Category Archives: Longleaf Pine & Fire Ecology

When Europeans first arrived in North America, 90 million acres of longleaf pine habitat covered the American southeast. Today, 3 million acres remain, but most of that has been planted and regrown over the last 100 years. Only 10,000 acres of old growth longleaf forest remain.

This ecosystem is one of the most biodiverse in North America. Frequent burning (2-3 years) promotes wide spacing of pine and allows a host of wildflowers, grasses, and succulent plants to flourish. In turn, these provide food and shelter for hundreds of species, some of which are only found within this habitat.

The WFSU viewing area is home to the best remaining examples of pine flatwoods. To the south and west of Tallahassee, the Apalachicola National Forest contains over half a million acres of forest, where the largest number of endangered red cockaded woodpeckers can be found. To the north and east of Tallahassee, the private landowners of the Red Hills maintain 300,000 contiguous acres of forest land, including some of the best examples of old growth longleaf forest. On our adventures in these ancient forests, we best see the dynamics of this ecosystem. It’s a vision of what might be for the many other locations we visit that are being restored. It’s a process that will take hundreds of years to complete.

The Coastal Dune Lake Watershed | Connected by Fire and Water

Over the last year, we’ve explored many aspects of fire ecology.  Today, we see how fire helps water move through the coastal dune lake watershed, connecting pitcher plants and nesting shore birds.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU Media 

The snowy plover, sitting on its nest by the coast, is connected to the pitcher plant growing by the upland forest.  We’re at Deer Lake State Park in Walton County, Florida, tracing this bond through a coastal dune lake watershed.  Water, of course, unifies this system.  But for that water to move through the system how it should, it needs fire. Continue reading

Hikers walk on the Florida National Scenic Trail along the Choctawhatchee River.

Choctawhatchee River Hiking on new section of the Florida Trail

We’re back on the Florida National Scenic Trail, this time on a new section along the Choctawhatchee River.  Thanks to the Choctawhatchee Chapter of the Florida Trail Association for helping us out, and to Bruce Varner and Caroling Geary (of Wholeo.net) for providing photos and video of trail construction.

Tallahassee’s Hot Tamale composed some new music for this video.  Thanks again Craig and Adrian for all you do for us!

Our hike by the Choctawhatchee River brims with newness.  It’s not just that we get to hike a recently completed section of the Florida National Scenic Trail.  That is, of course, pretty cool.  That new trail takes us through recently burned forest, the beginning of a cycle of renewal in the longleaf ecosystem.  Also, we’re passing through the Nokuse Plantation, where a massive restoration project is making the forest new again.  It’s a nice coming together of environmental and recreational upgrades in Walton County.

Continue reading

Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, coiled.

Into the Forest with Bruce Means and the Eastern Diamondback Rattler

We’re in the Apalachicola National Forest with Dr. Bruce Means and the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Bruce is considered a leading expert on this misunderstood species, and has written the definitive book on the rattler, called Diamonds in the Rough. Through its life Bruce has a lot to show us about the longleaf ecosystem.

Music in the segment was provided by Don Juan and the Sonic Rangers.  You can see “Don Juan” Fortner with the Smooth Sailing Jazz duo, and with the Mary and Aaron Band.

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Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU Media

At one point in the video above, Bruce Means, his arm in a stump hole, begins to scream.  Then, he turns to the camera and laughs.  “I love to do that with groups,” he chuckles.  He’s showing us a favorite hiding place of the eastern diamondback rattlesnake.  Using a little bit of theater- and citing decades of research- he’s turning an unremarkable burnt out stump into a dynamic refuge within the longleaf pine forest. Continue reading

Remote Footprints goes deep into the Bradwell Bay Wilderness

A family of three is on a mission to see how far away they can get from people.  They are Remote Footprints.  Today, the Means family leads us into the Bradwell Bay Wilderness, our remotest local area.

Music in the video was composed by Hot Tamale, who just happen to be this weeks musical guest on Local Routes.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU Media

The most surprising moment of our remote adventure didn’t happen in the swamp, or in the forest, but in front of a computer.  Rebecca Means clicked a check box, and all of our area roads loaded onto her map.  Our rural, forested Big Bend of Florida wasn’t as open as I had thought. Continue reading

Ornate chorus frog on the fingertips of a researcher.

Striped Newts and Ornate Chorus Frogs in the Munson Sandhills

When Local Routes returns next Thursday (February 2 at 8 pm ET), we hike to the most remote spot in the viewing area- the Bradwell Bay Wilderness.  We’re doing this with Remote Footprints, a passion project of Rebecca and Ryan Means, and their daughter Skyla.  In their day jobs, Rebecca and Ryan are biologists for the Coastal Plains Institute.  Today, we visited with the CPI and its partners as they released striped newts into the Munson Sandhills.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

For the first time in twenty years, researchers observed striped newt larvae in the Apalachicola National Forest.  It hadn’t been seen in the forest, which was once a stronghold for the species, since the late 1990s.  The Coastal Plains Institute had spent six years releasing newts into the forest, hoping to see reproduction in the wild.  A few months after their sixth release in January 2016, which we filmed, they dip netted a larval newt that seems to have been bred in the wild.  More followed. Continue reading

Bringing the Striped Newt Back to the Munson Sandhills

UPDATE: Scroll down to see the recent good news in the striped newt repatriation project covered in this video (May 24, 2016)

The striped newt is a bridge between the longleaf pine ecosystem and the many local water bodies that connect to our aquifer.  If you want to know more about other longleaf species like red cockaded woodpeckers (one of whose cavity is taken over by another species in the video below) or gopher tortoises (in whose burrows striped newts may shelter during fires), you might enjoy our recent Roaming the Red Hills series.  The location of our gopher tortoise video is Birdsong Nature Center, where the stars of our striped newt adventure will be leading the first ever Ephemeral Wetlands Extravaganza this Saturday, May 21 (EDIT: This is event is being rescheduled due to storms forecasted for Saturday morning.  Keep an eye on the Birdsong calendar or Facebook page for more information) .  

