All posts by Rob Diaz de Villegas

About Rob Diaz de Villegas

Rob Diaz de Villegas is a senior producer for WFSU-TV, covering environment and the outdoors. Rob is in the process of completing Roaming the Red Hills, an exploration of north Florida/ south Georgia ecology funded by Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy. Rob’s previous ecology projects include EcoShakespeare, which was funded by PBS member station WNET and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and In the Grass, On the Reef, a collaboration with the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Lab funded by the National Science Foundation. Rob’s EcoAdventure segments air on WFSU’s Local Routes and can be found on the WFSU Ecology Blog.

Aucilla Sinks: Hiking Where the Land Gets Swallowed

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Dimensions’ encore presentation on Sunday, April 15 at 10 AM/ ET on WFSU-TV
IGOR chip- human appreciation 150On this blog, we usually refer to location we visit by the kind of habitat it is, and its foundation species.  Salt marshes and cordgrass, oyster reefs and oysters, pine flatwoods and longleaf pine- you get the picture.  We think of things biologically here, which makes sense, since my primary co-contributors are biologists and because our local abundance of life draws us to the outdoors.  For the EcoAdventure airing tonight (7:30 PM/ ET on WFSU-TV’s dimensions), our draw is not biological but rather geological.  Tonight, we’re going to a place in Florida where you can see some rocks.

From caves such as this one, the Aucilla reemerges periodically in sinkholes and short river runs.

The Aucilla River takes a unique path down to the Gulf of Mexico.  It’s a good sized river that all of a sudden gets swallowed by the earth, and then reappears in what Morgan Wilbur (Aucilla Wildlife Management Area’s Chief Biologist) calls karst windows, before resuming as a fully flowing river at Nutall Rise.  So what is a karst window?  They’re sinkholes, caused by the erosion of the limestone or dolomite that underlies most of our state.  In a karst topography, rainwater moves through soil and through porous rock.  In North Florida, that water ends up in the Floridan Aquifer, which is the source of our drinking water and of bodies of water such as Wakulla Springs.  That water can wear down pieces of the rock as it passes through, causing cave ins.  As extensive as the Floridan Aquifer is (North Florida and Georgia, and parts of Alabama and South Carolina), there aren’t many places where the land behaves quite like it does at the Aucilla Sinks.  This is why Kent Wimmer of the Florida Trail Association wanted to show the area to us.

P1040383The Sinks section of the Florida Scenic Hiking Trail is where, as Kent says in the piece, “you can see Florida’s basement.”  You can see places where the trees grow sideways as the land slowly gets pulled into holes where limestone had been.  You are walking along what had once been underground caves, as evidenced by the walls of rock around you.  And every sink looks different than the last; I feel like I could have shot for days there.

Tonight’s Dimensions program also has an interview segment on the Wild About Wakulla Week.  Host Julz Graham talked with Jeff Hugo (Wakulla Wildlife Festival), Capt. James Hodges (Certified Green Guide & St. Marks Community Showcase Representative), and Dr. Madeleine Carr ( historian, “Conquistadors in the Fabled Land of the Apalachee”).  We toured the Saint Marks River with Captain Hodges last December.  You can watch that video here.

Exploring North Florida Through Photos

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

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IGOR chip- human appreciation 150I saw this photo over the weekend when the family and I visited the Florida Aquarium in Tampa.  We had known that we were going to be going for several weeks (my son Maximus loves watching marine life in tanks), yet it was only on the drive there that I remembered that I had given two photos to the Aquarium to use for an oyster reef/ toadfish exhibit (the one in the photo to the right was taken by WFSU web producer Trisha Moynihan).  Polly Perkins, an exhibit developer for the Aquarium, saw some of the photos on this blog and figured that we might have some images of the habitat.  I directed her to our flickr page, where we have hundreds of photographs documenting the research of Dr. David Kimbro and Dr. Randall Hughes of the FSU Coastal & Marine Lab, as well of the coastal ecosystems they work in.  In recent months, our In the Grass, On the Reef flickr collection has reflected our expanded interest in ecosystems further inland and in ecotourism.  The slideshow below offers a taste of the images we’re collecting on our flickr page (if you look hard enough on our page, you can see the image we had in the FSU promotional spot that aired during sporting events in this academic year).

Browse the In the Grass, On the Reef photo collection.

