Monthly Archives: October 2012

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RiverTrek Day 1: Woodruff Dam to Alum Bluff

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

First day’s paddle is done!

It was an incredibly foggy day. It made for an interesting paddle when anyone that got ahead of you started to disappear.

We paddled twenty one miles, from the ramp, just near the Woodruff Dam (mile marker 105) to a sandbar across from Alum Bluff (mile marker 84), where we’ll be spending the night.  Yes, there are mile markers along the river, a remnant of the days when barges rode this watery highway to the Gulf.  The dam lies about 1000 feet downstream of the original confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers, just north of the Florida/ Georgia border.  The confluence is now below the lake created by the dam, Lake Seminole.

I admit that I had only really seen this part of the river as I crossed over it on I-10 (that’s when I like to take my cell phone out and watch the time change). What did the motorists passing over us make of our brightly colored kayak flotilla?

The cage around this young torreya is meant to prevent deer from eating it. They grow slowly, leaving them vulnerable to plant consumers.

A couple of hours into our trip, we stopped at Means Creek in Torreya State Park.  The creek is named for biologist Bruce Means.  There, park biologist Mark Ludlow showed us a young torreya tree. He told us how less than 1000 of the trees exist, all along this river. One hundred million years ago, they were common in the southeast and across the adjacent landmasses that were part of Pangea. Torreya species exist in California and China.

So far the technology side of this seems to be working, if a little slowly.  Georgia’s been snapping away on her iPhone, while WFSU videographer Dan Peeri travels with the tablet in the Riverkeeper boat.  He also has a “real” camera and a wireless mic on Dan Tonsmeire.  I’ve been in a kayak with four little waterproof still/ video cameras positioned around me.  This is not at all what I thought TV would be like when I started over ten years ago.  It allows us to tell this story a little differently, and all the footage is HD so we can make a more traditional video when we get back.

Helen Light talked to us as we ate dinner. She works for the US Geological Survey, and she talked to us about the damage being done to the Apalachicola flood plain. Obviously, we’ve talked about the damage done to the bay by the drought. But between 1976 and 2004, They are 44% fewer Ogeechee Tupelo Trees. That affects tupelo honey production. The drought has choked off sloughs and kept the river from flooding to where fish can’t eat many of the invertebrates they had normally eaten. We’ll have more on her talk when we get back.

Join us tomorrow as we get up bright and early to hike up this bluff:

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For more information on Rivertrek, visit the official page.  This page is on the Riverkeeper web site, and you can further explore what they do for the river.  (They’re also on Facebook).

The Franklin County Promise Coalition is coordinating aide efforts for families that are being affected in Franklin County through their Bay Aid program.   As Dan told us in his original interview, over half of the residents of Franklin County depend on the river for their livelihoods.  Learn more about volunteering and other Bay Aid opportunities here.

RiverTrek Day 1: Snakes

Georgia Ackerman RiverTrek 2012 co-Coordinator

Spotted two snakes on our 21 mile paddling trip today. Snake number one was a non-venomous brown water snake basking in a crevice of a limestone outcropping. Shortly after, admiring him, Rob saw a pigmy rattlesnake a pit viper,
swimming across the river. All snakes swim!

Rob reported on our spectacular morning fog. It lifted and clear skies prevailed. Spectacular North Florida weather!

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RiverTrek Day 1: Means Creek

Georgia Ackerman RiverTrek 2012 co-Coordinator

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Explored Means Creek, named after Dr. Bruce Means in Torreya State Park. Thank you Mark Ludlow, biologist. He led on us on a hike through the dense woods and showed us an endangered Torreya tree. This region has the highest concentration of this once common conifer. Less than 1000 trees remain in Florida.

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107 Miles to Go*

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Over the last month-and-a-half, Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro have been introducing us to the ecosystems of the North Florida coast, with a focus on what each ecosystem does for people. With some services, like carbon sequestration or oyster’s filtration of water, it can be difficult to grasp how individual people are affected. The recent fishery crisis in Apalachicola more concretely shows what’s at stake when an ecosystem service fails. Join us this week as we paddle the length of the Apalachicola River, the source of fresh water for the Bay and a major determiner of the success or failure of the fishery.

The Rivertrek gathering shown in the video happened, possibly by coincidence, on National Oyster Day.  Afterwards, Riverkeeper Chair Dan Tonsmiere took us on a boat tour of the Apalachicola River Delta and I interviewed him.  You don’t see any of that in the video, as recent events called for our updating the interview.  It was more convenient for him to come to our studio than to have us meet him in Apalachicola for that second interview.  He has understandably been busy lately.   “We’re in a non-stop crisis mode,” he said as I guided him downstairs to our studio.

Mostly, people rely on the river to support the nursery habitats in Apalachicola Bay, and its world famous oyster reefs.  That’s where a lot of the human pain of this drought is felt.  Along the 105 miles* of the river, however, there’s an incredible diversity of life.  I’ve never seen the bluffs of the northern river, the only place on earth where one can see a torreya tree.  In my reading for this trip, I’ve read about frogs as big as dinner plates and alligator snapping turtles; endangered salamanders and freshwater mussels.  One of this year’s paddlers, Doug Alderson, has done Rivertrek before and wrote about it in his book, “Wild Florida Waters.”  He describes a night filled with the sounds of howling coyotes and barred owl calls.  Because of our impact on this world, we kind of have to re-calibrate what the word “wild” means.  But on this trip, there should be plenty of “wild.”

