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One wild ride

Students on "safari" take a close look at wildlife.

By Michele Miller, Times Staff Writer
Published February 20, 2008


LAND O'LAKES

She bills it as a "wildlife safari," but Jean Knight is quick to tell her day-trip tourists, "We won't be seeing any tigers, lions or bears." The kids from Centennial Middle School will see evidence of some wild cats during their hourlong bus ride: track prints tamped in the cool muddy road by a Florida panther, or maybe a bobcat that has been padding about on a nocturnal jaunt. But when it comes to scanning the horizon during the daytime, the more typical highlights will be wild turkey, fox squirrels, gopher tortoises, Florida scrub jays, ospreys, sandhill cranes and the 500 or so white-tailed deer that roam the 12,500-acre Cross Bar Ranch and Well Field preserve. About 40 seventh-grade students from area schools make the trek to Cross Bar Ranch each weekday November to June to learn about the Pithlachascotee watershed and the wildlife it supports.

Cross Bar Ranch Education Center, off U.S. 41 just north of Land O'Lakes, is part of a environmental education program for Pasco County students that is linked by the Pithlachascotee watershed. Students in grades 3 to 5 attend sessions at the Energy and Marine Center in the Salt Spring Estuary in Port Richey.

Seventh-grade students participate in the Wetlands Ambassadors Program at Starkey Wilderness Park Environmental Center in New Port Richey and Cross Bar Ranch.

Environmental science teacher Jean Knight serves as tour guide and facilitator of the Starkey and Cross Bar Ranch programs. It's a job she touts as "the best in the county."

Centennial Middle School science teacher Karen Oliva, who brought her students out last week with colleague Betsy Denney, can see why.

"This is my favorite part of the year," Oliva said. "It's the reason I like teaching seventh grade."

Learning begins before students get to the ranch, Oliva said.

"We have pre- and post-activities (at the school) that tie into language arts, math, geography and science," she said.

At Cross Bar, students take part in topography labs that show how water flows through soil, clay, rocks and sand into the Floridan Aquifer.

They test the water of the ranch's Clear Lake for clarity, temperature, pH and oxygen. And peering through mobile aquariums with built-in microscopes, they get a close look at some of the small creatures that live there: mosquito fish, fisher spiders, apple snails, dragon fly nymphs and crayfish.

The highlight of the trip, no doubt, is the wildlife safari.

"It's awesome," said Jasmine Wilkes, 12. "You get to see all the animals you don't see in everyday life."

And there's more.

Cross Bar is owned by Pinellas County Utilities and is a source of water for Pasco, Pinellas and Hernando counties. In fact, Knight tells students that "17-million gallons of water flow out of here and to your homes each day."

County and state officials are working on a plan to sell the ranch to Pasco County for conservation. The property is home to an assortment of species of concern such as the Sherman fox squirrel, and endangered species such as the gopher tortoise and migrating whooping crane.

Students learn where the water they use for drinking and bathing comes from, how it gets there, and the importance of preserving the watershed and its wildlife habitats - wetlands such as Clear Lake, the marsh surrounded by saw grass and cypress trees, and even the murky sinkhole where a 10-foot alligator hangs out. There are live oak hammocks and the scrub oak hammock where clans of territorial Florida scrub jays nest.

The pine plantation recharges the aquifer with rainwater that filters down through sandy soil. It also provides shelter for the deer and wild turkey and is home to a profitable pine straw operation.

The field trip generally gets a hearty thumbs up, said Christine Altenes, who works as an instructional assistant and a bus driver, ferrying the kids to and from the ranch.

"It's really nice for the kids to get out and see the wildlife," she said. "A lot of the kids are from out of town and have never seen wildlife and native species. ... They will remember this for the rest of their lives."