required to wear one when you’re on the water.  FWC is patrolling, and you’ll get fined.  I’m not trying to bust your chops, I just want you to know.”

The man is unfazed by Georgia’s warning.  As we paddle away, she says “Being an ‘adamant’ swimmer doesn’t do you any good if you get knocked unconscious.”

We paddle another half-an-hour and Max says. “I have to go to the bathroom.”  This was entirely predictable.  We find a spot for him and I try to get him to go, but he won’t.  He holds it, and doesn’t mention it again.

There’s not too much for him to do in the kayak.  We have little chats.  I mention birds I see- a cormorant swimming, a kingfisher attacking the water.  He doesn’t say anything.  He starts looking a little drowsy.  His little brother has been waking up in the night, crying.  First tooth. None of us has slept well.

max-pucks-upThen he sees Katie pickup a Natural Light can, and he’s filled with purpose.  Georgia has given him a pick-up tool, a pole with a claw, for Coastal Cleanup Day.  I steer us close to the riverbanks to look for trash.  We don’t see any.  “When the river gets high, the trash gets pushed off the shorelines,” I tell him.  When I see a styrofoam cup in some tall grasses, it’s a small relief.

The cup is really in there though, and the little grabber keeps catching grass.  I worry that we’ll do more damage than good getting it out, but I also know how upset he’ll be if we leave it there.  I knock the cup closer to Max with my paddle, and he grabs it.  He’s done a tiny something to clean up the river.  All that’s left is to see a manatee.

And we do.  Sort of.  Katie spots a mother and a calf right by her kayak, under the water.  We all start to paddle backwards against the current to see if we can spot them again, and we do see them surface briefly upriver.   They’re much faster than you would expect.  And then, a little closer to St. Marks, as we start seeing buoys again, a small dolphin pops up ever so briefly.  The dolphin senses that it’s surrounded by food, but the food is stuck in a most inconvenient package.

These are our encounters with the marquee sightseeing animals.  That’s often how it goes; we see these brief flashes of the “cool” animals.  Sometimes we get more.  The trip is not about manatees or dolphins.  We can go to an aquarium for that.  We’re here to experience a river.

When we get back to San Marcos de Apalache, Max is back to running around.  He seems more awake.  His trip has amounted to picking up a styrofoam cup, falling asleep, holding his pee, and not quite seeing the cool animals the adults are talking about.  It’s hard to gauge how much he really enjoyed the day.  I leave a little disappointed.  For two years, he’s had this mythical idea about the amazing adventures you can have while kayaking a river.  I felt like I had burst that myth.

But then later, he’s talking about wanting to go kayaking and camping again.  He wants to go to the Apalachicola.

I remember him as a baby on walks, staring at trees.  Max, like his brother is now, was an interactive baby.  He paid very close attention to adults, and was always responsive when we talked to him.  Except on walks.  Reclined in his stroller, he’d stare up at the canopy of trees overhanging the sidewalk, barely noticing us.  He had long stretches of stillness on the river as well, and I’d wonder, “Is he bored?”  But he has a way of taking things in, this kid.  At one point he called a cypress tree “beauty-ful.”

Like it or not, this kid has years of kayak, hiking, and camping trips ahead of him.  I accept that he may not grow into a person who loves nature like I do.  But if he doesn’t, it won’t be because his parents didn’t expose it to him.

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A few things I learned about paddling with a small child:

  1. Pick a stress free trip.  Pick a river/ lake you know (or in my case, go with a person who knows it really well, or plan a trip with an outfitter).  You want to be able to focus on your child’s comfort and enjoyment.  The goal, at least my goal, is to give them a taste of these activities.
  2. Pick a shorter trip with opportunities to stop.  Before this trip, I had taken Max to Lake Bradford a couple of times, renting a canoe cheaply for an hour and taking him past the panther enclosure at the Tallahassee Museum.  Today’s trip was longer but there was an opportunity to stop (even if I didn’t properly take advantage).
  3. Bring water & snacks, and keep them accessible.  I packed the snacks far up in Max’s cockpit, and when he wanted his banana, he had to reach the snack bag with his feet and kick it to himself.  Bad Daddy!
  4. Personal flotation device.  This is obvious for a child, and as Georgia mentioned, is required of everyone.
  5. Shuttling with a car seat.  If you have an extra, that’s best.  Or you can take a round trip.  Or, you know, what I did.
  6. Toys/ activities.  This is one I struggled with, as I didn’t want to bring anything that would get dropped.  Georgia brought the pick up tool and a water squirter.  I have some different ideas for the next trip, which is hopefully next week.  What other kinds of toys have any of you brought for kids on longer trips?
  7. Have fun.  I wanted Max to try using his paddle a little more, but I wasn’t going to push him.  The last thing I need to do is turn him off of paddling.

