Category Archives: EcoAdventures North Florida

WFSU-TV is hiking, paddling, snorkeling and generally getting dirty and wet in the wild places of North Florida. Living, breathing, fully-functional ecosystems always surprise and delight, especially when you’re the only person for miles. Browse our stories and if you see something lacking, leave a comment and let us know!

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Raising a Kid with Nature Takes Creativity, Persistence

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

This past Saturday, my son Max and I returned to Owl Creek to join a few dozen paddlers for a special event.  The Apalachicola Riverkeeper welcomed the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition as they continue to make their way from the headwaters of the Everglades to Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola.  While on the water, I could see that people liked the image of a father and son in a kayak.  Other paddlers would occasionally say things like “That’s the right way to raise a kid.”   Max and I made a little game of picking up trash along the creek, which garnered more positive comments.  It feels nice to hear those things because, honestly, sometimes it feels like I’m just making things up as I go with this kid and his outdoor experiences. Continue reading

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Clearcutting the Longleaf Forest: EcoShakespeare

EcoShakespeare is a series of expeditions into uniquely north Florida/ south Georgia ecosystems.  Each adventure is led by a master of their field and includes a scene performed from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that relates to the trip.  Florida State University English professor Dr. Bruce Boehrer ties Shakespeare’s words to our local habitats, creating a one of  kind blending of art and nature.  Part one takes place in a secret, ancient forest…

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Jim Cox is the Vertebrate Ecology Program Director at Tall Timbers Research Station (he's the one not holding the camera).  Based north of Tallahassee, Tall Timbers has studied the longleaf habitat, and its dependence on fire, for over 50 years.

Jim Cox is the Vertebrate Ecology Program Director at Tall Timbers Research Station (he’s the one not holding the camera). Based north of Tallahassee, Tall Timbers has studied the longleaf habitat, and its dependence on fire, for over 50 years.

We begin this EcoShakespeare project, appropriately enough, in a longleaf forest that exists much as it did during the time of William Shakespeare.  The “Big Woods,” as Tall Timbers’ Jim Cox calls them, sit on private land.  Few people will ever get the privilege to walk under those ancient longleaf pines, in one of the few places where Henslow’s sparrows and red cockaded woodpeckers are relatively easily seen.  And it’s one of the few places where you might find longleaf pines that lived while the Bard’s plays were being penned.

You can see the numbers in the video above.  The American southeast was once covered in 90,000,000 acres of longleaf.  Today we have 3,000,000.  Of that, only 8,000 has never been cut.  Jim compares it to the entire population of the Earth being whittled down to a city the size of Milwaukee.  And while 3,000,000 acres is still a vast reduction from the historic number, it’s much better than 8,000.  So why do we emphasize the especially low acreage of remaining old growth forest?

The immortal king of the fairies, Oberon, stands next to a considerably younger 350 year old (give or take) longleaf pine.

The immortal king of the fairies, Oberon, stands next to a considerably younger 350 year old (give or take) longleaf pine.

It’s something that I can appreciate as I stare down my fortieth birthday next year- a mature longleaf offers more ecosystem services than a young one.  Red cockaded woodpeckers make nests in trees that are over 90 years old.  The heart wood of these older trees is more likely to suffer from red heart disease, a fungus which softens the wood and makes it easier for the woodpeckers, over several generations, to make a cavity.  Jim Cox, answering questions from our adventurers, says the birds’ numbers are looking much better after getting dangerously low.  He attributes this to artificial cavities sawed into less mature trees.  But for the RCW to leave the endangered list, it has to make it without our help.  And for that, we need more mature trees.  The problem with that is that… you have to wait… and wait… and wait… for enough of them to get to that right age.

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Another ecosystem service offered by a mature longleaf is its wrinkly face.  As a longleaf ages, its bark becomes gnarlier and rougher.  This creates more surfaces for insects and other invertebrates to inhabit.  And as is true in any ecosystem, those little creepy crawlies are food for all of the much prettier animals that we travel with binoculars to try and spot.  An ecosystem will not thrive if the bottom of the food web is not healthy.

