Tag Archives: fire ecology

The Coastal Dune Lake Watershed | Connected by Fire and Water

Over the last year, we’ve explored many aspects of fire ecology.  Today, we see how fire helps water move through the coastal dune lake watershed, connecting pitcher plants and nesting shore birds.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU Media 

The snowy plover, sitting on its nest by the coast, is connected to the pitcher plant growing by the upland forest.  We’re at Deer Lake State Park in Walton County, Florida, tracing this bond through a coastal dune lake watershed.  Water, of course, unifies this system.  But for that water to move through the system how it should, it needs fire. Continue reading

Hikers walk on the Florida National Scenic Trail along the Choctawhatchee River.

Choctawhatchee River Hiking on new section of the Florida Trail

We’re back on the Florida National Scenic Trail, this time on a new section along the Choctawhatchee River.  Thanks to the Choctawhatchee Chapter of the Florida Trail Association for helping us out, and to Bruce Varner and Caroling Geary (of Wholeo.net) for providing photos and video of trail construction.

Tallahassee’s Hot Tamale composed some new music for this video.  Thanks again Craig and Adrian for all you do for us!

Our hike by the Choctawhatchee River brims with newness.  It’s not just that we get to hike a recently completed section of the Florida National Scenic Trail.  That is, of course, pretty cool.  That new trail takes us through recently burned forest, the beginning of a cycle of renewal in the longleaf ecosystem.  Also, we’re passing through the Nokuse Plantation, where a massive restoration project is making the forest new again.  It’s a nice coming together of environmental and recreational upgrades in Walton County.

Continue reading

Ornate chorus frog on the fingertips of a researcher.

Striped Newts and Ornate Chorus Frogs in the Munson Sandhills

When Local Routes returns next Thursday (February 2 at 8 pm ET), we hike to the most remote spot in the viewing area- the Bradwell Bay Wilderness.  We’re doing this with Remote Footprints, a passion project of Rebecca and Ryan Means, and their daughter Skyla.  In their day jobs, Rebecca and Ryan are biologists for the Coastal Plains Institute.  Today, we visited with the CPI and its partners as they released striped newts into the Munson Sandhills.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

For the first time in twenty years, researchers observed striped newt larvae in the Apalachicola National Forest.  It hadn’t been seen in the forest, which was once a stronghold for the species, since the late 1990s.  The Coastal Plains Institute had spent six years releasing newts into the forest, hoping to see reproduction in the wild.  A few months after their sixth release in January 2016, which we filmed, they dip netted a larval newt that seems to have been bred in the wild.  More followed. Continue reading

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

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

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

giant swallowtail caterpillar

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.   Continue reading

Growing Mushrooms and Cleaning the Forest at Lake Seminole

Mushrooms are one of the few foods we eat that are neither plant or animal. We trek to Lake Seminole Farm, where two men took a chance and have started a mushroom growing operation. In looking at how mushrooms grow, we get an unexpected lesson in forest ecology.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Lake Seminole Farm grows shiitake mushrooms (pictured in the banner image above) and pink oyster mushrooms.

Lake Seminole farm grows shiitake mushrooms (pictured in the banner image above) and pink oyster mushrooms.

Mushrooms are a food with a mystique about them.  They’re like oysters or sushi.  There are serious enthusiasts willing to spend good money on certain varieties; others are repulsed at the thought of them.  Think of the possible outcomes of trying a random mushroom found in the woods.  You discover amazing flavor.  You become sick.  You die.  You take an unexpected mystic voyage into the depths of your psyche.  This is not a food that is like the other food you eat, and so it makes sense that a mushroom farm doesn’t exactly look like most other farms.

Lake Seminole Farm grows shiitake and oyster mushrooms (I love the symmetry of the Apalachicola River- the body of water to its south has oysters, the body of water to its north has oyster mushrooms).  David Krause studied fungi at FSU and USF, part of a career path that led to his being Florida’s state toxicologist from 2008 through 2011.  In 2011, he took a chance and decided to put his land to work.  Living on Lake Seminole, his property has the dense tangle of hardwoods that you find on a floodplain.  Those oak and gum trees are perfect for growing shiitake mushrooms.  But the farm doesn’t exclusively use logs gathered on the property. Continue reading

Clearcutting the Longleaf Forest: EcoShakespeare

EcoShakespeare is a series of expeditions into uniquely north Florida/ south Georgia ecosystems.  Each adventure is led by a master of their field and includes a scene performed from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that relates to the trip.  Florida State University English professor Dr. Bruce Boehrer ties Shakespeare’s words to our local habitats, creating a one of  kind blending of art and nature.  Part one takes place in a secret, ancient forest…

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Jim Cox is the Vertebrate Ecology Program Director at Tall Timbers Research Station (he's the one not holding the camera). Based north of Tallahassee, Tall Timbers has studied the longleaf habitat, and its dependence on fire, for over 50 years.

Jim Cox is the Vertebrate Ecology Program Director at Tall Timbers Research Station (he’s the one not holding the camera). Based north of Tallahassee, Tall Timbers has studied the longleaf habitat, and its dependence on fire, for over 50 years.

