Winter is for the birds

Female Cardinal

By Bruce Stambaugh

I am of the opinion that winter is for the birds. I mean that literally.

Watching the backyard birds enjoy the variety of foodstuffs at the feeders is my winter’s entertainment. The various kinds of feeders are stocked with an assortment of options for the birds to devour, and are placed for safe access by the birds and convenient observation by me.

In the feeding frenzy, the birds put on quite a show.

Several kinds of birds enjoy the spoils of the tube feeder filled with sunflower hearts. The feeder hangs in front of the kitchen window and can accommodate six birds at a time, if all goes well. However, just like people, birds get greedy and guard their territory, even though there is plenty for everybody.

The American Goldfinches seem to be the best behaved, often feeding in families around the feeder’s cardinal ring. It’s named that so that cardinals can enjoy the seeds, too. Cardinals normally prefer a flat surface or the ground for feeding. But occasionally the bright red males and reddish tinged olive females will take advantage of their namesake.

Despite their bright coloration and moderate size, cardinals tend to be skittish creatures and fly off at the first hint of trouble. A few of the cardinals prefer the cracked corn that is spread at the base of the sugar maple. But so does the feisty Song Sparrow, which easily scares off the bigger bird. Using its clawed feet, the Song Sparrow jump kicks at the seed, even though it wouldn’t have to. Hereditary habits are hard to change.

Other sparrows show their faces as well, especially if the ground is snow-covered. The pretty Tree Sparrow, with its distinctive yellow bottom bill, joins the feast along with the showy White-crowned Sparrow. The latter is one of the few species that sings in the winter. Their beautiful tune can warm even the coldest day.

The real fun begins when the acrobatic nuthatches, Chickadees and Tufted Titmice arrive, which they often do simultaneously. I am fortunate to have both White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches, a first for me, coming to the feeders. They are the only birds that move headfirst down the trunk of a tree.

These birds take full advantage of the menu offered at the feeders. If the black oil sunflower seeds aren’t available, they might enjoy some extra protein that the suet provides. Or they might savor a hulled peanut.

All these birds give way when the bully Blue Jays appear. They loudly announce their arrival, and scatter the other birds with their arrogant intrusion. The jays gulp down a gullet full of seeds before flying off with their meal.

An even bossier bird is the Red-bellied Woodpecker. It wants to dine alone while partaking of the smorgasbord offerings, especially enjoying the peanuts. But they can be finicky, too. The next trip in the same bird may hit the ear corn.

Perhaps my favorite visitors are the Eastern Bluebirds, normally not noted as feeder birds. They do enjoy the brilliant holly berries right from the bush out front, but they also have been seen imbibing at the suet and sunflower feeders.

There are times, though, when the birds just don’t show up at all. It’s then that I know that perched nearby is the neighborhood Cooper’s Hawk, which loves a songbird lunch.

Occasionally I know that the swift hawk has enjoyed my feeders, too, at least indirectly. A pile of House Finch feathers atop the snow provides the proof.

Female Red-bellied Woodpecker

Finding the fountain of youth

The historically maligned Ponce de Leon was actually
well ahead of his time. That’s what I concluded
after a wintertime visit to Florida.

I have three adorable grandchildren,
proof enough that I am no spring chicken.
I won’t mention the other obvious aging clues.
While on my tour of the Sunshine state,
visited so long ago by the Spanish explorer,
I stumbled upon exactly what he was looking for.

The fountain of youth really does exist.
No matter where I went, a store, a restaurant,
a theater, even the beach, the result was the same.
I was the youngest one in the crowd.
Where admission was charged, I received the youth rate,
while everyone else got the senior discount.

I discovered what the conquistador could not.
In Florida, 62 is the new 16.
Poor Ponce was at the right place, wrong time.

Bruce Stambaugh

Feb. 4, 2010

Tracks in the snow

Wing prints from the red-tailed hawk

By Bruce Stambaugh

I love when snow covers the dormant winter ground. The beauty is enhanced when the blanket is refreshed with daily snowfalls the way it was earlier in the month.

Snow illuminates everything, even at night. The defused light of a waning moon can still glitter the landscape like a mirror to the stars. A glowing sunrise, a rarity in the normally dreary Ohio January sky, sparkles the morning countryside all around.

