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 (an annual fundraiser for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper).  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 shuttle 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 again,  and camping.  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.

Saint Joseph Bay scallop, shucked and ready to eat

Shucking a Saint Joseph Bay Scallop: Video

Wednesday, August 20th, at 7:30 pm ET: WFSU premieres the eighth season of Dimensions.  Tune in to watch our Saint Joseph Bay scalloping EcoAdventure.  We snorkel  seagrass beds, see some fun critters, and breathe underwater with the Snuba.  We also eat some tasty scallops.  But you can’t taste these guys if they’re still in their shells.  Below, Captain Bobby Guilford of Break-A-Way Charters shows us how to shuck our catch.  Captain Bobby took us out on the water in July, and he gave us this quick demo:

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Another season of EcoAdventures is so close we can almost taste it.  Next week, it’ll taste like bay scallops as we return to Saint Joseph Bay not for science, but to enjoy the products of the seagrass bed ecosystem.  Saint Joe Bay is of course where we’ve been partnering with Dr. Randall Hughes to explore the inner workings of salt marshes and seagrass beds.  Just a bunch of grass?  Not if you like seafood.  Randall will have more about what she’s learned from Saint Joe Bay next week.

P1060980This summer we also spent some time with the WFSU/ FSU Mag Lab SciGirls.  Their annual two week whirlwind through the many aspects of science takes them on a few choice EcoAdventures of their own.  We accompany them to Tall Timbers Research Station as they get to know pine flatwoods ecology in the best way possible- by trapping birds and handling snakes, of course!  Our area is blessed with some of the best examples of longleaf pine forest, an ecosystem that thrives with fire.  We’ll see how various animal species (like those birds and snakes) benefit from burning.

Pied billed grebe at Wakulla SpringsWe also soak the SciGirls in our Water Moves game.  In our last video centering on the game, we followed water from urban Tallahassee to Wakulla Springs, passing through troubled waterways Munson Slough and Lake Munson.  That piece spent most of its time on the game and learning about the Leon County side of the Wakulla Springs watershed.  In our upcoming video, we visit Wakulla Springs itself.  It is an ecological marvel that’s had it’s share of troubles, but can still wow you with impressive sites and an abundance of wildlife.

And there’s more to come.  This year it’s all about connectivity- between lands and waters, between people and the natural spaces around them.  You can see from our new video open that we’ve seen some cool stuff over the last few years.  What would you like to see coming up?

In next week’s video, Captain Bobby also shucks one of these…

Dr. Randall Hughes holds large clam in St. Joe Bay

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

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Lake Report: Leon County’s Cleanest and Dirtiest Lakes

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Last week on our Water Moves EcoAdventure, we showed images of polluted waterways south of Tallahassee. We in this area benefit from a large amount of protected lands, which surround us with scenic views as well as protect many of our rivers and streams.  But Tallahassee itself is fairly urban; our paved roadways move pollutants into drainage ditches and sloughs instead of letting them sink into the ground to be filtered by the aquifer.  Some waterways are more affected than others.  Our lakes and rivers provide us with fresh fish and recreation; when they become compromised by algal blooms and other pollutants, they affect the health and economy of the communities around the resources.

With that in mind, I’ve compiled this list of lakes in the area, with data for each on cleanliness and safety concerns. We’re looking at three things:

  1. Nutrient load for each lake. We’ll link to a PDF of a report published by Leon County Public Works, which was compiled by Johnny Richardson (who we interviewed in the Water Moves video). I can’t link to the individual pages, but I will list them with the link back to the document if you’re interested in reading more.
  2. How safe is it to eat the fish in each lake? For this, I’m using a report created by the Florida Department of Health (DOH). This is also a PDF, and I’ll be referencing it in the same way.
  3. Toxic algal blooms. DOH has an Algal Bloom tracker which lists three locations in Leon County. During the rainy season, these blooms will get flushed, but the locations listed have had persistent nutrient problems and are still a risk to bloom when the weather dries.

North Leon: The Red Hills

Our largest lakes are located in the north of the county.  This is a sparsely populated area, protected to the north by over 300,000 acres of forested land held on hunting plantations.  Our recent Red Hills EcoAdventure explored some of these waterways and the land protecting them.  These are the cleanest lakes in Leon County.

