Rob Diaz de Villegas is a senior producer for WFSU-TV, covering outdoors and ecology. Early in his television career, Rob focused on music production. After a couple of years of producing and editing Spanish and bilingual music video shows in San Antonio, Rob returned to Tallahassee in 2002 to resume production of his local music performance show, OutLoud. From that, he transitioned to local music documentaries, until one day he found himself standing in a muddy salt marsh with a camera, and his life was changed forever.
Rob created this blog for a National Science Foundation funded marine biology project called In the Grass, On the Reef. No one asked Rob to expand on this work and cover all ecology in our area, but it seemed like a good thing to do. Subsequent projects under the Ecology Blog umbrella include EcoShakespeare (funded by WNET and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) and Roaming the Red Hills (funded by Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy). His most recent documentary follows the lives of four red wolf pups born at the Tallahassee Museum, apex predators that once hunted in our local wild spaces.
Rob is married with two young sons, and they try to have outdoor family adventures as often as possible (you might see them on the blog from time to time).
View all posts by Rob Diaz de Villegas →
Last Thursday, WFSU-FM’s Perspectives welcomed four guests to talk about Rivertrek 2011: Earl Morrogh, the event’s coordinator; Dan Tonsmeire of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper; Georgia Ackerman of the Wilderness Way; and Doug Alderson, who we remember as Florida’s coordinator for paddling trails. If you don’t remember, here’s a link to the video for which we interviewed him on the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail. Rivertrek, much like that trail, is a five day paddling/ camping trip. The ten paddlers setting out on Wednesday are not beginners.
Click here to listen to an audio archive of last Thursday’s Perspectives.
So, after spending over a year dealing with saltwater habitats, why are we talking about freshwater bodies of water? It has to do with that connectedness we see over and over again. Salt marshes and oyster reefs benefit each other. Some fish and shrimp species spend their younger years in these coastal habitats before heading out to deeper waters. And without the Apalachicola River’s constant flow of fresh water, Apalachicola Bay would be too salty to sustain healthy oyster reefs. This would affect not only the oyster fishery, but the species that use the reefs as a habitat (many of which are in turn commercially and recreationally fished). Oyster filtration as an ecosystem service would also be endangered, affecting local seagrass beds and the species they support.
Of course, the river itself supports a lot of biodiversity- 1,500 plant and animal species make their home on the river basin. That includes over forty species of amphibians and 80 species of reptiles. That’s why these paddlers are trying to raise awareness for this river, and fighting to prevent development long it.
For more information, visit the Rivertrek 2011 web site.
On the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, you could kayak from Pensacola to Jacksonville. Don’t have that kind of time? Luckily, you can plan trips of any length along the coast and try it out. Learn more below.
It would be the adventure of a lifetime. If you had two or three months, and a few weeks to plan it out, you could kayak along all of Florida’s coast, from Pensacola to Jacksonville. Completing the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail (FCSPT) would be a daunting task; luckily, there are many smaller adventures to be had along the trail as well. Continue reading →
Take a photo tour of the Forgotten Coast segment of the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail. Watch a video on the trail on Wednesday, September 14 at 7:30 PM/ ET on WFSU-TV.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
It all happened in about five minutes. The gull swooped down and grabbed a soft-shell blue crab about half its size, abandoned it to a swarm of small fish, whose activity may or may not have attracted a shark coming in from Apalachicola Bay. I was standing at Sugar Hill, a beach campsite in the St. George Island State Park, the last campsite along the Forgotten Coast segment of the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail. You can see this video on tomorrow’s dimensions.
Were a kayaker to try to make the five or six day paddle from Cape San Blas to St. George Island, they would likely see a few of these little dramas play out. As Doug Alderson (Paddling Trails Coordinator for the Florida Office of Greenways and Trails) says in the piece, it’s one of the wildest stretches of the statewide trail. That means it has a lot of nice scenery of coastal habitats. Much more interesting, though, is that they are functioning habitats.
Large predatory snails congregating on a tree stump at Sugar Hill camp site.
