Groundhog Day is February’s April Fools’ Day

By Bruce Stambaugh

I’ve never been a fan of Ground Hog Day. It’s like February’s equivalent to April Fools’ Day.

I see Feb. 2 as an artificial holiday. It is more marketing ploy than weather prognostication, designed to pump up a small Pennsylvania town to help distract those living in the country’s colder climes from cabin fever.

That was a long sentence.

I am pretty sure no one, other than the mayor of Punxsutawney, Pa. perhaps, takes the event seriously. Winter after all is driven more by calendar and climate than it is one day’s sunny or gloomy weather. Whether the groundhog sees its shadow or not, winter will continue until it really is over.

I hope I don’t sound too bitter.

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This groundhog was a little to cagy for me. No matter what I baited this live trap with, the groundhog resisted and returned to its burrow under our back porch.
Besides, Punxsutawney Phil has developed some competition over the years. Not to be outdone by the silliness, Ohio has Buckeye Chuck, who is more or less the Avis of rodent forecasting. He tries hard, but doesn’t draw the crowds or paparazzi of his Keystone counterpart.

Where am I going with this? For one, back in time.

Many years ago when I was a young man in college who thought he knew everything, one of my roommates and I got into a mildly heated discussion about groundhogs of all things. And yes, we were both sober. We might have been bored or stubborn perhaps, but definitely not delirious.

Nevertheless, we did indeed disagree about this four-legged furry creature. My roommate, Joe, claimed that groundhogs and woodchucks were two entirely different animals. I said they were one in the same.

We didn’t come to fisticuffs, but Joe was pretty sure that he was correct. I was just as certain that I was right.

Finally, after too much verbiage for too long a time, we decided on a neutral determinant. We would look up the two words in my heavy-duty Random House dictionary. The thick reference book was my one major college personal investment. I was, and still am, a notoriously bad speller. Being a journalism major, I knew I needed to have my assignments completed with proper spelling. This was long before personal computers and word processors with built in dictionaries existed.

Since my parents had taught me to share, the dictionary held a prominent place in our little off-campus abode. It sat atop a desk in the dining room for anyone to use. It wasn’t uncommon for us to invite fellow students over to study together. At least we were supposed to be studying.

Since “groundhog” came before “woodchuck” alphabetically, I turned to my word first. I placed my index finger beneath “groundhog” and read, “Groundhog. A woodchuck.”

My roommate was in denial. I stepped away while he turned to “woodchuck.” “A groundhog” the dictionary declared, Joe’s voice cracking in disbelief.

If I recall correctly, the dictionary was closed rather suddenly. Joe surrendered, a bit grudgingly.

I learned much later in life that in Maine groundhogs are colloquially called whistle pigs because of the whistling sound that they make. In other locales in North America, groundhogs are labeled land beavers.

That brings us back to the present.

Just remember that Feb. 2 when you see a man dressed in a top hat and tuxedo holding up a groundhog, woodchuck, whistle pig or land beaver for the cameras, it really doesn’t mean a thing. Spring will officially arrive March 20 shadow or no shadow.

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© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Birding through the bathroom window

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Sunsets through the bathroom window are pretty anytime of the year. This was taken in early Nov. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh

By Bruce Stambaugh

This time of year, especially when inches of snow cover the ground, birds flock to my backyard feeders. Please excuse the pun.

I hope you won’t mind me telling you that I get the best view of the various and sundry species of birds through the bathroom window of our modest country home. The kitchen window is good for observing birds, too, but it can’t match the wider view from the bathroom.

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A male Cardinal ate oil sunflower seeds on a recent snowy day. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh
I wouldn’t blame you if you thought this a bit odd. It’s not really. From the bathroom window, I get the best look at the several feeders stationed around the backyard.

The bathroom is on the main floor of the house and faces to the west, which is particularly advantageous on rare sunny winter days. The afternoon sun shines brightly on the birds, adding enhanced brilliance to their winter plumage.

