Monthly Archives: April 2012

Pools of standing water and ground covered with leaves.  It's spectacular to look at, but the Aucilla Sinks are home to multitudes of insects and other critters, like pygmy rattlers.

New Video: The Florida Trail at Aucilla Sinks

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150

Winter came and went; only it seems to not have ever really arrived.  Hiking is an activity best enjoyed during the cooler months, when there are less biting insects on the trails.  We shot this segment at what should have been the end of hiking season, at the end of March.  What we found on the Aucilla Sinks segment of the Florida National Scenic Trail, however, were Summer temperatures, unrelenting mosquitos, and scores of white spotted ticks- the ones that carry the nasty stuff.  You know what, though?  We still had fun.

Pools of water and ground covered with leaves. It’s spectacular to look at, but the Aucilla Sinks are home to multitudes of insects and other critters, like pygmy rattlers.

If you wanted to explore hiking trails in the warmer months, you could very well still enjoy yourself.  You just have to be prepared and know what to expect.  The first thing I’ll mention- and I always mention it- is to bring water.  Bring a couple of bottles.  If you’re going on a long hike under a hot sun, you’re taxing your body.  So drink plenty of water.

The next thing you have to worry about is mosquitos, gnats, yellow flies, and all the other fun stuff that flies and bites.  Bites can be uncomfortable, and there is always the risk of catching encephalitis.  I first tied to combat them with a mild, nontoxic bug spray that my wife bought for our son.  It’s the kind of spray that works fine for the bugs you might encounter on a neighborhood stroll, but it was entirely ineffective against the swarms at the sinks.  I had entered the day dead-set against using a spray that contained Deet, but that was all that worked that day.  It lasted an hour or two before we had to reapply.  It is possible to apply too much Deet, so be careful.  If anyone has another solution, please share in the comments section.  Covering as much of your body as possible helps, just make sure you’re using a lightweight synthetic fabric.

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Kent Wimmer, Director of Programs and Policy for the Florida Trail Association.

And lastly, some pests attack not from the sky but from the ground.  I’m talking about ticks.  They’re nasty, and it is no fun to pull them from your skin once they’ve latched on.  Before we started our hike, Gary Hudson (who you see in the video) tucked his pants into his socks.  It’s not fashionable, but it works.  Kent Wimmer, our hike leader, wore gaiters, which were designed to keep snow and mud out of your boots while hiking.  What Kent and Gary both did was to prevent easy access inside their clothes to the ticks.  Kent took the additional precaution of sprinkling sulfur powder on his gaiters as a further deterrent.  Light colored pants and shoes will let you see if there are ticks crawling on you.

These are just a few tips I gathered from our hike that day.  Feel free to add your own tips in the comments section below.

Want to see more of the Florida Trail?  Watch our previous segment on the Trail, where we visit the Sopchoppy River section as well as the Cathedral of Palms and Shephard Spring in the Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  And if that isn’t enough Refuge for you, we explore it more fully in our next EcoAdventure airing in May.

The video features music by Pitx and Bruce H. McCosar.

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Hiking Where the Land Gets Swallowed

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Dimensions’ encore presentation on Sunday, April 15 at 10 AM/ ET on WFSU-TV

Explore the Aucilla River and Aucilla Sinks using this Google map.  Locations are approximate.

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150On this blog, we usually refer to location we visit by the kind of habitat it is, and its foundation species.  Salt marshes and cordgrass, oyster reefs and oysters, pine flatwoods and longleaf pine- you get the picture.  We think of things biologically here, which makes sense, since my primary co-contributors are biologists and because our local abundance of life draws us to the outdoors.  For the EcoAdventure airing tonight (7:30 PM/ ET on WFSU-TV’s dimensions), our draw is not biological but rather geological.  Tonight, we’re going to a place in Florida where you can see some rocks.

From caves such as this one, the Aucilla reemerges periodically in sinkholes and short river runs.

The Aucilla River takes a unique path down to the Gulf of Mexico.  It’s a good sized river that all of a sudden gets swallowed by the earth, and then reappears in what Morgan Wilbur (Aucilla Wildlife Management Area’s Chief Biologist) calls karst windows, before resuming as a fully flowing river at Nutall Rise.  So what is a karst window?  They’re sinkholes, caused by the erosion of the limestone or dolomite that underlies most of our state.  In a karst topography, rainwater moves through soil and through porous rock.  In North Florida, that water ends up in the Floridan Aquifer, which is the source of our drinking water and of bodies of water such as Wakulla Springs.  That water can wear down pieces of the rock as it passes through, causing cave ins.  As extensive as the Floridan Aquifer is (North Florida and Georgia, and parts of Alabama and South Carolina), there aren’t many places where the land behaves quite like it does at the Aucilla Sinks.  This is why Kent Wimmer of the Florida Trail Association wanted to show the area to us.

P1040383The Sinks section of the Florida Scenic Hiking Trail is where, as Kent says in the piece, “you can see Florida’s basement.”  You can see places where the trees grow sideways as the land slowly gets pulled into holes where limestone had been.  You are walking along what had once been underground caves, as evidenced by the walls of rock around you.  And every sink looks different than the last; I feel like I could have shot for days there.

