A happy ending for a confused waterfowl

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The Horned Grebe landed on the wet lane behind the barn on the Amish farm in Wayne Co., Ohio.

By Bruce Stambaugh

My good friend Robert phoned again recently. When Robert calls me, I listen.

Known as the go to bird guy, Robert gets all kinds of calls regarding birds, especially rare species since he hosts the rare bird phone alert for Holmes and surrounding counties in Ohio’s Amish Country. Sometimes he even serves as a conduit for rescuing birds.

That was the nature of this call. A bird had landed on a gleaming, long farm lane, obviously mistaking it for a stream or water-filled ditch. The young mother of the family that found the floundering bird had called Robert out of desperation.

The family had easily captured the bird and, recognizing it as a waterfowl species, placed it in a basement utility tub half filled with water. That’s where it still was when Robert, his son and I arrived the next morning.

redbuttonedeyesbybrucestambaughRobert immediately identified the bird as a Horned Grebe all decked out in its spiffy winter plumage. It’s red eyes looked like bright buttons against its clean, white cheeks and charcoal head.

Not only was this an unusual situation, it was an unusual bird for this area for this time of year. Horned Grebes need long stretches of water to get airborne. The shiny, wet driveway had apparently confused the poor bird.

Fortunately, the grebe appeared to be fine. But with the extreme cold of early January, large, open water spaces were scarce. I called another noted area birder who told us she had seen a good section of the Killbuck Creek free of ice near Holmesville in northern Holmes County.

Robert donned his gloves, and carefully lifted the Horned Grebe out of its watery confinement and wrapped the bird in towels to protect it from any human contaminants. Off we went with the grebe perched patiently on Robert’s lap. We’ll discount the several attempts to drill Robert with its thick, pointed bill.

When we arrived at the creek, we found a couple of good release points. We chose a large ice-free spot 100-yards south of the bridge that crosses the Killbuck. It appeared to be the best place to release the bird back to its proper habitat.

Robert slowly approached the creek bank, and gently tossed the grebe toward the stream. The Horned Grebe flapped its way to the murky water. It swam a short distance, pecked the surface as if in disbelief, and made a quick dive to the bottom. Even though the Amish family had dropped bits of frozen fish into the tub’s water, the Horned Grebe was naturally hungry.

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After a few seconds, the natty bird resurfaced, leaned back, shook its wings and head simultaneously. If birds can express emotions, this fortunate fellow was down right ecstatic.

The Horned Grebe swam and dove, swam and dove. The three of us headed back to the car satisfied that the bird was uninjured and would be just fine.

Once it had gained its strength, the Horned Grebe would likely take its long, running start across the water’s surface and lift into the air. Hopefully, when and wherever it landed, it would pick a real pond or stream this time.

On land, the Horned Grebe was simply helpless, completely out of its element. On water, it was a graceful and stately wonder. As proof, the grebe was placidly floating in the center of the stream as we left.

We took one last glance as we crossed back over the bridge in the car. The grebe was gone. Either it was down for another food forage or it had taken off for another locale.

There is great satisfaction in helping the helpless, confused birds included.

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This was the last time we saw the Horned Grebe as we walked back to my vehicle.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Does this mean I’m officially retired?

By Bruce Stambaugh

Last year it was Medicare. This time it’s Social Security.

When I turned 65, I had to sign up for Medicare as my primary medical insurance. It’s the way the program has successfully worked since its inception. You hit the magic number and you’re in.

hoarfrostbybrucestambaughI’ve had no problem using the insurance since I was enrolled. I did, however, have an internal issue with it. I looked in disbelief at the Medicare card on which my name was boldly printed.

Could I really be this old? When my next birthday rolled around, I was over my denial. I had accepted my age and the fact that I am definitely in the autumn of my life.

In truth, I wasn’t expecting to receive anything from Social Security. Having been a public educator as my first career, I had always been told I likely wouldn’t get much from Social Security, even if I had the required number of quarters to qualify, which I did.

I decided to check anyhow. I had worked my way through college, and after my 30 years in education, I dabbled in marketing for local businesses as my second career. All the while I had paid into the government retirement plan.

I called the local Social Security office in Wooster, Ohio and told them my situation. They asked a couple of questions, and said someone would call me back in the afternoon. I didn’t hold my breath.

A mere two hours later the person who handles calculating individual benefits called and gave me my numbers. They weren’t great, but more than I had anticipated.

nocrabbingbybrucestambaughI weighed my options, and decided to go for it. I was told it was best to enroll online. I did, and surprisingly, the process only took 15 minutes.

A couple of Saturday mornings later, the phone rang. The caller ID showed it was the Social Security Administration. Why would they be calling on a Saturday morning? I answered the phone to find out.

The bubbly lady who was calling from Chicago first verified that she was indeed speaking to the right person. She asked me one question, did a quick calculation, and came back with the exact same information that the nice man from Wooster did.