The day after we visited the Aquarium, we took an Easter visit to River Hills Park along the Hillsborough River.  When we got there, I was delighted to see a Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail sign in the parking lot.  It was a great day for bird watching, as blue heron, ibis, and a good variety of ducks and ducklings were frolicking on the riverbank right in front of the boardwalk:

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I also noticed a plentitude of apple snails. Last December we paddled the Wacissa River looking for limpkins, and while we saw a lot of cool things, it was a little late in the year and we didn’t see limpkins. So when I saw the apple snails, I was hopeful. And then I saw this bird, and I thought, this looks a lot like a limpkin. I checked it in my father-in-law’s bird guide, and I’m 99% sure that this is was. If anyone knows that I’m wrong, let me know in the comments section:

You can watch our EcoAdventure along the Apalachicola, where we hit some Birding Trail sites, here. We saw birds, but it was winter and many species had migrated south. With that in mind, we’ll be heading to the Saint Marks Wildlife Refuge to catch all the birds heading back into our area. Look for that in May.

The Historical Database Known as Trees (and a new video)

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150I like the idea of hiking cross country, unimpeded, for miles at a time.  Trails are great- and usually safer- but the idea that you can have space to literally walk off the beaten path is appealing.  A couple of hundred years ago, you could travel across the entire southeastern coastal plain in this manner.  This was a road paved by fire.  On this blog, we’ve covered how fire creates the pine flatwoods ecosystem with its widely spaced trees, and how and why mankind has had to replicate a process that had happened naturally.  But how do we know how often to burn, and at what time of year?  It would be convenient if we could ask someone who was around before the area was settled.  As it turns out, we can.

Trees have the answers in their rings.  We get a glimpse of this towards the end of the video above, but I wanted to take a closer look at how Dr. Jean Huffman was able to interpret the data locked within trees.

The photo to the right is a detail of a longleaf pine stump cross-section.  In it you can see that the rings alternate in shading between light and dark.  The light wood is early wood.  This is from the beginning of the growing season, typically spring, when a tree usually grows the fastest.  The growth in the summer and fall is darker, and is called late wood.  Winter is the dormant season.  So one light and one dark ring equal one year of growth for the tree.  You may also notice that some rings are wider than others.  Wide rings indicate a higher rainfall, and especially narrow rings indicate drought.  Knowing this, we can start building a master chronology.

A master chronology is made by comparing the relative width of rings in a series of trees. In this way rings in each tree can be dated exactly, even if there are occasional missing rings or false rings in an individual tree. The master chronology can be used to exactly date the rings in individual stumps.  Since longleaf pine is such a long-lived species, there is potentially hundreds of years’ worth of climatological data in its rings.  When you have data for many trees, you can build a reliable chronology that goes back before people started keeping records.  This is a dendrochronology (dendro= tree, chronology= matching events to specific dates based on historical records).

fire scarFinally, you match years in your chronology to fire scars (that’s a scar to the left).  Longleaf pine are a fire resistant species, and it takes a lot to kill the cambium and create a scar.  Because of this, Jean only created fire histories for periods when she had at least three “recorder” trees- enough to establish a pattern.

She determined that there were frequent fires in the area- every one to three years.  That’s enough to keep oak and other woody plants from encroaching on ground cover plants, including the many rare plants of the SJB State Buffer Preserve.  It was strange to just trample over the grass and palmettos in the managed area, and all of the gems potentially hidden underneath them.  It doesn’t exactly adhere to the “Leave no Trace” ethos.  But the reality is that all of it will burn and go away, and then grow back again, and again, and again…

The video features music by Pitx and Airtone.  Thanks to Dr. Jean Huffman for reviewing my text for accuracy.
Next on EcoAdventures North Florida, we’re going to a place where large chunks of land get swallowed up by the earth, and where a river goes underground.  Of course we mean Aucilla Sinks (Wednesday April 11 at 7:30 PM/ ET on WFSU-TV’s dimensions).

At the Buffer Preserve, Rare Plants Are “In the Grass”

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
dimensions, March 21 at 7:30 PM/ ET on WFSU-TV: our latest EcoAdventure explores the Buffer Preserve in search of rare plants and one woman’s quest to learn the fire history of the area.

