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.

Kayaking, anyone?

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150

Here’s a vacation idea for you.

If you had the time, didn’t mind camping for months on end, and were physically up to paddling fifteen hundred miles, you could paddle around the entire state of Florida using trails mapped out by Doug Alderson.  He coordinates the Florida Circumnavigational Paddling Trail for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (Visit the trail’s web site).  You would pass by major urban centers like Tampa and Miami.  You would make your way through the entirety of the Florida keys.  And you would see a lot of amazing coastal habitats.

Ready to go?

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The Forgotten Coast segment of the trail starts in St. Joseph Peninsula State Park.

I’m guessing the vast majority of people reading this are saying no, though we would certainly want to hear from you if you were doing this.  Luckily, the trail breaks down into twenty six segments, and over one hundred individual day trips.  The one I’m interested in is Segment 4: The Forgotten Coast.  It takes you through some of my favorite places.  St. Joseph Bay has clear water and lively seagrass beds and salt marshes.  Many of St. Vincent Island’s most interesting animals aren’t aquatic, but if you look over as you paddle past you might see wild hogs running or even one of those elusive red wolves (not likely, but it doesn’t hurt to look).  Once you pass there, you could choose to either go along St. George Island or stick to the mainland and pass by Apalachicola, where you can try to find a place to land your kayak while you pick up some oysters.

We’ll be kayaking part of this trail for September 14 episode, and talking to Mr. Alderson about it.  Have any of you done this?  Are any of you attempting this, or any section of it, any time in the next month?  We want to know.  We want to see your photos.  We want to watch your videos. Leave a comment below, with links to any videos or photos if you like.  If you’ll be out that way in the next couple of weeks, we may want to interview you.

Leave your comments!

And we want to keep hearing from you.  If you have any ideas for stories we might do related to coastal ecotourism, leave a comment on our Ecotourism North Florida page.

 

This one is for all you animal lovers! WFSU’s dimensions producer and In the Grass, On the Reef contributor Mike Plummer takes a look at a nonprofit that cares for animals in need, including screech owls and deer, as well as some of the critters we see out along the coast like ospreys and pelicans.  Enjoy!

Here is a video from SciGirls II visit with Dr. Randall Hughes at the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab. Enjoy!

From Bay to Bowl: Making New England Quahog Chowder

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Mouth of the Back RiverIGOR chip- human appreciation 150

With the In the Grass, On the Reef documentary done, me, my wife Amy, and our son Maximus took a vacation to visit Amy’s family in Duxbury Beach, Massachusetts.  We were picked up at the airport by her cousin, Jim Kennedy.  On the ride down, we got to talking about what our respective plans were for the week.  One thing he was wanting to do grabbed my attention.  He was going to go clamming for quahogs in the marsh by the family’s vacation home and make a chowder.  That sounded so cool to me.  Go into a marsh without having to lug around a camera, and round up some tasty critters?  I told him I wanted to go (I did go into the marsh with a camera last year, which is where the marsh pics you see originated).  It’s a strange side effect of working on this project that I now enjoy going into hot, muddy places surrounded by sharp grass.

P1000595Low tide was set for 11 AM on the day we chose to go, so we set out between 9:30 and 10 while the tide was still going out.  The marsh is at the mouth of the Back River, and when the tide drops, the grass stands a few feet above the bottom of the river bed.  Below the cordgrass, the sides of the elevated marsh are pockmarked by fiddler crab burrows.  We entered the sand/ mud flats at the head of the river from Gurnet Road, armed with our permit, a rake, and a 12-quart bucket.  The quahogs would be buried just below the mucky surface. Here on the Forgotten Coast, we have quahogs as well- ours are the southern quahogs, the more famous New England quahogs are known as the northern quahog:

quahog- north and south

There were a lot of people out there harvesting the clams.  Most of them used a short rake meant specifically for clamming.  Jim went to several stores to look for one but couldn’t find it, so we used a garden rake.  At the end of the day, though, the best tools we had were our own feet.  A mature, legal sized quahog (3-4 years old) is big enough that we could feel them under our feet as we walked up the river bed.  Then, with the rake or with our hands, we would dig them out.  Around every legal sized clam we found there were usually several smaller ones.  I thought back to what David said in the show about what he looked for in an oyster reef.  The best ones had several mature oysters as well as several smaller ones to eventually replace them.