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Sharing Water Conference Tackles Aquifer Issues

The Sharing Water Conference will be held at the Monticello Opera House on October 2 - 4. All events are free, though conference organizers encourage registration to ensure a spot.
Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Jack Carswell went to FSU in the 1950s.  Once, sitting in a lecture hall, Jack heard a professor tell his class that a rocket could never maintain a speed great enough to escape the earth’s gravitational pull.  “And there I was a few years later, sitting on my porch and looking for Sputnik.”  Jack was sitting the in the WFSU lobby his fellow Main Street Monticello members, talking about water issues.  He was making a parallel between the seemingly unsolvable tensions between urban growth, agricultural needs, and natural resources like springs.  Aeronautical engineers figured out that they could mount one rocket onto another rocket, and ignite the second one once they were in flight to get the burst they needed.  Jack is sure that this innovative thinking was a result of one engineer talking the problem through with other engineers.  At the The Sharing Water Conference this week in Monticello, Jack hopes that similar conversations might take place as people discuss the future of the Floridan Aquifer.

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Wakulla Spring is one of our area’s top tourist attractions, and it supports a diverse ecology as the source of the Wakulla River. However, water usage in the Wakulla springshed, which includes Tallahassee, may be degrading the quality of its water. Elevated nitrate levels have increased algae, and more dark water days have curbed the once popular glass bottom boat tours.

Taking place over three days (Thursday, October 2 through Saturday, October 4) in the Monticello Opera House, the conference will bring together geologists, lawyers, policy makers, water managers, farmers and other stakeholders to discuss a variety of issues.  Just as the Floridan Aquifer is vast and complex, so too are the water needs of Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, under which the aquifer sits.

This is the water we drink.  It’s the water you swim in at Wakulla Springs, kayak over on the Wacissa River, and it provides some of the freshwater needed to sustain estuaries for seafood species in Apalachee Bay.  We take our water’s quantity and quality for granted,but there are issues that threaten both.

Here is a brief look at the event:

  • Confirmed speakers/ panelists include State Senator Bill Montford, State Representative and President of Simpsons Nursery Halsey Bashears, Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper, and the executive directors of the Southwest Florida & Suwannee River Water Management Districts.
  • Day one covers the basics of water supply: how the aquifer works, how it is managed, and groundwater depletion.  This is the more technical day of the event, but I wouldn’t let that scare you off.  If you’re going to understand the policy, it helps to know the science.
  • Day two looks at the people side of the equation: affected groups (represented by public utilities, agriculture, industry, and environmental groups), solutions to water issues, and the Tampa area water crisis.
  • Day three gets a little more “hands on.”  After an address by Senator Montford, there will be a field trip to Monticello’s wastewater treatment facility, where water is treated and used at Simpsons Nursery.  This project is meant to offset half-a-million gallons of groundwater (aquifer) withdrawals a day by the nursery, where the tour will conclude.
  • On day three, from 8 am to 4 pm, there will also be an exhibit called Water Ventures, a mobile learning lab meant to engage elementary school students to learn about biodiversity, hydrology, and watershed stewardship.  Conference organizer Dr. Anne Holt told me “they say it’s for fourth graders, but I think it would be interesting for anyone.”  I get what she’s saying.  For a lot of people, technical terms and lingo like confined and unconfined aquifer, groundwater, gray water, etc. can leave the layperson confused.  This truck tackles a lot of that content visually, perhaps making it more real for those of us have to see things in our heads to “get it.”
  • Every meeting and panel discussion will be recorded and archived.  This is the plan going forward for what will be a biennial event.  Conference organizers are excited about the prospect of accumulating the knowledge and discourse shared over the years.
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SciGirls at Wakulla Springs & the Wakulla Spring Restoration Plan