Lake Iamonia (5,554 acres, the largest lake in Leon County)

Florida Fish & Wildlife's Michael Hill takes me out on Lake Iamonia near tall Timbers Research Station.

Florida Fish & Wildlife’s Michael Hill takes me out on Lake Iamonia near Tall Timbers Research Station.

Nutrients: The report we cite was issued by Leon County in 2011.  The report uses a measurement developed by FDEP, called a Trophic State Index, to determine the health of a waterbody.  It’s a formula that weighs nutrient levels (phosphorous, nitrogen, and chlorophyl a), with a score of 60 or higher denoting an impaired waterbody (40 for clearwater lakes, which are lower nutrient systems).  Lake Iamonia’s scores over the last few years are well blow that, averaging in the low 40s (chart on Page 64).

Fish Safety: According to the DOH Freshwater Fish Guide, this is a fairly healthy lake.  Florida lakes and rivers are considered to have low to medium mercury levels, so the guide puts limits on how much they recommend that an individual eats.  They recommend most fish caught in Iamonia be eaten no more than twice a week (page 16) for most species (slightly less for children and pregnant/ trying to get pregnant mothers).  This is as high as they go for any Florida waterbody.

Other Concerns: As we learned during the Red Hills Water EcoAdventure, the lake’s sinkhole was impounded in the 1930s.  While the dam has been removed, there is ecological damage that could take generations to fix.

Lake Miccosukee (6,257 acres.  It forms the northeast border of Leon County, but is located in Jefferson County)

Nutrients: It averages in the 50s on the TSI index (page 174-5); below the impairment level but higher than Iamonia due to an elevation of one particular nutrient, chlorophyl a.  This may be related to the dam constructed around its sinkhole in 1954.  It’s a story you see on many area lakes, playing out slightly differently on each.  Impounded lakes end up with floating islands of vegetation, tussocks, which block the sun and add organic material to the sediment.  This vegetation might be responsible for the elevated chlorophyl.

Fish Safety: The high amount of vegetation on the surface has reduced the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water, and so there aren’t a lot of fish in the lake.  Of the two species listed on the DOH document, it recommends no more than twice a week (page 18) for bluegill  and once a week for largemouth bass.  This is typical for bass throughout the document; some fish store more mercury in their fat cells.

Lake Jackson (4,000 acres)

Stormwater runoff in Elanor Klapp-Phipps Park.  This plot of land is adjacent to Lake Jackson, which is why it was purchased by the  Northwest Florida Water Management District.  Having protected land next to the lake reduced urban runoff into it.

Stormwater runoff in Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park. This plot of land is adjacent to Lake Jackson, which is why it was purchased by the Northwest Florida Water Management District. Having protected land next to the lake reduces urban runoff into it.

Nutrients: Over the course of the last few years, the color of the lake’s surface has clarified, so it technically qualifies as a clearwater lake with a lower TSI threshold.  As such, it would be considered an impaired lake, averaging in the 40s on the TSI index (page 95).  The report questions using the lower threshold, citing “the dynamic nature of the lake and the recent drought” (pages 95-96).  Part of the change in color is attributed to changes in stormwater management, which have reduced runoff to the lake.

Fish Safety: Bluegill & redear sunfish, twice a week.  Largemouth bass, once a week (page 16).

Lake Hall (182 acres, a part of the Lake Jackson Watershed)

Tall Timbers' Georgia Ackerman teaches me to stand up paddleboard on Lake Hall, as part of our Red Hills Water EcoAdventure.

Tall Timbers’ Georgia Ackerman teaches me to stand up paddleboard on Lake Hall, as part of our Red Hills Water EcoAdventure.

Nutrients: Lake Hall is one of the cleanest lakes in Leon County, averaging in the high 20s (page 91) on the TSI.  As a clearwater lake, it’s threshold for impairment is 40.  Lake Hall is partially located in Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park.  There are some restrictions on the use of motors on Lake Hall.

Fish Safety: Not listed.  The lake is fished pretty regularly, however.

