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At Belmont Manor, students discover nature's variety

After a morning of rain, the trails at Belmont Manor and Historic Park in Elkridge were soggy and slick.

A group of fifth-graders from Cradlerock Elementary School making their way through woods on the estate didn't seem to notice. They were too busy finding a spider, then a mushroom, then a deer's footprint.

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Christian Johnson, 11, walked over with a millipede in his hand, unfazed by its thousand red legs and thick, banded body.

Katalina Martinez used a smartphone — protected from the rain by a clear plastic case — to take photos of everything from spiders and moss to earthworms found under rotting logs.

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"I'm finding some cool stuff here," said the 11-year-old, unaware of the mud coating the bottoms of her sneakers and pant legs. "Maybe we can find some caterpillars!"

More than 80 students from the east Columbia school trekked across the grounds at Belmont Manor and Historic Park Tuesday morning to explore, observe and describe every organism they discovered as part of the Howard County Conservancy's third BioBlitz, held May 16 to 19 in partnership with the county's school system.

"Yesterday we had about 109 species that the kids identified," said Meg Boyd, the Conservancy's director, referring to 80 students from Atholton Elementary School who explored the park Monday. "There were six new species we added to that existing species list."

This week the Conservancy unveiled a list of more than 300 organisms that can be found at Belmont Manor, compiled from observations made by Howard County students at the first two BioBlitz events held in fall 2014 and spring 2015. This type of resource was not previously available for visitors to the 85-acre estate because it was only recently turned into a park.

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"The property's been used as a conference center for years, but never really investigated in terms of the natural resources," Boyd said. "So we thought it was a great opportunity to get the students involved."

The species list is now available to the public on the Conservancy's website, and will be updated with any new species that students find in May or during the next BioBlitz this fall.

"It's kind of cool, because the students are contributing to a body of science and not just on a field trip ," said Ann Strozyk, environmental educator for the Howard County school system. "There's a purpose to it."

During last year's BioBlitz event, students identified coyote scat with the help of a mammal specialist; a photo of a coyote taken on the premises by a visitor later confirmed the presence of the animal there. Students also observed ringneck snakes, common box turtles and garlic mustard — an invasive but edible weed.

"A group might go out to a tree to start, or go to a spot in the meadow," Boyd said, "and the kids will spend 30 minutes there, just looking at that one tree or that meadow area, and starting to pick through and notice all the life just on one tree."

Inspiration for the BioBlitz at Belmont Manor came from the National Geographic Society, Boyd said, which began hosting biodiversity-discovery events two decades ago.

The purpose is to find and identify "as many species as possible in a specific area over a short period of time," according to the society's website.

Within five minutes of hitting the trail, the group of Cradlerock Elementary students exploring the woodland at Belmont Manor had sighted a tree more than 50 feet tall, with orange-green blossoms on its branches.

"Do you guys see any flowers up there?" asked Devon Kosisky, a program assistant with the Conservancy. He was leading the group with the help of Conservancy volunteer, "Ranger" Al Burgoon.

"Yeah!" the kids answered.

"That's a tulip poplar," Kosisky said. "See how the flowers look like tulips?"

Several of the students began photographing the tree. They were using a smartphone app called iNaturalist to log the findings of their exploration.

"How do you spell poplar?" asked Kyle Press, 10.

The free iNaturalist app allows users to upload photos and observations of any organisms they encounter to an online database, so they can be shared and verified by amateurs and professionals around the world.

"So it's starting to connect these students to the huge world of science that's out there," Boyd said. "And we're really asking them to look at the texture, the color, the size, and really describe well what it is that they're seeing."

The activity gets kids to activate their observation skills, and connects them with the outdoors, Boyd said.

"We want to develop future environmental stewards," she said. "And in order to do that, we need to get kids excited about the natural world when they're young. That's really part of our mission, is just instilling that excitement and that love for nature."

At the edge of the woods next to Belmont Manor, Kosisky pointed out a black cherry tree to the Cradlerock students, and in the process found a praying mantis egg case stuck to a branch.

"There can be 300 little mantises in there," he said, indicating a brown sack the size of a quarter. "Can you imagine how little they must be, and how fast they grow over the summer?"

"Whoa!" the kids said all at once. "Look at that!"

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