Birding and photography go hand-in-hand. Binoculars and a camera are essential tools for me to hone my dual hobbies. I heard the Red-winged Blackbird singing before I spotted it in this dead tree with its tangle of branches. I have always considered the blackbird’s song a harbinger of springtime. To hear its melodious song in January was music to my ears. Of course, it was a warm afternoon in Florida, not Virginia or Ohio. A look through the bins confirmed the pair of Eastern Bluebirds that sat silently behind the blackbird.
I knew full well that the photo would produce only silhouettes since I was shooting into the southern sky with the sun an hour from setting. The crisscross of dead limbs immediately brought to mind the Walter Scott quote of “Oh what tangled web we weave when we first practice to deceive.”
Well, there is no deceit on my part with this photograph. “A Tangled Web” is my Photo of the Week.
This beautiful male pileated woodpecker was only concerned about one thing: breakfast. The early morning sun, low in the southeastern horizon, brightly highlighted North America’s biggest woodpecker just before the winter solstice of 2014. The angle allowed the bird’s shadow and that of the peanut butter suet feeder to be cast on the trunk of the old sugar maple in our backyard near Mt. Hope, Ohio. The pileated woodpeckers came to our feeders year-round, even bringing their young to our home in Ohio’s Amish country. Those birds would be in the top 10 things that I miss since we moved to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley two and a half years ago.
I have lived long enough to know that photography is as much about timing as it is photographic skills. Had I not looked out the window at precisely the right time, I never would have seen this male northern cardinal feeding alongside this lone red maple leaf. The yellow of the scattered corn that attracted the bird served as a lovely, contrasting background for the shot.
As the colorful leaves fade and twirl in the wind, another splash of luster arrives to dot the landscape. Migrating birds appear to see the winter through. I relish their return.
Many of the birds, of course, merely pass through on their way to much warmer southern climes. The ruby-throated hummingbirds, for example, have long been gone. A stray late one might yet be seen. Most are far south of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley by now.
I’ve had two tube feeders hanging from the red maple trees in the front and back yards for weeks now. Many of the year-round regulars have begun to partake in the free sunflower seed buffet.
The noisy red-bellied woodpeckers are hard to miss. Their iridescent red-striped head and contrasting black and white ladder back are as flashy as their aggressive behavior. They’re not bullies. They just know what they want and help themselves.
Our smallest woodpecker, the downy, is much more pensive and much less flashy. Only a blotch of red on the back of the head identifies the male from the similarly marked black and white feathered female.
Every now and then, a northern flicker or two will show up at the birdbaths or forage for ants in the mulch on warmer days. With their earth-tone coloration, they are handsome birds for sure.
An array of bedecked songbirds frequents the feeders, too. A cheery chip, chip, announces the presence of the bright red northern male cardinals and their khaki-colored mates. That color combination enhances any bird feeding station.
It’s the richly feathered Carolina wrens, however, that keep the cooler fall air filled with music. Their protein preference is to search for dead insects than to settle for seeds. Even the peanut butter suet isn’t their first choice.
The beautifully patterned song sparrows might belt out a chorus or two. However, it’s the plaintive call of the white-throated sparrows that thrills me. They have only now just begun to arrive. Their hop, kick, and scratch feeding tactic is a joy to watch as well.
The white-crowned sparrows are the showpieces of the sparrow species. Their distinctive black and white stripes can’t be missed. Their looks alone qualify them as the feeder referees.
A lone eastern towhee made a brief appearance in the back yard recently. It foraged beneath the pines that border the neighbor’s property. It was a first for my Virginia yard list.
Last year, I was pleasantly surprised by the appearances of a small flock of purple finches. Though less colorful than their male counterparts, the females stood out with their creamy patches and brown streaks. Neatly attired red-breasted nuthatches also appeared intermittingly. I’m hoping all of them return.
Given the recent report on the loss of nearly 30 percent of North America’s bird population in the last 50 years, I’ll be happy with whatever birds do arrive. Several species have even been declared extinct. Europe is experiencing similar losses of bird species.
The extensive study covered nearly the exact timeframe that I have been watching and feeding birds. All the while, bird populations have slowly been declining. Losses of habitats in nesting, migrating, and wintering locales have hurt the bird numbers. Climate change and herbicide usage are other suspected causes of the birds’ demise.
Despite the bad news, I’ll continue to feed the birds in the fall and winter. The birds provide welcome entertainment during the dormant months. The way it’s going, the birds will need all the help they can get.