From the restroom vantage point I can see most of the backyard, from the perennial wildflower patch at the south to the back porch at the north. In between and straight out from the window are the little garden pond and the mature sugar maple tree. Birds are attracted to both for different reasons, water and cover, respectively.

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A pair of Eastern Bluebirds sip water at the garden pond. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh
An electric heater keeps the pond from freezing. The pump that creates the miniature waterfall runs year-round, serving as both an avian drinking and bathing station.

The maple tree, with its impressive crown, is king of the backyard. I can see all but the very top of the tree through the window. Songbirds and birds of prey perch on its welcoming outstretched branches. Its crinkled, exfoliating bark serves as a helpful tool for woodpeckers and nuthatches. They wedge sunflower seeds into the cracks and use their pointy beaks to hammer open the shiny black shells to reach the prized protein hearts.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker frequents the suet feeder. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker frequents the suet feeder. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh
The platform feeder and hanging feeders are also visible from my unusual viewing spot. Like most birders, I keep a camera handy to record the antics of the many aviary visitors. I capture other critters, fox squirrels, opossums and groundhogs, at the pond and feeders, too. Please know that the ironic humor of keeping a camera in the bathroom doesn’t escape me.

The digital photos help me record the comings and goings of these valued visitors all year long. Wintertime is my favorite, however, especially when a good snowfall blankets the ground. I fill the feeders, and await the action, camera in hand. The birds seldom disappoint.

Occasionally I witness a special happening. A Sharp-shinned Hawk makes a sneak attack hoping for an afternoon snack. It zips by

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A Sharp-shinned Hawk landed in the sugar maple in search of an afternoon snack.
Photo by Bruce Stambaugh
the kitchen window and lands in the maple. I rush to the bathroom window in time to click away at the red-eyed accipiter.

Timing is often everything in bird watching. I have been able to photograph Red-headed Woodpeckers and Baltimore Orioles feeding simultaneously from the same suet feeder. From the bathroom window, I have had the perfect angle to catch brilliant Eastern Bluebirds chowing down on chipped sunflower hearts.

I have also seen a dozen or more deer munching in the shaded meadow far beyond our yard. I’ve been fortunate to see the neighbor’s horses romp on hillside pastures beneath the old windmill. I have snapped inspiring sunsets in every season. The list could go on and on.

Birding is a sport that can be enjoyed anytime, anyplace, even from the bathroom. For those who know me really, really well, that shouldn’t come as a real surprise.

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The honey wagon cometh. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Behold the fearlessness of children

By Bruce Stambaugh

The fearlessness of children today never ceases to amaze me, especially when it comes to using technology.

A friend on Facebook posted that her young son had purchased an upgrade for an application for her wireless phone. I marveled at the child’s fortitude, yet also wondered about the dangerous ramifications given that such a transaction could be that simple.

A few days later I heard a similar story on the radio. A woman’s young son purchased a $50,000 automobile by using her smartphone while the lady was driving her car. How could that kind of transaction so easily take place?

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Fortunately, technology isn’t the only thing that our granddaughter enjoys. She was pleased with this roll of Scotch tape she found in her Christmas stocking.
I admire the ability of children to grasp and use electronic technology as if it were innate. Our three-year old granddaughter, Maren, could teach me a thing or two about using the iPhone, iPad or any other device that begins with lower case “i.”

My wife once discovered Maren, then a mere two, under the covers in her parents’ bed nimbly using the iPad as if it were old hat. This is not a pronouncement on either her parents or Maren’s tenacity and dexterity. Rather, it is a singular example of how well young children adapt to all things technology.

I think that both a blessing and a curse. I admire their aptitude to use a wide variety of electronic devices. I am glad young people are not restrained by the anxiety that many my age and older seem to have towards fully embracing technology. They use it with ease. We complain that the buttons are too small.

However, that untamed acceptance of gaming, texting, movies on demand, live streaming and so much more at the touch of an app has its drawbacks. My Facebook friend can attest to that. In fact, several mothers shared stories of their own young children committing similar acts. And don’t forget the mother with the brand new car.