Like in Roaming the Red Hills, original music was composed for this video by local musicians.  Hot Tamale has contributed music to EcoAdventures in the past.  In one of the first ever posts on this blog, Hot Tamale’s Craig Reeder wrote about their song Crystal Gulf Waters, which was inspired by the 2010 BP Oil Spill.  The segment below aired on the May 19 episode of Local Routes.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Ryan and Rebecca Means put the future of the striped newt species (in the Apalachicola National Forest, anyway) in the hands of young children.  They didn’t intend it to be symbolic; it just seemed like it would make for nice video.  And it was.  The images do, however, reflect a central mission of the Means’s work with the Coastal Plains Institute: to foster a love of our local ecosystems in the young, with the hope of creating a new generation of stewards. Continue reading

Peeking into Gopher Tortoise Burrows at Birdsong

Welcome to Part 3 (of 10) of Roaming the Red Hills, which originally aired on the March 31 episode of WFSU’s Local Routes.  Over ten 3-minute videos, we’ll explore the natural soul of the Red Hills of Florida and Georgia, from the pine uplands down to its rivers, lakes, and farms.  Thanks to Tracy Horenbein for creating original compositions for this video series, and to Belle and the Band for letting us use their song, “All Come In”, from their “Fallen Angel” album.  The series is narrated by Jim McMurtry. 

Funding for Roaming the Red Hills was provided by Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

So far, we’ve been looking at the birds of the longleaf ecosystem.  Fire moves slowly through the undergrowth of this habitat, giving birds that live there, like bobwhite quail and Bachman’s sparrows, enough time to fly to safety.  Smaller critters may run away.  But some animals aren’t really geared towards running.  Sometimes, the safest escape lies below. Continue reading

Red Cockaded Woodpeckers and Fire in the Red Hills

Welcome to Part 2 (of 10) of Roaming the Red Hills, which originally aired on the March 31 episode of WFSU’s Local Routes.  Over ten 3-minute videos, we’ll explore the natural soul of the Red Hills of Florida and Georgia, from the pine uplands down to its rivers, lakes, and farms.  Thanks to Tracy Horenbein for creating original compositions for this video series.  The series is narrated by Jim McMurtry. 

Funding for Roaming the Red Hills was provided by Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

In hands that look like they’d climbed more than thirty feet up a pine tree, Jim Cox holds a seven day old red cockaded woodpecker.  There’s a stark contrast between the roughness of Jim’s hands and the delicacy of this new life, gently removed from its cavity high above in a mature longleaf pine.  It’s not unlike the delicate state of its species, making a comeback, but only with a lot of human help, and making its home in the roughness of an ecosystem built for regular burning.  Beneath RCW cavities are a slick coating of sap, defense against climbing snakes.  Neither snakes nor fire are the worst of the birds’ problems, however.  What they really need is older trees. Continue reading

Quail Hunting and Accidental Conservation in the Red Hills

Welcome to Part 1 (of 10) of Roaming the Red Hills, which originally aired on the March 31 episode of WFSU’s Local Routes.  Over ten 3-minute videos, we’ll explore the natural soul of the Red Hills of Florida and Georgia, from the pine uplands down to its rivers, lakes, and farms.  Thanks to Tracy Horenbein for creating original compositions for this video series.  The series is narrated by Jim McMurtry. 

Funding for Roaming the Red Hills was provided by Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

If I ignore the 1960s era Volkswagen Thing trailing us, I can almost imagine that it’s 100 years ago on Elsoma Plantation.  All I see is longleaf pine forest in every direction.  Everyone is on horseback and in matching white jackets.   And I’m bumping along in a horse-drawn wagon that remembers World War I.  We’re on a quail hunt in the Red Hills. Continue reading

giant swallowtail caterpillar

Butterfly Watching and Research in the Red Hills

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Monarchs are cool, but they’re the only butterflies we see in this area that aren’t 100% local.  We trek through a couple of different habitat types and get a hint of the diversity of butterflies we have here in the Red Hills of Florida and Georgia.  Scroll down for a complete list of species we saw in the video.  Music for the piece comes from Haiqiong Deng‘s performance on Local Routes.  She performed two songs; the other song aired in the same episode as this segment.  If you missed it, you can watch it on the Local Routes page.

Examining some torn up leaves in my garden one night, I started down a path that led me to become somewhat of a butterfly enthusiast.  My wife and I had recommitted ourselves to making full use of the space we had to grow veggies, and part of that was some good old-fashioned pest squashing.  Of course, some bugs are beneficial, so I did my due diligence before pulling the trigger.  In other words, I went on Google.   Continue reading