Middle Leon County

Lake Lafayette 

Dead vegetation on the surface of Lower lake Lafayette.  The segmentation of the lake in the early twentieth century has affected its ability to "dry down."  Many Leon county lakes naturally empty every few years, and the plants and animals that live in the lake have adapted to and thrive in such conditions.  Impounding Lake Lafayette has caused floating mats of vegetation to form on its surface, disrupting the lake's ecology.  Clearing it is an involved and expensive process.

Dead vegetation on the surface of Lower Lake Lafayette. The segmentation of the lake in the early twentieth century has affected its ability to “dry down.” Many Leon county lakes naturally empty into sinkholes every few years, and the plants and animals that live in the lakes have adapted to and thrive in such conditions. Impounding Lake Lafayette has caused floating mats of vegetation to form on its surface, disrupting the lake’s ecology. Clearing the vegetation is an involved and expensive process.

As we learned on our Lafayette Heritage Trail Park EcoAdventure last year, the historical Lake Lafayette has been segmented into four smaller lakes by earthen dams.  As with other lakes in our area (Iamonia, Jackson, and Miccosukee), its sinkhole was separated to prevent the lake from draining.  The sinkhole is in Upper Lake Lafayette.  The other lakes are Piney Z. Lake, the Alford Arm, and Lower Lake Lafayette (which feeds the St. Marks River).  Impounding the lake has resulted in tussocks and accumulation of mucky sediment, as in the other lakes.

This lake is north of the Cody Escarpment and is considered a part of the Red Hills.  I classify it differently because of its more urban setting.

Nutrients :

  • Upper Lake Lafayette: Based on its color, its TSI index is 40.  It regularly exceeds that threshold, averaging about 50 TSI (page 132) and going into the 90s in 2005.  This part of the lake drains housing developments and is adjacent to the Walmart/ Costco shopping center on Mahan Drive.
  • Piney Z. Lake: Like Upper Lafayette, Piney Z.’s threshold is 40 TSI.  The lake regularly exceeds that, with scores typically between 50-70 TSI (page 136), and sometimes higher.  In late 2013, WFSU-FM reporter Lynn hatter reported on a toxic algal bloom on Piney Z.  The Department of Health’s Algal Bloom Tracking Tool still has a mark on the lake, though I don’t know how often that data gets updated.  The lake is bordered by Piney Z. Plantation housing development, whose newsletter advised residents on methods to reduce their nutrient contribution to the lake.
  • Alford Arm: Alford Arm drains the Miccosukee Greenway, the J.R. Alford Greenway, and the Welaunee Plantations.  It’s threshold is 60 TSI, and its average TSI is in the low 40s (page 140).
  • Lower Lake Lafayette: Its threshold is 60 TSI, and it has only exceeded that once in the last ten years, in 2004.  While its score came perilously close to 60 for a couple of years after that, since 2006 its TSI score has dropped into the low 40s/ upper 30s (page 146).

Fish Safety: Only Piney Z. is listed, recommending no more than two a week (page 27) for all species. I’m not sure if this data was collected before or after the toxic algal bloom.

Lake Talquin (6,963.  It is a larger lake than Iamonia, but it is an artificial lake created by a hydroelectric dam on the Ochlockonee River)

Nutrients: The lake averages in the low 50s on the TSI index, below its threshold of 60 (page 253).

Fish Safety: Two a week for all species except largemouth bass (page 22).

Lake Talquin is recognized as an outstanding body of water by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The Bradford Chain of Lakes

The Bradford chain is comprised of three connected lakes: Bradford, Hiawatha, and Cascade.

The first time I ever paddled a canoe or kayak was in my mid-twenties, at the FSU Seminole Reservation on Lake Bradford.  Wanting to get my son Max out on the water at a younger age, I took him out there last year.

The first time I ever paddled a canoe or kayak was in my mid-twenties, at the FSU Seminole Reservation on Lake Bradford. Wanting to get my son Max out on the water at a younger age, I took him there last year.

Nutrients:

  • Lake Bradford: It averages in the 40s on the TSI index (page 191), which is below its threshold of 60.  It has risen since 2006; prior to then it had averaged in the 30s (the report theorizes that this may be due to runoff created  by Tropical Storm Faye in late 2008).  Lake Bradford sits between the FSU Seminole Reservation and the Tallahassee Museum, and drains the residential area between Orange Avenue and Capital Circle.
  • Lake Hiawatha: The lake averages in the 40s on the TSI index (page 194), below its threshold of 60.  While paddling the corridor between Lake Bradford and Lake Hiawatha, you pass the Florida panther enclosure in the Tallahassee Museum.
  • Lake Cascade: Lake Cascade Averages in the low 30s on the TSI index (page 197), well below its threshold of 60.  This lake is susceptible to drought.  The report lists gaps where water could not be collected due to low levels.