We tagged along with the Tallahassee SciGirls (a joint venture between WFSU-TV and the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory) as they visited Wakulla Springs. The following video explores the link between the spring, the aquifer, and the aquifers many sources of water. In the blog post below, we further explore some issues raised in the video and examine some key points in the recently released Wakulla Spring Restoration Plan.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

When I was talking to Peter Scalco in the video above, I was surprised to hear him say that manatees had largely eliminated invasive hydrilla from Wakulla Springs State Park.  How cool is that; nature comes in and cleans up the mess.  More surprising to me, however, was when he said that the removal of the hydrilla had negatively impacted invertebrates in the park.  Invertebrates are at the bottom of the food web, and losing them meant losing ducks species that ate them.

Suwannee Cooter at Wakulla SpringsIn a place whose name means “mysterious waters,” however, things are rarely so clear.  The park had also used chemical means to treat the hydrilla.  Since we interviewed the park manager during the SciGirls’ visit in July, the Howard T. Odum Springs Institute released its Wakulla Spring Restoration Plan (PDF).  In referring to the hydrilla problem, the report states that “herbicide control of hydrilla can result in unintended consequences such as invertebrate mortality, depressed dissolved oxygen levels, loss of desirable submerged plant species, and increased algal cover” (page 103, or the 118th page of the attached pdf- page numbers rarely line up in these larger documents).   This means invertebrates may have been killed by the herbicide Aquathol.  Or it may have been, as Mr. Scalco’s believes, that invertebrates lost hydrilla as a habitat and could no longer thrive in the river.  A third possibility is that Aquathol may have affected some of “desired submerged plant species” which may also have been habitat for the invertebrates.  Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Joe Hand surveyed the river in 2001.  He noted that while the herbicide reduced hydrilla, “the cover of [native] eelgrass also decreased from 50% to 30% during this period of herbicide use.”  (65/ 79)   Based strictly on observation, and without the benefit of a controlled experiment, it’s hard to identify a definitive cause.

This call for closer study is made elsewhere in the report, when discussing the relationship between hydrilla and nitrates in the spring run.  The increase in hydrilla coincides with an elevation of nitrates over the years.  Elevations of nitrates in a body of water, often caused by stormwater runoff carrying fertilizer, can supercharge plant growth and lead to toxic algae blooms.  It seems plausible that an increased nutrient load would promote the growth of hydrilla, but in this case it just hasn’t been proven.  The report outlines options for better determining causality:

One practical approach to address this lack of knowledge is to implement restoration activities that would increase the occurrence of clear water and lower the concentration of nitrate while simultaneously monitoring the cover and spread of hydrilla. A second approach that should be combined with the first approach is the development of a detailed ecological study of the factors affecting hydrilla success in Wakulla Spring and at similar control sites.

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In other words, at a site where every condition was the same except the elevation of nitrates, how does hydrilla grow?

Dark Water Days

noglassbottomboattoursAnother mystery is the overall darkening of the water.  When we went with SciGirls, as well as on a couple of visits with my wife and kids over the summer, the water has been pretty clear.  But, as Mr. Scalco told us, “it is a dynamic system.”  Between 1987 and 2003, the water was clear enough for glass bottom boat tours between 17- 75% of the time.  Between 2003 and 2010, it was down to 0-15% (78/ 92).  That’s a drastic increase of dark water days in Wakulla Spring over the last decade.

Dark water has historically occurred as a result of an underground connection between the Wakulla Spring cave system and that of the Spring Creek system, 14 springs located in salt marsh habitat on Apalachee Bay.  Essentially, during periods of low rainfall, Spring Creek flows with such little pressure that saltwater backflows into the spring creating what the report calls a “plug.”  Any water that does flow into the system from the aquifer is blocked, reversing the flow back to Wakulla Springs.  During these times, when it does rain,  water entering the aquifer from the Apalachicola National Forest will be dark and tannic.  As rain increases, the plug is usually removed and clear water returns to Wakulla Springs (Described in more detail on 17/ 32).  This is the usual cycle.