For instance, Doug loves to catch redfish when he camps on St. George; and they’re always there for him. But why are these fish so abundant in Apalachicola Bay? The answer is in those tasty oysters that put the name Apalachicola on the map. Oyster reefs are a refuge for all kinds of animals like stone crabs, blue crabs, and various predatory snails and small fish. It’s an all you can eat buffet for larger fish looking for those small fish and little mud crabs. The action I described above happened by a seagrass bed not far offshore. Those beds thrive in water that oysters filter clean, and so they provide another habitat for marine life in the bay. I ate Apalachicola oysters for years without realizing just how much they give, and give, and give…
Rob photographs small fish and crabs that Debbie scooped out of St. Joe Bay.
At the other end of the trail, In Saint Joseph Bay, we caught up with Dan and Debbie VanVleet of Happy Ours Kayak and Canoe Outpost. When WFSU first started the In the Grass, On the Reef project, we rented our kayaks from Dan and Debbie. Debbie’s been wanting to take us snorkeling for a while, to get some video of some of the critters living in seagrass beds in St. Joe Bay. Kayaking over the shallow waters in the bay, you can see the turtlegrass from where you’re sitting, as well as rays, horseshoe crabs, and snails making their way about the sandy bottom. To see the creatures living in the seagrass beds, you have to get out of the kayak. This is where you have to be careful.
When I say be careful, I’m not just talking about your safety, though you should shuffle your feet to alert stingrays that you’re coming, or if you kayak to St. Vincent Island, definitely stay out of the way of charging boars. You also have to be careful with these habitats, and the marine life within them. Dan and Debbie (and local law enforcement) are very big on people not taking seashells out of the bay. Taking a bunch of whelks and crown conchs out of the bay means taking out critical predators, removing a top layer in the local food web. And, as the sign implies, even a dead shell has a role to play (any hermit crab would agree). It’s called the “leave no trace” approach, and there are tips on how to best accomplish this on the trail website. There are also safety tips and maps. If you’re attempting anything more than a day trip along this trail, it’s a pretty comprehensive resource.
Doug has put a lot of work into mapping the trail- it took three years- and assembling resources so that people could best enjoy it. You can hear the love he has for paddling when he reads from his book, Wild Florida Waters. You’ll hear a couple of passages in the show tomorrow. Even hearing him read about paddling in a strong wind kind of gets me excited about going out again. It reminds me of paddling to safety in St. Joe Bay after a sudden thunderstorm erupts, or paddling in December when the cold water numbed my hands. It’s not as predicable a form of recreation as visiting a beach resort. But it’s never boring.
Thanks to Doug (L) for talking to us, and Park Ranger Josh Hodson for driving us around St. George Island State Park.
Thanks to Debbie and Dan for taking us out.
Have fun out there. And share your stories with us! Click on the Ecotourism North Florida link above if you have an eco-adventure you’d like to see us cover.
For a few months now, we’ve been telling you about an extensive field experiment being conducted for the biogeographic oyster study.As David posted earlier, it was a complex undertaking that took a lot of hard work- long hours and physical labor- to get up and running. Now, thanks to Hurricane Irene, they have to tear down about a month ahead of time. While it no longer looks likely to hit David’s St. Augustine site, it might hit some of the other team’s sites in the Carolinas (or at least bring heavy rain). In order for the data to be consistent, once one site starts tearing down, they all do. That’s the challenge of conducting a study where you look at effects over a large geographic expanse- staying consistent when so many things can vary across the miles. Even the manner in which the cages are taken down is important; all of the Primary Investigators (the team leaders) were to have met in Skidaway, Georgia next month to decide how to proceed on that front. Now, they’ll have to figure it out on the fly.
David will be updating us on the progress of the experiment tear down as it happens, so stay tuned!
David’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
If you had the time, didn’t mind camping for months on end, and were physically up to paddling fifteen hundred miles, you could paddle around the entire state of Florida using trails mapped out by Doug Alderson. He coordinates the Florida Circumnavigational Paddling Trail for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (Visit the trail’s web site). You would pass by major urban centers like Tampa and Miami. You would make your way through the entirety of the Florida keys. And you would see a lot of amazing coastal habitats.