Fish Safety: Not listed.

South Leon

Lake Munson (255 acres)

The sad thing about Lake Munson is that it is really an attractive lake.  It is believed to have once been a cypress swamp, that had its water impounded in the 1800s.  It is still ringed by cypress trees.

The sad thing about Lake Munson is that it is really an attractive lake. It is believed to have once been a cypress swamp, that had its water impounded in the 1800s. It is still ringed by cypress trees.

Nutrients: “The lake has a history of severe water quality and ecologic problems including fish kills, algal blooms, floating aquatic vegetation, high nutrient and bacterial levels, low game fish productivity, sediment contamination, and depressed oxygen levels (Maristany and Bartel, 1989)” (page 206).  Lake Munson routinely exceeds 60 on the TSI index (page 208), though it will dip below the threshold seasonally, sometimes for over a year.  When I visited the lake earlier in the month, Johnny Richardson told me that the heavy rain we’ve gotten does help to flush the lake.  The DOH Algal Bloom tracking tool reports toxic blooms on both Lake Munson and on Munson Slough to the north of the lake (the slough also continues to the south through the Apalachicola National Forest, partially draining into Wakulla Springs).  The tool merely reports that there have been blooms recently.  The blooms had washed away when I visited, but Mr. Richardson expects them back in the summer.

Fish Safety: The DOH guide recommends no more than twice a week for all species but black crappie (page 19).  This is their recommendation based on mercury level.  There is a warning for PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyl, an endocrine disruptor, page 35).  It recommends, based on PCB concerns in largemouth bass, no more than one meal a month.  That’s if you’re willing to put any amount of it in your body to begin with.

Additional Concerns: At several points over the last ten years, Lake Munson has exceeded the acceptable levels of fecal coliform (page 216).  Fecal coliform is caused by human or animal waste, and an excess could be due to septic tank failures or sewage overflows.

So that’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of our local lakes.  There is plenty of good recreation and fishing to be had, but it is helpful to know which bodies of water present potential health risks.  Most of the problems are preventable, if people are willing to make changes.  Some of the changes aren’t too much of a burden, and others have benefits beyond reducing personal pollution.  We’ll look at some of those in the coming weeks.

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Water Moves: Into and Out of Your Home and Watershed

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
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Teams of children try to remove water from a central pool without stepping over a red line.

I was happy to hear that our station was going to create a game where children would learn about the movement of water in our area. Not enough people know where their drinking water comes from and where it goes. The short answer is: from the earth, and back into the earth. The longer answer led me to the specific place that drains FSU, FAMU, TCC, and Tallahassee’s downtown. The water we drink and the water we use for recreation in lakes, rivers, and on the Gulf, that water is all part of a system. There are subsystems within that system. There is the manmade network of pipes and treatment facilities that take water from the aquifer and place it in our homes; or the aquifer itself, replenishing with rain and feeding springs.

With Water Moves, WFSU aimed to teach children about systems thinking. Our local game is part of a larger initiative from PBS Kids Digital, which wanted something that had kids running around to compliment an upcoming computer game. Six teams of six kids had the same goal, to fill their buckets (houses) from a central pool (the aquifer) using tools they bought by earning points. Jamie Shakar from the City of Tallahassee then talked with them about the actual system, through which rain sublimes into the ground and is filtered through sand, clay, and ultimately limestone, finally reaching the sites where the city pumps our water.

In our Red Hills EcoAdventure, I made a connection between sinkholes in our lakes and our drinking water . Technically speaking, the water we drink does not come from surface water (lakes and rivers), but from groundwater (filtered and made clean as it makes its way down). To our second presenter of the day, though, all water in the aquifer is connected and must be protected.

Where Munson Slough flows into Lake Henrietta.

Where Munson Slough flows into Lake Henrietta.