So how was it disrupted?

It could be sea level rise.  It could be a rise in the salinity of Apalachee Bay caused by the same drought conditions that caused the crash of the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery, and which tend to wreak havoc on estuarine systems.  Or it could be a change in the groundwater gradient (18/33).

One concern is that those of us who live in the springshed are using too much water, water that is directly removed by the aquifer by 27 wells in Leon County.  We in the Red Hills region are said to have exceptional groundwater.  The main reason for that is that rainwater has less immediate access to the aquifer here.  There are a handful of lakes with sinkholes that feed the aquifer- Iamonia, Miccosukee, Jackson, and Lafayette (Upper Lake Lafayette, specifically).  The rest of it is left to filter through thick red clay.  As Jamie Shakar with the City of Tallahassee Utilities told us in our first Water Moves video, it can take a decade or more for water to get down to where they extract it for us to drink.  The aquifer is recharged at a rate of 8 inches a year in this region, compared to 18 inches in the area just to the south of the Cody Escarpment, known as the Woodville Karst Plain (33/ 48).  In south Leon down through Wakulla, the aquifer loses the thick clay protection and the relatively exposed limestone is pockmarked with sinkholes.  What we withdraw from the aquifer in Tallahassee is not so quickly replaced.  This could be a reason that less clear water is coming out of Wakulla Spring- we are drinking that water.  And so one solution presented by the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute is to promote conservation and education.

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Sharing Water Conference organizers hope to attract teenagers- such as the SciGirls- to attend and become interested in water issues.

Will better efficiency in the way we water our lawns or take showers help to provide more clear water to the spring?  It’s hard to say with 100% certainty.  Vast underground networks of caves are not easily studied.  And it is definitely not easy to track every drop of water as it moves, gets absorbed, and evaporates on its way to and from the surface.  From October 2 through 4, the city of Monticello hosts the Sharing Water Conference.  I had a great time chatting with the event organizers yesterday after their appearance on WFSU-FM’s Perspectives.  They are bringing together geologists, policy makers, and other stakeholders to discuss the many issues facing the Floridan Aquifer.  Registration is free, and the hope is that people from every walk can come together to have a free exchange of ideas and help to work towards some innovative solutions.

I’ll preview the event next week, and will cover it for the WFSU Ecology Blog.  Also coming up this fall, we look at some of the small farms in our area for whom water is economically vital, and whose usage of water within the Wakulla Springshed influences spring flow.  The Red Hills Small Farm Alliance encourages sustainable practices; we’ll see what that means and how these farms fit into our natural landscape.  We also have some new EcoAdventures in the works as I am just itching to get back into a kayak and onto some trails.  We have some exciting stuff in the works, so stay tuned.

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Tally SciGirls Learn Fire Ecology at Tall Timbers

Tallahassee SciGirls camp is a collaboration between WFSU and the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.  For two weeks ever summer, middle school aged girls take over a dozen field trips exposing them to science in multiple real world settings, from the physics lab at Florida State University to the Seacrest Wolf Preserve.  We joined them for two of their ecology related adventures.  The video below is of their visit to Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.  On Wednesday, September 17 at 7:30 pm ET, their visit to Wakulla Springs airs on WFSU’s Dimensions (look for it here shortly after).

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
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Kellie Phillips, a graduate student at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry, shows the SciGirls how she tracks northern bobwhite quails using radio telemetry. Bobwhites are a popular game species found in fire dependent longleaf habitat.

