The Blues Have It!


I am fortunate that I can incorporate my three favorite hobbies into one outing. Whenever I go hiking, I always take my binoculars and camera. Every now and then, I am rewarded with an opportunity to capture the beauty of birds.

This male Indigo Bunting landed on this jumble of dead branches just out of the morning’s sunlight. Still, the ruffle of the striking bird’s feathers as it turned its head revealed several shades of blue. Indigo is the perfect name for this avian beauty.

I am happy to share my Photo of the Week with you, “The Blues Have it!”

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Ambivalent about August

August in Ohio’s Amish country.

I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about August. I’m especially so this year, given all the ramifications of the ongoing pandemic.

When my wife and I lived in Ohio, August kept us busy as career public school educators. We each geared up for the start of a new academic year. As a principal, I created schedules and rosters and attended too many meetings. The excellent teacher that she was, my wife spent many hours preparing each classroom to be an inviting learning haven.

Canned peaches.
August also ushered in the food preservation season. We froze dozens of containers of sweet corn and apple sauce. We waited for the canning lids to sound the seal of approval with satisfying “pops” for the tomatoes, grape juice, beets, and peaches. Rainbows of goodness adorned our shelves.

Of course, we weren’t alone in these endeavors. After I retired, I savored sale mornings at the local produce auction. I loved the hustle and bustle of men and women unloading their trucks and horse-drawn wagons. The rhythmical cadence of the auctioneers barking out their persuasive banter was sweet music to my ears.

The growing season here in the Shenandoah Valley where we live now is a couple of weeks ahead of Holmes County, Ohio. So, we don’t have to wait as long to enjoy our first taste of locally grown veggies.

Farmers Produce Auction, Mt. Hope OH
Auction in action.

August is more than agriculture, though. The three H’s rule the eighth month: hot, hazy, humid. That’s not the main reason for my ambivalence, however. With the coronavirus continuing to run rampant, uncertainty abounds in everyone’s life.

The city schools where our grandchildren attend here were set to open with a combination of in-person and online instruction. The latest surge in COVID-19 has altered that plan. They’ll start the year learning remotely.

Mask-wearing is the norm, especially when entering stores or buildings. Neva and I have continued to be extra cautious about keeping our physical distancing. We truly miss the close socialization of friends and family.

Some states are doing better than others at slowing the virus. States that reopened with too few restrictions or where few people followed the guidelines are unfortunately paying the price.

A migrating black tiger swallowtail butterfly.
Since the governors have had to take the lead in issuing orders and health guidelines, rules and suggestions vary significantly from state to state. In part, that’s what has fueled our consternation.

We haven’t seen in person our son and his wife, who live in New York State, in more than a year. We have friends and relatives who have tested positive, but fortunately, they have all recovered so far. Too many others weren’t as fortunate.

County and street fairs, high school football, band shows, concerts, vacations, have all been canceled. Major League Baseball is trying to play a shortened season with no fans in attendance.

Virus or no virus, August will be August no matter what. Golden sunsets will blaze away in the hazy evening skies. Migrating birds and butterflies will begin to wing their way south.
We’ll continue to meet with friends, relatives, and worship remotely through technology.

Under the current dire circumstances, it’s the best and safest we can do. We’ll continue to do our shopping curbside.

Even given all that, I know that my August ambivalence must yield to patience, and patience to resolve. We have to see this global health crisis through for however long it takes. I’ll continue to be cautious, careful, and diligent. I am not ambivalent about COVID-19.

My challenge is not to let my melancholy deter my joy for living, for sharing, for helping others, even if it is with an altered daily lifestyle.

An August sunset.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Loving Shenandoah National Park

Old Rag is a popular hike in Shenandoah NP.

My wife and I have enjoyed Shenandoah National Park since we moved to Virginia three years ago. There’s a lot to love about the park, and it’s less than an hour away.

We’re not the only ones who appreciate it, of course. The estimates of annual visitors compare to those of Ohio’s Amish country, our former residence. Each location attracts millions of visitors a year.

Of course, the novel coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on tourist numbers everywhere. With the virus cases flattening out in Virginia, the park has mostly reopened.

When we want to break our stay-close-to-home routines, Neva and I head for the hills. Sometimes I will venture out alone, birding, hiking and shooting photos. It’s an enchanting place, a multi-sensory extravaganza.

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I hear the beautiful song of an indigo bunting, and I raise my binoculars, scanning the area for the likely source of the melody. Novice that I am at identifying bird calls, I want to make sure I am matching the right species with the song. I’ve learned that, like human accents, bird calls of the same species vary geographically.

Once I find the bird, I switch to my camera to try to get a decent photo. With the trees in full summer canopy, that’s not easy to do. Now and then, I am fortunate to find a bird singing in the open, and I click away.

I catch a slight, silent movement out of the corner of my eye. Is it a doe with a fawn, or perhaps twins? Is it a black bear grazing before nightfall? One never knows. On warm days, keeping a lookout for a lounging timber rattler while scrambling on a rock outcropping is always a good idea.


The park is a great place to take sunset photos, too. But sunsets in the mountains can be problematic.

The expansive, rolling Shenandoah Valley is bordered on the east and west by mountain ranges. Sunsets can be as disappointing as they are stunning. Weather plus geography equals a formula for the unknown.

When we lived in Ohio, all we had to do was look out our windows to know the potential for a spectacular sunrise or sunset. We were spoiled.

Here in the breadbasket of Virginia, the rising and falling topography makes it iffy to predict what the eastern and western skies will do at dawn or dusk, respectively. You hope, pray, and go for it. Sometimes you are disappointed. Other times, you are speechless.

