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.
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.
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 →
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.
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 →
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 →
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 VillegasWFSU-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.
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? Continue reading →
Tallahassee SciGirls camp is a collaboration between WFSU and the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. For two weeks ever summer, middle school aged girls take over a dozen field trips exposing them to science in multiple real world settings, from the physics lab at Florida State University to the Seacrest Wolf Preserve. We joined them for two of their ecology related adventures. The video below is of their visit to Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy. On Wednesday, September 17 at 7:30 pm ET, their visit to Wakulla Springs airs on WFSU’s Dimensions (look for it here shortly after).
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
Kellie Phillips, a graduate student at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry, shows the SciGirls how she tracks northern bobwhite quails using radio telemetry. Bobwhites are a popular game species found in fire dependent longleaf habitat.
There is something about a well burned forest that looks clean. The longleaf/ wiregrass ecosystem is uncluttered, with trees spaced widely enough “to drive a wagon through.” Many of our EcoAdventures take place in or around this habitat, which covers much of our area. A lot of our guides on these trips, whether they be land managers, ecotourism professionals, or researchers, love to talk about the habitat and how it thrives with fire. Dr. Tom Miller looked at a plot of Apalachicola National Forest and told me that it had been burned within 18 months. Dr. Jean Huffman looked up at longleaf pines in the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve and told me how old they were. For any SciGirls interested in ecology, their visit to Tall Timbers was an opportunity to get to know a diverse and productive ecosystem that is easily accessible to those of us living in or around Tallahassee. One day they might be the ones looking forward to the next burn and guiding their local PBS producer through the woods. Continue reading →
Watch and listen: what does a Wilderness sound like at night?
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
It seems like a good premise for a movie: Under a full moon, on Friday the thirteenth, a group of people wander in the Wilderness. You could be a part of this movie on Friday, June 13 (8 pm), as Haven Cook of the U.S. Forest Service leads a hike into the Bradwell Bay Wilderness. It’s one of a series of events being held in the Apalachicola National Forest to celebrate 50 years of the Wilderness Act. Passed in 1964, the act designated certain protected areas as Wilderness.
So how is a Wilderness any different than any other protected land? We are surrounded by the Apalachicola National Forest, St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, Wildlife Management Areas, state parks, and large greenways. There are some waterways near here where you could spend hours and not see many signs of civilization. It’s already plenty wild around here, right? 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. Continue reading →
I like the idea of hiking cross country, unimpeded, for miles at a time.Trails are great, of course. But they only offer up so many possibilities. What if you could stand in one place, look in every direction, and just go where it looked most interesting?
On our hike through the St. Joseph Bay Buffer Preserve, Dr. Jean Huffman is leading us on just such an adventure to look for rare plants. The showiest of those is Chapman’s rhododendron. This is the only public land where this flowering shrub is found. Other unique-to-Florida (or unique-to-the -panhandle) species are hidden within the grass. Continue reading →
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.
We spent one day learning about invasive Hydrilla and alligators at Wakulla Springs, and then of course had to cool off!
For most of the month of May, I was busy teaching an undergraduate course at FSUCML. The course – Marine Biodiversity and Conservation in Florida – was a new offering, and it was lots of fun to put together. And, at least from my perspective, it went pretty well! (I guess you’d have to poll my students to get the true picture of how it went down.)
One of the best aspects of the course, for me, was to learn so much about the special part of Florida that we call home. We spent one day trying our hand at tonging oysters in Apalachicola, Continue reading →