Ready to go?
The Forgotten Coast segment of the trail starts in St. Joseph Peninsula State Park.
I’m guessing the vast majority of people reading this are saying no, though we would certainly want to hear from you if you were doing this. Luckily, the trail breaks down into twenty six segments, and over one hundred individual day trips. The one I’m interested in is Segment 4: The Forgotten Coast. It takes you through some of my favorite places. St. Joseph Bay has clear water and lively seagrass beds and salt marshes. Many of St. Vincent Island’s most interesting animals aren’t aquatic, but if you look over as you paddle past you might see wild hogs running or even one of those elusive red wolves (not likely, but it doesn’t hurt to look). Once you pass there, you could choose to either go along St. George Island or stick to the mainland and pass by Apalachicola, where you can try to find a place to land your kayak while you pick up some oysters.
We’ll be kayaking part of this trail for September 14 episode, and talking to Mr. Alderson about it. Have any of you done this? Are any of you attempting this, or any section of it, any time in the next month? We want to know. We want to see your photos. We want to watch your videos. Leave a comment below, with links to any videos or photos if you like. If you’ll be out that way in the next couple of weeks, we may want to interview you.
And we want to keep hearing from you. If you have any ideas for stories we might do related to coastal ecotourism, leave a comment on our Ecotourism North Florida page.
This one is for all you animal lovers! WFSU’s dimensions producer and In the Grass, On the Reef contributor Mike Plummer takes a look at a nonprofit that cares for animals in need, including screech owls and deer, as well as some of the critters we see out along the coast like ospreys and pelicans. Enjoy!
Here is a video from SciGirls II visit with Dr. Randall Hughes at the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab. Enjoy!
Today, the WFSU/ Mag Lab SciGirls visited Dr. Randall Hughes at the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory.
With the In the Grass, On the Reef documentary done, me, my wife Amy, and our son Maximus took a vacation to visit Amy’s family in Duxbury Beach, Massachusetts. We were picked up at the airport by her cousin, Jim Kennedy. On the ride down, we got to talking about what our respective plans were for the week. One thing he was wanting to do grabbed my attention. He was going to go clamming for quahogs in the marsh by the family’s vacation home and make a chowder. That sounded so cool to me. Go into a marsh without having to lug around a camera, and round up some tasty critters? I told him I wanted to go (I did go into the marsh with a camera last year, which is where the marsh pics you see originated). It’s a strange side effect of working on this project that I now enjoy going into hot, muddy places surrounded by sharp grass.
Low tide was set for 11 AM on the day we chose to go, so we set out between 9:30 and 10 while the tide was still going out. The marsh is at the mouth of the Back River, and when the tide drops, the grass stands a few feet above the bottom of the river bed. Below the cordgrass, the sides of the elevated marsh are pockmarked by fiddler crab burrows. We entered the sand/ mud flats at the head of the river from Gurnet Road, armed with our permit, a rake, and a 12-quart bucket. The quahogs would be buried just below the mucky surface. Here on the Forgotten Coast, we have quahogs as well- ours are the southern quahogs, the more famous New England quahogs are known as the northern quahog:
There were a lot of people out there harvesting the clams. Most of them used a short rake meant specifically for clamming. Jim went to several stores to look for one but couldn’t find it, so we used a garden rake. At the end of the day, though, the best tools we had were our own feet. A mature, legal sized quahog (3-4 years old) is big enough that we could feel them under our feet as we walked up the river bed. Then, with the rake or with our hands, we would dig them out. Around every legal sized clam we found there were usually several smaller ones. I thought back to what David said in the show about what he looked for in an oyster reef. The best ones had several mature oysters as well as several smaller ones to eventually replace them.
Green crab (Carcinus maenas)?
I couldn’t help but note the differences and commonalities between our local marshes and sand flats and this New England marsh. I didn’t see many large predatory snails in or around the marsh, a stark contrast to sand flats in St. Joseph Bay or at Bay Mouth Bar.
