Category Archives: Wildlife in North Florida- Critters Big and Small

MOnarch butterfly rests on an FSU cap.

Monarch Tagging at the St. Marks Refuge | Citizen Science at Sunrise

In the video below, first time WFSU producer Zach Hunter takes us to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge for an early morning of trapping and tagging monarch butterflies.  Earlier in Local Routes season 2, we watched as ecology producer Rob Diaz de Villegas and his family raised monarch caterpillars.  Here, we see another phase of this butterfly’s remarkable journey.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU Media

To tag monarch butterflies, you have to get to where they are before they wake up.  Lucky for us, they go to a pretty good place to watch a sunrise.  When the sun finally rose over Lighthouse Pond in the Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge, volunteers had been at work for over an hour.  It was mid November, just past the peek migration season.  There weren’t many butterflies to see. 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

Monacrh butterfly on swamp milkweed flower.

Butterfly Gardening | Building a Pollinator Habitat in Your Yard

On Season 1 of Local Routes, we plunged into the wild spaces of the Red Hills in search of native butterfly species. Over this last summer, WFSU Producer Rob Diaz de Villegas had an outbreak of monarch caterpillars in his yard. These experiences sparked an interest in what it takes to create a butterfly habitat in the home. Lilly Anderson-Messec manages Native Nurseries in Tallahassee and is an expert in creating pollinator gardens. She shared some of her knowledge with us.

The music in this segment was composed for WFSU by Hot Tamale (Appropriately, they’ll be playing at the Monarch Festival: October 22 on the St. Marks Refuge). We’ll continue to use local music to score EcoAdventures throughout season 2 of Local Routes. Also this season: performances by the Currys, the Adventures of Annabelle Lyn, Langtry, and more!

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

If you invite bees and butterflies into your garden, they will come.

If you have any sort of plants in your backyard, you’ve already invited insects.  Living in Florida, we have little choice in the matter.  However, each insect has specific plants with which it has ecological relationships.  Plant the right flowers or native shrubs, and you’ll see more and more of the colorful pollinators that work our veggie plants and brighten our gardens.

Continue reading

Monarch: From Caterpillars to Butterflies (and right in our kitchen)

In this two minute video, we can see monarch caterpillars eat, grow, form a chrysalis, and emerge as butterflies.  All while two young children look on.  Look for a video on butterfly gardening on October 20 on Local Routes (8 pm ET on WFSU-TV), featuring Lilly Anderson-Messec of Native Nurseries.

Once again, Tallahassee’s own Hot Tamale composed some original music for us to use in this segment.  Thanks again Craig and Adrian!

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Over the summer, my family and I have been witnessing a one-of-a-kind migration pass through a critical habitat: our backyard.  Last month, I spotted several monarch caterpillars munching on our garden milkweed, so we brought them into our home.  It was a great opportunity for my sons to witness the life cycle of the most intriguing butterfly species to (temporarily) call our area home. 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

Ochlockonee Bio-Blitz | Kids Experience Florida River Wildlife

Welcome to Part 6 (of 10) of Roaming the Red Hills, which originally aired on the April 7 episode of WFSU’s Local Routes.  Through 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

“Oh those sandbars, mere words cannot portray,
Shining in the moonlight, take our breath away…”

These words are from Gary Asbell’s “The River,” a song about the Ochlockonee River that we featured in our last video.  After that workout of an EcoAdventure, kayaking the Georgia part of the river, we spent a day splashing around in the Florida Ochlockonee.  Unlike in the song lyrics, which are about camping on the river, there is no moonlight for us today; but the line does hit home for me in a way that relates to the activities we’ll cover today.  Camping on a sandbar with my son Max may have been the most fun we’ve had together, and I saw firsthand what a magical place a sandbar can be to a child.  In this video, a few families will experience this wild wonder as Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy hosted one of its first ever Bio-Blitzes. (Max was unfortunately sick that day) 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

Behind the Scenes at the Saint Marks Whooping Crane Pen

As we await might be the last whooping crane class to winter in the St. Marks Refuge, we look back at a visit we took to the whooping crane site with Brooke Pennypacker, a dedicated crane handler with Operation Migration. We also look at the future of ultralight guided whooping crane migration, which Operation Migration is defending as they meet with partner organizations.
UPDATE – 1/25/16

This year’s ultralight guided whooping migration will be the last.  Operation Migration will remain involved in the efforts to create a self-sustaining whooping crane population.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service has explained the rationale behind the decision (you can read more on that below), while Operation Migration’s Brooke Pennypacker has written this touching post-decision entry to the OM field blog.  From our interview with Brooke and in following Operation Migration over the last few years, I can see how invested he and the other OM staff are when it comes to  whooping cranes.  They have sacrificed a lot to raise, train and guide flock after flock of cranes, and I can’t imagine that they won’t continue to do so.

This year’s St. Marks flyover, likely to be this week, will be the last.  A number of cranes have continued to migrate back to the Refuge after their initial migration, and under the new management regime, the hope is that they will be the ones to guide captive-raised chicks south for the first time.  It will be years before the new practices can be judged to be successful, and even then, as in the case of ultralight guided migration, the results may not conclusively predict the long term success of the population.  All I can with certainty at this point is that I know there will be dedicated people working their hardest to make it work.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

When I met Brooke Pennypacker, he brought with him an example of the many challenges faced by a whooping crane handler.  The staff at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge visitor center told us that Brooke was busy handling an issue in the crane pen, and that he’d be late.  About 30 minutes later, he pulled up in an Operation Migration pickup truck.  In the bed was a bundle of plastic fencing and white cloth from which an alligator tail protruded.  Brooke had recently noticed the cranes move from their usual roosting spot, next to an oyster bar, to a spot on the other end of the pen.  They were acting spooked. After spotting the young gator, he borrowed a seine net from Jack Rudloe at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab, caught it, and wrapped it in his whooping crane feeding costume.  All in a day’s job. 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