There is something about a well burned forest that looks clean.  The longleaf/ wiregrass ecosystem is uncluttered, with trees spaced widely enough “to drive a wagon through.”   Many of our EcoAdventures take place in or around this habitat, which covers much of our area.   A lot of our guides on these trips, whether they be land managers, ecotourism professionals, or researchers, love to talk about the habitat and how it thrives with fire.  Dr. Tom Miller looked at a plot of Apalachicola National Forest and told me that it had been burned within 18 months.  Dr. Jean Huffman looked up at longleaf pines in the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve and told me how old they were.  For any SciGirls interested in ecology, their visit to Tall Timbers was an opportunity to get to know a diverse and productive ecosystem that is easily accessible to those of us living in or around Tallahassee.  One day they might be the ones looking forward to the next burn and guiding their local PBS producer through the woods.

As Tall Timbers’ Jim Cox told me, this ecosystem used to cover 90,000,000 acres between Texas and Virginia.  Lightning would ignite the forest every few years and, uninterrupted by roads or concrete structures, fire would spread for hundreds of miles.  It would clear almost everything between the thick barked longleaf pine trees, making way for palmettos, wiregrass, and small succulent plants that fed the many diverse forest fauna.  Today, less than three percent of that forest remains.  And, with humans occupying so much of the landscape, wildfires are more public safety hazard than promoters of diversity.

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One of several trees we saw at Tall Timbers that had been struck in a recent lightning storm. Strikes like these used to spark massive fires that kept the 90 million acre coastal plain forest healthy.

But the forest needs fire, so humans need to create and control burns themselves.  How and how often to burn is a science.  Much of Tall Timbers Research Station’s 4,000 acres is a laboratory dedicated to perfecting this science.  As much as I loved the shots of girls helping to tag a Bachman’s sparrow and letting snakes slither up their arms, my favorite part of the video above is the side-by-side comparison of the burn plots.  Here you have a visual representation of what happens to a forest that burns once a year versus once every three years.  And it lets researchers clearly see what animals use the different plots and when they leave for more open land.

As I mentioned earlier, we’ve had some previous adventures in this ecosystem.  We’ve never focused directly on the woods themselves; I enjoyed finally doing that.  The videos/ blog posts below highlight different aspects of fire climax communities:

The Carnivorous Plants of State Road 65

Thread-leaf sundew flowerIf you’re hiking in regularly burned woods and come upon a thick tangle of wood, you’re likely nearing water.  The area between the two habitats, at the edge of both fire and moist mucky areas, is where, in late Spring, you can find some very interesting wildflowers.  Dr. Tom Miller guided us to a bog the Apalachicola National Forest where we could walk among pitcher plants, thread-leaf sundews, and other flowering plants that get their nutrients not from the soil, but from animal flesh.  This is the kind of disturbed area the plants prefer.  Regularly mowed roadsides along the forest also sport carnivorous flowers.  Eleanor Dietrich took us along S.R. 65 and talked to us about her efforts to draw more people to the area to see these unique plants.

Rare Plants Thrive with Fire at the Buffer Preserve

The "Wet Savanna" of the Buffer PreserveThe Apalachicola National Forest and the private forests found on the hunting plantations of the Red Hills of Florida and Georgia house some of the largest and best preserved examples of the coastal plain forest that used to dominate the southeast.  A lesser known but equally impressive example can be found at the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.  Dr. Jean Huffman showed us some of the rare plants growing there, many of them found hidden among the wiregrass.  And the Buffer is also home to one of the rarest wildflowers in Florida, the Chapman’s rhododendron. The blog post that accompanies the video explains how Dr. Huffman uses tree rings to determine how often trees had historically burned, useful information in setting a burn schedule.

Also, WFSU-FM’s Nick Evans travelled to the Buffer at a different time of year, and saw a number of different rare plants.

Keep up with the latest posts, environmental coverage from the WFSU News department and more at @wfsuIGOR.

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Scalloping Saint Joseph Bay Seagrass Beds: Video

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Double Rainbow

I figured it was a good sign that our first glimpse of Saint Joseph Bay was of it under a double rainbow.  Of course, that required me to ignore all of the rain clouds that caused the rainbows, and some of the far off lightning I saw on our drive to Port Saint Joe.  But why head into my shoot with a negative attitude?  It didn’t take long for the sun to come out after we got on Captain Bobby Guilford’s boat.  I can’t control the weather, but if I could, I’d have arranged it like it turned out.  First, some clouds and precipitation for the rainbow shot, and then the sun we needed to shoot in seagrass beds and, more importantly, to see the scallops we were there to find.  Florida weather is just as often a friend to my shoots as it is a nasty nemesis.

