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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

Jim Cox of Tall Timbers Research Station bands a 7 day old red cockaded woodpecker.

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

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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

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Roaming the Red Hills | Longleaf, Lakes, Fire, & Food

Below is a quick preview of our upcoming series, Roaming the Red Hills. The segments will air in three installments on WFSU-TV’s Local Routes, starting on Thursday, March 31 at 7:30 pm ET.  Meanwhile, here on the Ecology Blog we’ll take our usual deeper look at the places, people, and ecology featured in each segment.  Thank you to Gary Asbell for stopping our kayak and grabbing his guitar to sing his song about the Ochlockonee River, which scores most of the promo below. You also hear a little bit of our Local Routes theme by Belle and the Band.  Tallahassee’s Tracy Horenbein (a regular guest on our OutLoud show from 1999-2007) has composed original music for the series.  Funding for Roaming the Red Hills was provided by Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
For a segment on duck hunting in Lake Iamonia, we met at 5 am, covered ourselves from head to toe in camouflage, and waited for ducks in the early morning sunlight.

For a segment on duck hunting on Lake Iamonia, we met at 5 am, covered ourselves from head to toe in camouflage, and waited for ducks in the early morning sunlight.  Photo credit, Georgia Ackerman, Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.

Our mission: to capture the natural soul of the Red Hills region in ten short videos.  To me, this is the best kind of project, hitting all of the geek centers in the brain associated with producing ecology videos.  We see a 7-day-old endangered red cockaded woodpecker, featherless and reptilian, get banded.  We kayak a rugged four mile stretch of Ochlockonee River, on the Georgia side, where we spend as much time climbing over logs as in the boat (and get serenaded along the way).  We off road through a longleaf forest in a 100-year-old horse-drawn wagon, the wheels of which can only be repaired by the Pennsylvania Amish.  And then there’s the thrill of running through a burning forest with a camera. Continue reading

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Is Artifact Collecting a Threat to Archeology?

In early November, WFSU-TV aired a segment titled “Amateur Archeologist vs. Looter: A Matter of Context?”  The video featured proponents of a program resembling the defunct Isolated Finds, which let avocational (amateur) archeologists purchase a permit to collect artifacts that had eroded into waterways from their sites.  Since the piece aired, new legislation has been introduced into the Florida House and Senate which would enact such a program.  In the video below, we talk to professional archeologists and an avocational opposed to rebooting the Isolated Finds program, including the man who oversaw its previous incarnation.


This segment aired on WFSU-TV’s Local Routes on February 4.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
A Simpson point found in Wakulla Springs State Park. Such points have been dated between 8 - 9,000 years old, and have been found locally in the Wacissa and Aucilla Rivers.

A Simpson point found in Wakulla Springs State Park. Such points have been dated between 8 – 9,000 years old, and have been found locally in the Wacissa and Aucilla Rivers. Photo provided by Dr. James Dunbar.

“We’re not in the artifact collecting business,” says Dr. Glen Doran.  “We’re in the information collecting business.”  To Dr. Doran and the two men seated next to him, a well preserved paleolithic spear point is a puzzle piece, just like the seeds, bone fragments, and chert flakes around where the point was found.  While it might be exciting to be the first person to hold it in several thousand years, to archeologists, the story of that tool’s creator is more exciting.  New bills would allow Florida citizens to take and keep artifacts found underwater and “out-of-context,” that is, not buried in an archeological site.  If passed, Doran and his associates fear an ensuing “gold rush” that would decimate the state’s rich historic and prehistoric resources.

Continue reading

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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

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Merritt’s Mill Pond | Kayaking and Spring Caves

Take three minutes off from your busy holiday bustling and escape with us to Merritt’s Mill Pond.  Thank you to Crawfordville’s very own Well Worn Soles for letting us use your guitar and fiddle to score our little adventure on the water.  Local musicians, we love to have your music on our videos. We’ve had a good response from musicians so far (and so many of you are interested in performing on Local Routes as well), so keep the tunes coming!

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

As it is with many great adventures, Merritt’s Mill Pond was not our original destination that day.  For over a year, Chuck Hatcher, Liz Sparks and I have been trying to paddle the Upper Chipola River paddling trail.  The idea was that we would hear ghost stories at Bellamy Bridge and paddle past springs and into Marianna Caverns State Park.  When we started planning, the Upper Chipola had been newly designated as a Florida state paddling trail.  We set a date; it rained that day. Then again on the backup date.  We took a few months off and tried it again.  Every time, we were rained out or the river was too high from abundant rainfall.  It’s been a busy El Niño year in north Florida.  Finally, on the day of our failed fifth attempt, Liz, State Paddling Trails Coordinator for DEP, took us to a nearby favorite spot of hers. Continue reading

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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).  The garden was going strong when our green and pole bean plants’ leaves started getting shredded.  Some of the leaves had curled up edges that were glued to themselves by sticky white strands.  Unfurling these little compartments revealed a green caterpillar with a big black head on it, looking like a ladybug hitching a ride.  A quick search and I read that this was a bean roller caterpillar.  It would one day be a long-tailed skipper, a butterfly with a striking blue back.  My backyard was no longer just a garden.  It was a habitat. Continue reading

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Amateur Archeologist vs. Looter: A Matter of Context?

The WFSU Ecology Blog was built on two pillars- communicating scientific knowledge about the natural world, and encouraging people to actively participate in it.  When it comes to archeology in Florida, these ideals are at odds.  Below is an attempt to stimulate discussion on the role of amateur- or avocational- archeologists in our state.  It is a first attempt to capture the full complexity of the issue, which we’ll continue to explore as we  cover archeology in the area.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Much like citizen scientists often lead researchers to new finds, the video above originated not with the producer, but with the audience.  It was part of a larger response to a pair of blog posts I wrote on underwater excavation in the Wacissa River.  Many people were excited about the potential new information gained on the lives of early Floridians.  Others were less happy about quotes I included from the researcher and a retired FWC officer about protecting the site from looters.  Looking over the comments section of that first post, there was a sense that many of them felt that archeology in Florida had become the domain of a privileged few.  These people feel that they should not be criminalized for pursuing their passion.  I felt that this rift was worth exploring.  I interviewed two parties for whom Florida’s paleo-history is a passion.  Their argument: not all artifacts found in the water are of scientific value, and citizens have a right to collect those pieces. Continue reading

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Kayaking the Apalachicola River with my Four-Year-Old Son

WFSU producer Rob Diaz de Villegas heads down the Apalachicola River once again, this time with his best adventure buddy. This year’s RiverTrek also featured the very first River Ride, with cyclists hitting small river towns and forest roads.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Max wanted to do one thing above all else: climb Sand Mountain.  But, as I was gathering camping gear for our trip on the Apalachicola, I got an e-mail from RiverTrek coordinator Georgia Ackerman.  The water was high this year, and she wasn’t sure there would be a place to park our kayaks on the steep face of the giant sand spoil.  As a parent of a four-year-old, you learn the dangerous nature of expectations.  You have to be careful never to promise anything which isn’t 100% guaranteed to happen.  Four-year-olds don’t necessarily grasp “maybe.” Continue reading