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.

Shells, Buried History, and the Apalachee Coastal Connection

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150IGOR chip- habitat 150Have you ever found oyster shells in the dirt of your backyard?  If you have and you live in Tallahassee’s Myers Park neighborhood, then you might be looking at the remains of a powerful native village that rose to prominence over 500 years ago. Continue reading

Video: Wildlife Watching at the St. Marks Refuge

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

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Andy Wraithmell by GFBWT kiosk

Andy Wraithmell at the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail kiosk at the St. Marks Refuge.

I want to thank my co-adventurers for joining me on what turned out to be a remarkably wildlife filled day.  Andy Wraithmell from Florida Fish & Wildlife set our itinerary for the day and picked the best spots for the best time. I elaborated on those locations and timing considerations in last week’s post (with a map), which you can read here. It was great to meet Lou and Betsy Kellenberger, who have a real love for the place, and Alicia Wellman,who live-tweeted our day for Florida Fish & Wildlife.  Thanks also to my production assistant, Alex Saunders, for the great photos, and lastly to Refuge Manager Terry Peacock for talking to us.

In the video I alluded to there being too many places, activities, and programs in the Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge for what ended up being an almost seven-minute piece. Over the years, we’ve covered some of those and I’ll point you to a couple of videos we’ve done along with some additional online resources.

The Whooping Crane Migration Program

The most famous birds associated with the Refuge are the ones you’re least likely to see on a visit.  I did a segment the first year they flew in.  You can watch that video here.  Their struggles this year were well documented, and while the Operation Migration folks ended up having to winter this year’s class in Alabama, one member of that original 2009 class paired off with one of the Chassahowitzka cranes from that year (half go to St. Marks, the other to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge) and flew to a cow pasture in Tallahassee’s Southwood neighborhood.  That means that they are learning their traditional migration paths, which is hopeful for their future.

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Hiking in the Cathedral of Palms.

The Florida National Scenic Trail

We just recently did a video on the Trail’s Aucilla Sinks segment. Previously, Florida Trail Association’s Kent Wimmer had taken us to two very special spots in the Refuge: Shepherd Spring and the Cathedral of Pines. You can see shots of those at the end of the video above. You can see that full video here.

The St. Marks Lighthouse

We don’t have a video uploaded on the lighthouse, but there is some news regarding it.  The Refuge is in the process of taking ownership of the lighthouse from the Coast Guard.  The plan is to open a bookstore on the ground floor, though the general public will still not be allowed to climb to the top and utilize what should be a sweet vantage point for photographers and (ahem) videographers.

Educational Programs

We see the new educational building and Terry Peacock talks about the number of students that participate in the Refuge’s education programs, but we don’t go into specifics. They offer 18 different programs and will work with teachers to meet their needs. Read more here.

The St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge Association

This group, led by their president, Betsy Kellenberger, coordinates volunteer efforts, classes, and field trips in the Refuge. Lou and Betsy, for instance, helped to build the Whooping Crane pens, which seems to me to be a neat way to be a part of that program. Visit the Association page here.

Music in the piece by unreal_dm and Andrea Pireddu.

Who’s that bird? Nature Viewing app review

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
On Sunday, May 13 at 10:00 AM/ET, you can watch an encore airing of our latest EcoAdventure in the Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge, a gateway site on the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail.  It lived up to its gateway status with a range of migratory shore birds and residents, and scaly and furry critters.  Dimensions, on WFSU-TV. 

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150I’m not a smartphone guy, though I can see the attraction.  Since we’ve started with In the Grass, On the Reef, I’ve seen their value in an outdoor setting.  Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro use them to monitor the weather when they’re at their sites.  That’s handy when you’re a twenty or thirty-minute kayak from your car and you see dark clouds in the distance.  There’s a connectivity with a smartphone that let’s you take care of business while on location.  And it allows you to travel with world of information right in your pocket.

The Nature Viewing Along the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail app (search Nature Viewing app) is available for iPhone, iPad, and, just recently, Android- for free.  Its goal is to help you identify birds, butterflies, and wildflowers that you might see in Florida.  I’m not a bird expert, but I like being outdoors and I always see them.

So how does it work?

We’ll start with this photo taken on our Refuge shoot by WFSU’s Alex Saunders.  I remember that he was excited to find and actually shoot this bird, but when I got back I had no idea what species it was. So I borrowed an iPad and installed the app.  It’s 418 MB, which is something to keep in mind if you have space issues.  It’s size likely has to do with the hundreds of photos of plant and animal species included.

This is what you see when you turn on the app:

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I select the bird.  When I do, I see the following options on the bottom row:

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The buttons on the bottom are the filters.  First is class of bird (wading bird, shore bird, water bird, raptor, etc.).  Next is the season in which you saw the bird- important as birds migrate seasonally.  Next is size, and then color.  The last button lists all birds, which gives you a different option for browsing.  As you see in the screen grab above, I selected type of bird first, and these options appeared.  You can hold down any button for more information.  Here I clicked on the duck icon:

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From this description, I see that this icon applies to all water birds, not just ducks.  The bird in Alex’s photo is in a tree, but isn’t a woodpecker or predatory bird, so I select perched bird.

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After that, I select season, which was spring.

