Tag Archives: appreciation

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The River, the Bay, and the Army Corps of Engineers

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Slideshow: Army Corps of Engineers visit Apalachicola Bay

Tonight on WFSU’s Dimensions: Part 1 of the RiverTrek 2012 Adventure.  Days one and two of paddling, camping, hiking and climbing air at 7:30 PM/ ET with an encore on Sunday, October 28 at 10 AM/ ET.  The trip concludes with Part 2 (Days 3-5) on Wednesday, November 14 at 7:30 PM/ET.

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The slideshow above was photographed on Monday, when Army Corps of Engineers colonels were invited (along with state agency officials and media) to see firsthand how depleted the oyster reefs in Apalachicola Bay have become.  We went out in three oyster boats, captained by the leadership of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, to the Cat Point bar.  Cat Point is usually one of the most productive winter reefs in the bay.  In early September, the Summer reefs closer to the mouth of the river are closed and the Winter reefs further out are opened up.  The Winter reefs should have spent months replenishing and younger oysters should have matured into legal sized, commercially viable oysters.  Only this year, it didn’t happen.

Colonel Donald Jackson receives oystering tips from Shannon Hartsfield.

Shannon Hartsfield, President of the Association, takes a few licks with his oyster tongs and then hands the them to Colonel Donald Jackson.  Colonel Jackson takes a few licks; between the two of them they take about eight.  Hartsfield inspects their catch: about six legal oysters in a pile of dead shell. Later he tells me that in past years, that amount of work would have yielded about a 30 lb. bag of legal oysters.  This is what the Army Corps of Engineers colonels were invited to see.  The Corps controls the flow of water in the Apalachicola/ Flint/ Chattahoochee basin, directing water into over 200 reservoirs and adjusting how much flows through dams.  The lack of water flowing from the Apalachicola River, due in large part to the drought we’ve experienced over the last couple of years, is the main cause of the fishery crisis.  The oystering demonstration is the Franklin County Seafood Workers’ argument for more water to be allowed through Woodruff Dam at the Florida/ Georgia border.

The wrangling over this water is often portrayed as between seafood workers in the bay and Georgia’s farmers and Atlanta’s water consumers.  But the list of stakeholders also contains power companies (hydroelectric and nuclear), MillerCoors LLC, manufacturers, and recreational concerns, to name a few (see the full list here).  It’s messy.  And change doesn’t look like it’s coming soon.  As the colonels said during the community meeting later that night at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, they are soldiers following a protocol.  A new protocol (an update to the ACF Master Water Control Manual) is being drawn up, but changes will not take effect for 2-3 years, and in the meantime there isn’t a lot of leeway for how the water can be redirected, at least not by the Army Corps of Engineers’ authority (The U.S. Legislature grants them the authority they have). They are taking public input for the Manual Update, you can send your comments here.

This slide provided by Helen Light (©USGS) illustrates the floodplain supported by the river. As water levels have decreased over the last few decades, there has been a loss of 4 million trees in the floodplain and a loss of aquatic habitat.

During that meeting, presenters from different agencies, universities, and local concerns laid out the impact of the low water flow on the bay and on the river basin.  The next day, the colonels would be going up the river to see the effects of low flow there, where I had just paddled a week-and-a-half ago in the video that airs tonight.  My interest had been, as a main focus of the In the Grass, On the Reef project is oyster reef ecology, the bay and how the lack of river flow had affected it.  As Helen Light said to us on the first night of the trek “You all know a lot about the bay, and the impacts in the bay, you’ve been reading it in the paper.”  That night, gathered around her on the sand bar across from Alum Bluff, she proceeded to tell us about the effects on the river.  She had studied the floodplain for decades while working for the US Geological Survey, and has seen the changes undergone as river flow has decreased over the last few decades.  I keep going back to her talk in the video, much as we did in our conversations kayaking down the river.  Even as we were falling in love with the river (or reconnecting with it), we learned of its struggles and the troubles it was facing.