Blue crabs are of course common on Florida coasts, but their historic range ends just to the south of here, on the outer coasts of Cape Cod. I believe this mud covered crab is an invasive green crab, and I have seen Atlantic rock crabs on the nearby beach. There were razor clams (Ensis directus) and steamers (soft shell clams, Mya arenaria), each of which are harvested at other times of the year. We also saw the occasional small shrimp, and oysters that had flaked off of reefs deeper out in the bay.
We caught the legal limit and returned, muddied, to prepare the chowder.
Jim Kennedy (left) and WFSU-TV producer Rob Diaz de Villegas (right) shuck and clean quahogs.
A little on how you prepare quahogs for chowder:
You scrub the mud off of the closed shells. Open shells buried in the mud are dead animals and are unsafe for consumption.
After scrubbing them, you boil them until they open. Then you shuck them and remove the contents of their stomachs. In the photo at the lower left of this paragraph, that green stuff is phytoplankton- microscopic plants floating with the other sediment in the water. Good food for clams- and their filtering it is a great way to keep the water clean- but not anything we were interested in eating.
I got to try my hand shucking and cleaning the clams. Jim’s mom, Pam, cut potatoes and onions while Jim cooked the quahogs and fried some bacon. The bacon smell helped with the boiling clam smell. The ingredients would come together in a large pot with milk, cream, and flour. The making of the chowder in the cottage brought out some nostalgia.
Pam recalled that her grandmother’s chowder didn’t contain dairy. When Bertha and Archer MacFarland would camp on Duxbury Beach, they didn’t have refrigeration and so milk and cream weren’t really an option.
“When Max is old enough,” My father-in-law, Chris MacFarland, said to me, “you need to teach him how to go quahogging to keep the tradition going.” Maximus is five months old, so I have a bit of time until I take him out there. When he does go, he’ll represent the fifth generation of the MacFarland family to harvest quahogs from Duxbury Bay.
Duxbury Beach and Duxbury Bay are separated by Gurnet Point, a thin cape down which Gurnet Road runs. The road runs to the town of Saquish at the horn of the cape. Driving there, the beach is on your left, and the bay is to the right. A large marsh is at the North of the bay.
Archer and Bertha started camping on Duxbury Beach around 1920. After some years of camping there, they bought plots of land and built a cottage by the marsh. When their son Robert was sixteen, he built another house nearby. Then, when he was nineteen, he sold his car for $200 to buy a plot. There he built the house where his children, and their children and grandchildren, vacation every summer.
Robert took his children looking for quahogs when they were young. They used the “treading” method to find their clams, much like we did, except that they were barefoot. Jim and I wore shoes to keep our feet safe from broken shells hidden in soft mud that was deep in places. It was deeper as we walked up the riverbed- I sank almost up to my waist at one point. I imagine that they didn’t walk that far up.
Robert also fixed up an old pram, on which he used to take his sons Chris and Doug on fishing trips off of the beach. As Chris (who was 7) and Doug (who was 5) recalled, one of them would row, the other would bail water. They caught cod, threw back pollock and perch, and used mackerel for bait. Of course, North Atlantic cod is not nearly as common as it once was. Nor is flounder as common off of Saquish. Jim remembers going out with his family and spotting them at the edge of seagrass beds from the family’s Boston Whaler. For about ten years now, those haven’t been seen much either. As David points out in the program, the animals in the lower trophic levels see less change over time, and so there are still plenty of clams in Duxbury Bay.
Hopefully that means chowder at the cottage for many more summers.
When the chowder was done, it was served with oyster crackers and crumbled bacon (the bacon Jim made earlier- the grease was used in the chowder).
I’m guessing there are stories like this across the Forgotten Coast: generations of families bonding while they made use of the fish and shellfish swimming outside their back doors. Do you have a story like this? Share it here, in the comments section. We might want to visit some of you and feature your stories in one of our videos.
Photos taken by: Rob Diaz de Villegas, Chris MacFarland, James Kennedy, and Amy Diaz de Villegas. Archival photos provided by Chris MacFarland.
In the Grass, On the Reef: Testing the Ecology of Fear is online in its entirety and in HD. Predators and prey struggle for survival in crucial coastal ecosystems across North Florida.