Make October a Month to Remember

While still remembering those of the past

Fall comes to an Amish farmstead in Ohio’s Amish country.

By its very nature, October holds a storehouse of memories for people. It’s a month on nostalgia steroids.

Who doesn’t remember raking leaves into giant piles in the yard and then jumping into them? Guilty as charged.

I have fond memories of our father loading his brood into the family station wagon and heading southwest along the winding, hilly roads to Holmes County, Ohio. That was before the state eliminated the undulating curves between Berlin and Millersburg.

I distinctly remember stopping along the road on the east side of Millersburg at Briar Hill Golf Course to view the vibrant colors of the changing leaves. Dad especially loved a giant sugar maple’s warm oranges and reds.

Years later, when I found myself teaching in Holmes County, I ventured out after school to explore the backroads for scenic views myself. It was a two-fold way to enjoy the colorful landscape and learn my way around.

I always found the hills around Glenmont to be stunning when the leaves were exceptionally bright. I also found them difficult to scale as a volunteer firefighter when a passing train sparked a woods fire up a remote and steep pass.

I remember standing on schoolhouse hill overlooking Killbuck, where I taught. Billowing smoke from burning leaf piles filled the valley from one end of town to the other. My eyes watered from the fragrant stinging. Fortunately, outdoor burning like that is no longer permitted.

Once my wife and I moved to the county’s eastern end, I found the trees were just as beautiful as in the west. Rows upon rows of corn shocks enhanced the bucolic scenes all the more.

When my wife retired 15 years ago, we were freer to explore October’s natural wonders far beyond our limited Holmes County horizons. We discovered our beloved county wasn’t the only pretty place on earth.

Friends invited us to share a condominium with them in Arizona in early October. In locales like Sedona and the Grand Canyon, we discovered vibrant autumn colors in rocky ridges and spires instead of leafy trees. It was gorgeous, just the same.

Of course, October offers more than brilliant colors. I remember hayrides down Panther Hollow with our church youth groups on dark and chilly nights. Hot cider and fresh donuts at the outing’s conclusion sealed the spooky experience.

Not to let nostalgia carry us away, October often brought the first frost and the first snow. I recall embarking on a conservation field trip with a busload of underdressed fifth graders. By the end of our farm tour, we all were tromping through inches of snow.

October highlights come in so many flavors and textures. Various festivals abound celebrating harvest time, including cheese, wine, pumpkins, and apples. It’s all about socializing.

Produce stands and greenhouses hold customer appreciation days before they close for the season. Dodging the yellow jackets can be as challenging as bobbing for apples.

October is in the middle of fall migration for many birds species. Shorebirds and birds of prey use sunny day solar thermals to aid their southern journey. The last of the Monarch butterflies wing it to Mexico.

Halloween, though, seems to overshadow all of the beautiful interactions between humankind and our environment. Entire towns decorate for Halloween comparable to Christmas. I’m not against that, but I simply prefer the daily unfolding natural beauty.

October provides plenty of opportunities to get outside and enjoy the crisp air, golden sunsets, and changing foliage. Consequently, October stirs lots of emotions.

Perhaps the best October memories are the ones we make today.

October’s blue and orange.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Signs of Fall

How many can you see?

Signs of fall are everywhere in this photo of an Amish farmstead that I took five years ago while living in Ohio’s Amish country. The standing corn still waiting to be picked, either by hand or horse-drawn corn picker, is the most obvious. In the background, the tops of the deciduous trees had started to turn red and orange. In the center of the photo, the purple martin house has been lowered for the season, the birds long-parted for Central and South America.

Can you find other signs of fall in this photo?

“Signs of Fall” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Hanging On!

This female American Goldfinch prepared to join the rest of the flock after feeding on these dried up Black-eyed Susan seedpods. The cluster of still-blooming Black-eyed Susans in the background gave depth to the photo. I was grateful that the bird hung on long enough for me to get this shot. As soon as I clicked the shutter, she flew.

