Tally SciGirls Learn Fire Ecology at Tall Timbers

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 Villegas WFSU-TV
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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.

As Tall Timbers’ Jim Cox told me, this ecosystem used to cover 90,000,000 acres between Texas and Virginia.  Lightning would ignite the forest every few years and, uninterrupted by roads or concrete structures, fire would spread for hundreds of miles.  It would clear almost everything between the thick barked longleaf pine trees, making way for palmettos, wiregrass, and small succulent plants that fed the many diverse forest fauna.  Today, less than three percent of that forest remains.  And, with humans occupying so much of the landscape, wildfires are more public safety hazard than promoters of diversity.

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One of several trees we saw at Tall Timbers that had been struck in a recent lightning storm. Strikes like these used to spark massive fires that kept the 90 million acre coastal plain forest healthy.

But the forest needs fire, so humans need to create and control burns themselves.  How and how often to burn is a science.  Much of Tall Timbers Research Station’s 4,000 acres is a laboratory dedicated to perfecting this science.  As much as I loved the shots of girls helping to tag a Bachman’s sparrow and letting snakes slither up their arms, my favorite part of the video above is the side-by-side comparison of the burn plots.  Here you have a visual representation of what happens to a forest that burns once a year versus once every three years.  And it lets researchers clearly see what animals use the different plots and when they leave for more open land.

As I mentioned earlier, we’ve had some previous adventures in this ecosystem.  We’ve never focused directly on the woods themselves; I enjoyed finally doing that.  The videos/ blog posts below highlight different aspects of fire climax communities:

The Carnivorous Plants of State Road 65

Thread-leaf sundew flowerIf you’re hiking in regularly burned woods and come upon a thick tangle of wood, you’re likely nearing water.  The area between the two habitats, at the edge of both fire and moist mucky areas, is where, in late Spring, you can find some very interesting wildflowers.  Dr. Tom Miller guided us to a bog the Apalachicola National Forest where we could walk among pitcher plants, thread-leaf sundews, and other flowering plants that get their nutrients not from the soil, but from animal flesh.  This is the kind of disturbed area the plants prefer.  Regularly mowed roadsides along the forest also sport carnivorous flowers.  Eleanor Dietrich took us along S.R. 65 and talked to us about her efforts to draw more people to the area to see these unique plants.

Rare Plants Thrive with Fire at the Buffer Preserve

The "Wet Savanna" of the Buffer PreserveThe Apalachicola National Forest and the private forests found on the hunting plantations of the Red Hills of Florida and Georgia house some of the largest and best preserved examples of the coastal plain forest that used to dominate the southeast.  A lesser known but equally impressive example can be found at the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.  Dr. Jean Huffman showed us some of the rare plants growing there, many of them found hidden among the wiregrass.  And the Buffer is also home to one of the rarest wildflowers in Florida, the Chapman’s rhododendron. The blog post that accompanies the video explains how Dr. Huffman uses tree rings to determine how often trees had historically burned, useful information in setting a burn schedule.

Also, WFSU-FM’s Nick Evans travelled to the Buffer at a different time of year, and saw a number of different rare plants.

Keep up with the latest posts, environmental coverage from the WFSU News department and more at @wfsuIGOR.

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About Rob Diaz de Villegas

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).