I didn’t realize how much I charged through life until I couldn’t. Getting a new knee will do that to you.
Much like my late father, I wanted to get as much out of life as I could. Dad would come home from work, eat supper, and off he would go to his next adventure. His chosen activities ran the gamut of his interests: softball, arrowhead hunting, fishing, hunting, or attending one of his many organizational meetings.
With all this time on my hands in recuperation mode, I have come to an insightful realization. I mirrored my father for too long in my life. I had and still have many interests. Besides my career in public education, community service consumed much of my time.
Volunteer firefighting, township trustee, hospital trustee meetings, and church leadership all demanded my time. Those days are over. I still enjoy the out-of-doors just as Dad did. In my open-air times, I shoot birds, too, only I use a camera.
This time of year, the leaves are usually my main focus. Given my current limited mobility status, however, that has mostly changed. Unless I go for a drive with my chauffeur wife, I enjoy the colors that I can see from home.
What better time than October to change gears, relax, and just embrace each moment as it arrives. The air has cooled. The front and back doors are propped open, inviting a refreshing and gentle breeze to flow through the house.
The morning sun illuminates our neighbor’s home across the street. A glorious blue sky serves as the backdrop, and a handsome birch tree and a tinting red maple stand as bookend accents. Their fall decorations of yellow mums and cluster of orange pumpkins give a warm welcome.
To the south, the sun bathes the backyard, too, highlighting the pale green, elongated leaves of the shingle oak we transplanted from our Ohio home. Those leaves, also, are slowly transforming to a gilded brown and will rustle in the winter winds until springtime buds displace them.
A family of house finches chatters softly in the blue spruces above the white picket fence of another neighbor. Northern cardinals chip in adjacent pines before taking turns at the black oil sunflower feeder. A family of eastern bluebirds checks out a birdhouse for possible winter habitation.
With the afternoon sun beaming, I return to my reading on the patio. The natural warmth seems to enhance the book’s enlightening content. To keep my leg limber, I shift positions as often as I turn pages.
Towards evening, it’s rush hour at the birdbaths. American Robins, unseen and unheard for days, suddenly swamp the three aquatic venues available. The hand-honed sandstone bath proves the most popular. Others settle for the water dish and the old cast iron pedestal basin.
Living life at my modified and sometimes stationary pace is inspirational. In my reposed state, I marvel at the rosebuds outside my office window, closed tight in the morning, and fully opened by mid-afternoon.
Both the Harvest Moon and the Hunter’s Moon have come and gone. The first frost has ended the growing season in many locales while others have experienced their first snowfall. Winter is knocking on the door. October’s showiness will soon be over.
It is with great gratitude that I embrace each moment as it arrives, glad that my previous busyness is history. My sincere hope is that I’ll still apply this moment-by-moment attitude when I no longer have to sit icing my elevated knee.
Not long after we moved to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley more than two years ago, I sought a nature spot. I wanted a place where I could practice my photography, quietly watch birds, or simply do some walking.
I had many such places within an hour of our home in Holmes County, Ohio. They all had their unique features that attracted many folks in addition to fulfilling my photography, birding, and hiking desires. I had hoped to find one location close to our Virginia home that met those needs, too.
I have plenty of choices when it comes to getting out into nature for walks, birding, and photography in the Shenandoah Valley. I hit the trifecta if I can incorporate all three into one trip.
When you have a national park within the boundaries of your county, the answer seems obvious. It’s a 40 minutes drive to the park’s closest entrance. Shenandoah National Park was formed out of parts of eight Virginia counties, Rockingham among them.
The park offers a host of options for visitors, though I have only been able to thoroughly explore a few so far. Big Meadows is one of those, and to date, it has been my go-to spot.
Big Meadows is a wide-open space on the summit of Skyline Drive at mile-marker 51. Its simplistic name perfectly describes its main feature. The place is a big meadow.
What’s it doing there, and why? With the park’s dense forests, fast-running streams that often lead to crashing waterfalls, Big Meadows is an anomaly to the park. No one seems to know how or why Big Meadows was formed. It’s certainly a fish out of water given the diverse geology, geography, and biology in Shenandoah National Park.
Big Meadows is and always has been lush with wildflowers, grasses, and low shrubs. Archeological research reveals that Native Americans camped in Big Meadows. Evidence shows they used controlled burns to flush out the abundant wildlife of the area. The park service still uses controlled burns to keep Big Meadows Big Meadows.