The unbroken whiteness seems to connect everything it has touched. It softens the harshest angles of any nondescript building and compliments the already lovely evergreen bows with inches of powdery beauty.

The view beckons me outside. But I hate to make tracks in the snow. I don’t want to do anything that pollutes the purity of the picture perfect scene. Suddenly, the rumbling of the snowplow shakes me from my idealistic stupor. Reality is calling.

The birdfeeders need attended to, the sidewalk and parking pad must be shoveled. Disturbing the beauty isn’t an option. The garbage can has to be wheeled to the roadside and I need to replenish my inside stack of firewood. All of these activities require me to do what I do not want to do. I have to break the virgin snow.

I bundle up much like I did when I was a kid readying to go sledding. Only these endeavors fit the chore category. Still, I get to be out in the invigorating elements.

It doesn’t take long to realize my naivety. Other creatures have been out and about well ahead of me. Bird tracks are evident at the garage door. I didn’t even hear them knock. Rabbit tracks are obvious. Even deer have visited the yard.

Still, I step respectfully, trying hard to bother as little snow as possible. On repeat trips, I retrace my previous tracks. The cottontails seemed to have the same rule.

I feel forgiven for my obsessive/compulsive behavior. Every now and then, while I am doing something mundane, I witness something extraordinary. Recently while retrieving the morning paper from its plastic delivery tube, I found a rabbit flattened on the road.

I mercifully tossed it into the snow near the low bush at the end of the driveway. Later that day, I spied a red-tailed hawk sitting on the snow beneath the bare canopy of the sunburst locust tree in the front yard. The bird flew off before I could take its picture.

Curious, I went out to see why it had been on the snowy ground instead of perched in its usual roost in the pine thicket. I couldn’t believe what I found. The hawk had pounced on the dead rabbit and repeatedly tried lifting off with it. Evidence of that deduction was a crooked path that led away from the roadside shrub where I had pitched the deceased to the locust tree.

There in the snow, on each side of the furrowed trail, was a series of periodic wing imprints. They reminded me of the snow angels we used to make as kids. I must have discovered the beautiful raptor while resting from its numerous futile efforts of trying to get the frozen bunny airborne. Instead, it dragged its catch through the snow.

A closer look revealed that the hawk had begun to tear the rabbit apart, apparently hungry enough to cancel its instinctive routine of capture, fly, perch and eat.

Next day I returned to the scene of the crime. The rabbit was gone. Spots of blood stained the snow. No other tracks of any kind were apparent. The wily bird must have returned to claim it’s prized meal.

I learned an important lesson. Tracks in the snow tell dramatic stories.

Behold winter in rural Ohio

By Bruce Stambaugh

On the coldest day of the young year, winter gave us an icy gift to salve our longings for warmth. The landscape in rural northeast Ohio glistened with delight.

Some call it a quirk of nature. Others know the weather phenomenon as hoar frost. Most ignore the verbiage and science and just enjoy the beauty while it lasts. Like any other meteorological event, nature has a recipe for hoar frost, but it’s more bureaucratic than tasty.

The National Weather Service describes hoar frost as a deposit of interlocking crystals formed by direct sublimation on objects, usually those of small diameter freely exposed to the air, such as tree branches, plants, wires, poles, etc. The deposition of hoar frost is similar to the process by which dew is formed, except that the temperature of the frosted object must be below freezing. It forms when air with a dew point below freezing is brought to saturation by cooling.

No doubt the younger generation would have a one-word answer for that gobbledygook: whatever. Besides, like a double-chocolate layer cake, hoar frost is much better consumed than defined. Only you use your eyes rather than your mouth, unless you happen to be out and about when the icy icing is spread.

On this particular Sunday morning, many people were. They reaped both the benefits and the drawbacks of passing through Creation’s cold kitchen as the raw rarity was being concocted.

Witnesses, who preferred to remain anonymous, said they bundled up for a brisk walk or buggy ride to church. Brisk is a bit too bland. It was downright frigid, five degrees below zero just after sunrise. What a sunrise it was, too, dark one minute and light the next. The sun seemed to skip the formalities and simply bounded over the cloudless horizon, exceedingly anxious to warm up the frozen countryside.

