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.

This is what an oyster reef looks like…

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

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The photo above is my work computer’s desktop picture. Most of the time, when people see it, I find that they had no idea what an oyster reef looked like.  One coworker thought it was a muddy cabbage patch.  To be honest, until I first stepped on one for this project, I wouldn’t have known a reef from a pile of rocks.  And, like a lot of people, I love eating the things- right out of the shell with a little grit and juice.  That’s the disconnect we sometimes have between the food we eat and from where it comes.  So it occurred to me that, while we’ve been talking these last few months about the complex relationships between predators and prey on the reef, it might be helpful to get back to oyster basics.  Over the following weeks, we’ll cover various topics (like why subtidal oysters are harvested more often than intertidal ones like those up there).  We’ll start with what it’s actually like out on a reef, and what you’d see there.

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A closer look into the reefs

IGOR chip- habitat 150The following photos are of samples taken at each of Dr. Kimbro’s sites, as mentioned in his previous post.  After surveying the reefs to see what large fish and crabs were living in the reefs, he and his team turned to looking at the oysters and the creatures living under them in the mud.  That’s what you’re seeing here.  Click on any photo to make it larger.

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Under the Surface at Pensacola Beach

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Last month, I ventured just outside the Forgotten Coast to Pensacola Beach. I was serving as videographer for Matt Roush and FSU Headlines.  The piece was on research by Marcus Huettel and Joel Kostka on some important little critters (we love important little critters), really little ones.  The sand was a gleaming white, reflecting the sun onto me and burning my feet.  Parents and children swam in the water while a row of bulldozers sat idle with bored cleanup workers resting in the shade of their machines’ canopies.  At a glance, it didn’t look like the beach had recently been covered in a mat of crude oil.

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Operation Noah’s Ark

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

The video above is from our dimensions program. It dovetails nicely with what we care about on this site, which is the ecology of Florida’s Forgotten Coast, in this case salt marshes.  The idea is that, when looking to minimize potential oil damage to our coast, you start with its smallest building blocks.  Operation Noah’s Ark, based out of the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea, is collecting a lot of little critters that live in places like salt marshes. The fiddler crab helps maintain the marsh with its burrows, which bring oxygen to cordgrass roots.  In that grass, juvenile mullet find shelter, as do blue crabs and juvenile pinfish.  The Kemps-Ridley Sea Turtle eats those blue crabs, and those pinfish will mature and swim out into the gulf to be eaten by gag grouper.  You can see how one species becoming compromised can have a cascading effect throughout the Gulf.
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“Thicker than Water” Opening

Roberto Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150We have some photos from the event, and you can see the turnout was good.  The SAIL Bluegrass Ensemble played in the garden.  It never ceases to amaze me how many young people in Tallahassee not only get into bluegrass but put on a good show.  Inside, there were some artful cards made by LeMoyne students that could be obtained by donating, and which were intended to be sent to legislators so that people could express their concerns over offshore drilling in Florida.  And then of course there was the art.  Allison Jackson’s oil paintings were featured in our previous post.  They depict scenes along the Forgotten Coast, or scenes featuring animals of the Forgotten Coast.  Patrick Lane had some mixed media pieces, some of which are featured in the slideshow below.  Their artwork will be sold and the proceeds split between LeMoyne Center for Visual Arts and two organizations, both of whom were present on Friday.

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Thicker than Water: an Exhibit of Community Concern

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150The show opening tonight at the LeMoyne Center for Visual Arts has a topic close to our hearts.  It’s called “Thicker than Water: an Exhibit of Community Concern,” and it features works by two artists concerned about human impact on Gulf ecosystems.  The proceeds from tonight will be split three was between the art center, Crude Awakening Tallahassee and the Florida Wild Mammal Association, and the Wild Mammal Association will have some statistics on the current crisis.  The artists are Patrick Lane and Allison Jackson.  Allison’s paintings are featured in the slideshow above.  One painting is titled St. Joseph Bay, which is of course where  we are following Dr. Randall Hughes and her biodiversity in salt marsh ecology study.  The first painting of the slideshow features something that’s been a common sight the last couple of months in the bay, horseshoe crabs coupling.

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Enjoy Them While You Can


IGOR chip- employment 150After all the time we’ve spent on oyster reefs, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at what the little guys mean to us culturally.  The video above is from Our Town, Apalachicola and features the famed oystermen of that town.  The article below is a little more personal.

Roberto Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

We had just finished interviewing John Spohrer for a photography feature and, well, we were in Apalachicola.  So I decided to conduct what our oyster researcher Dr. David Kimbro would call an exercise in predator-prey relationships.  My prey was some of Apalachicola’s finest product, and it wasn’t even an R month.  Me and my wife Amy (who is also my production co-conspirator) decided to try a place with a decent-sized crowd of friendly locals out front, the Hole in the Wall.  Amy did not eat any oysters and this was her last shoot with me for this project.  More on that later.