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Children readily learn to use technology in their daily lives.

I find that both exciting and alarming. I am glad today’s young people so easily grasp the use of technology in today’s world. Technology really does put the world at our fingertips.

The world is growing smaller because of technology. Social media, tweeting and texting are the modern ways to communicate, including in third world countries. Even hungry children in poor, remote regions of the world know what is going on globally thanks to rapidly spreading technology.

The world is a scary place. If children can order items online or cars from a smartphone with the swipe of a finger or touch of an app, imagine the other possibilities that are out there. I like to think that most are good, expanding the youngsters’ horizons.

Unfortunately, some aren’t all that helpful, and perhaps are even harmful. The fearlessness of young children and their lack of life’s experiences make them vulnerable to the shysters of the world, and that’s not a good thing at all.

I would hate to see a family’s credit or reputation ruined because of some greedy corporation or individual taking advantage of an innocent, exploring mind. Worse still is the thought of even one child being naively duped.

I am not advocating prohibiting children from using today’s technology by any means. Children’s fearlessness toward technology should be metered with instruction, caution and supervision, applied appropriately for the age and situation.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers to my concerns. If I did, people would pay me big money for my solutions and I’d be rich. Maybe then I could hire my granddaughter to teach me how to use an iPhone.

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Our granddaughter posed perfectly for a picture taken on a smartphone.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

The long shadows of winter have begun

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By Bruce Stambaugh

I was driving along a country road recently on an unusually beautiful day, especially for Ohio in December. The sun was shining. It was near 50 degrees and yet officially winter.

When I rounded an easy curve heading east through a stand of trees, I saw them. The long shadows of winter had arrived. With the sun at its most southerly declination, the naked trees cast long, dark shadows across the roadway and into the stark, fallow fields that I could see ahead through the glen.

Perhaps it was passing from the young woodlot into the open fields on either side of the road that caught my attention to this most common occurrence. Sun and shadows equal cause and effect.

The stand of trees was too big to be saplings and too small to be considered a forest. Proof of that came in their failure to deflect the brilliant afternoon sunshine. Instead, dark, irregular fingers splayed across the roadway, jumped the barbed wire fence and settled upon the elephant grass that had ransacked the helpless fields.

winterwoodsbybrucestambaughIt was as if I were driving over a corduroy road without the ridges. With the certain winter wind frolicking, the shadows used the tan clumps to wave to me as I passed by. I took notice, but didn’t return the gesture.

That moment in time got me to thinking, which isn’t always a good thing. I slowed down as I approached the next curve, also guarded by trees, lots larger this time. They cast much more impressive silhouettes, in part due to their size, but also because of their geographic disposition.

These virile hardwoods hung tight to the northern slope of a humpbacked hillside on the south side of the road. They impeded the blessed sun much more efficiently than the previous tunnel of trees. In all my years of driving, I have never enjoyed passing through alternating stripes of sun and shadows, especially when they cross your path for a quarter mile or more. I tend to slow down just to be safe.

At least no snow covered the ground. If it had, the contrast between dark and light would have been even greater, making it all the more difficult to navigate. Unless, of course, it would have been a starlit night casting softer, more poetic moon shadows.

I came out of my dreamy trance as the road straightened and the fields became productive once again. Corn stubble graced the left and pastures the right. The only trees visible served as fencerows, too far from the highway to trip me up.

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I pondered what potentially lay ahead for the New Year’s winter. Would we have a substantial, sustained snow cover or would the winter of the old year be repeated? Or would we simply have a little of each?

The answer of course was simple. There was no way to tell. We would have to take one day at a time, and accept the weather as it arrived. We like to control as much as we can in our 21st century lives, especially with all of our highfalutin technology. The weather, fortunately, eludes that realm.

The long shadows of winter are upon us. Whether on dry ground or crusty snow, one thing is certain. As the days slowly grow longer, their span will shorten, even if it is at the minuscule pace of minutes a day.

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© Bruce Stambaugh 2013