Tonight’s Dimensions program also has an interview segment on the Wild About Wakulla Week.  Host Julz Graham talked with Jeff Hugo (Wakulla Wildlife Festival), Capt. James Hodges (Certified Green Guide & St. Marks Community Showcase Representative), and Dr. Madeleine Carr ( historian, “Conquistadors in the Fabled Land of the Apalachee”).  We toured the Saint Marks River with Captain Hodges last December.  You can watch that video here.

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Exploring North Florida Through Photos

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

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IGOR chip- human appreciation 150I saw this photo over the weekend when the family and I visited the Florida Aquarium in Tampa.  We had known that we were going to be going for several weeks (my son Maximus loves watching marine life in tanks), yet it was only on the drive there that I remembered that I had given two photos to the Aquarium to use for an oyster reef/ toadfish exhibit (the one in the photo to the right was taken by WFSU web producer Trisha Moynihan).  Polly Perkins, an exhibit developer for the Aquarium, saw some of the photos on this blog and figured that we might have some images of the habitat.  I directed her to our flickr page, where we have hundreds of photographs documenting the research of Dr. David Kimbro and Dr. Randall Hughes of the FSU Coastal & Marine Lab, as well of the coastal ecosystems they work in.  In recent months, our In the Grass, On the Reef flickr collection has reflected our expanded interest in ecosystems further inland and in ecotourism.  The slideshow below offers a taste of the images we’re collecting on our flickr page (if you look hard enough on our page, you can see the image we had in the FSU promotional spot that aired during sporting events in this academic year).

Browse the In the Grass, On the Reef photo collection.

The day after we visited the Aquarium, we took an Easter visit to River Hills Park along the Hillsborough River.  When we got there, I was delighted to see a Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail sign in the parking lot.  It was a great day for bird watching, as blue heron, ibis, and a good variety of ducks and ducklings were frolicking on the riverbank right in front of the boardwalk:

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I also noticed a plentitude of apple snails. Last December we paddled the Wacissa River looking for limpkins, and while we saw a lot of cool things, it was a little late in the year and we didn’t see limpkins. So when I saw the apple snails, I was hopeful. And then I saw this bird, and I thought, this looks a lot like a limpkin. I checked it in my father-in-law’s bird guide, and I’m 99% sure that this is was. If anyone knows that I’m wrong, let me know in the comments section:

You can watch our EcoAdventure along the Apalachicola, where we hit some Birding Trail sites, here. We saw birds, but it was winter and many species had migrated south. With that in mind, we’ll be heading to the Saint Marks Wildlife Refuge to catch all the birds heading back into our area. Look for that in May.

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The Historical Database Known as Trees (and a new video)

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150I like the idea of hiking cross country, unimpeded, for miles at a time.  Trails are great- and usually safer- but the idea that you can have space to literally walk off the beaten path is appealing.  A couple of hundred years ago, you could travel across the entire southeastern coastal plain in this manner.  This was a road paved by fire.  On this blog, we’ve covered how fire creates the pine flatwoods ecosystem with its widely spaced trees, and how and why mankind has had to replicate a process that had happened naturally.  But how do we know how often to burn, and at what time of year?  It would be convenient if we could ask someone who was around before the area was settled.  As it turns out, we can.

Trees have the answers in their rings.  We get a glimpse of this towards the end of the video above, but I wanted to take a closer look at how Dr. Jean Huffman was able to interpret the data locked within trees.

The photo to the right is a detail of a longleaf pine stump cross-section.  In it you can see that the rings alternate in shading between light and dark.  The light wood is early wood.  This is from the beginning of the growing season, typically spring, when a tree usually grows the fastest.  The growth in the summer and fall is darker, and is called late wood.  Winter is the dormant season.  So one light and one dark ring equal one year of growth for the tree.  You may also notice that some rings are wider than others.  Wide rings indicate a higher rainfall, and especially narrow rings indicate drought.  Knowing this, we can start building a master chronology.

A master chronology is made by comparing the relative width of rings in a series of trees. In this way rings in each tree can be dated exactly, even if there are occasional missing rings or false rings in an individual tree. The master chronology can be used to exactly date the rings in individual stumps.  Since longleaf pine is such a long-lived species, there is potentially hundreds of years’ worth of climatological data in its rings.  When you have data for many trees, you can build a reliable chronology that goes back before people started keeping records.  This is a dendrochronology (dendro= tree, chronology= matching events to specific dates based on historical records).

fire scarFinally, you match years in your chronology to fire scars (that’s a scar to the left).  Longleaf pine are a fire resistant species, and it takes a lot to kill the cambium and create a scar.  Because of this, Jean only created fire histories for periods when she had at least three “recorder” trees- enough to establish a pattern.

She determined that there were frequent fires in the area- every one to three years.  That’s enough to keep oak and other woody plants from encroaching on ground cover plants, including the many rare plants of the SJB State Buffer Preserve.  It was strange to just trample over the grass and palmettos in the managed area, and all of the gems potentially hidden underneath them.  It doesn’t exactly adhere to the “Leave no Trace” ethos.  But the reality is that all of it will burn and go away, and then grow back again, and again, and again…

The video features music by Pitx and Airtone.  Thanks to Dr. Jean Huffman for reviewing my text for accuracy.
Next on EcoAdventures North Florida, we’re going to a place where large chunks of land get swallowed up by the earth, and where a river goes underground.  Of course we mean Aucilla Sinks (Wednesday April 11 at 7:30 PM/ ET on WFSU-TV’s dimensions).