People in Apalachicola are proud of their product.  The man shucking the oysters behind the bar would excitedly declare “Oh, that’s a good one” as he picked them out of the ice.  The perpetually smiling waitress who brought them to the table would come by every once in a while and ask “How do you like your oysters?”

“They’re delicious,” I’d say.

“Enjoy them while you can…”

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Dr. David Kimbro in Alligator Harbor

I did enjoy them, as I have for years.  People in these parts have for quite a while.  Longer than you may realize.  At nearby St. Vincent Island, ancient oyster shells and pottery shards lie in piles called middens, evidence of a long disappeared people.  The shells have been dated at 4,000 years old or older.  This means that people have been enjoying these oysters for thousands of years.  It’s an impressive legacy, especially when you consider how some of our country’s other historical oyster producing areas have fared over time.  The Chesapeake Bay used to be difficult to navigate it was so cluttered with reefs.  New York City used to be renowned for the oysters harvested there, they were a staple of the Big Apple until just under a century ago.  But while those habitats have been decimated, Gulf oyster reefs retain their abundance and quality.  When we accompanied David Kimbro on the first day of his study in Alligator Harbor, the scientist who had been studying reefs in North Carolina and California marveled at the size of the reefs.  He’d never seen so many.

I fell like I was rubbing it in Amy’s face eating those oysters, even if she had been looking forward to enjoying the local seafood as much as I was.  We had done the research and shrimp were an acceptable food, rich in Omega 3 fatty acids important to brain development in embryos.  This was her last shoot, as the days were growing hotter and we spend some long days on marshes and reefs.  Our child will be born a Floridian, like I was.  I’ve been spoiled by great beaches, a steady supply of fresh seafood, wetlands bursting with animal and plant life.  I wonder in what kind of Florida my child will grow up.  Will he or she have at their disposal what Floridians have had over the last few thousand years?  No one can really say.  Even if the worst happens, there is hope that we can restore it, even if it could never be exactly the same.  In the meantime, I’ll just do what I was told.  I’ll enjoy it while I can.

We want to hear from you.  Leave your comments and questions below:

Photography feature: Beth Switzer

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150The Panhandle has been my home for most of my life and the older I get, the more fun I have looking at – and photographing – it in  an “up close and personal” manner.

There is great fun in “really seeing” something for the first time and being surprised by just how beautiful it is.

-Beth Switzer

The slideshow above was photographed by Beth at Alligator Point, not too far from where David Kimbro is studying oyster reefs, and many of the photos are of salt marshes, such as those studied by Randall Hughes.  So I knew when I saw them that they would be a great fit for this site.

You may know Beth Switzer as Executive Director and on camera personality at The Florida Channel, and before that on WFSU-TV.  I was surprised, after years of watching and occasionally working with her, to discover that she liked to photograph nature.  What’s not surprising is that she has forged a connection with the natural splendor of our area.  Those of us working in broadcasting in the panhandle end up seeing a lot of the area, and meeting a lot of the people.  It’s impossible to work in TV here and not love it here.

We’re two months into “In the Grass, On the Reef,” and so far the winds have been kind to Randall and David’s sites in St. Joseph Bay an Alligator Harbor.  When Deepwater Horizon exploded, we stepped up production on the project thinking that oil would arrive at any moment, and that we should get as much footage as we could before it hit.  Now, the more I go to these places, the less I think about oil while I’m there.  I hear about it on the radio as I’m driving to and from the shoots, but then I’m walking in water, planting my tripod in mud to get a steady shot of a periwinkle climbing a blade of cordgrass, or trying to see through my lens a stone crab that looks only slightly different than the oysters surrounding it.  In those moments, it just doesn’t feel like it will happen.  I know it will most likely happen, but it never feels like it will.

One of the pleasant developments of doing this has been having artist features like the one above.  So far we have had photographers and musicians, and we are talking to some writers as well.  We want to hear from artists in any medium who depict or are inspired by the coastal habitats of the Forgotten Coast.  Photographers, painters, musicians, writers:  share your art with us!  You can e-mail us at outloud@wfsu.org.

And, as always, comments and questions are welcome.

Featured song: “Crystal Gulf Waters”

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150Today we feature a song by Hot Tamale, “Crystal Gulf Waters.”  In lamenting what we may lose if oil inundates our coast, Craig Reeder and Adrian Fogelin evoke some of the areas in which we are interested on this blog.  And while the song tackles a heavy topic, it does manage to end on a hopeful note.  The video was created by Craig:

The following is a short essay by Craig where he explains a little about why he was compelled to write “Crystal Gulf Waters”.

Craig Reeder Singer/ Songwriter

When the oil spill occurred, I wanted to write a song that would give voice to the feelings and emotions of everyone affected.  And even though the song is about the Gulf of Mexico, it took me back to memories of sailing Biscayne Bay when I was a teenager in a tiny little boat.  The water was so crystalline, I could see every plant and creature on the bottom, and I’ll always remember the beauty of the gently swaying grasses growing by the edge of the salt marshes.  As the waves rolled by, they swayed with an almost musical rhythm, a rhythm I still feel in my dreams and memories.