Karen Rubin is with the City of Tallahassee’s TAPP (Think About Personal Pollution). She showed that, as rain falls and filters through the ground into the aquifer, it also travels off of lawns and parking lots and down streets, looking for a low point. As this is how water flows, the low points tend to be lakes. For the most urban areas within Tallahassee, that low spot is Lake Munson. It is the most compromised body of water in our county. It is fed by Munson Slough, which runs through Lake Henrietta along the way. I visited Lake Henrietta, where the county has built barriers to catch some of our trash and keep it out of Lake Munson. What I saw, and smelled, kind of surprised me. I thought that the Munson Watershed’s problems would be more subtle, evidencing themselves in water quality readings on a table in a report. I was wrong.

What is being carried into Lake Munson? Think of our roadways, and all of the car exhaust that hits it. Do you notice a little puddle under your car when you run the air? And in and around our homes. People fertilize their lawns and vegetable gardens (As we’ve covered before, an excess of nitrogen from fertilizers ends up feeding algae, which blooms, sucks up oxygen and kills aquatic life). We use pesticides to kill those ant piles that pop up everywhere. We pressure wash our houses with chemicals. Water washes off of our lawns, picking up these chemicals and compounds as it drains to that low spot in our watershed.

Now, if Lake Munson was the final resting place of these pollutants, we might well say “Munson can take one for the team” and let it collect our refuse. We have so many great lakes and rivers already. But Munson Slough continues southward from the lake. It disappears down Ames Sink and a percentage of its water end up in Wakulla Springs.

anhinga-WS

An anhinga, surrounded by hydrilla, on Wakulla Springs. By occupying the space where water runs against vegetation, hydrilla may have prevented apple snails from laying their eggs and ultimately depriving limpkins of  food.

Wakulla Springs has an outline of a limpkin on its sign. And while some comments in a 2012 post regarding limpkins offer some hope for their return, that bird disappeared from the park in the 1990s. No definitive cause has been determined, but many look at invasive hydrilla as a culprit. Fed by excess nutrients, it is a major presence in Wakulla Springs. So much so that it encroached upon the bases of plants where apple snails lay eggs. When its source of food disappeared, there was no reason for the bird to stay.

Johnny Richardson is a water quality scientist with Leon County. He told me that while 11% of the nutrients in Wakulla Springs are known to come from streams and sinks, they don’t know exactly how much comes from the Munson system.

And while the water that flows from Wakulla Springs into the Wakulla River is considered compromised by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the system seems to clean it before it reaches the lower Wakulla, where it meets with the St. Marks River. St. Marks is a town that celebrates its fishing heritage with a Stone Crab Festival that we visited last year. While we in Tallahassee are connected through water to this fertile fishing ground, and to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, our pollutants seem to dilute or get filtered out before reaching them.

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A television lies in algae just downstream of a dam on Lake Munson. From here, the lake flows into Munson Slough, through the Apalachicola National Forest, and into Wakulla Springs.

It’s hard to say how much one leaky car or one overzealous gardener might degrade our beloved natural resources. Tallahassee can take the blame for Lake Munson, accept that it has some negative influence on Wakulla Springs, and feel okay that it isn’t contaminating seafood in St. Marks. What we do know is that we can make the problems better or worse. We can control this.

Over the summer, we’ll look at ways to reduce our personal pollution. For instance, instead of leaving a TV and its toxic innards on the curb for a few days, or heaving it into a lake, you can take it to Leon County’s Solid Waste Facility. It’s a little out of the way, but maybe you were going to Tom Brown Park or Walmart anyway?

Also over the summer, we’ll get back to the fun EcoAdventures. Also, Randall Hughes and David Kimbro will look back at the research into salt marsh, oyster reef, and seagrass bed ecology that we’ve been following over the years. Our area has some amazing ecology, and there are places we haven’t been and connections we haven’t yet made. I never tire of learning how it all works.

Follow us on Twitter @wfsuIGOR

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Video: Bradwell Bay Wilderness Hike- Night and Day

Watch and listen: what does a Wilderness sound like at night?