Years ago, when we started EcoAdventures, I accompanied FWC’s Andy Wraithmel and Liz Sparks to several birding spots along the Apalachicola River.  Near sunset, we stopped in the Apalachicola National Forest.  When you drive down State Road 65, you may notice painted white bands on the longleaf pines.  These are trees with RCW cavities, or that have qualities that might attract the rare woodpecker.  We stopped by a cluster of those trees, Liz and Andy admiring the good work that has been done to restore the habitat.

Controlled burn in the Apalachicola National Forest along State Road 65.

Controlled burn in the Apalachicola National Forest along State Road 65.

Looking at the shots of the National Forest that we included in the video above, the differences between it and the “Big Woods” are subtle.  The trees look a little skinnier, perhaps, but even a 500 year old longleaf will never be that much thicker than a young one.  In one shot, you can see the planted rows of slash pine that timber operations started using after having cut the slower growing/ higher quality longleaf.

Andy and Liz talked to me about the thinning of trees (longleaf habitat features widely spaced trees), regular burning, and other restoration activities that have the forest looking a little more like it once had.  But, Andy noted, none of us would be alive to see the forest fully recovered.  Except, maybe, the immortal Oberon and Titania.

Next week, we look at Shakespeare’s upbringing as we forage for food along Lake Iamonia. Also, marital tensions between Oberon and Titania escalate as the king plots with Puck to use the herbs of the forest against the queen.

Special thanks to WFSU’s partners for this EcoShakespeare segment, The Southern Shakespeare Festival and Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy. EcoShakespeare is funded by a grant from WNET’s Shakespeare Uncovered. Catch their take of a Midsummer Night’s Dream Friday, January 30 at 9 pm ET on WFSU-TV. For more information on Shakespeare Uncovered and WFSU’s associated TV and Radio projects, visit our Shakespeare Uncovered web site.
Shakespeare Uncovered is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Major funding is also provided by The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, Dana and Virginia Randt, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, the Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Polonsky Foundation, Rosalind P. Walter, Jody and John Arnhold, the Corinthian International Foundation, and PBS.
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Did Shakespeare write his plays? The Eco-Answer

WFSU’s EcoShakespeare segments have wrapped production and are in the process of being edited.  Three segments explore Shakespeare’s connection to nature, shot in collaboration with the Southern Shakespeare Festival as well as Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, the Friends of Wakulla Springs State Park, and Palmetto Expeditions.  EcoShakespeare is funded by WNET in conjunction with their PBS series, Shakespeare Uncovered (Season 2 premieres on WFSU-TV on Friday, January 30).  In this web exclusive video, Dr. Bruce Boehrer gives us an answer to one of the most asked questions about William Shakespeare, and does so in a way that gets us thinking about the ecological marvels in the WFSU viewing area.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

It’s one of two questions everyone asks a Shakespeare scholar, and it has an environmental/ ecological answer.  “If you go into a bar and start talking to strangers and tell them that you’re a Shakespeare scholar,” says Dr. Bruce Boehrer “…you’ll get asked one of two questions, depending upon the kind of bar you’re in.”  Dr. Boehrer is the Bertram H. Davis Professor of English at Florida State University.  “Either, did Shakespeare write those plays, or, was Shakespeare gay?”  Dr. Boehrer answers the first question in the video above, using an argument put forth by fellow Shakespeare scholar and “ecocritic” Jonathan Bate.  Simply put, they argue, too many references in his works could only have been written by someone who grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon in the English county of Warwickshire.  In the Taming of the Shrew, Christopher Sly makes mention of a couple of small hamlets in Warwickshire.  In As You Like It, characters find their way to the Forest of Arden.  The play is set in France but Arden is a forest of Warwickshire which derives its name from his mother’s family (her maiden name is Arden, a family that dated its lineage to before the Norman Conquest).  The list goes on.