For all of the statistics on the decline of the river, it was still a beautiful paddle.  The fish were jumping, eagles soared overhead, turtles sat on logs- and as we reported, there were plenty of snakes.  We got off the river, too, to see some of the creeks, swamps, and forest around it.  For all its troubles, the river is still enjoyable, as are its products.  There has been a 44% decline in Ogeechee Tupelo trees along the river since 1976, but you can still buy tupelo honey produced from the trees in the river basin.  And at the reception after the community meeting on Monday, the same day I saw oystermen pull dead shell off the floor of the bay,  there were trays of healthy looking Apalachicola oysters on the half shell.  As tourists and consumers, it can be easy to dismiss the stats when our own eyes (and taste buds) tell us everything looks normal.

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The Biology / Art Intersection

Tanya Rogers FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Blue crab – colored pencil

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150Art is something I’ve always loved almost as much as biology. If I hadn’t been a biology major in college, I probably would have been an art major, and it is the fusion of the two that I like in particular: the realistic artwork of plants, animals, other living creatures, and their environments. There is something I especially enjoy about drawing plants and animals, because to draw them accurately, you have to look at them with a closeness and a consideration beyond the everyday. You notice the forms and structures and beautifully intricate details you would have never seen otherwise. I find that you see the organism in a new light, with a new appreciation, understanding, and respect.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I discovered the field of scientific illustration – that this  marriage between biology and art was in fact an entire line of work. Artwork of biological organisms is used for a variety of purposes, including field guides, identification keys, scientific papers, descriptions of new species, textbooks, educational displays, brochures, and posters. A number of people work as full or part time scientific illustrators, often for museums or publishers, or as free lancers. Beyond the fine arts, it appears there’s a market for the exact types of drawings I’ve always loved to create.

Sand dollar and sea urchin – pen and ink

You may wonder why scientific illustrations are still important today given the ubiquity of photography. It is mainly because there are limitations to what photographs can depict clearly. With illustrations, important details can be captured and highlighted, the background and unimportant details omitted, photographic artifacts eliminated (like obscuring highlights and shadows), and the organism best positioned to convey its important features in a way that is easily interpreted. Interactions, behaviors, and assemblages can be depicted that would be difficult or impossible to capture on film. Fossil and other extinct plants and animals can be portrayed as they would look in real life. Illustrations are also very useful for schematics and diagrams, and are very commonly used to depict medical procedures.

Scientific illustration differs from other forms of art in that accuracy is imperative, but aesthetics are also of consideration. Composition is important, as is skillful use of the artistic medium and the portrayal of three-dimensional form, light, shadow, and depth. Great illustrations should look both realistic and visually appealing, capture the right amount of detail, and perform well the interpretive function for which they were created. The medium itself can range widely depending on how the illustration is to be used. Pen and ink, colored pencil, watercolor, and other traditional media are common, and digital artwork is increasingly common today.

The whelk Busycon spiratum – graphite

Last summer I decided to attend the annual conference of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators held that year in Olympia, Washington. It was a fabulous conference where I met many phenomenal scientific illustrators, all far better artists than me, and all wonderful and friendly people with a common love of both science and art. The talks, workshops, and field trips at the conference, like the interests of the attendees, were a mixture of art and biology, encompassing everything from techniques (like how to draw fish scales accurately) to interesting local natural history (like research on crows’ ability to recognize human faces). I picked up many new techniques and ideas to take back with me and try. Having previously attended college in Washington state, it was also wonderful to return to the beautiful Pacific Northwest for a week.

Ultimately, I plan to go into biology rather than illustration as my primary career, but I hope that illustration might be a fulfilling side venture. I hope you enjoy the illustrations of mine I’ve included in this post, which are all of species found in Florida.

For more information on scientific illustration, visit the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators webpage, or Science-Art.com, where you can peruse the work of many of its members. There are also a number of blogs on science and art, such as this one, which has links to several other blogs on its homepage.

