The rain that fell on the Deltona Elementary School fourth-graders at the Springs Coast Environmental Education Center during their recent visit was not heavy enough to interfere with their planned trek along the trail. It only meant that the center's teacher, Cheryl Paradis, had to fetch the green ponchos.
After a morning of classroom water cycle activities and lunch, the plastic-hooded students were ready to go. Their destination: an area known as Parker's Landing, a memorial to John Parker, a Southwest Florida Water Management District advocate for getting children outdoors to experience nature.
New this year at that site are learning stations that Paradis and the site's secretary and property caretaker, Jessica Ballew, built. One is a bench facing the Weeki Wachee River where students can rest and enjoy the peace.
Altogether, there are five information stations. One provides alligator facts. Another, near a dead tree, explains how the tree supports wildlife with food and habitat. There was an eagle perched on the tree, a testament to its usefulness.
A life-size painting of an eagle on wood mounted at just about the height of a fourth-grader provides a way for children to compare their arm spans with an eagle's wingspan.
Another station is by a large rock, with information about rocks and rock formation.
A station near a cabbage palm has information about the Florida state tree.
There is also an aquifer water cooler for students who wish to refresh themselves.
The trip to Parker's Landing was not just a straight hike. Paradis stopped often to point out things along the way — blood lichens, harvester ants, rusty Lyonia plants and scrub rosemary bushes. She pointed out a spectacular spider web with a golden orb-weaver in the middle of it.
There is an area along the path where students were asked to keep to the stepping-stones, which are embedded in sand. The animal track zone normally is a good place to see whether raccoons, deer, bobcats or other critters have been out and about. On this rainy day, though, tracks were sparse.
On the return trip from the landing, the group stopped at a viewing area and borrowed binoculars to see a huge eagle nest. It is an active nest with eaglets, which wasn't obvious on such a dull, gray day.
Paradis said a pair of eagles has nested there five times, and those who watch the nest can expect to see the young birds fledge around May. The nest will be empty during the summer; the parents are expected to return in September.
The children were at the center with their teachers, Michelle Steele and Melissa Arledge, and some volunteer chaperones. Steele said the visit was a good way to help students remember things.
"They retain what they learn better," she said, when they can see what teachers are talking about.
Hannah Cole, 9, said "I learned about lots of different kinds of trees and grass and all different kinds of leaves and things."
Johnathon Fisher, 9, seemed most impressed with the morning sessions.
"I've learned about condensation," he said. "When water evaporates from the ground, it goes up and makes the clouds, and when the clouds get heavy, it comes down."
"My favorite thing was drinking out of the aquifer," said Charli Armstrong, 9, "because it's more fresh than regular water."
Alexis Rosa, 9, was excited to see "all the footprints from the animals." She said she thought she saw some raccoon tracks.
Jemiriah Godbolt, 10, enjoyed gazing at the water, saying her favorite part of the day was, "seeing the river (and) how you can see animals inside, like fish."