Category Archives: Longleaf Pine & Fire Ecology

When Europeans first arrived in North America, 90 million acres of longleaf pine habitat covered the American southeast. Today, 3 million acres remain, but most of that has been planted and regrown over the last 100 years. Only 10,000 acres of old growth longleaf forest remain.

This ecosystem is one of the most biodiverse in North America. Frequent burning (2-3 years) promotes wide spacing of pine and allows a host of wildflowers, grasses, and succulent plants to flourish. In turn, these provide food and shelter for hundreds of species, some of which are only found within this habitat.

The WFSU viewing area is home to the best remaining examples of pine flatwoods. To the south and west of Tallahassee, the Apalachicola National Forest contains over half a million acres of forest, where the largest number of endangered red cockaded woodpeckers can be found. To the north and east of Tallahassee, the private landowners of the Red Hills maintain 300,000 contiguous acres of forest land, including some of the best examples of old growth longleaf forest. On our adventures in these ancient forests, we best see the dynamics of this ecosystem. It’s a vision of what might be for the many other locations we visit that are being restored. It’s a process that will take hundreds of years to complete.

The Underground Lives of Ants in a North Florida Forest

Dr. Walter Tschinkel has developed a novel way to explore ant nests.  We travel with him to the Apalachicola National Forest for a brand of research that creates works of art, in collaboration with the ants themselves.  You can see an exhibit of this art at the Tallahassee Museum through June 10, 2018.

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Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU Public Media

I think all of us at some time have stepped on a mound of dirt, uncovering scores of scurrying ants.  Immediately, we brush them off our feet before they can bite us.  When we see lines of ants crossing grass, we chose a different spot in the park to have our snack.  And we’re definitely unhappy to see them in our house.  When we see ants in our world, they’re pests. Continue reading The Underground Lives of Ants in a North Florida Forest

Rebecca Means holds a gopher frog in her hand. It has contracted into a defensive posture, front feet in front of its face.

Its Wetlands are Dry, But There’s Plenty to See in the Munson Sandhills

Ephemeral wetlands in the Munson Sandhills are currently dry.  But this region of the Apalachicola National Forest has plenty to see, including rare and threatened animal species.

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The frosted elfin is a rare butterfly whose strongest concentration in the Southeast is within the Apalachicola National Forest. Photo courtesy Dean and Sally Jue.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU Public Media

Today, we’re taking the kids out to ephemeral wetlands in the Apalachicola National Forest.  Our purpose?  To show them that right now, the wetlands aren’t so wet.

It sounds like a crazy reason to drag kids out to the forest on a Sunday morning.  Last year, we adopted two wetlands with two other families, my son Max’s first grade classmates.   So they’ve already started learning about this environment and formed positive memories after spending time here with their friends.

We’re here today because there’s a tremendous value in visiting the same spot in nature over time, through different seasons and climate cycles.  Nature isn’t static.  Individual plants and animals change through the seasons.  The wetland itself changes over the course of wet and dry years.  Being here is the best way for kids (and adults) to get in tune with the workings of any wild space.

And even in its current dry state, we still have the opportunity to see some things.  In particular, Max, his friend Dylan, and little brother Xavi might get to see the gopher frog, a species of concern.

Continue reading Its Wetlands are Dry, But There’s Plenty to See in the Munson Sandhills

Gulf frittilary in flight over a large gathering of butterflies, including little yellow, orange sleepy, and cloudless sulphur species.

Tallahassee Butterfly Count 2017: Know Your Local Species

Butterflies are all around us, and they deserve a closer look.  When you pay attention to butterflies, you notice the plants they use, and other interesting insects.

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Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU Public Media

Some of my favorite butterfly shots in this video came from an unrelated shoot.  We were at Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy on the day of the eclipse.  Did red cockaded woodpeckers get fooled into acting like it was sunset?  No, it never got that dark in Tallahassee.  But, on the way out, we found our way blocked by the hundred-plus butterflies you see in the opening shots. Continue reading Tallahassee Butterfly Count 2017: Know Your Local Species

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 The Coastal Dune Lake Watershed | Connected by Fire and Water

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 Choctawhatchee River Hiking on new section of the Florida Trail

Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, coiled.

Into the Forest with Bruce Means and the Eastern Diamondback Rattler

We’re in the Apalachicola National Forest with Dr. Bruce Means and the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Bruce is considered a leading expert on this misunderstood species, and has written the definitive book on the rattler, called Diamonds in the Rough. Through its life Bruce has a lot to show us about the longleaf ecosystem.

Music in the segment was provided by Don Juan and the Sonic Rangers.  You can see “Don Juan” Fortner with the Smooth Sailing Jazz duo, and with the Mary and Aaron Band.

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Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU Media

At one point in the video above, Bruce Means, his arm in a stump hole, begins to scream.  Then, he turns to the camera and laughs.  “I love to do that with groups,” he chuckles.  He’s showing us a favorite hiding place of the eastern diamondback rattlesnake.  Using a little bit of theater- and citing decades of research- he’s turning an unremarkable burnt out stump into a dynamic refuge within the longleaf pine forest. Continue reading Into the Forest with Bruce Means and the Eastern Diamondback Rattler

Remote Footprints goes deep into the Bradwell Bay Wilderness

A family of three is on a mission to see how far away they can get from people.  They are Remote Footprints.  Today, the Means family leads us into the Bradwell Bay Wilderness, our remotest local area.

Music in the video was composed by Hot Tamale, who just happen to be this weeks musical guest on Local Routes.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU Media

The most surprising moment of our remote adventure didn’t happen in the swamp, or in the forest, but in front of a computer.  Rebecca Means clicked a check box, and all of our area roads loaded onto her map.  Our rural, forested Big Bend of Florida wasn’t as open as I had thought. Continue reading Remote Footprints goes deep into the Bradwell Bay Wilderness

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 Striped Newts and Ornate Chorus Frogs in the Munson Sandhills

Bringing the Striped Newt Back to the Munson Sandhills

UPDATE: Scroll down to see the recent good news in the striped newt repatriation project covered in this video (May 24, 2016)

The striped newt is a bridge between the longleaf pine ecosystem and the many local water bodies that connect to our aquifer.  If you want to know more about other longleaf species like red cockaded woodpeckers (one of whose cavity is taken over by another species in the video below) or gopher tortoises (in whose burrows striped newts may shelter during fires), you might enjoy our recent Roaming the Red Hills series.  The location of our gopher tortoise video is Birdsong Nature Center, where the stars of our striped newt adventure will be leading the first ever Ephemeral Wetlands Extravaganza this Saturday, May 21 (EDIT: This is event is being rescheduled due to storms forecasted for Saturday morning.  Keep an eye on the Birdsong calendar or Facebook page for more information) .  

Like in Roaming the Red Hills, original music was composed for this video by local musicians.  Hot Tamale has contributed music to EcoAdventures in the past.  In one of the first ever posts on this blog, Hot Tamale’s Craig Reeder wrote about their song Crystal Gulf Waters, which was inspired by the 2010 BP Oil Spill.  The segment below aired on the May 19 episode of Local Routes.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Ryan and Rebecca Means put the future of the striped newt species (in the Apalachicola National Forest, anyway) in the hands of young children.  They didn’t intend it to be symbolic; it just seemed like it would make for nice video.  And it was.  The images do, however, reflect a central mission of the Means’s work with the Coastal Plains Institute: to foster a love of our local ecosystems in the young, with the hope of creating a new generation of stewards. Continue reading Bringing the Striped Newt Back to the Munson Sandhills

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 Peeking into Gopher Tortoise Burrows at Birdsong