“Hanging On!” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Loving people who care for the environment

Conservation is important

A scarlet tanager sits atop a tree.

It was a double-your-pleasure moment.

We were all standing on the deck of the cabin when my wife spotted a bright red bird at the top of a tree 40 yards away. Through the binoculars, I quickly found the bird. Its jet black wings nicely contrasted with its radiant red body.

Upon hearing the description, the property owner was ecstatic. “I’ve been hoping the scarlet tanager would return,” he said with glee.

I got as much kick out of Rice’s reaction as I did seeing the distinctly marked bird. After all, this was a big, middle-aged man, not some youngster seeing this beauty for the first time.

I love it when people love nature. Their company becomes all the more enjoyable.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by our host’s excitement. My wife and I were there as guests to tour his expanse of property high on one of the seven hills of Glenmont in southwestern Holmes County, Ohio.

Our connection with this enthusiastic young man and his partner Liz goes back decades. My wife was Rice’s kindergarten teacher. We’ve known Liz since she was born and her baby boomer parents even longer.

When our children were children, they played together. We were as close as close friends can be. Neva and I felt privileged to explore this restored property that was all about conservation.

The scarlet tanager was only one of the highlights of our visit. Inside the cabin, an old property plat map hung framed on the wall. I’m a sucker for maps, and it called my name.

When I look at a map, one of the first things I do is find the legend. It tells me how to read the map. The descriptions of the property boundary markers caught my attention.

A large solid blue dot represented stone markers, which European settlers used when they claimed the land not long after Ohio became a state in 1803. Different icons identified more conventional boundary markers like standard iron pins.

Out on the large porch of the restored cabin, we spotted more than the scarlet tanager. Barn swallows swooped low over a trio of small ponds, skimming the water’s surface for a drink on the fly. A pair of young eastern bluebirds watched the show from perches on a dead ash tree. Painted turtles sunned themselves on an old snag angled into the water.

Sensing my intrigue, our hosts piled my wife and me into a Cadillac version of an all-terrain vehicle (ATV), and off we went to tour the rolling, mostly forested acreage. Of course, I wanted to find those unusual stone markers, too.

Our friends had cleared and maintained paths that wound up, down, and around the hilly landscape. We were in for a real treat.

We crossed a tree line in the ATV and spied a young buck with velvety spiked antlers. We stopped to view an open, rolling field planted explicitly with crops for the wildlife. Conservation is Rice’s practical goal.

As we continued over the undulating trails, our host pointed out trees he specified to be left by loggers who thinned the woods three years earlier. He walked with the loggers to ensure only the designated ones were cut.

High above the cabin, we came upon one of the old stone markers. It was too easy to find. A surveyor had recently spray-painted its top fluorescent red.

I appreciate people who care for the land. When they express their excitement openly at seeing the fruits of their labor, everyone is rewarded, including the wildlife.

Reflections of a painted turtle.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Three in One

Pileated Woodpecker parents lead a juvenile to a feeder.

We were very fortunate to have Pileated Woodpeckers frequent our bird feeders when we lived in Ohio’s Amish country. Our home was built on an Amish farm. You can see the alfalfa in the background. That’s how close we were to the fields.

Woodlots and overgrown fence lines were also nearby, creating excellent habitat for a wide variety of birds. Our little acre and a half had many mature shrubs and trees, including this old sugar maple. The birds loved it because of its dense leaf cover, and the crinkled bark for wedging in seeds to be cracked.

I always kept a keen eye out for the birds. I often photographed them through our west-facing windows, like this shot. The Pileated Woodpeckers would announce their arrival with their loud, intimidating call that served as a warning to all other birds.

I found this photo that I took at the end of June in 2015 while sorting through my many digital photographs. Mom was at the suet feeder while Dad looked on from the other side of the tree trunk. Junior was glued to the lower level of the maple’s trunk hungry for breakfast.

