Tag Archives: appreciation

This redheaded woodpecker and its mate had the attention of the photographers in our party, which included Lou and Betsy Kellenberger.

Wildlife Watching under the Sun (and Moon) at St. Marks NWR

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Explore the Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge using this imap, a Google map that incorporates images from WFSU’s flickr page. CLick on a photo and select “enlarge” for more information.

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150Tomorrow, Wednesday May 9 at 7:30 PM/ ET, we present our latest EcoAdventure- wildlife watching in the Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  Migratory birds are making their way north and many like to make use of the extensive marshes, pools, and ponds as a stopover (our regular readers know how well stocked with food a salt marsh can be). This is a warmer time of year, so reptiles are more abundant, or at least more visibly abundant.  The Refuge is thick with wildlife; it’s a gateway site of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. So you just drive into the Refuge and you’ll automatically see a lot of animals, right? Almost, but not quite.  It helps to know where to go, and to pay attention to the sun and the moon.

This red-bellied woodpecker and its mate had the attention of the photographers in our party, which included Lou and Betsy Kellenberger, and Andy Wraithmell and Alicia Wellman of Florida Fish and Wildlife.

The map above might prove helpful in learning where the hotspots are. We’ll start with two spots accessible from Lighthouse Road. At the end of the road is, of course, the lighthouse. Across from the lighthouse is Lighthouse Pond. We saw some wading birds, as you do throughout a lot of the Refuge, as well as red-breasted mergansers, some very animated ducks. There is a trail around the pond on which we saw cotton rats and a snake called a black racer. Not too far from there on Lighthouse Road is Headquarters Pond, which has a nice, big observation tower. If you have a camera with a long lens, you can shoot to every corner of the pond. On the far edge is where we saw deer, which are not uncommon early in the morning though they do not usually wade as far into the pond as on that day. There were plenty of alligators there; they made themselves more apparent as it got warmer. Cold blooded reptiles are solar powered, so they’ll be out in the sun. Right behind the tower we saw two red-bellied woodpeckers that seem to be nesting in one of the trees there.

Sunrise at Tower Pool

When nature viewing, it helps to wake up early.

The rest of the sites we visited were only accessible on foot or on bicycle. You can see the roads on the map, but those are not open to the public. Plan on hiking out to the Stoney Bayou Pool, Mounds Pool or Tower Pool (which is listed as Mounds Pond on Google Earth). The Stoney Bayou Pool had a lot of larger alligators; Tower Pool is a great place to watch migratory shorebirds. Whereas alligators are solar powered, the shore birds are under an indirect lunar influence. If you want to see them, come in the hour or two before high tide. As the marshes and mud flats start flooding, the birds will fly over the dike where you’re standing and into the pool. The pool fills up with dozens, even hundreds of birds. You can check the tides on this web site.  The fastest tides make for the most impressive flyovers, those are on the new and full moons.  Allot about 30 minutes for walking to this site, and remember that the Refuge is only open during daytime hours.

This is by no means an all-inclusive guide.  If you have any tips, feel free to share them in the comments section.

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.

reading_rings2

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).
The carnivorous chapman's butterwort is listed as a threatened plant.  Dr. Alvin Chapman, an 19th century Apalachicola botanist, discovered many of the plant species in the Buffer.

At the Buffer Preserve, Rare Plants Are “In the Grass”

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
dimensions, March 21 at 7:30 PM/ ET on WFSU-TV: our latest EcoAdventure explores the Buffer Preserve in search of rare plants and one woman’s quest to learn the fire history of the area.
Explore our map!  Click enlarge on a photo to read additional information about each plant.

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150I want to apologize in advance to anyone who watches tomorrow’s EcoAdventure on dimensions and gets excited about seeing the Chapman’s rhododendron.  Aside from naturally occurring in only three North Florida counties, its peek blooming only lasts about two weeks.  This peek usually starts at the end of March and goes into April, so we had planned on shooting then.  This year’s mild winter changed our plans.  A couple of weeks ago, at the beginning of March, Dr. Jean Huffman wrote to tell me that they had exploded.  In fact, the first bush we saw once we got out there was already starting to whither.  We did find a group of bushes in full bloom, and it was worth the hike.  By the time our footage airs, those flowers might very well be gone.

The carnivorous chapman's butterwort is listed as a threatened plant. Dr. Alvin Chapman, an 19th century Apalachicola botanist, discovered many of the plant species you can see in the Buffer.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is, many of the other rare flowering plants in the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve will start blooming soon.  In a lot of ways, finding and photographing rare plants is as difficult as finding and photographing rare birds.  Especially when our seasons go screwy.  And unlike the Chapman’s rhododendron, many of the rare plants in the Buffer are hiding in tall grasses.  The Buffer is home to 21 rare plant species, and it’s the only place where the Chapman’s rhododendron is protected on public land (Correction: there is a small population at Camp Blanding, north of Gainesville).

I thought I’d share some photos of the plants we saw.  If you look at the map above, you can see an approximation of where we saw each of them.  You can see in the satellite image that the photos of the rare plants are located where the tree cover is lighter.  This goes back to, once again, controlled burning and its role in clearing out woody growth between longleaf pines.  When those shrubs get pushed back to where lightning-caused fire had once naturally confined them, grasses and herbaceous plants sprout up (and the animals that eat them return to the flatwoods).  If you’re in the Buffer, look for where the trees are spaced apart and grasses fill the ground.  It’s in those grasses that you’ll find some interesting characters.

I also included some photos of the bay section of the Preserve.  This is how I first encountered the Buffer, shooting salt marsh footage in conjunction with Randall Hughes’ research in SJB (click up in the Salt Marsh menu for more info on that).  There are plenty of birds, crabs, and predatory snails to see if you wade out into the sand flats and marshes by the visitor center.

Thanks to my production assistant, Alex Saunders, who brought his nice camera and took the plant photos in the map.