Then she asked to speak to my wife. I put Neva on the phone, and she answered several questions for the upbeat woman. I motioned to Neva that I wanted to talk with the Social Security representative again.

When they had finished, Neva handed me the phone, and I told the lady I was surprised that she was calling on a Saturday morning. She quickly explained that so many of us Baby Boomers were signing up for Social Security that the office was swamped.

“The overtime pay is nice, too, just in time for the holidays,” she said with an honest, hearty laugh. I chuckled, too.

I thanked her for her efficiency and kindness, and wished her blessings for the holidays. She returned the same for my family and me.

When I hung up, my wife related that the kind woman noticed that Neva would be eligible for Medicare this year, which is why she wanted to speak to her. So she signed Neva up for that.

Imagine that. A government worker, who some would call a bureaucrat, went above and beyond the call of duty by being proactive on a Saturday morning. Neva and I were both pleased and impressed.

I received my first Social Security deposit right on time. I still have one question though. Does that mean I am really retired?

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As I enter the autumn of my life, I hope all the views are this colorful.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Chasing the elusive but beautiful Snowy Owls

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The Snowy Owl as viewed from the lane north of Mt. Hope, OH.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Birding is one of my many hobbies. I’m not the best birder by any stretch of the imagination. But I consider it a compliment to be called a birder.

I’m not alone. Believe it or not, birding is one of the most popular sports in the world. Birding is an international activity that can be enjoyed by anyone, any age at anytime. All you need are birds and an awareness to see and hear what is flitting right around you.

Birders have long been interconnected. That’s because it’s equally fun witnessing the enthusiasm and excitement of others experiencing the same bird you got to see. Ask my wife. I’ve called her to the kitchen window many a time to view the beauty and antics of our backyard birds.

Today birders connect in many ways. Bird alerts via phone, texts, email and Internet posts keep avid and amateur birders alike apprized of any rarity that arrives. Organizations and clubs also promote birds and birding.

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A Spotted Towhee recently spent several weeks at a feeder at an Amish home west of Holmesville , OH.
Over the years, we’ve had our fair share of rare birds appear in Ohio’s Amish Country. They get noticed here more than other places perhaps because we have so many good birders who live here. Many of them are young Amish folks.

We’ve had Wood Storks, Rufous Hummingbirds, Northern Wheatears, Spotted Towhees and Swallow-tailed Kites. The latest rarity influx has been Snowy Owls.

When my friend, Robert, called just before Christmas and asked if I wanted to see a Snowy Owl that was reported near Mt. Hope, I was elated. I stopped what I was doing, gathered my binoculars and cameras, and picked him up.

Snowy Owls normally winter in southern Canada. Once in a great while, the impressive white birds will wander farther south into Ohio and other states.

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The Thanksgiving Day sunrise produced a marvelous sun pillar.

Robert had also called about a Snowy Owl the day before Thanksgiving. It had been seen between Berlin and Walnut Creek. When we arrived at the location given for the bird, it was gone. We drove around scouting for it without success.

As soon as we arrived back home, Robert received another call that the Snowy Owl had returned to its original spot. It was close to dusk, and we both decided not to retrace our tracks, thinking we could see it the next day.

We were wrong. We were up early Thanksgiving morning. It was frigid, but a beautiful sunrise brightened the horizon with a spectacular sun pillar thrown in for good measure. But no Snowy Owl.

I wasn’t about to miss this latest opportunity. When we arrived at the reported location north of Mt. Hope, the Snowy Owl was right where it was supposed to be. The large white bird with gray speckles sat unconcerned in the middle of a corn stubble field. I took several pictures of the astonishing bird while Robert used my cell phone to call others to confirm the bird’s sighting.

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The Snowy Owl seen Dec. 23, 2013 near Mt. Hope, OH.
After soaking in the beautiful bird and quietly celebrating our success, we returned to our respective homes. I alerted other birders about the Snowy Owl. Half the fun in birding is sharing what is found.

Since November, several other Snowy Owls have appeared in more than half of Ohio’s 88 counties. Such an invasion of rare birds is called an irruption. People were reporting and photographing Snowy Owls all around Ohio, and even in other states, including Florida.

I’m glad Robert and I got a second chance at the Snowy Owl. I hope you get to see one, too.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

It’s a small world after all

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The SPI Conflict Analysis Class of last May at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Imagine the odds.

Last May I took a graduate school course on conflict analysis in the Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) held at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

The 16 students in the class represented several countries, ethnic backgrounds and religions from around the world. Each day we sat at tables in groups of four or five with a different mix of students. We collaborated on dissecting some aspect of human discord, usually in preparation for a class presentation.

We were all in the class for the same reason. We had a strong interest in understanding and resolving conflict by peaceful means.

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Rana and me in the SPI classroom at Eastern Mennonite University.
I couldn’t have imagined how meaningful the class would be. Nor could I have anticipated the events that would unfold long after the course work was finished.