As Dr. Boehrer was describing Stratford and its surroundings, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between it and Tallahassee.  Stratford is a market town, a larger town in a region full of farmlands and forests.  As Dr. Boehrer talked, I became especially interested in this idea of a natural landscape shaping an individual, potentially molding that person’s greatness.  Warwickshire forged William Shakespeare, imprinting itself upon him in a way that showed through in his classic works.  This interests me because much of my job is sharing the experience of visiting our own distinctive natural features.

I didn’t grow up here, but I’ve lived here for twenty years.  Until we started this blog four years ago, however, I didn’t know much about the distinctive land and water resources that define natural north Florida.  I wasn’t used to thinking of my home that way.  Growing up in suburban Miami, my landmarks were streets, schools, and malls.  The waterways I encountered on a daily basis (I saw the Atlantic Ocean often enough, but not daily) were canals built to alleviate flooding.  In the 80s and 90s, Chrome Avenue was the edge of our world, the boundary between suburbia and wild Florida.  It was a great childhood, and I had plenty of outdoor time riding my bike to our neighborhood park or to play in friends’ backyards.  I definitely wasn’t thinking about rivers, swamps, or estuarine ecosystems.

That changed in 2010.  As we started doing segments and traveling the area, I became aware of not just our many waterways and trails, but of a handful of iconic wonders that make north Florida ecologically remarkable.  In 2014, I was able to cross a few of these off of my segment bucket list:

No place looks quite like the Dead Lakes, where you can paddle through the remnants of a drowned forest in the tupelo honey capital of the world.

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For a brief time in late spring, a stretch of State Road 65 running between Sumatra and Hosford in the Apalachicola National Forest explodes with carnivorous plants, displaying a diversity not seen in many places.

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After having explored the Apalachicola River and followed oyster research in Apalachicola Bay, we hiked through the Apalachicola’s floodplain forest.  This is the backstage of the watershed, where oyster food is made.

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This was the year that I learned that Tallahassee is located in the Red Hills region of Florida and Georgia.  Thick red clay protects the underlying aquifer, which is fed by sinkholes in each of our larger natural lakes (Lake Talquin is the largest, but is formed by a dam).

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And, years after we started going to Saint Joseph Bay to follow marsh and seagrass research, I finally got to go scalloping there.

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This year I also started bring my three-year-old son along on some off camera EcoAdventures.  I visit a lot of places that I want to share with my wife and young children, and Max finally seemed old enough for some extended action.  We kayaked the Wakulla River, just a week after he swam at Wakulla Springs State Park.  I know he doesn’t fully understand, but when we play at Cascades Park, I tell him that that water heads to the spring and into the river.  And a couple of years after RiverTrek became the coolest thing that Daddy ever did, I took him camping and kayaking for a sliver of this year’s trip.  The Apalachicola River is foremost among water bodies in his mind, and it was an incredible parental pleasure to see him dip a paddle into it.

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It’s also the third year we’ve taken Max to New Leaf Market’s Farm Tours. Like Stratford, Tallahassee is surrounded by small farms, many of which belong to the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance. We visited a few Red Hills farms for a couple of segments, looking at their different sustainable methods (hydroponics, mulch building, free range animals). Later in his life, Shakespeare invested in agricultural lands around Stratford. Something tells me he would not have felt out of place in north Florida.

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Just as this area has done for so many of us, William Shakespeare’s life in Warwickshire became a part of him and of his legacy.  It’s the last thing I ever thought would be a focus of the WFSU Ecology Project, but here I am editing three segments on Shakespeare’s nature connection, set to air starting in late January.  This, in a year when we capped off our research driven In the Grass, On the Reef initiative with the Oyster Doctors documentary.  There are so many ways to appreciate what we have in this area.  Science, the Bard, kids in kayaks, and tupelo honey.  How do I top 2014?

What segments would you like to see in 2015?  Where should we be going, and what should we be doing?  