Instantly invisible sunbeams awakened a million diamonds across the snowscape. It was as if the snowy blanket had turned completely into a sparkly sequined gown. But that was only the appetizer for this organic, outdoor brunch.

Everything, and I do mean everything, was covered with a breathtaking whiteness, fresher than the day itself. Evergreens were transformed ever white. The bare deciduous trees were plastered trunk to tip as if they had been spray-painted. Dazzling is too tame of a word to describe the scene, which suddenly grayed.

The snow ceased gleaming as quickly as it had started. The brilliance diminished considerably. Drawn to the window by this abrupt turn of events, I quickly saw the reason for both the diminution and the hoar frost itself. A huge, elongated ice cloud had obscured the sun, but only temporarily.

This ghostly mass had risen from the creek bottoms and deposited its pretty icy prickles as it went. Indeed, it was on the move. Those pedestrians or buggy-goers who had no choice but to pass through the crystallized cloud went in one foggy door wearing black and out the other as ashen apparitions. Hoar frost coated brown horses and men’s beards alike.

Eventually the sun won out, even in the super cold air. The ice fog just vanished, evaporated into nothingness. As the morning continued to warm, the frozen saturation succumbed, falling like sheets of snow.

The bright morning sun had burned off a lingering mist, revealing a glistening glaze affixed to every animate and inanimate object in its path, while diamonds danced on the endless blanket of snow. Behold the unfolding glories of winter in Ohio.

Contact Bruce Stambaugh at

Hoar frost defined
Hoar frost on display

Winter treasures revealed

If it were up to me, I would keep the ground
covered in snow all winter. But, like most things in life,
such a thought is frivolous, out of my control,
like many of life’s circumstantial worries.

But the snow, nice as it is, can’t and
doesn’t last forever. Its demise is inevitable,
as predicable as a January thaw, which is exactly
what eliminated the precious white blanket.

Thing is, I am always amazed at the treasurers
revealed once the snow seeps away, quietly
unnoticed until the ugly winter ground holds
only remnant piles, shoveled or blown, of the previously
fluffy stuff left to torment us of what once was.
With the snowy splendor gone, the yard becomes
a discombobulated rummage sale, strewn with
natural and unnatural items, once sandwiched unseen
between the serene snow and the frozen earth.

Colonies of earthy molehills, a windblown
ribboned evergreen wreath, mourning dove feathers
plucked and neatly deposited in a near perfect
circle on the back porch, where the long-eared owl
or Cooper’s hawk had sat on the railing devouring it.
A lone Budweiser Light can (this is Amish country),
indiscriminately tossed from a speeding car under the guise
of the new moon, now peppered with the snow’s enemy,
grit cascaded by the dutiful snowplow on the adjacent roadway.

There’s more, much more. No need to continue.
By now, you have the depressing picture of the expansive
treasure trove exposed by the sad vanishing of the beloved snow.

Bruce Stambaugh
Jan. 20, 2010

Cleaning out the inbox

By Bruce Stambaugh

I decided to begin this New Year with a clean sweep. I purged my email inbox.

The tidying was long overdue. The languishing emails had piled up into the thousands. Really. At one point I had nearly 4,000 opened and presumably read emails just sitting there. It was high time I did something about it.

Letting those electronic messages accumulate is pretty easy to do. You read it, respond if need be, and go on to the next email. It’s a process that millions of people around the world go through everyday. But I had to wonder if others let their inboxes become as full as mine.

It’s not that I don’t try to make sense of the many electronically generated communications that I receive on a daily basis. I do. I have created several folders in which to tuck the more important ones. Those electronic folders each have a particular purpose according to subject matter. Still, my mailbox remained cluttered.

I needed to rectify the situation, in part because I had actually lost some lingering emails when the mail server inexplicably malfunctioned. Imagine that. I have no idea if what I lost was important or not. They had been received so long ago that I couldn’t remember what was there.

To avoid a repetition of that situation, I decided to embark on my virtual housecleaning. It wasn’t an easy or quick process. In fact, it took me several fits and starts to complete the long overdue task.

I began with the most recent emails and worked backwards. That way my mind would be fresher about the subject matter. If I hadn’t replied and moved the email to the appropriate folder, I deleted it.

The problem was that for some of the legitimate emails, I had only opened them and not thoroughly read them. Before I could decide on each email’s demise, I had to reread it. Go figure.