The area is more than a big meadow, however. The Byrd Visitors Center offers an informative display on the formation of the park, along with a gift store, and restrooms. A way station for hikers, an amphitheater, a lodge, restaurant, campgrounds, picnic areas, and multiple hiking trails can all be reached from Big Meadows.
A few photos from my most recent visit to Big Meadows.Please click on the photos to enlarge them.
A Painted Lady near the Big Meadows parking lot.
The big picture of Big Meadows.
Silver Spotted Skipper.
Browsing near Big Meadows.
Of course, the Appalachian Trial runs on the west slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the edge of Big Meadows. Waterfalls are not far away along with some incredible views of the Shenandoah Valley.
On a hot summer’s day, Big Meadows is a pleasant escape from the valley’s heat and humidity. The temperature on the mountain can be 10 to 15 degrees cooler.
Even for those who aren’t able to hike very far, Big Meadows offers a lot. Visitors can sit in their cars while butterflies flit from one group of flowers to another. I’ve even seen dark-eyed juncos pecking for food around the Byrd Visitors Center in the summer.
The winter weather gets so wicked, however, that I tend to only visit spring, summer, and fall. Besides, the park often closes the Skyline Drive in the winter anyhow.
Everyone needs a place to get away, a place to relax, to take a load off, retreat from the hectic, pounding pace that we’ve come to know in the early 21st century. Big Meadows is such a place for me. Where is yours?
My wife caught the moment perfectly. We sat on our back porch enjoying our usual simple Sunday supper.
“It’s really still,” Neva said. In response, I looked up. I am not sure why, because silence can’t be seen.
As usual, though, she was right. For no dogs barked, no lawnmowers purred, nor were any voices heard.
An unusual phenomenon caught my attention. A light breeze blew through the back yard, rustling the red maple leaves. Though they quivered steadily, they, too, were silent. I found that both eerie and fascinating.
I relaxed in the uplifting and refreshing quietude. Such an instance enables you to see the moment itself as it is, not as you want it to be.
Here we were only on the first day of the month, and already September issued forth one of its many golden moments. If the ninth month kept to its course, there surely would be many more, hurricanes notwithstanding.
The stillness seemed to be the day’s crown jewel, adorning a crest of many arches already naturally appointed. I noted a few of the maple’s eastern-facing leaves had already tinged.
On my morning walk around the neighborhood, I had noticed that other trees also had begun to transform their leaves. A giant sugar maple showed reds and orange where the morning’s first light peeks over the eastern hill that separates the city from the country.
A helter-skelter pattern of blotchy brown infested the fringes of the pointy leaves of a mighty pin oak. I had to wonder if it was seasonal change, blight, insects, or a combination of those causes.
Overhead, a disorganized flock of Canada geese winged it south. I heard the honking long before I saw the birds. Someone or something must have disturbed their foraging in a nearby farmer’s field to be out of formation.
On social media, birders in Ohio and Virginia alike shared photos of western sandpipers, red knots, and other gorgeous birds visiting local mudflats and waterways on their return trip. Birds know when it’s time and September gladly greets them.
The summer’s heat had taken its toll on flowers, whether wild or cultivated. Even recent decent rains couldn’t revive them.
On the way home from church, I had noticed the once lush leaves of the soybean fields had dulled to pale green. Interspersed flecks of diluted yellow appeared randomly, much like the pin oak’s disorderly display.
In contrast, fields of sunflowers glowed golden, a living symbol for the month itself. September is notorious for being the gilded sibling among its peers. Could jealousy be why August stirs and spins its tropical trouble into its September sister?
September relishes its title. It shows off its stuff at county fairs, produce stands and in supermarkets. The honeyed tones of summer squash, cantaloupes, the last of the season’s sweet corn, and the early ripened gourds and pumpkins prove the point.
I suppose that is only appropriate since stores are already pushing fall sales and Halloween merchandise. If they haven’t already done so, primary classroom windows will mimic the fall colors with a run on yellow, red, and orange construction paper.
Of course, with the flip of a mental sports switch, our attention has turned from baseball to football. High school, college, and pro scores dominated the front pages of Saturday morning newspapers, at least the ones that still publish.
Crickets trading musical text messages woke me from my muse. September is here, and I intend to enjoy every moment the fair-haired month has to offer. I hope you can as well.