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150I want to apologize in advance to anyone who watches tomorrow’s EcoAdventure on dimensions and gets excited about seeing the Chapman’s rhododendron.  Aside from naturally occurring in only three North Florida counties, its peek blooming only lasts about two weeks.  This peek usually starts at the end of March and goes into April, so we had planned on shooting then.  This year’s mild winter changed our plans.  A couple of weeks ago, at the beginning of March, Dr. Jean Huffman wrote to tell me that they had exploded.  In fact, the first bush we saw once we got out there was already starting to whither.  We did find a group of bushes in full bloom, and it was worth the hike.  By the time our footage airs, those flowers might very well be gone.

The carnivorous chapman’s butterwort is listed as a threatened plant. Dr. Alvin Chapman, an 19th century Apalachicola botanist, discovered many of the plant species you can see in the Buffer.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is, many of the other rare flowering plants in the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve will start blooming soon.  In a lot of ways, finding and photographing rare plants is as difficult as finding and photographing rare birds.  Especially when our seasons go screwy.  And unlike the Chapman’s rhododendron, many of the rare plants in the Buffer are hiding in tall grasses.  The Buffer is home to 21 rare plant species, and it’s the only place where the Chapman’s rhododendron is protected on public land (Correction: there is a small population at Camp Blanding, north of Gainesville).

I thought I’d share some photos of the plants we saw.  If you look at the map above, you can see an approximation of where we saw each of them.  You can see in the satellite image that the photos of the rare plants are located where the tree cover is lighter.  This goes back to, once again, controlled burning and its role in clearing out woody growth between longleaf pines.  When those shrubs get pushed back to where lightning-caused fire had once naturally confined them, grasses and herbaceous plants sprout up (and the animals that eat them return to the flatwoods).  If you’re in the Buffer, look for where the trees are spaced apart and grasses fill the ground.  It’s in those grasses that you’ll find some interesting characters.

I also included some photos of the bay section of the Preserve.  This is how I first encountered the Buffer, shooting salt marsh footage in conjunction with Randall Hughes’ research in SJB (click up in the Salt Marsh menu for more info on that).  There are plenty of birds, crabs, and predatory snails to see if you wade out into the sand flats and marshes by the visitor center.

Thanks to my production assistant, Alex Saunders, who brought his nice camera and took the plant photos in the map.

Sounds of the Oyster Reef

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150Imagine you’re watching a slasher movie starring mud crabs as the protagonists.  A mud crab leaves the party in the muck under the oyster reef, where the other crabs are chomping down juvenile oysters.  As he pokes his head out from between a couple of shells, you hear a drumming sound and you shout at the screen “Don’t go out there!”

It’s fun to anthropomorphize some of the freaky looking residents of an oyster reef.  But these are the realities of living within the ecology of fear.  Predator cues have a definitive impact on how the smaller, intermediate consumers such as mud crabs behave.  That’s what David Kimbro, Randall Hughes & co. are studying in Alligator Harbor and at their sites across the southeast.  Large predators send certain cues to their prey- perhaps a certain way they move in the water, perhaps.  When the prey species sense that the predators are near, they cease activity- including the eating of juvenile oysters.  That is how large predators help maintain a healthy oyster reef- they make intermediate consumers (mud crabs) eat less of the basal species (oysters, the foundation of the oyster reef habitat). Continue reading

7 Online Resources for the Prepared Kayak Camper

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

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Tonight (Wednesday, February 29) at 7:30 PM/ ET, Georgia Ackerman and Rick Zelznak of the Wilderness Way help you prepare for your kayak camping trip on WFSU-TV’s dimensions.  Heading out on the water with everything you’ll need to survive for a few days is not something you undertake lightly. Tonight’s segment is meant to be an overview, to get you thinking about what you might bring and how you’ll fit it into your kayak.  This post is a companion to the video piece (hi to everyone who came to this url after the segment aired).  The links on this page give you a more comprehensive toolset to plan a multi-day kayak camping trip.  If there is an additional resource that you think people should know about, tell us about it in the comments section. Continue reading

Crabs and Oysters: Oyster Collaborator Featured on Public Television

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A cage filled with oysters, spat tiles, and clams. Different sets of cages had different combinations of mud crabs and their predators (toadfish, blue crabs, stone crabs, and catfish).

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One of David and Randall’s oyster collaborators, Dr. Jeb Byers, was recently featured in a lengthy segment on Georgia Public television’s Georgia Outdoors.  The episode is about crabs in general,  but at 8:28 in they take a look at the large cage experiment that Randall, David, and Jeb, along with Dr. Jon Grabowski and Dr. Mike Piehler at UNC, conducted last summer.  You see a little more of the cages being filled than you do in Testing the Ecology of Fear, which covers the oyster study in Florida to that point and which was into the editing process as they set up the experiment.  The video is not available for embedding, so click on the link below to watch.