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

P1060490-SmallerIt seems like a good premise for a movie: Under a full moon, on Friday the thirteenth, a group of people wander in the Wilderness. You could be a part of this movie on Friday, June 13 (8 pm), as Haven Cook of the U.S. Forest Service leads a hike into the Bradwell Bay Wilderness. It’s one of a series of events being held in the Apalachicola National Forest to celebrate 50 years of the Wilderness Act. Passed in 1964, the act designated certain protected areas as Wilderness.

So how is a Wilderness any different than any other protected land? We are surrounded by the Apalachicola National Forest, St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, Wildlife Management Areas, state parks, and large greenways. There are some waterways near here where you could spend hours and not see many signs of civilization. It’s already plenty wild around here, right?

A Wilderness area restricts the use of motorized or mechanical equipment. Not even a bicycle or, as the sign at the trailhead states, a hang glider (the WFSU hang glider was sadly left behind in our vehicle). No structures can be placed on the grounds, though any that were historically found there can remain. It has to, as the act states, retain “its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation.” Section 2(c) of the 1964 Wilderness Act. The primary force affecting the Wilderness must be nature, not man. The idea is that you can go there and experience total solitude in nature, and that means freedom from the buzz of a chainsaw or seeing that glider over your head.

The primary man made feature of the Bradwell Bay Wilderness is the unpaved trail that runs through it. In the pine flatwood area leading up to the swamp, it was an old road that Haven believes might have led to an homestead, likely belonging to the Bradwell family. It has a ditch running along either side of it, where you can occasionally see pitcher plants growing (as we learned a few weeks ago in another part of the Apalachicola National Forest, carnivorous plants love ditches and their found-in-nature equivalents). There is an old bridge that takes you over a small creek that drains into the Sopchoppy River. While they won’t put any forest roads through the Wilderness (its boundaries are formed by forest roads), the trail is maintained as a part of the Florida National Scenic Trail. In places, that doesn’t mean much more than an orange blaze on a tree.

Some Wilderness areas don’t even have that level of human footprint. The Mud Swamp/ New River Wilderness, also in the National Forest, is one. In general, Wilderness areas in the Eastern United States tend to be smaller and less isolated than in the less populous Western half of the country. In 1975, congress passed the Eastern Wilderness Act, which created the Bradwell Bay Wilderness. This act acknowledges that “additional areas of wilderness in the more populous eastern half of the United States are increasingly threatened by the pressure of a growing and more mobile population, large-scale industrial and economic growth, and development and uses inconsistent with the protection, maintenance, and enhancement of the areas’ wilderness character.” Section 2(a)(3) of the Eastern Wilderness Act.

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Often in the Forest, you’ll see these burnt woody shrubs among the palmettos between the pines. Longleaf and slash pine can tolerate fire and palmettos grow back, but hardwood trees do not fare well in this ecosystem.

It should also be noted that, though the area is intended to be as much as possible like it was when this country was founded, the pine flatwood area is a second growth forest where you can still see rows of planted slash pine. Like many of the places that we consider wild around here, it had been cut at some point. It is, like the rest of the forest, maintained by prescribed fire. This is to replicate the fire regime that occurred naturally before the area was settled by Americans. Since the Wilderness won’t burn every three to four years without assistance, The Forest Service keeps the “primeval” character of the area by simulating the regime that had occurred there.

We didn’t make it to the swamp, as we were previewing the full moon hike, though a little earlier to get more shots in the light. We’ll have to save that for another EcoAdventure. If you’re going on June 13, the sun will set within the first hour of the hike, and there will be mosquitos. And also ticks. This isn’t out of the ordinary for a hike at this time of the year. But when the moon comes out, you’ll see the Wilderness entirely differently. More strikingly, it will sound different. And, you know, there’ll be that slasher movie plot thing happening.

Coming Up

One value of the Bradwell Bay Wilderness is that, without motorized vehicles or human made structures, the stormwater runoff flowing from it to the Sopchoppy River is clean. We spend a lot of time on our EcoAdventures visiting well preserved, healthy land and water resources. On our last EcoAdventure of the season, we’re going to visit some places where you don’t want to touch the water or eat fish from it. We’re talking drinking water (which is clean) and stormwater. Wait until you see the bodies of water that collect our runoff.

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Wewahitchka: Dead Lakes Kayaking and Tupelo Adventure

Video: We explore Wewahitchka’s famous tupelo honey, from the ogeechee trees in the Dead Lakes, to the bees who make it, to the apiaries that bring it to us.