Shakespeare Uncovered is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Major funding is also provided by The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, Dana and Virginia Randt, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, the Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Polonsky Foundation, Rosalind P. Walter, Jody and John Arnhold, the Corinthian International Foundation, and PBS.
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Exploring the Small Farms of Florida’s Red Hills Part 2

Over the past couple of months we’ve made a foray into local agriculture, an industry that’s of critical importance to the ecology of our area.   We’re now in the process of setting up some new adventures that get us back on the water- both salt and fresh.  And of course, our EcoShakespeare segments will begin airing January 28 on Dimensions (before streaming here).  We’re always looking for new ways to interact with the outdoors, and we always want to hear your suggestions for how we can accomplish this.  Don’t be shy about leaving comments!

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Miccosukee Root Cellar strives to be a farm to table restaurant, buying from several local food growers.  Chef Owen Hardin uses Thomasville, GA pecans to make both the ice cream filling and crust of this pie.

Miccosukee Root Cellar is a farm to table restaurant, buying from several local food growers. Chef Owen Hardin uses Thomasville, GA pecans to make both the ice cream filling and crust of this pie.

“Eating local means eating seasonal,” Katie Harris told me in an unused clip from her interview.  That means that if you want to go full locavore, you’ll soon be saying goodbye to fresh tomatoes and yellow squash and hello to chard and broccoli.  Katie co-manages the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance with Louise Divine, who we interviewed in part one of this video.  Part of their public outreach is to provide recipes and seasonal calendars to consumers who may not be used to limiting themselves to food that grows within a few counties of their house.  The food that will grow in north Florida will vary with our seasons, and so eating locally means adjusting to what’s available.  Eating locally is one of those things that’s easy to get behind.  You’re supporting the local economy.  And you’re supporting the environment, aren’t you?  Let’s take a closer look.

The primary environmental argument often used in favor of eating locally are the “food miles” traveled by the food.  Tomatoes from a Red Hills farm may travel 20-30 miles to get to my house.  Tomatoes grown in Mexico, which you may see at your grocery store of choice, have traveled over 1,000 miles by truck or plane to get here.  A lot of gasoline is used to transport food around the world.  A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council on the emissions of California’s imported foods found that in 2005, 250,000 tons of global warming gasses were produced by incoming food products, as much as 40,000 cars.  And that’s just one state in one country.

But food miles are just one factor in the equation.  A post on the Harvard Extension Blog looked at data for total carbon used in food production and found that, overall, most emissions occur from the production of food rather than their transport to market.  This is especially true of meat products, which alone account for more greenhouse emissions than all cars and trucks on earth.  Cows, sheep, and goats belch methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and a lot of energy goes into producing the grain they eat.  That’s food miles and the fertilizer it takes to grow the grain.  Which gets us to how produce is grown.

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Aaron Suko, co-manager at Full Earth Farm, lays ribbon hose along an unused row. Drip irrigation uses water more efficiently than center pivot irrigation, a technique used on many large farms.

In a 2008 article in the Guardian on the “Myth of Food Miles,” green beans grown in Nigeria are presented as a greener choice for UK shoppers than their own local product.  A professor they interview touts Nigerian growing methods, which don’t use tractors (all manual labor, no gas) or cow manure, and use low-impact irrigation.  The Harvard Extension blog post referenced a study that showed lamb grown in New Zealand is a greener choice for UK shoppers than their own local lamb, because New Zealand lambs are pastured (eating the grass that grows on the ground) and live on farms that use hydroelectric power (This blog post from Oregon Public Broadcasting, while ultimately agreeing that grass is a greener feed for cattle, does a good job of outlining the controversy over which feed is more environmentally friendly).

While sustainable practices are not a prerequisite for membership in the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance, The farms we’ve highlighted do practice organic techniques (the lone meat producer we featured in part 1 of this video, Golden Acres Ranch, isn’t organic but aims to be “all natural”).  In our Sharing Water Conference segment, we see how Katie (Full Earth Farm, Quincy) and Herman Holley (Turkey Hill Farm, Tallahassee) prepare compost intended to provide fertilization to their plants without contributing nitrate runoff to local waterways.  They both use tractors for certain tasks but, as you see in the video above, do a lot of work manually as well.  As Katie’s co-manager at Full Earth, Aaron Suko, says in the video, they can be efficient by planting at the right times, hoeing weeds when they’re small, and being organized.  “You just got to work smarter, and not harder.”  This, they tell me, is the key to small, sustainable farming.