Click here to watch Georgia Outdoors: Fiddling with Crabs.

Large cypress buttress in Graham Creek, in Tate's Hell.

Paddling and Wildlife Watching Around the Apalachicola River

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150In the video above, we spent a day hitting Apalachicola River WEA Paddling Trail System and Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail sites. Luckily for me, I had Liz Sparks and Andy Wraithmell to show me the cool spots and tell me what animals I was looking at. With spring approaching, birds will be migrating back through the area, and the warmer weather makes for better paddling, greener trees with flowers blooming, and more appearances by other critters like alligators and turtles. In other words, it’s time to start planning your own adventures. Continue reading

Why We Burn- Restoring the Longleaf Pine Ecosystem

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
The longleaf pine/ wiregrass ecosystem was historically common in the coastal plain (low lying flat areas adjacent to the coast) of the Southeast United States.  According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, this ecosystem has seen a 97% decline.  In our recent excursion along the Apalachicola River, we visited this habitat and learned about efforts to restore it.

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There’s a certain terminology we use when we talk about the wild places of the world. We use words like “pristine,” or “untouched.”  When you hike through a forest along the Florida Trail, there are times where you can imagine that you are the first person ever to walk under the trees that you see.  Of course, much of the time, not only are you not the first person to have seen the trees, the trees look the way they do due to someone’s careful manipulation.  The practice of land management and why it is used can change the way you think about what is “wild.”

Prescribed burn. Courtesy of Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The video above is about how the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is using prescribed burning in its restoration of longleaf pine habitats.  Longleaf pine had historically thrived because they have the evolutionary advantage of a thick, fireproof bark in what are known as Fire Climax Communities.  This is a habitat in which fire (typically started by lightning strikes) is the primary controlling factor, and so lesser equipped competitors to longleaf pine are eliminated.  This natural process makes for an ecosystem dominated by the thick barked pines.  So why are humans assuming a role usually played by nature?

That goes back to our conception of what is “wild.”  That forest you hike through looks untouched, like I said earlier, but human influence reaches even into its deepest reaches.  For one, we have roads cutting across the forests, and while there are often large expanses of unbroken forest, paved roads keep fire from spreading as far as it once might have.  Another factor is that there is human settlement all around the forest, and uncontrolled fire is a threat to life and property.

Courtesy of the Florida Archive.

Prescribed fire is one tool in the toolset for restoring the longleaf/ wiregrass system.  This was the dominant habitat of the southeast, characterized by a wide spacing of trees (wide enough to ride a wagon through, FWC’s Liz Sparks tells me) that allows for a diversity of ground cover plants.  These cover plants, as Matt points out in the video above, are attractive to the many species that thrive in a longleaf/ wiregrass ecosystem. Ironically, this ecosystem has been drastically reduced as a result of another type of land management- silviculture. As you’ll see in the video above, timber operations replaced longleaf  for slash pine, a faster growing variety of pine with a lesser quality wood but that is far more profitable to grow. The slash pine grew closer together, eliminating the ground cover that is so important to the many birds, reptiles, and amphibians that make the longleaf/ wiregrass system so diverse. That’s why FWC does timber thinning before the burns.

Marsh burn. Courtesy Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

And since this is In the Grass, On the Reef, I did want to mention something I left out of the video, which is marsh burns.  Every 4-6 years, they burn the sawgrass in the freshwater marshes on the Apalachicola River system.  This clears the plants out and allows for new growth; the less dense grass provides nesting cover for many birds.  Wintering waterfowl like canvasback, scaup, and redhead eat submerged vegetation called widgeon grass; periodic burns increase access to this for birds.  As with longleaf ecosystems, fire was a naturally occurring, controlling factor.  The systems evolved with the plants and animals that could best take advantage of these fire events.  Nature may not be able to provide fire to these systems as effectively as it once had; luckily, mankind has flame throwers and ping pong balls full of potassium permanganate.

For more information about these and other Florida Fish and Wildlife land management initiatives, visit their web site.

Watch our latest EcoAdventure, where we visit a lot of this managed land around the Apalachicola River on WFSU’s dimensions– Sunday, February 19 at 10:00 AM/ ET.