Dead Lakes

The Dead Lakes: October 2012.

I have been wanting to do a video on the Dead Lakes and Wewa Tupelo honey for a couple of years now.  I caught the briefest glimpse of the Dead Lakes on the next to last day of RiverTrek 2012, as we were shuttled from our campsite in Wewahitchka back to Gaskin Park on the Apalachicola River.  The water was low then, during the dry part of a dry year, and so the cypress knees and pine trunks were well exposed.  Revisiting the same spot via kayak a couple of weeks ago, I passed over submerged and unseen knees.  For this video, we needed to visit just as the rainy season was ending.  I wanted to to see tupelo blooming and bees working.  Matt Godwin from Off the Map Expeditions set me up to do just that.

The Ogeechee tupelo (Nyssa ogeche) is a sensitive plant.  We learned on RiverTrek how reduced water flows on the Apalachicola over the last 30+ years have led to a 40% loss of tupelo in the forested floodplain.  It likes the water, but, as beekeeper Donnie Harcus of Donnie’s Bees tells us in the video, rain will knock tupelo flowers onto the ground where bees won’t pollinate them.  So it has to be wet, but it can’t rain too much, and it has to be fairly hot.  I guess flowers that produce premium honey have the right to be a little demanding.

Bees making tupelo honey for Donnie's Bees in Wewahitchka.

Bees making tupelo honey for Donnie’s Bees in Wewahitchka.

The other part of the honey equation is the animal that makes it: the honey bee.  “You can talk a week on bees,” Donnie told me.  “They’re just an amazing creature”  His job as a beekeeper has him racing to keep up with the bees and the blooms of the area.

When you visit the bee yard, you’ll see stacks of boxes in long rows.  Each box is a hive, and when the bees finish filling one box with honey, Donnie and his crew have to lay another one above it or the bees will swarm.  His most efficient bees have stacks that are five boxes high.

The bees we visited were busy making tupelo honey.  Donnie hadn’t yet touched it, as the hives weren’t filled.

He has to move the hives to the flowers he wants them to pollinate.  Before the tupelo bloomed, the hives were closer to where titi, maple, and highbush gall berry trees were flowering.  The bees create from a combination of these flowers something called red honey.  When the tupelo bloom ends, the boxes go to California not to make honey, but to help with almond harvest.  Bees do much more to feed us than make honey, aiding in the production of $20 to 30 billion of produce in the United States alone (which makes their rapid decline all the more concerning).

Back where Donnie extracts the honey from the honeycomb, his crew was still working on red honey.  This is bakery grade honey, Donnie says, meant to be processed and used in cereal, bread, and shampoo.  The tupelo is table grade; you are meant to drizzle it on your biscuits and taste it.  The red honey wasn’t bad though.  When they offered us some honeycomb to chew on, I felt sad that, as Donnie says, this honey will be “run through a whole line of filters.  It probably won’t have any pollen when they get done.”  It was a rare treat to eat honey right out of a container built for it by bees.

Bee hives in Wewahitchka

Beekeepers can’t control where bees will fly, so they will never produce 100% tupelo honey. Apiaries get their honey tested, and that which has at least 51% tupelo pollen grains can be called tupelo honey.

At Smiley Apiaries, we sampled some more varieties.  I’ve always been partial to wildflower honey and its particular tang.  Every year, different flowers bloom in different quantities, and so the character is different from one year to the next.  The fall bloom is different than the spring bloom.  We tasted very different wildflower vintages from this year and last, as well as orange blossom (with a subtle hint of orange flavor), highbush gall berry, and of course tupelo.

Tupelo is prized for its flavor and its reputed resistance to crystallization.  It’s a fitting product for so unique a location.  Many of the bees are positioned around protected lands that sit along the Apalachicola and Chipola Rivers, lands that shelter tupelo swamps.  We drove through the Apalachicola Wildlife and Environmental Area to get to Donnie’s Bees. As long as enough water keeps flowing into these swamps, there will be enough ogeechee to sustain the industry in Wewahitchka. Nestled between the mighty Apalach and that place where the Chipola turns into the Dead Lakes, Wewa is a river town that makes the most of its water.

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