Now we are all learning how critical those salt marshes are to the entire ecology of the Gulf,  and it is sad to think how the damage will spread from one ecological niche  to another, eventually affecting nearly all the life of the Gulf, including not only the creatures like oysters, pelicans and crabs, but extending also to the human beings that depend on the fishing industry, people who are likewise a piece of the fabric of the Gulf.  When I think back to visiting places along the Gulf like Alligator Harbor and St. Joe Bay, places of pristine nature and crystal clear water, I feel like we are now saying a farewell to all these scenes as we once knew them.

I thought people’s feelings of helplessness needed someplace to go, and I know music is a powerful, cathartic vehicle.  The melody came to me quickly, probably an echo of early folk songs from people like Woody Guthrie and Stan Rogers, songs that delivered simple human emotions and  socially conscious messages.  When the first draft was complete, I turned it over to my singing partner, Adrian Fogelin, who happens to be an award-winning author, and she completely transformed the song by bringing it home on a soaring note of optimism for the future.  That’s the kind of hope we all need now.

If you are a musician living in our general area and you’re interested in having us use your music on our video posts, or any kind of artist with works inspired by Florida Gulf environments interested in sharing with us, contact us at outloud@wfsu.org.  To  submit materials (like CDs), you can write to:
Rob Diaz de Villegas
1600 Red Barber Plaza
Tallahassee, FL 32310
And, as always, we encourage your comments or questions:

The unsung heroes of the muck

Roberto Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
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photo by John Spohrer

Let’s talk about the little guys.

Think a little smaller than this pelican here.  Obviously, pelicans are a symbol of our coastal areas, flying in those long rows as they do while we’re driving down Highway 98.  Pelicans covered in oil have become the poster-species of the environmental toll of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  It’s horrifying to think of animals as evolved as dolphins washing up on the shores, and people of course are always concerned about sea turtles.  As they should be.  They are all important parts of the Gulf ecosystem.

But they are not the only important parts.  There are other creatures that probably won’t make it on to that oil spill tragedy poster because, let’s face it, they already live in muck.  Those are the species that we’ve been most concerned with on this site.  They are worth worrying about, and I’ve come to find them cute in their way.  I keep thinking I need to try to get Disney to make a movie based in a salt marsh or oyster reef, where mud crabs and periwinkle snails sing and hide from predatory blue crabs (who, like those sharks in Finding Nemo, might be sympathetic characters themselves).  When kids are carrying plush fiddler crab dolls, maybe the little guys would get some consideration.  As it turns out, however, I have no pull at Disney.  So I’ll just talk about them right here on this blog.

Like the fiddlers.  They eat sand.  They shovel it in their mouths with their smaller claws, while they do the mating dance for which they’re better known with their larger “fiddle” claws.  I see thousands of them at a time in a salt marsh, always scurrying away and making that sound, a little bit like trickling water and a little bit like tiny bubble wrap being popped.  Of what importance are these silly little guys?

Fiddler on marsh 2

Fiddler crabs are crucial to the survival of a salt marsh

Other than being food for blue crabs, their importance has to do with the muck in which they live.  They live in the sediment collected by the cordgrass root system; you can see the holes they call home throughout the marsh.  As Dr. Hughes explained in this video, these burrows provide oxygen to the soil in which the cordgrass grows.  So their presence helps the cordgrass grow, just as the cordgrass provides them shelter.

So maybe the fiddler crab hasn’t found himself at the center of any teary oil spill montage.  But he’s an animal, and a fairly popular pet.  Spartina alterniflora– aka smooth cordgrass- may never gain a foothold in the popular imagination proportionate to its ecological importance.  It is the foundation species of a Gulf salt marsh.  These marshes act as a filter for pollutants flowing into the ocean, protecting important estuaries such as those at the mouth of the Apalachicola River.  Marshes provide shelter to a number of commercially important species (shrimp, mullet, and blue crab, for instance).  And marshes also help absorb storm surges and prevent erosion.

Those are just a couple of examples.  There are, of course, more.  Tasty, tasty oysters filter water and prevent algal blooms lethal to other species.  Toadfish have faces even other toadfish may not love, but they eat animals that would decimate oyster reefs if left unchecked.  Those oyster predators are interesting as well.  Mud crabs might get as large as 4 cm and have these thick little claws which tear through oyster shells.  Oyster drills are small snails whose tongues (radula) are covered with thousands of small razor-like teeth.

As we move forward with this project, we’ll see more and more of all of these coastal denizens.  So far oil has not reached the areas Dr. Hughes and Dr. Kimbro are studying, and so there is always hope that they may be spared.  If oil does arrive, many of these species could be severely affected.  And while some of them may not look like much, the harm that would come to them would have repercussions felt beyond their own habitats.

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This snail lives on an oyster reef

Interested in seeing a fiddler crab plush toy as a WFSU-TV pledge premium?  Well, that isn’t likely to happen. But we will take comments and questions, as usual.