Other emails required me to take some action that should have been completed long ago. I had to click through to a web page to check an account or open an enewsletter to which I had subscribed.

Some messages were offers, others required information to maintain an account or were simply communications on subjects in which I had an interest. In checking them out, some proved fruitful. Most were deemed useless. Which begs the question: Why didn’t I delete them as they arrived? I would have saved myself so much time.

Indeed, the entire effort took hours over a period of several days. I had good excuses for the irregular spurts of progress. The cyber sorting on my computer kept getting interrupted. New emails, phone calls, daydreaming, meals, naps and coffee breaks, which led to other breaks of necessity, all delayed the expunging considerably. Can you spell procrastination?

Nevertheless, I plodded along until the last forgotten email was either stored or discarded. I was actually embarrassed that I hadn’t replied to some of the rather important ones. I was equally appalled that I had left so much junk just lying around.

If these emails had been pieces of paper scattered about the office or stacked in unsightly piles, my wife would have never put up with it. Wait. Scratch that. Come to think of it, those are next on my list to do, right after I finish reading the email that just came in.

A cold winter’s day begins

With the temperature at five below zero,

the bright morning sun burned off a lingering mist,

revealing a glistening glaze affixed to every inanimate object.

All the while diamonds danced on the crusted snow.

Behold the glories of nature.

Bruce Stambaugh

January 10, 2010

More than ready for a new year

By Bruce Stambaugh

On the last morning of 2009, the entire year seemed to flash before me as my car spun out of control on the icy road. When the car crunched against the utility pole, I was jolted back into reality.

That minor mishap seemed a microcosm of my 2009. I thought of Dickens’ opening line in his classic “A Tale of Two Cities.” Indeed, “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.” In many ways, I would like to forget 2009. Instead, I can’t stop remembering it.

Still, with everything that had happened, 2009 is all a whirl to me. Too many times life seemed to abruptly spin out of control last year, much like my car before it hit the pole.

I do know many more good things happened than bad. Our first granddaughter was born, and Maren is as precious as her name. My wife and I enjoyed spring training in Arizona. We cherished our times with friends at our beloved Lakeside, Ohio and continued to refurbish the little cottage that my folks built on Dad’s favorite fishing lake.

Even so, I still lost all sense of time, which is very uncharacteristic of me. I couldn’t remember if an event occurred the previous day or the previous week. That was a direct consequence of dealing with my father’s extended illness and subsequent death. Of course, I joined other family members in reassuring and tending to our mother, too.

Early in the year, Dad and I spent hours on the road and in doctors’ offices, an agonizing journey through the medical maze that led to the dreaded diagnosis that his cancer had returned.

Dad loved history, sports, family, archeology, hunting and fishing. But more than that, he loved sharing those experiences with others, and hearing their stories, too. Dad was a storyteller extraordinaire. As the designated driver on our trips, I was the beneficiary of tales involving many of those subjects.

Dad loved life and went at it like he did everything else, with reckless abandon. Even at his advanced age, he chose to fight back with radiation, and gave it a valiant effort. There was still so much to learn and share, he reasoned.

After he stopped his torturous treatments in early August, Dad seemed a changed man. He accepted his situation with as much dignity as he could muster, yet carried on hovering over Mom and conversing with whomever he could anytime he could. Though he never taught, Dad was the consummate teacher.

Dad set goals. He aimed to participate in the September 12 Honor Flight from Akron, Ohio to Washington, D.C. and back in one day, and he did. In all of his life’s experiences, Dad ranked that day right behind his 67-year marriage to Mom.

Next up was Thanksgiving, and Dad again defied the odds and joined the family assembled around the traditional meal one more time. He loved family gatherings, making those a priority in his life. Christmas was his next objective.

Sadly, Dad died four days before his favorite holiday. But my siblings and I agreed that that if there was an appropriate time for Dad to die, Christmas was it. From Dad’s enthusiastic viewpoint, everyday was Christmas Day.

On December 31, I scrambled out of my car uninjured. I was thankful that 2009 was ending, even if it did so with a crash. Given the events of 2009, I resolved to live everyday in 2010 with hope and thanksgiving. It’s what Dick Stambaugh would expect.

Contact Bruce Stambaugh at

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