Ian Cassette ran his hand over the leaves of a mangrove tree on the shoreline at Anclote River Park. "This one has smaller leaves," he said, comparing the tree with another he had just examined. "That probably looks like a buttonbush," said Shane Burstiner, his Thundercats teammate from Wiregrass Ranch High School. Team member Kelsey Sturman looked down at her quiz sheet. "It could be none of the above," she said.
Wednesday, the 29-acre park was crawling with 54 teams of high school students from Pasco, Hernando, Citrus and Sumter counties to compete in the 2011 Nature Coast Envirothon. The annual event tests students' knowledge of nature. Each five-member team worked together to answer questions in five categories: soils, forestry, estuaries, aquatics and wildlife.
By the end of the morning, Pasco High School's What Would Don Do team had achieved the highest score, earning team members Beth Bartle, Jorge Ortiz, TJ Pyche, Kristina May and Teresa Christmas each a $500 scholarship provided by the St. Petersburg Times.
This year, 270 students participated in the event, down from previous years. Pasco County had 28 teams and Hernando had eight.
"We wanted to make it more competitive," said Mark Butler, the Pasco school district's environmental education instructor and one of the event's organizers.
Schools were limited to five teams each. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, which had participated for the past two years after their regional competitions were canceled due to budget cuts, did not attend the event this year.
Headlights softly appeared through the morning fog as school buses dropped off sneaker-clad students snapping pictures and talking about their strategies. By midmorning, the sun had cleared the misty air.
"It's a beautiful location and lovely weather," said Nancy Dwyer, wildlife biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who was helping run the wildlife station.
There, small animals and bones were set up on two picnic tables and students had to answer questions about each item.
Peering into a clear plastic box, Vone Gonzalez, a 12th-grader from Hernando's Central High School, came face to face with a small Southern hognose snake. He whispered to his teammates, the Juggernauts, and they quietly discussed their answer to a multiple-choice question about the snake's diet.
"It eats rodents," Vone said his team decided.
Vone was the lone veteran on his team, which included 10th-grader Tom Maynard, 11th-graders Myles Kelley and Derek Kito, and 12th-grader John Guarneri.
"It's definitely educational and fun," John said of the competition.
"It gives us a chance to think about things we wouldn't normally think about," Vone added.
Over at the aquatics station, Thundercats Ian, Shane and Kelsey continued to consider their tree identification options with fellow teammates Jordan Llanes and Ellen Toneff. Ian argued that the tree was definitely a buttonbush, but the other 12th-graders from Pasco's Wiregrass Ranch High School weren't so sure. With four mangroves to identify, the team of AP Environmental Science students was running out of time.
"Maybe if we choose the same one for all of them, we'll get one right," Kelsey joked.
The team vetoed that idea and decided to go with "none of the above."
With their answer sheet complete, the team waited for the horn to sound so they could move on to their next station. This was the first time students from Wiregrass Ranch participated in the event, and the Thundercats said they were enjoying it.
"It's pretty fun," Jordan said.