Hughes/ Kimbro (Hug-Bro) Labs Poster

Hughes-Kimbro Lab poster and t-shirt design – pen and ink

Green sea turtle – not actually an illustration, this is a sand sculpture I made on a beach (one of my more bizarre artistic hobbies)

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Shells, Buried History, and the Apalachee Coastal Connection

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150IGOR chip- habitat 150Have you ever found oyster shells in the dirt of your backyard?  If you have and you live in Tallahassee’s Myers Park neighborhood, then you might be looking at the remains of a powerful native village that rose to prominence over 500 years ago.

Missions San Luis scallop-oysterI was on a shoot for the first episode of our newest program, Florida Footprints. We were at the Florida Museum of History interviewing KC Smith about her involvement in the excavation of the Hernando de Soto winter encampment in 1987.  Back then the city was abuzz about the artifacts being found so widely dispersed off of the appropriately  named Apalachee Parkway.  They had likely discovered the central Apalachee village of Anhaica, where de Soto spent the first winter of his North American expedition.  People were finding piles of artifacts in their backyards.  After the interview, I asked Smith how deep I’d have to dig to see if I had artifacts in my yard.

“Do you have oyster shells in your yard?”  she asked.

Oyster shells?  Evidently, these were the indicator of an Apalachee site.  No one is sure what the shells were used for, though she believes they were used as small dishes.  This is consistent with the interpretation in the photo above, taken at Mission San Luis, of scallop shells storing food stuffs.  As Dr. Bonnie McEwan, Director of Archeology at the Mission, points out, “… Apalachees undoubtedly harvested and ate a lot of oysters when they were near the coast.  But because there was no way to preserve them, they didn’t carry them.”  So they weren’t eating oysters in Anhaica, so far from the coast, they were just bringing the shells back.  Of all the shells they carried with them from Apalachee Bay, the most valuable belonged to a resident of the oyster reef, and to all of the intertidal habitats we follow: The lightning whelk (Busycon contrarium).

whelk-black drink vesselMuch like our coastal shellfish are economically important today, lightning whelk shells were of particular value for the Apalachee.  This had less to do with their meat than it did the size and shape of their shell.  Whelks are predatory snails that get quite large, with an elegant sinistral (left hand) curve.  I imagine that it’s the impressive appearance of a mature Busycon that led to their use in ritual life.  “The outer shells with the columellae removed were used as dippers or cups,” Dr. McEwan said, “and these were used in Black Drink ceremonies. As we discussed, Black Drink was an emetic tea brewed from yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) leaves.”  Anyone familiar with the effects of holly knows where the vomitoria species name comes from.  The regurgitation caused by the Black Drink was a form of ritual purification, and was a central component of the ceremonies held in preparation for the fierce and occasionally deadly Apalachee ball game (the ball game is the focus of my segment in Florida Footprints).  In the second photo to the right, you can see an interpretation of what a decorated Black Drink vessel looked like.

And whelks had value far outside of our area.  The Apalachee were part of the Mississippian culture, and with it part of a trade network that stretched to the Great Lakes.  Whelks with chemical signatures identifying them as from the Gulf have been found in Arkansas and Illinois.  “In exchange for the shells,” Dr. McEwan said, “the Apalachees received artifacts made from ‘exotic’ or non-local materials such as copper, lead, mica, and steatite, all of which were found associated with burials at the Apalachees’ Mississippian capital– Lake Jackson.”  Lake Jackson was capital of the Apalachee until about 1500.  Judging by the materials for which they were traded, whelks were highly valued.  Dr. McEwan elaborates on this. “In general, most of these items are found in association with burials of high status individuals throughout the Mississippian world since they conferred prestige.”

