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Howard students take to the fields for BioBlitz at Belmont Manor and Historic Park

Armed with pencils, clipboards, an insect net and smartphones, eight Rockburn Elementary School fifth-graders carefully walked through the thick meadow at Belmont Manor and Historic Park in Elkridge.

"See if you can see anything in the grass or the meadow," said Bob Grossman, a Howard County Conservancy volunteer leading the group in Howard County's first-ever student BioBlitz — a survey of Belmont's plants and animals.

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Chad Eakes spotted a yellow bird, perched on a tall blade of grass.

"That's an American gold finch," said Felicia Lovelett, a member of the Howard County Bird Club and the students' field expert for the day.

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Using an application called iNaturalist, Eakes logged information into a smartphone while classmate Morgan Prater documented the time, latitude and longitude on her paper observation data record.

But before the documentation was complete, Jamie Plano shouted, "There's a spider!"

The students turned to find Plano scooping a daddy longlegs, also known as a harvestman, into the insect net.

"We've walked less than 20 feet, and we've already seen two things," said Denise Eakes, Chad's mother and chaperone for the event. "Pretty cool."

From Sept. 15 to 18, 500 fifth-graders from Rockburn and Ducketts Lane elementary schools, and seventh-graders from Patapsco Middle School documented everything from wood frogs and blue jays to lichen, tulip poplar trees and even coyote droppings at the historic Elkridge site and neighboring Patapsco State Park.

The Howard County Conservancy partnered with Howard County Public Schools, as well as volunteers from across the state, to run the BioBlitz and teach students about the importance of biodiversity, said Meg Schumacher Boyd, the conservancy's executive director. A second BioBlitz will be held in the spring with other area schools, so students can compare what was found in the fall with what is found in the spring.

"One thing that really stands out about this program is how authentic the experience is for students, and the level of engagement was off the charts," Boyd said.

The student BioBlitz was also the first-ever biodiversity survey at Belmont, a 68-acre estate that was purchased by the county in 2012.

Before students arrived, BioBlitz leaders assembled backpacks with tools like magnifiers, binoculars and global positioning systems.

They also divided Belmont's grounds into 12 zones. Each day, groups of eight to 10 students and two to three volunteers explored their respective zones, documenting observations along the way.

At least one member of each group held a smartphone or tablet, enabling the group to record findings on iNaturalist — an online network of people sharing biodiversity information. Students also used these devices to photograph their discoveries.

While volunteers and the smart devices helped students identify most of the species, some called for technology-free, hands-on exploration.

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During its trek through the state park's woods, Grossman's group discovered a tree significantly larger than all others around it.

"That tree is probably 150 years old," Grossman said.

The tree, a tulip poplar, appeared hollow on the inside and had split into two larger sections.

To document the trunk's circumference, students and Grossman circled the tree with their arms extended. Then, they took two steps in and locked their hands around the tree.

"That's about 40 to 45 feet," Grossman said.

Meghan said the tree's size — and the variety of wildlife and plants she documented — surprised her.

"They're all different, but they all like the area," she said. "It's like they have a neighborhood. Some live here in the woods, some live on the field side."

After in-field documentation, students returned to Belmont's Carriage House to add additional observations on the iNaturalist website.

Overall, students made more than 1,000 observations during the first four-day period, said Ann Strozyk, environmental educator for Howard County Public Schools.

Scientists will use the collected information to track population changes and protect the area's ecosystem.

For the students, Strozyk said she hopes the experience will give them a lifelong appreciation of the plants, animals and insects that surround them.

Sue Muller, natural resource technician for the county Department of Recreation and Parks, agreed.

"When you put things out there and get them involved scientifically, there's excitement in the air," she said. "… It's about biodiversity and getting that message across to children. It's bringing the whole picture together of how we all interact."

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