We begin this EcoShakespeare project, appropriately enough, in a longleaf forest that exists much as it did during the time of William Shakespeare.  The “Big Woods,” as Tall Timbers’ Jim Cox calls them, sit on private land.  Few people will ever get the privilege to walk under those ancient longleaf pines, in one of the few places where Henslow’s sparrows and red cockaded woodpeckers are relatively easily seen.  And it’s one of the few places where you might find longleaf pines that lived while the Bard’s plays were being penned.

You can see the numbers in the video above.  The American southeast was once covered in 90,000,000 acres of longleaf.  Today we have 3,000,000.  Of that, only 8,000 has never been cut.  Jim compares it to the entire population of the Earth being whittled down to a city the size of Milwaukee.  And while 3,000,000 acres is still a vast reduction from the historic number, it’s much better than 8,000.  So why do we emphasize the especially low acreage of remaining old growth forest?

The immortal king of the fairies, Oberon, stands next to a considerably younger 350 year old (give or take) longleaf pine.

The immortal king of the fairies, Oberon, stands next to a considerably younger 350 year old (give or take) longleaf pine.

It’s something that I can appreciate as I stare down my fortieth birthday next year- a mature longleaf offers more ecosystem services than a young one.  Red cockaded woodpeckers make nests in trees that are over 90 years old.  The heart wood of these older trees is more likely to suffer from red heart disease, a fungus which softens the wood and makes it easier for the woodpeckers, over several generations, to make a cavity.  Jim Cox, answering questions from our adventurers, says the birds’ numbers are looking much better after getting dangerously low.  He attributes this to artificial cavities sawed into less mature trees.  But for the RCW to leave the endangered list, it has to make it without our help.  And for that, we need more mature trees.  The problem with that is that… you have to wait… and wait… and wait… for enough of them to get to that right age.

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Another ecosystem service offered by a mature longleaf is its wrinkly face.  As a longleaf ages, its bark becomes gnarlier and rougher.  This creates more surfaces for insects and other invertebrates to inhabit.  And as is true in any ecosystem, those little creepy crawlies are food for all of the much prettier animals that we travel with binoculars to try and spot.  An ecosystem will not thrive if the bottom of the food web is not healthy.

Years ago, when we started EcoAdventures, I accompanied FWC’s Andy Wraithmel and Liz Sparks to several birding spots along the Apalachicola River.  Near sunset, we stopped in the Apalachicola National Forest.  When you drive down State Road 65, you may notice painted white bands on the longleaf pines.  These are trees with RCW cavities, or that have qualities that might attract the rare woodpecker.  We stopped by a cluster of those trees, Liz and Andy admiring the good work that has been done to restore the habitat.

Controlled burn in the Apalachicola National Forest along State Road 65.

Controlled burn in the Apalachicola National Forest along State Road 65.

Looking at the shots of the National Forest that we included in the video above, the differences between it and the “Big Woods” are subtle.  The trees look a little skinnier, perhaps, but even a 500 year old longleaf will never be that much thicker than a young one.  In one shot, you can see the planted rows of slash pine that timber operations started using after having cut the slower growing/ higher quality longleaf.

Andy and Liz talked to me about the thinning of trees (longleaf habitat features widely spaced trees), regular burning, and other restoration activities that have the forest looking a little more like it once had.  But, Andy noted, none of us would be alive to see the forest fully recovered.  Except, maybe, the immortal Oberon and Titania.

Next week, we look at Shakespeare’s upbringing as we forage for food along Lake Iamonia. Also, marital tensions between Oberon and Titania escalate as the king plots with Puck to use the herbs of the forest against the queen.

Special thanks to WFSU’s partners for this EcoShakespeare segment, The Southern Shakespeare Festival and Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy. EcoShakespeare is funded by a grant from WNET’s Shakespeare Uncovered. Catch their take of a Midsummer Night’s Dream Friday, January 30 at 9 pm ET on WFSU-TV. For more information on Shakespeare Uncovered and WFSU’s associated TV and Radio projects, visit our Shakespeare Uncovered web site.
Shakespeare Uncovered is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Major funding is also provided by The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, Dana and Virginia Randt, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, the Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Polonsky Foundation, Rosalind P. Walter, Jody and John Arnhold, the Corinthian International Foundation, and PBS.

Video: Liberty County’s Carnivorous Plants are Colorful and Deadly

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Wildlife watching is big business in Florida. In a state with the unique natural resources we have, that’s no surprise. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has determined that it brings, more or less, $5 Billion to Florida a year. When we say wildlife watching, we usually mean birds and butterflies. Animals that are cute, colorful, and/ or ferocious. What Eleanor Dietrich wants you to consider is that wildlife watching could also mean wildflowers. And just as it is thrilling to watch an eagle or a heron catch a fish, carnivorous plants might be the most thrilling of wildflowers. Luckily for those in our area, the Apalachicola National Forest in Liberty County is a hot spot for these strange and beautiful killers.

Eleanor Dietrich

Eleanor Dietrich holds one of her free self-guided Liberty County Wildflower tour guides. She has several local businesses distributing these with the idea that wildflower populations could benefit the local economy.