There are advances and techniques that both conventional and organic farmers are exploring to increase efficiency and help preserve natural resources.  Here are a few that we’ve covered on WFSU-TV:

  • My fellow WFSU producer Mike Plummer recently visited the IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center in Marianna.  There, he learned about their research into reducing methane emissions from cows.  In another segment, he looks at their research into better selective breeding of cattle.
  • Mike also visited the IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy, where they are working on a sod based rotation system that aims to improve irrigation by alternating plots of bahia grass with crops.  They claim that if the techniques were to be adopted, they could reduce water usage of farms along the Flint River to a degree that would greatly increase freshwater flows downstream on the Apalachicola.
  • P1070982-smallerThe IFAS Research Center in Quincy is also looking at satsuma oranges as a potential crop for north Florida.  They are cold hardier, meaning they would perform better here than other varieties grown in the state.  In fact, some Red Hills farms are already growing this Japanese variety.
  • Red Hills farms are experimenting with rotating different crops that would help build soil.  Wayne Hawthorne at Blue Ridge Farm has planted sodbuster radish in his outdoor beds.  This New Zealand import has roots that are supposed to break up hard soils (like the red clay that is prevalent in our area), add a natural fungicide to the soil, and then tap into minerals deep in the soils without tilling.  He sent some of his seeds to a friend working at an IFAS extension in Ruskin, Florida, where they’ll perform their own experiments.
  • Both Turkey Hill and Full Earth experiment with cover crops.  Full Earth’s Aaron explained to us the benefits.  Cover crops are planted in plots not currently in production.  Their roots keep the soil from eroding.  Sometimes they plant sunflowers, which attract pollinators.  They also plant legumes, which naturally add nitrogen to soil (lessening the need for added fertility).
  • Also in the aforementioned Sharing Water Conference video, we visited Simpson’s Nursery, which uses Monticello’s reclaimed water and recycles water on site to reduce aquifer withdrawals.  This is by no means a small local farm (every Red Hills Farm together might fit in its 1400 acres), and its water usage is considerable.
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Father & Son Apalachicola River Kayak Adventure

Over the last two years, WFSU’s Rob Diaz de Villegas has documented the RiverTrek kayak journeys down the Apalachicola River.  While he didn’t participate in this year’s paddle, he was able to tag along for a small stretch.   He took with him the biggest fan of the work he produced on those trips- his son Max.  Camping and kayaking with a three-year-old has its challenges, but can be rewarding in many ways.
Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Pulling into the Hickory Landing campsite on Owl Creek, I’m happy to see so many familiar faces.  It’s the final night of RiverTrek 2014, and the paddlers’ families have been invited to camp out and see their loved ones off as they make the final approach towards Apalachicola.  Some of us are here as part of the extended RiverTrek family, such as fellow ’12 paddlers Jennifer Portman and Chris Robertson, who were nice enough to bring a tandem kayak that I could use to explore Owl Creek with my son Max.  If my participation in RiverTrek has reached one person, gotten just one person interested in the Apalachicola River, or in paddle sports, it’s this kid.  And I couldn’t be happier to have him get a taste of the RiverTrek experience.  But first I have to wake him up. Continue reading

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Shakespeare EcoAdventures in North Florida

Join us for one of three Shakespearian EcoAdventures!  Enjoy a short performance with Southern Shakespeare Festival actors and a guided tour through north Florida’s unique ecosystems.  It’ll be a day in nature like no other.  Spots are limited, so please enter a drawing to come along.
Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Had William Shakespeare ever made it to Florida, what would he have written of it?   He was a man who dealt in comedy and tragedy, and he would have found no shortage of either in our fair state.  But he was also man who could capture the beauty of nature and the tumultuousness of ecological upheaval.  It gets me to thinking.  What would a canoe trip down the Wacissa River inspire within him?  What tragedy could he compose from the collapse of Apalachicola’s oyster reef ecosystems?

