Haylee Wood, center, a fourth-grader at Chester Taylor Elementary, peers at a butterfly captured in an insect collector Tuesday at Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park. The students are visiting the park as part of Pasco County schools' summer PEACE camp.
Zachary Brizek, left, and Rebecca Fowler get help from teacher Bridget Lovelle as they use an iPad to photograph an insect Tuesday.
Kylie Thompson, a fourth-grader at Chester Taylor Elementary, takes notes Tuesday at Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park.
Jasael Toledo, 8, a student at Chester Taylor Elementary School, checks out Polly, a gopher tortoise, on Tuesday.
NEW PORT RICHEY - In nature, everything plays a role, even those dung beetles industriously rolling scat across a road at Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park.
"That's what they eat," teacher Bridget Lovelle told students gathered around to look at the natural world's cleanup crew.
Lovelle and the children hadn't set out Tuesday morning looking for scavenger insects making off with animal feces, but the park has a way of providing unplanned lessons. Lovelle wasn't about to let one pass.
Lovelle is lead teacher at Starkey this week for the Pasco County school district's PEACE camp, an annual event for Title I schools that immerses students in the natural world. PEACE stands for Pasco Environmental Adventure Camp Experience.
The past few summers, the district also has sponsored a technology camp for Title I schools, which are schools that receive extra federal funding because they have a high percentage of students from low-income families. This year, the environmental camp and the technology camp merged, so students in the field toted iPads to help record their findings.
"It's working out really well," said Lovelle, a Mary Giella Elementary teacher who is spending her fifth summer with the PEACE camp. "It's been really good and the kids are loving it."
Tammy Hanlon, a teacher at West Zephyrhills Elementary, took on the role of technology specialist at Starkey, helping students with that aspect of their camp experience.
The camp began two weeks ago with middle and high school students. Now elementary school students are participating.
Each school gets four days at the camp, which takes them to four locations: Starkey Park, Safety Town, the Energy and Marine Center and the Florida Aquarium.
For middle and high school students, the Florida Aquarium was replaced with Dames Caves in the Withlachoochee State Forest.
At Starkey on Tuesday, students from West Zephyrhills Elementary and Chester Taylor Elementary learned about gopher tortoises, insects and animal tracks.
The students' first assignment was to record what they saw arriving at the park.
Kylie Thompson, 9, a fourth-grader at Chester Taylor Elementary, had seen plenty - squirrels, trees, grass, turtles and a man riding a bicycle.
She hoped the Starkey experience would be as good as the day before when her group visited Safety Town.
"We went through the woods and saw animal prints, and we made fossils," Kylie said.
Animal footprints, paw prints and hoofprints also played a part in the Starkey program, with Heather Hill, a Chester Taylor Elementary teacher, explaining the terminology for how different animals walk. Plantigrade means the animal walks on its whole foot. Digitigrade means it walks on its toes. And unguligrade means the animal is hoofed.
Robin Carter, a West Zephyrhills Elementary teacher, showed the students a small gopher tortoise named Polly, explaining how the tortoise uses its front feet to dig into the ground, creating a burrow where it takes up residence, but often not alone.
Other creatures, such as rattlesnakes and black indigo snakes, take advantage of the tortoise's hard work, making themselves at home in the hole.
In a forest fire, the burrow also becomes a shelter for animals trying to escape the blaze.
"Do you think the gopher tortoise is important to the ecosystem?" Carter asked.
"Yes," the children chorused.
They then embarked on a burrow-finding excursion. There were plenty to be found near the park's education center. Some burrows appeared to be active because the aprons - the burrows' entrances - were neatly kept free of grass and pine needles, just the way a gopher tortoise prefers.
Lovelle led an insect-catch-and-release expedition, but she warned the students she planned to give them as little assistance as possible as they swung their nets through tall grass.
"I've been catching bugs for five years out here," Lovelle said. "I want you to catch bugs."
Harley Robertson, 10, a West Zephyrhills fifth-grader, did just that, netting a grasshopper that he transferred to a plastic insect viewer with the help of his partner, Tony Russo, also a 10-year-old fifth-grader.
"Stop freaking out," Harley told the grasshopper, which kept hopping inside the viewer.
Insects weren't the only Starkey denizens the students encountered.
Emily Velez, 10, a Chester Taylor Elementary fifth-grader, used her iPad to snap a photo of a pygmy rattlesnake under the watchful eye of Mike O'Donnell, a paraprofessional who drove the bus that brought the children to Starkey.
O'Donnell, who has worked at the camp for four years, said he enjoys helping with the nature education and hopes some of the children leave with new career aspirations.
"You never know what kind of scientists, park rangers, ecologists we'll get out of this," O'Donnell said. "If nothing else, a love for nature."