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 →
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 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:
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.
Location, 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.
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.
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.
I 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).
Finally, 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 longleaf pine/ wiregrass ecosystem was historically common in the coastal plain (low lying flat areas adjacent to the coast) of the Southeast United States. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, this ecosystem has seen a 97% decline. In our recent excursion along the Apalachicola River, we visited this habitat and learned about efforts to restore it.
There’s a certain terminology we use when we talk about the wild places of the world. We use words like “pristine,” or “untouched.” When you hike through a forest along the Florida Trail, there are times where you can imagine that you are the first person ever to walk under the trees that you see. Of course, much of the time, not only are you not the first person to have seen the trees, the trees look the way they do due to someone’s careful manipulation. The practice of land management and why it is used can change the way you think about what is “wild.”
Prescribed burn. Courtesy of Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The video above is about how the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is using prescribed burning in its restoration of longleaf pine habitats. Longleaf pine had historically thrived because they have the evolutionary advantage of a thick, fireproof bark in what are known as Fire Climax Communities. This is a habitat in which fire (typically started by lightning strikes) is the primary controlling factor, and so lesser equipped competitors to longleaf pine are eliminated. This natural process makes for an ecosystem dominated by the thick barked pines. So why are humans assuming a role usually played by nature?
That goes back to our conception of what is “wild.” That forest you hike through looks untouched, like I said earlier, but human influence reaches even into its deepest reaches. For one, we have roads cutting across the forests, and while there are often large expanses of unbroken forest, paved roads keep fire from spreading as far as it once might have. Another factor is that there is human settlement all around the forest, and uncontrolled fire is a threat to life and property.
Courtesy of the Florida Archive.
Prescribed fire is one tool in the toolset for restoring the longleaf/ wiregrass system. This was the dominant habitat of the southeast, characterized by a wide spacing of trees (wide enough to ride a wagon through, FWC’s Liz Sparks tells me) that allows for a diversity of ground cover plants. These cover plants, as Matt points out in the video above, are attractive to the many species that thrive in a longleaf/ wiregrass ecosystem. Ironically, this ecosystem has been drastically reduced as a result of another type of land management- silviculture. As you’ll see in the video above, timber operations replaced longleaf for slash pine, a faster growing variety of pine with a lesser quality wood but that is far more profitable to grow. The slash pine grew closer together, eliminating the ground cover that is so important to the many birds, reptiles, and amphibians that make the longleaf/ wiregrass system so diverse. That’s why FWC does timber thinning before the burns.
Marsh burn. Courtesy Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
And since this is In the Grass, On the Reef, I did want to mention something I left out of the video, which is marsh burns. Every 4-6 years, they burn the sawgrass in the freshwater marshes on the Apalachicola River system. This clears the plants out and allows for new growth; the less dense grass provides nesting cover for many birds. Wintering waterfowl like canvasback, scaup, and redhead eat submerged vegetation called widgeon grass; periodic burns increase access to this for birds. As with longleaf ecosystems, fire was a naturally occurring, controlling factor. The systems evolved with the plants and animals that could best take advantage of these fire events. Nature may not be able to provide fire to these systems as effectively as it once had; luckily, mankind has flame throwers and ping pong balls full of potassium permanganate.
For more information about these and other Florida Fish and Wildlife land management initiatives, visit their web site.
Watch our latest EcoAdventure, where we visit a lot of this managed land around the Apalachicola River on WFSU’s dimensions– Sunday, February 19 at 10:00 AM/ ET.
This WFSU documentary, which aired November 30, 2011, takes an in depth look at prescribed burning and its safety and ecological benefits. The video is running off of WFSU-TV’s video on demand site, which features PBS programs like NOVA and Nature as well as local programs, like In the Grass, On the Reef and Florida War Diaries, a look at our local involvement in WWII.