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Green crab (Carcinus maenas)?

I couldn’t help but note the differences and commonalities between our local marshes and sand flats and this New England marsh.  I didn’t see many large predatory snails in or around the marsh, a stark contrast to sand flats in St. Joseph Bay or at Bay Mouth Bar.

Blue crabs are of course common on Florida coasts, but their historic range ends just to the south of here, on the outer coasts of Cape Cod.  I believe this mud covered crab is an invasive green crab, and I have seen Atlantic rock crabs on the nearby beach.  There were razor clams (Ensis directus) and steamers (soft shell clams, Mya arenaria), each of which are harvested at other times of the year.  We also saw the occasional small shrimp, and oysters that had flaked off of reefs deeper out in the bay.

We caught the legal limit and returned, muddied, to prepare the chowder.

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Jim Kennedy (left) and WFSU-TV producer Rob Diaz de Villegas (right) shuck and clean quahogs.

IMG_6441A little on how you prepare quahogs for chowder:

You scrub the mud off of the closed shells.  Open shells buried in the mud are dead animals and are unsafe for consumption.

After scrubbing them, you boil them until they open.  Then you shuck them and remove the contents of their stomachs.  In the photo at the lower left of this paragraph, that green stuff is phytoplankton- microscopic plants floating with the other sediment in the water.  Good food for clams- and their filtering it is a great way to keep the water clean- but not anything we were interested in eating.

I got to try my hand shucking and cleaning the clams.  Jim’s mom, Pam, cut potatoes and onions while Jim cooked the quahogs and fried some bacon.  The bacon smell helped with the boiling clam smell.  The ingredients would come together in a large pot with milk, cream, and flour.  The making of the chowder in the cottage brought out some nostalgia.

Pam recalled that her grandmother’s chowder didn’t contain dairy.  When Bertha and Archer MacFarland would camp on Duxbury Beach, they didn’t have refrigeration and so milk and cream weren’t really an option.

Archer MacFarland“When Max is old enough,” My father-in-law, Chris MacFarland, said to me, “you need to teach him how to go quahogging to keep the tradition going.”  Maximus is five months old, so I have a bit of time until I take him out there.  When he does go, he’ll represent the fifth generation of the MacFarland family to harvest quahogs from Duxbury Bay.

Duxbury Beach and Duxbury Bay are separated by Gurnet Point, a thin cape down which Gurnet Road runs.  The road runs to the town of Saquish at the horn of the cape. Driving there, the beach is on your left, and the bay is to the right.  A large marsh is at the North of the bay.

Archer and Bertha started camping on Duxbury Beach around 1920.  After some years of camping there, they bought plots of land and built a cottage by the marsh.  When their son Robert was sixteen, he built another house nearby.  Then, when he was nineteen, he sold his car for $200 to buy a plot.  There he built the house where his children, and their children and grandchildren, vacation every summer.

Robert MacFarlandRobert took his children looking for quahogs when they were young.  They used the “treading” method to find their clams, much like we did, except that they were barefoot.  Jim and I wore shoes to keep our feet safe from broken shells hidden in soft mud that was deep in places.  It was deeper as we walked up the riverbed- I sank almost up to my waist at one point.  I imagine that they didn’t walk that far up.

Robert also fixed up an old pram, on which he used to take his sons Chris and Doug on fishing trips off of the beach.  As Chris (who was 7) and Doug (who was 5) recalled, one of them would row, the other would bail water.  They caught cod, threw back pollock and perch, and used mackerel for bait.  Of course, North Atlantic cod is not nearly as common as it once was.  Nor is flounder as common off of Saquish.  Jim remembers going out with his family and spotting them at the edge of seagrass beds from the family’s Boston Whaler.  For about ten years now, those haven’t been seen much either.  As David points out in the program, the animals in the lower trophic levels see less change over time, and so there are still plenty of clams in Duxbury Bay.

Hopefully that means chowder at the cottage for many more summers.