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Then I select size, which I at first found confusing, as it associates size with specific birds. Hold down each option to see the size in inches.  Even with that, it can be hard to tell from a photo.  I selected mockingbird size. Next is color:

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The bird is blue, white, and red. Selecting the colors can be tricky, and what I found is that sometimes it’s better to omit colors that appear as a band or a streak, as it’s not always recognized. So I just select white and blue. Once I do, I see there are three matches on the upper right of the screen. I click to see the matches, and get the following possibilities:

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I don’t think that this bird is a type of jay. So I remove options. Why do I do this? With every additional filter you add, there are less options. Sometimes it’s better to omit some information so that you have a slightly larger list to look at. With less options, I get this:

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The Belted Kingfisher looks close. But there are two photos with this entry, and the second photo looks like this:

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So the female has the red band, and I have my match. I’ve found by playing with this that when it comes to color, it’s better to keep it simple (less colors) as color variations for juveniles and females aren’t always accounted for.

_DSC4240_e2_aAt the end of the day, I think that this is a useful app to review photos you’ve taken in the field, or if you’re by the bird and it doesn’t look like it will fly or swim away (as they tend to do when you photograph or video them. They know what’s up). The more I play with the app, the easier it gets, and I do recommend playing with it and getting a feel for it before trying it in the field. If you’re reviewing photos, keep in mind that colors look different in different lighting. For instance, I first tried to identify the kingfisher from this photo taken after it took off. You’ll notice that the blue looks black, and I had less perspective on a size.

Wakulla SpringsThe app relies a lot on how you perceive things, so if you have trouble guessing sizes, you can either try a few options or leave that off.  Same with color; if a bird has two or three colors and you’re not having luck, try picking the most predominant and omit the others.  And then there’s the type of bird.  I was trying to identify what ended up being an anhinga from a photo Alex took at Wakulla Springs.  It looked like a wading bird to me, but it’s classified as a water bird.  Looking at it again, I notice the short legs, where wading birds are large birds with long legs.

If you’re interested in birds, it’s worth a try.  It’s a free download, and even if you’re like me and aren’t very knowledgeable, you can play with it, browse the master list of birds, and learn something from it.

Download the app from the Apple store here.

Download the app for Android here.

Wildlife Watching under the Sun (and Moon) at St. Marks NWR

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150Tomorrow, Wednesday May 9 at 7:30 PM/ ET, we present our latest EcoAdventure- wildlife watching in the Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  Migratory birds are making their way north and many like to make use of the extensive marshes, pools, and ponds as a stopover (our regular readers know how well stocked with food a salt marsh can be). This is a warmer time of year, so reptiles are more abundant, or at least more visibly abundant.  The Refuge is thick with wildlife; it’s a gateway site of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. So you just drive into the Refuge and you’ll automatically see a lot of animals, right? Almost, but not quite.  It helps to know where to go, and to pay attention to the sun and the moon.

This red-bellied woodpecker and its mate had the attention of the photographers in our party, which included Lou and Betsy Kellenberger, and Andy Wraithmell and Alicia Wellman of Florida Fish and Wildlife.

We started with two spots accessible from Lighthouse Road. At the end of the road is, of course, the lighthouse. Across from the lighthouse is Lighthouse Pond. We saw some wading birds, as you do throughout a lot of the Refuge, as well as red-breasted mergansers, some very animated ducks. There is a trail around the pond on which we saw cotton rats and a snake called a black racer. Not too far from there on Lighthouse Road is Headquarters Pond, which has a nice, big observation tower. If you have a camera with a long lens, you can shoot to every corner of the pond. On the far edge is where we saw deer, which are not uncommon early in the morning though they do not usually wade as far into the pond as on that day. There were plenty of alligators there; they made themselves more apparent as it got warmer. Cold blooded reptiles are solar powered, so they’ll be out in the sun. Right behind the tower we saw two red-bellied woodpeckers that seem to be nesting in one of the trees there.

Sunrise at Tower Pool

When nature viewing, it helps to wake up early.

The rest of the sites we visited were only accessible on foot or on bicycle.  Plan on hiking out to the Stoney Bayou Pool, Mounds Pool or Tower Pool (which is listed as Mounds Pond on Google Earth). The Stoney Bayou Pool had a lot of larger alligators; Tower Pool is a great place to watch migratory shorebirds. Whereas alligators are solar powered, the shore birds are under an indirect lunar influence. If you want to see them, come in the hour or two before high tide. As the marshes and mud flats start flooding, the birds will fly over the dike where you’re standing and into the pool. The pool fills up with dozens, even hundreds of birds. You can check the tides on this web site.  The fastest tides make for the most impressive flyovers, those are on the new and full moons.  Allot about 30 minutes for walking to this site, and remember that the Refuge is only open during daytime hours.

This is by no means an all-inclusive guide.  If you have any tips, feel free to share them in the comments section.

New Video: The Florida Trail at Aucilla Sinks

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

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Winter came and went; only it seems to not have ever really arrived.  Hiking is an activity best enjoyed during the cooler months, when there are less biting insects on the trails.  We shot this segment at what should have been the end of hiking season, at the end of March.  What we found on the Aucilla Sinks segment of the Florida National Scenic Trail, however, were Summer temperatures, unrelenting mosquitos, and scores of white spotted ticks- the ones that carry the nasty stuff.  You know what, though?  We still had fun. Continue reading

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.

Bee pollinating a Chapman's rhododendron.

Rare Plants and Fire History | St. Joe Bay Buffer Preserve

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

I like the idea of hiking cross country, unimpeded, for miles at a time.  Trails are great, of course.  But they only offer up so many possibilities.   What if you could stand in one place, look in every direction, and just go where it looked most interesting?

On our hike through the St. Joseph Bay Buffer Preserve, Dr. Jean Huffman is leading us on just such an adventure to look for rare plants. The showiest of those is Chapman’s rhododendron.  This is the only public land where this flowering shrub is found.  Other unique-to-Florida (or unique-to-the -panhandle) species are hidden within the grass. Continue reading

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