GRASONVILLE - Balancing on the top rail of a sun-bleached fence, Chad Angelini peered beneath a pine tree's branches and spotted his prize: a fallen swallow's nest.
"Look at this!" the 6-year-old boy from Sudlersville called. His fellow campers, tramping across a meadow on a scavenger hunt, crowded around. They were quiet, faces solemn with wonder, as they admired the perfect circle of twigs.
But only for a moment. Soon, the other boys and girls were exclaiming over their own finds.
James Green, 7, of Glen Burnie peeled back a piece of bark to uncover an ant colony. Nicolas Adee, 5, of Centreville collected stray goose feathers until he stepped on a smelly dropping. Julia D'Ambrosio, 6, also of Centreville, picked a handful of tiny wild strawberries.
It was a typical day of discovery at the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, a secluded, 500-acre estuary with wide expanses of marshland and an unspoiled sandy beach, only a few miles from Kent Island's pricey waterfront condominiums.
For two weeks every June, as soon as school is out, dozens of children descend on this sanctuary on Maryland's Eastern Shore for summer camp. Their days are spent outdoors, following camp counselors on nature walks; studying bugs, birds and horseshoe crabs; canoeing, fishing and getting low-key lessons on conservation.
The camp's mission is to educate elementary-age schoolchildren about wetlands, wildlife and the Chesapeake Bay. As they get their hands dirty and feet wet, though, campers experience something else they don't always get to in the increasingly suburbanized state: the joy of exploring the outdoors.
"It's made Carly very aware of the world around her and how to take care of it," says Lisa Kelly of Centreville, whose 7-year-old daughter has attended the camp the past four summers.
The refuge, once a large farm on a peninsula surrounded by Marshy Creek and Prospect Bay, is a wintering spot for swans, geese and ducks. Listed as critical for preservation, it was purchased in 1981 by the Wildfowl Trust of North America, a Maryland-based nonprofit.
Although it's only a few minutes from the Bay Bridge, the center is a world apart. Manicured lawns give way to miles of cattails and scrubby pines. Red-winged blackbirds swoop over the marshes. A hawk makes lazy circles in the cloudless sky.
The camp lies at the end of a dusty dirt road. The beach can only be reached by walking across a creaking boardwalk that spans a muddy swamp. The closest building to the Marshy Creek beach is not a $1.5 million mansion but a small, long-abandoned hunting lodge.
At noon, the younger campers in kindergarten through second grade wrap up their bird-watching expedition. The older contingent, grades three through five, cheer loudly as camp counselors announce a trip to the beach.
Picking up large nets and buckets, the children walk down to Marshy Creek. Waves wash a dying crab ashore. Boys and girls wade up to their waists in the surprisingly clear water, searching for minnows and shrimp.
"I want them to learn to observe," said Martha Shaum, 58, the center's education director and leader of the summer camp. "I like the opportunity for the kids to get outside. So many kids nowadays don't get to."
Parents worry about Lyme disease from tick bites and the mosquito-borne West Nile virus, she said. Others don't want their children exposed to too much sun. "There's a fear of the outdoors," she said.
Shaum is often surprised at how little knowledge the campers - and school groups who visit during the year - have about species native to Maryland. When asked to name a few birds Tuesday, her campers easily rattled off exotic varieties, including emus and penguins, but had a harder time remembering the chickadee.
"It's amazing how little kids know about their back yard," Shaum said. Take the osprey. As many as 1,600 breeding pairs live in Maryland, one of the country's largest nesting populations. Yet even though they can be seen on rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, many campers had never heard of the fish-eating hawk.
Time was when summer in Maryland offered children plenty of opportunities for relaxed outdoor exploration. They jumped into muddy creeks and spent long hours at local fishing holes. Farms were more plentiful then. Even suburbanites could find a field full of grasshoppers and butterflies.
Nowadays, summers can be as busily scheduled as the school year, filled with swimming lessons, baseball leagues and school camps. There are fewer chances for children to wander along Maryland's more than 4,000 miles of shoreline. Many access points have been closed off by new housing subdivisions. Public beaches and piers are becoming more scarce and crowded.
Perhaps that's why the beach tops the list of attractions at the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center camp. "It's the best," says 8-year-old Savannah Gallatin of Annapolis, racing toward the water to look for fish.
The $175-a-week day camp is still relatively little known but has grown in popularity. Enrollment is up to 80 children a week, double that of last year. Children are kept busy from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. with structured activities, coordinated by Shaum, other center staffers and at least a dozen volunteers, including college students and retirees.
Each day has a theme. One day is devoted to wetlands, another to birds, a third to blue crabs, grass shrimp and other water inhabitants.
Campers go on scavenger hunts, searching for different varieties of bugs as well as tracks of muskrats, fox and deer. They canoe, plant beach grasses and take water samples to monitor the quality of the creeks. They tour a yard full of caged birds - vultures, bald eagles and hawks, all injured and being cared for at the center.
It's often the nonscheduled moments, though, that are most memorable. For Savannah, it was spotting a diamondback turtle, "just sitting there." For Samuel Dulin, 8, of Grasonville, it was letting a large fish swim back in the creek. And for Allyson Frank, 7, of Centreville, it was touching a horseshoe crab - and learning a useful fact about owls.
"The girls," she noted proudly, "are stronger than the boys."