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Bird Watching & Nature Writing: Susan Cerulean at Bald Point

Video: bird watching, nature writing, and possibly the best sunrise spot on the Forgotten Coast. Author Susan Cerulean joins us at Bald Point State Park.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Susan Cerulean and I are watching a bufflehead duck dive for food by an oyster reef.  We’re at Bald Point State Park, and Susan is putting me in tune with nature’s cycles.  “You can’t know when that last one’s left,” she says of the duck, which should soon be departing for the north.  This is the seasonal cycle, warming and cooling that spurs many of the birds we’re seeing to start continental and intercontinental flights.

We’re here to see as many shorebirds as possible, so we arrive at low tide.  Today, that happens to coincide with sunrise.  Lunar and solar cycles.  In fact, the full moon has exposed quite the sand flat, an epic low tide that we enjoy throughout the morning, as do foraging dunlin and ruddy turnstones.  Further off, pelicans and least terns sit at the water’s edge.  Through the simple act of scheduling our shoot when we did, I’ve already gotten quite a lesson in the cycles of the natural world.

sunriseBald Point provides a sunrise vista that’s uncommon on our Forgotten Coast.  Here, the coast faces straight east into Apalachee Bay, meaning you get to see the sun rise out of the water.  While the park doesn’t open until 8 am, there is sunrise beach access along Bald Point Road (Consult this brochure for a map).  It’s an hour away from Tallahassee, but I need to come out and start my day here more often.

Once you do get past that gate, you can walk on the beach or up onto observation platforms at the mouth of the Ochlockonee River.  Today, the extra-low tide exposes something of an oyster reef maze.  I should have guessed from where I was going that there would be reefs; instead I’m kicking myself for not bringing my “oyster shoes.”  That’s my nickname for the old shoes I would save from the trash for my shoots with David Kimbro and Randall Hughes.  Many of those took place on the other side of this park in the oyster reefs of Alligator Harbor, where I started following their research for the In the Grass, On the Reef project.  Oysters are sharp and are unkind to feet and footwear; it’s best not to bring your favorite pair of shoes.  Oyster reefs are a great place to see birds, as they shelter so many invertebrates.  Walking on a reef, if you really look, you’ll see stone crabs, mud crabs, and various predatory snails.  Birds love to eat these and the many small fish and shrimp that hide in the crags of submerged oyster clumps.  It was no surprise to see, as you may have noted in the video above, fishermen and shrimp boats reaping the bounty of the estuary systems at the mouth of the river.

Oyster reefs also line the edges of Chaires Creek, a couple of miles of winding marshy stream leading to Lake Tucker.  I’ve not paddled it, but I have accompanied fishermen retrieving traps full of blue crabs here.  There is a boat launch at Lake Tucker, so you can put in kayaks or a boat and maybe go after some of the big fish that forage in intertidal systems.

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Oyster reefs will cut up your shoes. They can have a strong smell. And the mud around them can be treacherous. I will always love walking on and around them.

Coming To Pass

Susan Cerulean's newest book, Coming to Pass.  Cover art by David Moynahan.

Susan Cerulean’s newest book, Coming to Pass. Cover art by David Moynahan.

Bald Point nicely encapsulates much of what we love about the Forgotten Coast.  Susan has spent the last eight years writing a book that captures the very heart of this region; appreciating what we have while we still have it.  “Like those buffleheads- you can’t know when the last one’s left,” She says.  “And that’s sort of how I feel about our coast.”

Specifically, she’s writing about the barrier islands of the Forgotten Coast: Dog Island, St. George Island, and St. Vincent Island.  These islands were created by sediments carried from the Appalachian Mountains via the Apalachicola River.  They physically contain the river’s fresh water, creating what had been, until a couple of years ago, one of the nation’s most productive estuaries.  We often think of the peril faced by that estuary as it struggles to receive freshwater in the quantity and with the consistency that it needs.  However, the islands themselves are in trouble, being slowly swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico.

Coming to Pass is the result of a journey that started with Susan interviewing her husband, FSU oceanographer Dr. Jeff Chanton.  Over eight years, she researched, she visited the people who live and make their living from the coast, she walked from one end of St. Vincent Island to the other.  The book is about more than sea level rise.  But that is the focus.

In the linked pdf produced by Gulf of Mexico Coastal Training, you can see that it projects to be a slow process.  In the 2100 map, St. George looks to lose a little bit of coastline but St. Vincent looks like it’s falling apart.  Aside from helping to create the estuary, the islands are a key stop for already diminishing flocks of migratory birds.

Susan Cerulean at Bald Point State Park.

Susan Cerulean at Bald Point State Park.

Over decades of shorebird counts, Susan has seen big declines in the abundances of each species.  “We’re not really set up to see these changes with eyes and senses so much.”  She still sees all of the types of birds, but the quantities of each have been shrinking.  During those decades, more and more coastline has been developed and habitat lost.  Sea level rise threatens to claim more of that habitat.

Luckily, that process is slow.  For Susan, it means that we can still do something about it.  “I’m grounded in knowing what’s at stake and what’s been lost” Susan says. “But I feel if you only go that far, it’s a dead end.  ‘Well, okay then, let’s just have a party.’  But where does that leave the children?”  Judging by the passages she read in the video (and the one we didn’t use), this is not a depressing book about our destruction of the planet.  It’s as much about the islands themselves, and the bay, and all those things we love.  In a way, it feels like a wake up call.  Here’s the thing we love; now please don’t let it go away.

Word of South

Susan’s friend, Velma Frye, provided us with two tracks to use in the video.  The two of them will be collaborating for a performance piece in the upcoming Word of South Festival that’s hitting Tallahassee’s Cascades Park on April 11 and 12 (it says rain or shine, which is brave for a location that’s designed to flood).  They’re still working on the specifics of combining Susan’s words with Velma’s music, but Velma described it to me like this: “I’ll begin an instrumental introduction to deepen the response as Sue is still reading and later she will resume reading after I have finished singing the song and am playing a long coda, like wind and water interacting.”

Two of Word of South’s organizers, Mark Mustian and Mandy Stringer, joined Julz Graham on Dimensions this week.  Watch the interview to learn more about the festival.

There are Other Nature Blogs on the Internet

Yes, it’s true, this isn’t the only one.  I normally try to shelter readers from this fact, but I would like to mention that Susan Cerulean has a blog that she started after completing Coming to Pass.  I had been reading it, and throughly enjoying it, when one day I thought to myself “I bet a day with Susan on the coast would make a good video.” I’ll leave that for you to decide; regardless, I enjoyed the process.

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Video: Wildlife Watching at the St. Marks Refuge

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150

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.

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.

Video: Kayaking and Canoeing the Wacissa with the Green Guides

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

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When the video above aired on dimensions, several individuals in our community took note of a statement made by George Weymouth.  He was explaining how hydrilla, an invasive plant species overtaking rivers in our state, had led to Limpkins entirely abandoning the Wakulla River (which has its source at Wakulla Springs).  He said that herbicides used to control the plant led to a die off of apple snails, the limpkin’s main food source.

The reaction to this statement started me on a quest, with the several aforementioned individuals guiding me closer, and at times seemingly further, from an answer to what happened to the limpkins at Wakulla Springs.

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