Keep in mind that most of the students were intensely involved in some aspect of peace building in their respective countries. Dangerous conflict was a daily occurrence for many of them. Azerbaijan, Iraq, Kurdistan, Somalia, Syria, Miramar, and Haiti were a few of those places.

Back home the official duties of class participants varied as much as their backgrounds. Some engaged in peace building through non-governmental agencies. Others were pastors, teachers and even politicians.

The goal was to learn how to analyze conflict, and apply appropriate peace building skills constructively. Upon returning to their home country, they would instruct others in what they had learned or directly apply peace aspects in their vocations.

Meeting with new classmates each day provided a global perspective on the too many conflicts around the world. My problems paled when compared to some of the survival stories told to me privately. Their personal, troublesome stories humbled me.

I was especially impressed with Rana, an energetic young woman from Syria. The news out of that country was not good. Aggressive conflict was wreaking havoc on her homeland. Yet she remained upbeat and actively engaged in class projects.

When the course was completed, I tried to gather any contact information that I could. I wanted to stay connected to my new friends. I knew that I would be unable to communicate with some of them simply for security reasons. I certainly didn’t want to compound the risks they already faced.

Once home I did manage to communicate with a few of the students, mostly via Facebook, a popular social media website. Even in the midst of the fighting, I was able to share periodically with Rana. But I kept the messages to mostly short well wishes.

When the fighting in Syria escalated, including the use of chemical weapons, I became rather concerned. Then the last Sunday morning of 2013, I received a message from Rana that she was fine.

I felt relieved as my wife and I headed to church. I knew we had a special speaker that morning, but I didn’t know who or from what organization.

Prior to the service, I was introduced to the guest speaker, Sarah Adams, who was the Mennonite Central Committee country representative to Lebanon and Syria. I recounted my SPI experience, and asked Sarah if she happened to know Rana.

Before I could say Rana’s last name, Sarah happily replied, “Oh, yes. I know Rana well.” She assured me that Rana was safe and still working for peace whenever and wherever she could. I was thrilled.

Imagine the odds of the three of us interconnecting via Virginia, Syria and Ohio. It really is a small world after all.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Lean into the wind in 2014

Damage left by an EF2 tornado that hit Wooster, Ohio on Sept. 16, 2010.
Damage left by an EF2 tornado that hit Wooster, Ohio on Sept. 16, 2010.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I never believed much in New Year’s resolutions. I prefer to view the big picture. Besides, by now, I may have already broken half my resolves.

This year, rather than aim to lose five pounds in a month, I want to lean into the wind. That should be easy for me. I’m known to be a little windy from time to time.

You can blame my young pastor for this idea. He’s young because he’s half my age. Pastor Patrick recently preached a sermon about making yourself available and vulnerable to lean into life’s daily situations, good and bad, the way you would brace yourself against a good gale.

bluebirdbybrucestambaughI liked that image a lot. I’ll share a few ways I plan to apply the concept. I want to challenge myself to embrace all that swirls around me, positive or negative, this year. We learn from either perspective.

Despite my loss of dexterity, I will lean into the wind and hold a child’s hand, steadying her wobbling stroll across a room. Though my hearing is diminished, I will listen attentively to what others have to say, even though I may vehemently disagree with their opinion or decision.

Though my eyesight is aided with bifocal glasses, I will look for the simplest pleasure nature has to offer. A breathtaking sunrise, a singular drop of water hanging perilously at the end a leaf, a brilliant wood warbler migrating north will all be part of my leaning into the wind.

doubletrunkbybrucestambaughEven though my cranky knees limit my mobility, I will do my absolute best to bend low to pick up trash thoughtlessly discarded by others. If someone else is leaning into the wind nearby, maybe they’ll help me back to my feet.

Leaning is an active verb, not passive. Life is a series of winds of various velocities that shift daily. We can only feel the wind. We measure it by the effects on everything the wind touches, whether it does so fiercely or persistently.

Regardless of the velocity, life’s winds affect us all. Leaning in enables us to practice gratitude and joy, the byproducts of vulnerability.

Life offers no guarantees. It is full of pitfalls and mistakes as well as abundant joy and beauty. I want to discard the rose-colored glasses, and recognize the good from the bad. I want to accept them for what they are, and lean into 2014 accordingly.

The blizzard winds of January will eventually subside. Before we know it, invigorating breezes of May, with their warm, sweet fragrances and life-giving rains, will arrive as a blessed balance for us all.

A friend of mine shared a picture of an old apple tree, trunk bent from age and time, some limbs broken and sagging. The caption beneath the old tree defined what I mean by leaning into the wind.

It read, “A little bent by time, shaped by the wind and the seasons, a few branches broken. Today I feel like that old apple tree. But I’m still reaching for the sky, and doing my best to take in what the world gives me and turn it into something good and useful.”

By leaning into the wind, I can anticipate enduring, absorbing and embracing all of the various breezes that life blows my way in 2014.

Who knows? I might even lose five pounds in a month.

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© Bruce Stambaugh 2014