VENUS—A gaggle of 13 seven- to nine-year-olds sat cross-legged on the floor at Archbold Biological Station in Venus.
They stared entranced at a number of stuffed birds laid out in front of them by ornithologist Shane Pruett.
Pruett explained that the feathery specimens were called “skins.” He produced some impressively real-sounding owl hoots for the crowd, which elicited smiles and dropped jaws. The kids were full of questions: what color are its eggs? What sound does that one make? How did you get the eyes out?
On the sidelines sat Dustin Angell, or “Mr. Dustin” as he is called by this latest round of Archbold ecology summer campers. “Ornithology-- that’s the scientific word for the study of birds,” he told the kids, stepping in gently once in awhile to mediate the presentation.
Angell is the education coordinator for the field research station dedicated to studying and preserving Florida’s scrub habitat, and he’s the guy in charge when it comes to making sure five weeks’ worth of summer campers stay safe and have fun while learning on the station.
The camp, founded in the early 1990s by Nancy Deyrup, runs weekly during the summer and includes activities such as insect trapping, pond exploring, making solar “S’mores” and swimming in Lake Annie.
This year’s theme is Animal Defenses and includes games where kids pretend to be scrub-jays and have to collect their food while protecting their nests from predators played by other campers.
“I love working with kids,” said the 28-year-old who plays the guitar and the bongo drums and exudes a fun-loving manner. “When you are an educator, you get to be there when kids are experiencing nature for the first time-- the first time they go in a pond, the first time they see a tadpole . . . You feel really honored that you are the one that gets to show them these things.”
Angell wasn’t always an educator.
“My friends always thought of me as the art person until after college. That’s how I thought of myself,” Angell remarked. The Syracuse, New York native earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting and photography from Alfred University with a minor in Medieval and Renaissance studies.
During his studies he became interested in nature as an art subject.
Soon after he got a taste of education by working at the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology in Syracuse, where he developed and delivered science shows at the museum and in the community.
He was even a television morning show “regular,” performing science experiments on the air on behalf of the museum.
Angell and his wife, ornithologist Emily Angell, moved to Archbold a year and a half ago so that she could take a position as a research assistant at the station. The education coordinator position also happened to be open, and it was a perfect fit.
While a big part of the curriculum Angell teaches is on ecology, the campers also get an unique opportunity to explore a working ranch, the MacArthur Agro-Ecology Research Center.
Thursday is the day Angell, his assistant and the teen camp counselors load the kids up onto a huge buggy and take them on a ride through a cattle ranch on a fun day punctuated by games and a picnic lunch. Angell drives the buggy and does the talking.
“The main idea is that we want to show people that private cattle ranches are an important site for conservation in Florida’s heartland,” he said.
While people often think of a state park or a pristine nature preserve as necessary for protecting wildlife, Angell said that’s not the case.
Ranchers can play an important role in conservation by including sections of semi-native pasture, oak hammocks and natural wetlands on their properties as well as by participating in government programs to provide water storage to minimize drainage into Lake Okeechobee.
Rare species like the crested caracara bird and the burrowing owl make these ranches their homes.
“I do think it’s important for kids to realize how much humans have changed this landscape,” Angell added. But in the face of that change there are still things we can do to help protect Florida’s fragile ecosystems, he remarked.
Also a professional photographer, Angell spends some time capturing the beauty and fun of the week with his camera and shares the images on the camp’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/ScrubEdu.
In the end, Angell said he hopes that the kids he teaches understand what a special place this is that they get to call home.
On the last day of camp he handed out T-shirts to each child, printed with a drawing of a barred owl that he did himself.
“My job is to get the kids that grow up here to fall in love with where they are from, to learn about where they are from, and as they grow older to take responsibility for this area,” he said.