Here is a video of a lightning whelk roaming nearby St. Joseph Bay:

Since we’ve started the In the Grass, On the Reef project, one of the things that has interested me most is how the many cultures of this area, spanning thousands of years, have connected with the Gulf.  I’ve enjoyed the illumination I’ve received on this little sidebar to the segment I produced.  The next few episodes of Florida Footprints will move forward in time to cover our history since the Spanish arrived.  Hopefully, we will later also look in the other direction at the people who left oyster middens on St. Vincent Island or to the Aucilla River, where the remains of the first Floridians and the mastodons they hunted continue to be found.

My co-producers on this episode are Mike Plummer and Suzanne Smith.  Suzanne is covering the de Soto excavation and the discovery of Anhaica.  Mike is looking at the Spanish mission period in our area.

Watch a preview of Florida Footprints: Once Upon Anhaica:

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Video: Wildlife Watching at the St. Marks Refuge

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

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Andy Wraithmell by GFBWT kiosk

Andy Wraithmell at the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail kiosk at the St. Marks Refuge.

I want to thank my co-adventurers for joining me on what turned out to be a remarkably wildlife filled day.  Andy Wraithmell from Florida Fish & Wildlife set our itinerary for the day and picked the best spots for the best time. I elaborated on those locations and timing considerations in last week’s post (with a map), which you can read here. It was great to meet Lou and Betsy Kellenberger, who have a real love for the place, and Alicia Wellman,who live-tweeted our day for Florida Fish & Wildlife.  Thanks also to my production assistant, Alex Saunders, for the great photos, and lastly to Refuge Manager Terry Peacock for talking to us.

In the video I alluded to there being too many places, activities, and programs in the Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge for what ended up being an almost seven-minute piece. Over the years, we’ve covered some of those and I’ll point you to a couple of videos we’ve done along with some additional online resources.

The Whooping Crane Migration Program

The most famous birds associated with the Refuge are the ones you’re least likely to see on a visit.  I did a segment the first year they flew in.  You can watch that video here.  Their struggles this year were well documented, and while the Operation Migration folks ended up having to winter this year’s class in Alabama, one member of that original 2009 class paired off with one of the Chassahowitzka cranes from that year (half go to St. Marks, the other to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge) and flew to a cow pasture in Tallahassee’s Southwood neighborhood.  That means that they are learning their traditional migration paths, which is hopeful for their future.

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Hiking in the Cathedral of Palms.

The Florida National Scenic Trail

We just recently did a video on the Trail’s Aucilla Sinks segment. Previously, Florida Trail Association’s Kent Wimmer had taken us to two very special spots in the Refuge: Shepherd Spring and the Cathedral of Pines. You can see shots of those at the end of the video above. You can see that full video here.

The St. Marks Lighthouse

We don’t have a video uploaded on the lighthouse, but there is some news regarding it.  The Refuge is in the process of taking ownership of the lighthouse from the Coast Guard.  The plan is to open a bookstore on the ground floor, though the general public will still not be allowed to climb to the top and utilize what should be a sweet vantage point for photographers and (ahem) videographers.

Educational Programs

We see the new educational building and Terry Peacock talks about the number of students that participate in the Refuge’s education programs, but we don’t go into specifics. They offer 18 different programs and will work with teachers to meet their needs. Read more here.

The St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge Association

This group, led by their president, Betsy Kellenberger, coordinates volunteer efforts, classes, and field trips in the Refuge. Lou and Betsy, for instance, helped to build the Whooping Crane pens, which seems to me to be a neat way to be a part of that program. Visit the Association page here.

Music in the piece by unreal_dm and Andrea Pireddu.
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Who’s that bird? Nature Viewing app review

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
On Sunday, May 13 at 10:00 AM/ET, you can watch an encore airing of our latest EcoAdventure in the Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge, a gateway site on the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail.  It lived up to its gateway status with a range of migratory shore birds and residents, and scaly and furry critters.  Dimensions, on WFSU-TV. 