Some people have told me that they have never seen Pileated Woodpeckers at backyard feeders. Well, here’s proof that they do visit feeders where they feel safe.

“Three in One” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Why March is a favorite month

March has always been one of my favorite months for several reasons. Mind you, I don’t get as excited as youngsters on Christmas morning, but it’s close.

March is a transitional month, especially for those who live in the northern realms of the northern hemisphere. That’s especially true for March weather, though I don’t give much credence to the “in like a lion, out like a lamb” folklore.

March serves up a meteorological smorgasbord. Rain, sleet, snow, sunshine, and severe weather can all appear in the month’s 31 days.

A March day in Ohio’s Amish country.

The day I cherish most is the vernal equinox, which is March 20 this year. Let’s hope that the green of St. Patrick’s Day carries on over into April. I won’t hold my breath, however.

March marks the official transition from winter to spring. If the ground isn’t too soggy, planting vegetables and flower gardens commences, and farmers prepare their fields for sowing crops.

When we lived in Holmes County, Ohio, I always marveled at the hardiness of farmers, usually teenagers and young men, who braved the elements to plow and disk the fields. It may have been sunny when they left the barn, but somehow it always seemed to snow or rain when they hit the fields. Still, their teams of beautiful workhorses plodded on.

Here in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, it’s giant-sized tractors and the consequences of zipping in and out of fields that drivers have to watch out for on the ubiquitous narrow, winding roads. Unfortunately, the sticky, red mud is difficult to clean off of your vehicles.

Speaking of mud, I never knew about schools closing for mud days until I moved to Holmes County. Curiosity cured me on the first trip down a rural gravel road. When I became a township trustee, I positively hated when gravel roads turned to mush or hard surface roads disintegrated.

Sandhill Cranes.

March usually means the end of sugaring time. By month’s end, the tempo of warm days and cold nights that encouraged the sap to flow has ended.

Birders live for spring, and March often provides the first rush of migrants returning to nest or passing through to destinations farther north. Is there anything more exciting than hearing a flock of sandhill cranes honking overhead in the twilight?

March means color returns to the deadened landscape. Green shoots of plants and flowers push through the barren soil, even if the majority are dandelions.

A walk in the woods reveals nature at work at many levels. Look down, and patches of spring beauties carpet the ground. Listen, and choirs of spring peepers fill the warm evening air. Look up, and you might find owlets staring you down, nervously jostling on a limb.

Crocuses are some of the first blooms in flower gardens.

Photos of royal crocuses, buttery daffodils, and perhaps the season’s first tulips fill social media pages. It’s society’s 21st-century expression of joy and relief.

Of course, March means work. Winter’s litter of sticks and last fall’s leaves piled in corners far from their mother tree get recycled. Folks are eager to get outside and fuss about the appearance of their yards. They crank up their mowers even though snow is in the forecast.

I put out my hummingbird and oriole feeders in the hope of attracting any early arrivals. While I wait, I am more than content with waking to a competing chorus of robins and cardinals each morning.

Of course, I’m partial to March for personal reasons, especially this year. It’s our anniversary month. Welcoming March for 50 years together is singularly reason enough to celebrate the third month’s arrival.      

The fertile farmland of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Diamonds and Ducks

Two treasures in one photo

Bird migration is in full flight. To check for any waterfowl and shorebirds that might be passing through, I head to nearby Silver Lake in Dayton, Virginia. It’s also a favorite spot for sunrise and sunset photos.

On a recent afternoon, I found this flotilla of ducks in the sparkle of the afternoon sun at the south end of the lake. Among this group were Ring-necked and Redheaded Ducks and Greater Scaups.

“Diamonds and Ducks” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Tufted Titmouse

A most attractive and affable bird.

Tufted Titmice are some of the cutest, most personable birds around. Their fairly plain coloration belies their personalities. These acrobatic birds are welcome at any backyard bird feeder. You can often hear them coming before you see them. Their variety of clarion calls are music to my ears. They whistle and call in a variety of ways, sometimes sounding as if they are scolding. Tufted Titmice are often accompanied by the local Chickadee patch.