So here is what we’re going to try.  We will post periodic photos and videos as we move down the river, as connectivity allows (fingers crossed).  Coverage maps show a dead zone towards the south of the river, in the Apalachicola River Wildlife and Environmental Area (which we covered in this video).  Fellow paddler Georgia Ackerman will chip in updates.  Every day will end with a wrap-up post.  That’s my goal.

I’m nervous and excited about this trip.  I can’t wait to go out and experience the river and to share that experience with you.

For more information on Rivertrek, visit the official page.  This page is on the Riverkeeper web site, and you can further explore what they do for the river.  (They’re also on Facebook).

The Franklin County Promise Coalition is coordinating aide efforts for families that are being affected in Franklin County through their Bay Aid program.   As Dan told us in his original interview, over half of the residents of Franklin County depend on the river for their livelihoods.  Learn more about volunteering and other Bay Aid opportunities here.

*I know a lot of you out there are pretty sharp and noticed the discrepancy between the number of miles in the title and how long I say the river is.  Some of our camp sites are up creeks and off of the river; 107 miles is the number calculated by expert map-man Rick Zelznak for the total number of miles we will paddle.
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Backyard Ecology (Plus new video on Bay Mouth Bar)

Episode 7: Where Everything is Hungry

(Some species names have changed.)
It’s always a good shoot day at Bay Mouth Bar as every animal seems to be eating every other animal.  Oyster reefs, salt marshes, and seagrass beds- the habitats we’ve covered over the last three weeks- reward those who take the time to look closely.  At Bay Mouth Bar, everything is all out in the open.  For a limited time, anyway…
Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150IGOR chip- filtration 150Like most kids, I spent a lot of my formative years in the backyard practicing how to throw the game-winning touch down pass, to shoot the game winning three-pointer, and to sink the formidably long putt.  Although my backyard facilities obviously didn’t propel me into the NFL, NBA, or PGA, they never closed, required no admission fee from my pockets (thanks Mom and Dad!), and were only a few steps away.

Now that I’m striving to be an ecologist at Florida State University, I’m feeling pretty darn lucky about my backyard again. Instead of spending tons of time flying, boating, and driving to far away exotic places, I can use a kayak and ten minutes of David-power to access some amazing habitats right here along the Forgotten Coast.

Part of this coastal backyard was first intellectually groomed by one of the more famous and pioneering scientists of modern-day ecology, Dr. Robert Paine. Five decades ago, Dr. Paine noticed that the tip of Alligator Point sticks out of the water for a few hours at low tide. Of course, this only happens when the tides get really low, which happens about 5 days every month. But when the tip of Alligator Point (which is locally called Bay Mouth Bar) did emerge from the sea each month, Dr. Paine saw tons of large carnivorous snails slithering around a mixture of mud and seagrass. When I first saw this place, my eyeballs bulged out at the site of snails as large as footballs!

Fast- forward 2 decades later: Dr. Paine is developing one of the most powerful ecological concepts (keystone species), one that continues to influence our science and conservation efforts to this very day. Using the rocky shoreline of the Pacific North West as his coastal backyard, he is showing how a few sea stars dramatically dictate what a rocky shoreline looks like.

By eating lots of mussels that outcompete wimpy algae and anemones for space, the sea star allows a lot of different species to stick around. In other words, the sea star maintains species diversity of this community by preventing the mussel bullies from taking over the schoolyard. That’s one simple, but powerful concept….one species can be the keystone for maintaining a system. Lose that species, and you lose the system.

Lightning Whelk

A large lightning whelk found on Bay Mouth Bar in December of 2010.

Ok, let’s grab our ecological concept and travel back in time to Dr. Paine’s earlier research at Bay Mouth Bar. Wow, the precursor to the keystone species concept may be slithering around our backyard of Bay Mouth Bar in the form of the majestic horse conch! In this earlier work, the arrival of this big boy at the bar was followed by the disappearance of all of the former big boys (like this lightning whelk). By eating lots of these potential bullies, the horse conch may be the key for keeping this system so diverse in terms of other wimpy snails.

But why should anyone other than an ecologist care about the keystone species concept and its ability to link Bay Mouth Bar with rocky shorelines of the Pacific NW? Well, what if the lightning whelks eat a lot more clams than do other snails, and less clams buried beneath sediments means less of the sediment modification that can really promote seagrass (Read more about the symbiotic relationship between bivalves and seagrasses here)?  Thanks to Randall’s previous seagrass post, we can envision that less horse conchs could lead to less clams, less seagrass, and then finally a lot less of things that are pleasing to the eye (e.g., birding), to the fishing rod (e.g., red drum), to the stomach (e.g., blue crabs), and ultimately to our economy.

For the past two years, I’ve really enjoyed retracing Dr. Paine’s footsteps at Bay Mouth Bar. But lately, I’m feeling a little more urgent about needing to better understand this system because it’s disappearing (aerial images provided by USGS’s online database at http://earthexplorer.usgs.gov/).

To figure this out, we repeat a lot of what Dr. Paine did five decades ago. At the same time, we are testing some new ideas about how this system operates. For example, if the horse conch is the keystone species, is it dictating what Bay Mouth Bar looks like by eating stuff or by scaring the bully snails? How exactly does or doesn’t the answer affect clams, seagrasses, birds and fishes?

Luckily, because this system is so close, with some persistence and some good help, we’ll soon have good answers to those questions.

Cheers,

David

Ps: Many thanks to Mary Balthrop for helping us access this awesome study system every month.

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.