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150I’m not a smartphone guy, though I can see the attraction.  Since we’ve started with In the Grass, On the Reef, I’ve seen their value in an outdoor setting.  Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro use them to monitor the weather when they’re at their sites.  That’s handy when you’re a twenty or thirty-minute kayak from your car and you see dark clouds in the distance.  There’s a connectivity with a smartphone that let’s you take care of business while on location.  And it allows you to travel with world of information right in your pocket.

The Nature Viewing Along the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail app (search Nature Viewing app) is available for iPhone, iPad, and, just recently, Android- for free.  Its goal is to help you identify birds, butterflies, and wildflowers that you might see in Florida.  I’m not a bird expert, but I like being outdoors and I always see them.

So how does it work?

We’ll start with this photo taken on our Refuge shoot by WFSU’s Alex Saunders.  I remember that he was excited to find and actually shoot this bird, but when I got back I had no idea what species it was. So I borrowed an iPad and installed the app.  It’s 418 MB, which is something to keep in mind if you have space issues.  It’s size likely has to do with the hundreds of photos of plant and animal species included.

This is what you see when you turn on the app:

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I select the bird.  When I do, I see the following options on the bottom row:

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The buttons on the bottom are the filters.  First is class of bird (wading bird, shore bird, water bird, raptor, etc.).  Next is the season in which you saw the bird- important as birds migrate seasonally.  Next is size, and then color.  The last button lists all birds, which gives you a different option for browsing.  As you see in the screen grab above, I selected type of bird first, and these options appeared.  You can hold down any button for more information.  Here I clicked on the duck icon:

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From this description, I see that this icon applies to all water birds, not just ducks.  The bird in Alex’s photo is in a tree, but isn’t a woodpecker or predatory bird, so I select perched bird.

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After that, I select season, which was spring.

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Then I select size, which I at first found confusing, as it associates size with specific birds. Hold down each option to see the size in inches.  Even with that, it can be hard to tell from a photo.  I selected mockingbird size. Next is color:

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The bird is blue, white, and red. Selecting the colors can be tricky, and what I found is that sometimes it’s better to omit colors that appear as a band or a streak, as it’s not always recognized. So I just select white and blue. Once I do, I see there are three matches on the upper right of the screen. I click to see the matches, and get the following possibilities:

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I don’t think that this bird is a type of jay. So I remove options. Why do I do this? With every additional filter you add, there are less options. Sometimes it’s better to omit some information so that you have a slightly larger list to look at. With less options, I get this:

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The Belted Kingfisher looks close. But there are two photos with this entry, and the second photo looks like this:

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So the female has the red band, and I have my match. I’ve found by playing with this that when it comes to color, it’s better to keep it simple (less colors) as color variations for juveniles and females aren’t always accounted for.

_DSC4240_e2_aAt the end of the day, I think that this is a useful app to review photos you’ve taken in the field, or if you’re by the bird and it doesn’t look like it will fly or swim away (as they tend to do when you photograph or video them. They know what’s up). The more I play with the app, the easier it gets, and I do recommend playing with it and getting a feel for it before trying it in the field. If you’re reviewing photos, keep in mind that colors look different in different lighting. For instance, I first tried to identify the kingfisher from this photo taken after it took off. You’ll notice that the blue looks black, and I had less perspective on a size.

Wakulla SpringsThe app relies a lot on how you perceive things, so if you have trouble guessing sizes, you can either try a few options or leave that off.  Same with color; if a bird has two or three colors and you’re not having luck, try picking the most predominant and omit the others.  And then there’s the type of bird.  I was trying to identify what ended up being an anhinga from a photo Alex took at Wakulla Springs.  It looked like a wading bird to me, but it’s classified as a water bird.  Looking at it again, I notice the short legs, where wading birds are large birds with long legs.

If you’re interested in birds, it’s worth a try.  It’s a free download, and even if you’re like me and aren’t very knowledgeable, you can play with it, browse the master list of birds, and learn something from it.

Download the app from the Apple store here.

Download the app for Android here.