Seen across much of the eastern United States, these active birds devour black oil sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and peanuts. They are fun to watch and seldom sit still. I felt fortunate to be able to snap this profile of this Tufted Titmouse. It enables you to see all the bird’s identifying features: its stubby black bill, black forehead, pointy crest, its dominant gray color with rusty sides. The bird’s beady black eyes against its pale face make it easy to see where it gets its name.

“Tufted Titmouse” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Birds bring me peace

Why I enjoy birds.

A male Northern Cardinal chows down on safflower seeds.

I’m thankful for birds. That’s one reason I spend the money, time, and effort to keep them happy most of the year-round. That’s never been truer than now.

Usually, my wife and I would be on Amelia Island, Florida, right now, enjoying the birds, wildlife, and strolls on the beach. The coronavirus, of course, changed all of that. We decided to continue to stay close to home. We also didn’t want to miss out on getting the vaccines to protect us from the virus.

So, instead of searching for great egrets, little blue herons, American white pelicans, willets, sanderlings, and black skimmers, I’m settling for mostly seedeaters this winter. I’m just as happy.

Watching the various birds interact, feed at the different stations I have set up in the front and back yards, and at the heated birdbaths helps the time pass. Like humans, food and water are essential ingredients for the birds and too many aggressive squirrels during the cold and dark days of winter.

I have the feeders placed where I can watch them from where I spend most of my time. I can observe the comings and goings from my office window facing the street or enjoy the multiple feeders in the backyard from the bathroom window. Those who know me well will clearly understand that logic.

Three feeders dangle from the front yard red maple, and cracked corn is spread around its trunk. In the back, a suet feeder attracts members of the woodpecker family, the neighborhood northern mockingbird, and Carolina wrens, to name a few.

A squirrel-proof tube feeder filled with black oil sunflower seeds draws in northern cardinals, house finches, Carolina chickadees, a few tufted titmice, and white-throated nuthatches. Dark-eyed juncos peck the ground for what other birds drop or miss.

Most of these birds are relatively regular to the feeders. The more elusive birds, like the purple finches and pine siskins, are inconsistent with their visits. Still, I am delighted when they arrive, even if it is only for a brief time.

Of course, I miss heading to Spoonbill Pond on Big Talbot Island to see an everchanging variety of shorebirds, waterfowl species, and raptors. But an occasional strafe of a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk or a pair of bald eagles soaring overhead helps keep my mind focused.

Last year was a universally challenging year in nearly every aspect of life. A year into the virus, hope for relief grows closer by the day. The virus, however, has likely yet to peak.

In the meantime, my wife and I will continue to stay close to home and enjoy whatever birds come our way. I like watching the different habits and behaviors of the birds and their wildlife counterparts.

One particular white-throated sparrow prefers the confines of a hanging feeder made of a hollowed-out limb. This sparrow jumps and kicks at the safflower and black oil sunflower seeds as if it were on the ground scratching for food. That’s what the rest of the white-throated do.

Recently, a lone American crow began visiting. It feeds on the cracked corn spread beneath the red maple. I know it’s the same bird because of its persistent limp.

Despite their bossiness, I even enjoy the squadron of blue jays that loudly announce their arrival as a warning to the other birds. Then they divebomb onto the feeders and ground and gulp down dozens of seeds.

I miss Florida’s birds, but I enjoy the birds that fill each day here at home. They salve my soul.

Brown Pelicans arrive to roast for the evening along the Amelia River, Fernandina Beach, FL.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Splish, Splash!

Northern Cardinals in a birdbath.

I was fortunate to catch this pair of Northern Cardinals making good use of the birdbath in our backyard. A heater keeps the water from freezing so the backyard birds have access to water year-rouncd.

If you are not familiar with Bobby Darin’s hit rock and roll song, “Splish Splash,” click the link.

“Splish, Splash” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021