This was a segment I’d been wanting to do since the first summer of the In the Grass, On the Reef project.  I spent a lot of time in Saint Joseph Bay following Dr. Randall Hughes’ salt marsh research, and when scallop season started I would see people head into the bay with buckets, kayaking out with buckets, or zipping by on boats.  Scallops are some of my favorite food.   In the Grass, On the Reef could just as easily have been called Getting to Know the Places Where the Food I Like Lives.  And I did get to know about seagrass beds, and snorkel in Saint Joe Bay looking for shots of horse conchs, sea stars, and even scallops.  What I learned in my time with Randall and her colleague, Dr. David Kimbro, is that seagrass beds are really cool!

Seagrass beds are remarkable ecosystems, and they’re a big part of why I love going back to Saint Joseph Bay as well as other locations on the Forgotten Coast.  Here are some of the cool things I learned about them from my collaborators’ research:

Seagrasses and Blue Carbon

Dr. Macreadie looks through seagrass bedIn 2012, Dr. Peter MacReadie visited Randall in Saint Joseph Bay from the University of Technology in Sydney.  We talked to he and Randall about ecosystem services provided by seagrass beds, and Peter talked to us about the surprising ability of seagrass beds to store carbon from the atmosphere.  As Randall points out in a 2012 post, their storage ability is on par with forests.

Robert Paine/ Keystone Species

Horse Conch on Bay Mouth Bar

Horse Conch (Pleuroploca gigantea)

Our local seagrass beds house a wealth of diversity.  Dr. Robert Paine studied Bay Mouth Bar, just off of Alligator Point, over fifty years ago.  The bar may have the greatest diversity of predatory snails in the world. His observations of the top predator- the horse conch- and the rest of the animals on the bar when the horse conch was present versus when it left in the winter, were influential in Paine’s pioneering of the keystone species concept. The horse conch consumes other snails, keeping their numbers in check so that those snails don’t in turn consume too many clams. The clams benefit the seagrass by filtering water, and so the horse conch is of vital importance to clams and to the habitat. As we know, David Kimbro is very much interested in predators, and so it is natural that he would spend years following up on Paine’s work, even unfunded.

(The one clam that horse conchs eat is the largest you can find in our seagrass beds, the pen shell. That’s what we see Bobby and Adrianne eating in the video above.)

Predator Diversity Loss

True Tulip Snail eating a Banded Tulip Snail

True tulip (Fasciolaria tulipa) eating a banded tulip (Fasciolaria hunteria).

While it’s great that seagrass beds help combat global climate change, provide habitat for scallops and other seafood species, and help filter water, they unfortunately are a habitat on the decline. As seagrass beds shrink, they tend to house a less diverse assemblage of animals. David Kimbro’s graduate student, Tanya Rogers, used a local seagrass habitat to look at the effects of losing diversity. Specifically, the loss of a top predator. David and Tanya have been conducting a follow up to Robert Paine’s Bay Mouth Bar research in the early 1960s. Five decades later, they found that the seagrass beds there are shrinking, and certain snail species have disappeared. This includes the true tulip snail and murex, which are still plentiful in Saint Joseph Bay. The true tulip was a major predator on Bay Mouth Bar. Tanya conducted an experiment to determine how the loss of this predator would affect the clams in the sediment, and how those clams in turn affected the sediment where the seagrass grows. Did the loss of habitat force the tulip off of the bar, or did the loss of tulip (which eats clam consuming snails) help cause the seagrass habitat to shrink?

Ocean Acidification

As global temperatures rise, the ocean is acidifying. This will have increasing ramifications for the plants and animals living in saltwater ecosystems, such as the oysters, clams, and scallops whose shells will weaken. However, recent research shows that seagrass beds might fight that acidification.  Good news for the clams and scallops that live there!

Seagrass bed in St. Joseph Bay, FL

Music in the video by pitx.