The wonderful thing about well-crafted language is that it can be universal.  If we remove his words from the context of their plays, or re-imagine their setting, his words could just as easily evoke Wakulla Springs or the Apalachicola National Forest.  And that’s just what we’re looking to do.

In advance of the second season of Shakespeare Uncovered on PBS, we’ll be unleashing Oberon, Titania, and their fairy retinue on the north Florida landscape.  We’re partnering with the reborn Southern Shakespeare Festival, who will be staging a Midsummer Night’s Dream this April at Cascades Park.  We’ll be taping three segments with them, tying verses from the play to our unique natural settings.  And we want you to come along.

Each field trip will feature a short performance, a guided hike, and our area’s reliably stunning visuals.  Fill out a quick form to enter a lottery to come along.  Winners will be selected and notified Monday, October 27th.  Selected participants will be sent video release forms and additional information about each trip.

Fairies sing for the natural order of the Wakulla Springshed

The Wakulla Springs Overland Tour with Jim Stevenson
Saturday November 1
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You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy queen.

In Elizabethan England, everyone and everything had its place.  There was an order to the universe, with God and queen at the apex, and lower animals like newts and worms at the bottom.  Similarly, those smaller critters exist in balance with predators and herbivores, feeding on each other and on plants, in an arrangement that brings order to nature.

But the natural order can be upset.

Join Jim Stevenson, former chief biologist for Florida State Parks, as we follow the path of water from Tallahassee to Wakulla Spring.  Urban runoff drains into rivers and lakes, and directly into our aquifer through sinkholes.  The water that emerges from the Spring contains an excess of nutrients that feed algae and invasive hydrilla, lower organisms that upset the balance of life along the Wakulla River.  They encroach on habitats like those of the apple snail.  And they may have forced an animal once emblematic to Wakulla Springs State Park, the limpkin, off of the river.

The Wakulla Springs Overland Tour is presented by Palmetto Expeditions in partnership with the Friends of Wakulla Springs State Park.

Sign up now to enter a drawing for this free EcoAdventure.

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Lake Munson, a scenic yet troubled waterway connected to Wakulla Spring.

 

Foraging for food in a longleaf forest with Puck and Oberon 

Finding food in our natural surroundings
Sunday November 2
8 am

Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew’d thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.

The pine flatwood communities found throughout our area, when properly burned, shelter within their grasses many succulent plants.  These flowers and weedy forbs feed a wealth of forest critters.  And they can feed us, too, if we know which ones won’t make us violently ill.

Join wilderness survival instructor Colbert Sturgeon as we forage for tasty treats in the woods north of Tallahassee.  In 2013, Sturgeon was featured in an episode of National Geographic’s Journey With Bard (That name is a total coincidence.  Too bad it’s already taken).

Sign up now to enter a drawing for this free EcoAdventure.

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Shakespeare predicts the clear cutting of the coastal plain forest

A glimpse into “Old Florida’s” forested past
Sunday November 9
8 am at Tall Timber Research Station

The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,

During Shakespeare’s lifetime, he saw England’s forests harvested to feed printing presses.  A couple of hundred years later, the 90 million acre coastal plain forest of the American southeast helped to build a burgeoning nation.  Less than 3% of that original habitat remains, and most of that has been planted in the last 150 years, replacing the original growth forest.

Jim Cox is the Vertebrate Ecology Program Director at Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.  He will guide us into rare old growth longleaf pine flatwoods in Florida’s Red Hills region.  There, we will learn about the species that have been lost or made endangered, and about the amazing productivity and diversity of the longleaf/ wiregrass ecosystem.

Sign up now to enter a drawing for this free EcoAdventure.

These segments will air in January on our Dimensions program.  The Southern Shakespeare Festival will also visit WFSQ’s Dan MacDonald to examine the musical selection of April’s production and the evolution of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s score over the years.  Season 2 of Shakespeare Uncovered will air in late January or early February.  WFSU’s TV and radio content is funded by a grant from WNET, the PBS member station that produces Shakespeare Uncovered.