When the chowder was done, it was served with oyster crackers and crumbled bacon (the bacon Jim made earlier- the grease was used in the chowder).

I’m guessing there are stories like this across the Forgotten Coast: generations of families bonding while they made use of the fish and shellfish swimming outside their back doors.  Do you have a story like this?  Share it here, in the comments section.  We might want to visit some of you and feature your stories in one of our videos.

Photos taken by: Rob Diaz de Villegas, Chris MacFarland, James Kennedy, and Amy Diaz de Villegas.  Archival photos provided by Chris MacFarland.

In the Grass, On the Reef: Testing the Ecology of Fear is online in its entirety and in HD.  Predators and prey struggle for survival in crucial coastal ecosystems across North Florida.

Watch now!

Horse Conchs Rule the Seagrass Bed

In the Grass, On the Reef: Testing the Ecology of Fear

Premieres on WFSU-TV Wednesday, June 29 at 7:30 PM, 6:30 CT.  In high definition where available.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR_chip_predators_NCE_100This clip is a short segment on one of the predators featured in this program: the horse conch.  It’s practically an ecosystem onto itself, as you can see in the video’s poster frame above.  Barnacles, crepidula, bryozoans, and other marine creatures that affix themselves to hard surfaces settle on its shell.  In the video you’ll see its bright orange body as it roams the seagrass beds of the Forgotten Coast.  And you’ll see it eat another large predatory snail, the lightning whelk.

Continue reading

Dr. Randall Hughes on SciGirls

During their visit to FSUCML, Randall took the SciGirls to the small marsh next to the lab. One SciGirl found this fiddler crab carrying her eggs.

This video is part of the WFSU SciGirls project. SciGirls, for those who haven’t heard of it, addresses an unfortunate reality in the world of science- there are a lot more men doing research than women.  It’s a problem that needs to be addressed as interest in science as a career has been waning overall.  Every Summer, the SciGirls camp takes groups of teen and preteen girls into labs and into the field with scientists.  After visiting Dr. Randall Hughes at the Florida State University Coastal & Marine Laboratory last Summer, a couple of SciGirls returned to conduct this interview.

Randall is a good role model for young aspiring female scientists.  Aside from the fact that she herself is a female scientist, most of her lab- and that of her colleague Dr. David Kimbro- are females as well.  If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve read about Emily Field’s graduate work on seagrass wrack and Kattie Lotterhos’ graduate work in genetics.  In David’s lab, we’ve heard from Tanya Rogers, a lab technician who keeps David’s lab organized, and who is crucial in the planning and implementation of their large field experiments.  We have more recently started hearing from Hanna Garland, Tanya’s fellow lab tech who is starting graduate school in the fall and who is looking into the abnormal levels of crown conchs on Randall and David’s Saint Augustine reefs.  And we have also heard from Cristina Lima Martinez, an intern who comes to the Kimbro lab from Spain to study the Bay Mouth Bar ecosystem.

Interested in learning more about the SciGirls?  Follow their blog!

Oyster Study: Year Two, Under Way in a Big Way

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR_chip_predators_NCE_100IGOR chip- biogeographic 150I’ve come to Saint Augustine to get the last of the footage I need to finish the In the Grass, On the Reef documentary, and we’ve come a long way from where we started from on this blog.  One year ago today, this site went live and Randall and David introduced you to their research.  The oyster study had just gotten its grant from NSF and we went out with David as he walked out into Alligator Harbor in search of study sites.  It was a slow, messy day- but a necessary first step. Continue reading

In the Grass, On the Reef, Over the Airwaves

In the Grass, On the Reef

June 29, 2011 at 7:30 PM/ ET

WFSU-TV

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

A little over a year ago, when the FSU Coastal & Marine Laboratory and WFSU-TV – a TV station – started this online enterprise, the understanding was that at some point this would end up being a show.  And so here we are.  As you may have gathered from that video up there, this will be about predators and prey: who’s eating whom, and who’s scaring whom.  We will of course be doing this through the prism of David and Randall’s studies: the consumptive and non-consumptive effects of predators in salt marshes and oyster reefs, and the methods used to shine a light on these interactions. Continue reading