State Road 65 between Hosford and Sumatra is unofficially the Liberty County Wildflower Trail.   For many, this is the scenic route to St. George Island.  What Eleanor wants people to do is to pull over every once in a while to notice the incredible life peeking through the top of the grass growing on the shoulder.  She has enlisted local businesses to help distribute free self-guided tour maps, and helped create a partnership between Tallahassee Artist Helen Dull and Pam Richter, owner of T&P Florist and Gift Shop in Hosford.  Helen’s renditions of carnivorous flowers grace shirts, tote bags, and post cards at the T&P.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re interested in seeing these flowers, though I admit we’re past their peak period:

  • It’s seasonal.  Just as certain hummingbirds pass through the St. Marks Refuge in late spring, certain flowers bloom at a certain time every year.  The Chapman’s rhododendron usually blooms for a couple of weeks in March.  Carnivorous plants in and around the Apalachicola National Forest start blooming in April and go through early May.  Another set of wildflowers explodes there in the fall.
  • You never know what you’ll see.  If you go birding, you’re not guaranteed to see any specific bird.  It’s the same with these flowers.  When we got there, the yellow trumpet pitcher plants had lost their flowers, but their remarkable pitcher leaves retained their strong presence in the woody tangle surrounding the New River.  Purple pitcher plants were going strong and the dewthread sundews were just beginning to flower.  In a week, it would look entirely different.  These flowers bloom in waves, and there’s no fixing a specific date on when they’ll start.
  • White topped pitcher plantLocation, location, location.  We went to three different spots within a twenty mile range: two roadside locations and one further into National Forest.  One roadside spot had non native Venus flytraps and showy white topped pitcher plants (pictured to the left), the only place where we saw them.  In the forest, we saw an abundance of yellow trumpet leaves and of the sticky dewthread strands getting ready to flower.  At the second roadside spot, we had to do a little searching to find the carnivorous plants among the wildflowers.
  • It helps to dress appropriately.  The day before our shoot, FSU Biologist Dr. Tom Miller, who accompanied us, warned me to wear closed toed shoes.  You’ll see why in the video.  He also suggested a long sleeved shirt to minimize gnat biteage and that I spray that nasty bug spray on my socks to discourage ticks.  The best places to see the really cool plants and critters aren’t always comfortable.

Some Science Stuff to Impress Your Friends

When you go out to look at the flowers with your friends, you’ll want to drop some biology knowledge on them.  You know, to sound smart.  This is what Dr. Miller, who is smart about these things, told me, who is working on it:

  • Carnivorous plants are found in what are known as a ecotones.  Ecotones are the spaces where one ecosystem overlaps with another.  The Apalachicola National Forest has some well maintained longleaf pine/ wiregrass habitat, with the characteristic wide spacing of trees.  Through the trees you may see dense tangles of wood surrounding rivers or other wet places.  Carnivorous plants can be found in the seam between the two.
  • As you may know, all life needs nitrogen (if you didn’t know, Dr. David Kimbro broke it down for us last year).  Plants usually get it from the soil, where bacteria can convert it into a useable form (David explains it better than I do), and where decomposing plants add to it as well.  Animals get their nitrogen from plants.  The bogs where carnivorous plants grow have soils that are low in nutrients.  The plants get their nutrients from the bugs they eat.
  • Controlled burn in the Apalachicola National Forest

    A controlled burn on S.R. 65 on the day of our shoot.

    Carnivorous plants are dependent on fire ecology.  More specifically, they are dependent on disturbances to clear spaces for them.  Longleaf pines maintain their spacing through regular fire.  It clears the forest floor of oak and other woody plants and makes space for wiregrass and succulent plants.  That fire also clears a space at the fringe of the forest, where the pretty killer flowers live.  Annual mowing along highway 65 also helps.  The spot where we saw the white tops and Venus flytraps had a crew go through in recent months, installing telephone poles.

  • These flowers are pretty resilient.  They need wet conditions, but during the harsh droughts of the last fifteen years, Dr. Miller observed their numbers decline.  “I was concerned about losing the population,” he said, “instead, they seem to be pretty resilient to drought.”  That makes sense for plants that get burned and re-sprout.
  • One thing that Dr. Miller studies, and I think this is pretty cool, are these food webs contained entirely within the leaves of pitcher plants.  At the bottom of the food web are the decomposing bugs caught in the leaves.  Bacteria break them down and they are eaten by single celled protozoa.  Those are in turn eaten by mosquito larvae, which we of course find in any pool of standing water.

 

Pitcher plant leaf samples

Samples taken from pitcher plants along S.R. 65. The one on the right is from a newer leaf, and is swimming with mosquito larvae. The one on the left has mostly the undigestable remains of ants, where as the one in the middle has both larvae and still edible insect remains.

For more information on carnivorous plants in our area, Eleanor’s Flickr page is pretty helpful and fun to explore.

A bee on our camera

Where there are flowers, there are bees. Our next EcoAdventure will feature more flowers and many more bees. We’re heading to the Dead Lakes, where the tupelo are in bloom and honey is getting made.

Music in the piece by pitx and Greg Baumont.

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