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Exploring the Small Farms of Florida’s Red Hills

Tennessee Fainting Goats and Red Zinger Tea! There are many interesting things to be found on small farms. Watch as we visit Golden Acres Ranch in Monticello and Turkey Hill Farm in Tallassee’s Baum Community.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

As I was starting preproduction for this piece, my wife Amy prepared a map of Red Hills Small Farm Alliance member farms.  It’s interesting to see the proximity of these farms to water.  Agriculture is of key importance to our water, from the withdrawals farms make from our aquifer to any runoff they might send back to waterways, into sinkholes, and back into the aquifer.  Every farm interacts with its natural surroundings in different ways.

Louise Divine harvests Roselle at Turkey Hill Farm.

Louise Divine harvests Roselle at Turkey Hill Farm.

The Red Hills Small Farm Alliance is a collective of small farms located within 100 miles of Tallahassee, mostly within what is considered to be the Greater Red Hills Region.  This range encompasses several watersheds, from the Wakulla Springshed to the Ochlockonee, St. Marks, and Aucilla rivers.  Many of these waterways have been the setting for previous EcoAdventures, and so have  the protected lands around them.  In the video above, we explore a different kind of outdoor setting that has the potential to either protect or degrade our water.

These small farms make for an interesting alternative kind of outdoor activity.  Many are open to the public to varying degrees (please do call first), and especially so during New Leaf Market’s Farm Tour.  On October 25 and 26, Red Hills farms and other local food producers will open the doors for the public to see.  Many will have rides, treats, and activities for kids.  As I mentioned in my previous post, kids are becoming increasingly out of touch with nature.  The same thing is happening with people and their understanding of where food comes from.  This is part of why these farms are welcoming visitors.  They care about how food is grown, and they often love to share it with you.

The Red Hills Small Farm Alliance has created an event that dovetails with Farm Tour, Seven Days of Local Delights.  Seven Days is a series of workshops, cooking classes, and film screenings like- shameless plug- WFSU’s Oyster Doctors playing at Tall Timbers.

Many of these farms are organic, or at the very least are dedicated to a sustainable way of growing food.  This isn’t a requirement for joining, but RHSFA CO-Executive Directors Louise Divine (Turkey Hill Farm, Tallahassee) and Katie Harris (Full Earth Farm, Quincy) make sure to offer opportunities to learn about sustainable practices through their Growers Circle workshops.  In the video above, we see a little about how Turkey Hill and Golden Acres Ranch raise their products.  Bobbie Golden decided that organic standards were a little too stringent for Golden Acres, but her animals are kept free from chemicals and hormones, and have space to roam.  On the other hand, Louise and Herman Holley at Turkey Hill are fully dedicated to organic agriculture.  And as we find in our next segment, set to air on October 29 (7:30 pm ET on WFSU-TV), Bobbie, Louise, and Herman take great care to see that their actions on the farm protect our water supply.

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Bobbie Golden reflects by her sinkhole at Golden Acres ranch.

In this next segment, we revisit the recent Sharing Water Conference win Monticello.  We visit a Monticello water treatment plant that connects directly to Simpsons Nursery.  They have a novel system for reclaiming and reusing water that intends to both conserve water usage and keep wastewater out of the aquifer.  We also revisit the farms featured in the video above.  Golden Acres has some sensitive wetlands on their property, which has Bobbie Golden thinking about water issues.  And Herman shows us how he makes compost.   His process uses materials that might otherwise sit in landfills and creates a means of fertilizing plants that minimizes the flow of nutrients into local waterways (for them, Black Creek, a tributary of the St. Marks River).

Also coming up, Shakespeare will take over the Ecology Blog for the month of January.  Details will be released soon, but it’s a different kind of project for us, one that involves biologists and actors, breathtaking vistas and the words of a man who was surprisingly into nature.  Also, I follow up on my previous post, where I took my three-year-old son kayaking on the Wakulla River.  His real water obsession is the Apalachicola River.  He and I joined RiverTrek 2014 for a couple of miles, camping and kayaking at Owl Creek.

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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. Continue reading

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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.