(Mouse over the photos for the captions)

It can be cloudy and raining in the valley. The view from the mountains of the park, however, might be spectacular if you wait long enough. Pick one of the many west-facing overlooks along the majestic Skyline Drive, and prepare yourself for come-what-may.

The elevation of the old, folded mountains ranges up to 2,500 feet higher than that of the valley. From the park, you can see the Allegheny Mountains that mark the boundary between the Commonwealth and West Virginia.

Patience, intuition, and good fortune can be the formula for bathing in a dreamland. Even with a thick cloud cover, the sun can still break through, turning drabness into beautiful in the blink of an eye.

I’ve learned to be ready for the unexpected as the sun slinks below the jagged horizon. Will the clouds refract the sun’s rays into pinks and blues, lavenders and oranges? Or will they merely steal away the sun without fanfare?

You don’t have to have a national park to enjoy heavenly landscapes. Wherever you are, just wait and watch, and let nature do the rest.

Sunset in Ohio’s Amish country.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Spontaneity in a time of pandemic

The Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance mark the eastern boundary of Rockingham Co.

My wife and I have closely followed the stay-at-home coronavirus requirements since they began in mid-March. We hadn’t even been out of our county until just the other day.

Even though Rockingham is the second-largest county in square miles in Virginia, we stayed close to home nevertheless. We have taken the pandemic and the safety recommendations suggested by medical professionals seriously.

While waiting for the predicted rain to arrive, Neva and I went about our regular homebound routines. She sewed and read. I wrote and spent too much time on social media, including sorting my many daily emails. When our church’s weekly newsletter landed in my inbox, I got an idea after reading it.

Friends had recently visited Shenandoah National Park, which stretches 105-miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains. The mountains grace and mark the eastern boundary of Rockingham County. The mountain laurel bushes were in full bloom.

That’s all that I needed to read. With the afternoon half gone and the forecasted rain failing to appear, I suggested we head to the park, too. Neva gladly agreed.

Fog rolled in from the east.
We dressed for the cooler weather that we were sure to encounter in the higher elevations of the park. We were glad we did. Fearsome black clouds hovered over the mountains as we headed east.

We have lived here long enough to know that the mountain weather’s main characteristic is fickleness. The weather changes quickly in those blue mountains.

Sure enough, in the 25 miles we drove on Skyline Drive to Limberlost Trail, we dodged in and out of the sunshine, clouds, fast-moving fog, mist, and even a little rain. We kept going.

We were so glad we had. Only a couple of other cars were in the parking lot of the handicapped accessible trail. Limberlost is a 1.3-mile loop trail that is beautiful in every season.

I had never been on the trail in the spring when the mountain laurel bloomed. Neva had never been there at all. We were both in for an awe-inspiring treat.

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We only had to walk a short distance before we encountered the beautiful blooming bushes. We were glad that we had dropped what we were doing and followed our friends’ advice.

Individual bushes and thickets of blooming mountain laurel flourished all along the circular path. They overwhelmed other, more subtle wildflowers that I almost missed.

This area of the park had burned several years ago. Many of the old-growth trees were gone, replaced by patches of spindly saplings. The trail ran through them, creating a fairy-like world. Colorful fungus grew out of tree stumps, and fallen timber left lying right where they landed.

Lush Christmas ferns carpeted the forest floor. The fragrant pink and white blossoms of the mountain laurel painted a lovely contrast to the emerald of the tree canopy above and the sea of ferns below.

We noticed no bees or butterflies, however. I later learned that this variety of rhododendron is toxic to both pollinators and humans. Look, but don’t touch.

A chorus of warblers, vireos, and other woodland birds serenaded us on our enchanting stroll. We were clearly in a national park, but it felt like paradise. Our spontaneity had certainly paid off.

The trail even featured an ancient basalt columnar outcropping.
I realize not everyone has a national park to hurry off to in less than an hour. But you likely have a special place that you have meant to visit, someplace you haven’t been since a child.

So, pack up the kids, the snacks, drinks, and don’t forget the hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, and your camera. You just might find paradise, too.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Whistling in June


I reached into my archives and found this lovely Eastern Meadowlark singing from an old wooden fence post. You can frequently hear these colorful robin-sized birds before you spot them.

I thought the shot was the perfect way to welcome you all to June. “Whistling in June” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Prothonotary Warbler


I had to let the birds come to me during this year’s spring bird migration. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, I only occasionally ventured out on short excursions that often included a grocery pick up after a brief search for migrating birds.

So, I decided to look back in my photo files for a bird that I had never shared before. This Prothonotary Warbler caught my attention and sent me back to when and where I had photographed it. It was a cool, damp day at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area along Lake Erie’s shore in northwest Ohio. The boardwalk was crowded with other birders of all ages from around the world. The cameras clicked away when this bright yellow fellow appeared. Unfortunately, Magee Marsh is closed this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Prothonotary Warblers are only one of two warbler species that nest in tree cavities. They prefer marshy thickets as their habitats. They are named for Roman Catholic papal clerks known as prothonotaries who wear bright yellow robes.

“Prothonotary Warbler” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Social distancing before it was required

Reflections at the alligator pond.

My wife and I were social distancing before we knew there was such a thing.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., I made an all-day social distancing trip to Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. It was a mere hour’s drive from our winter hideout on Amelia Island, Florida.

I invited my lovely wife to accompany me. Having already visited there briefly with friends, Neva declined. Her aversion to snakes and reptiles made that an easy decision. However, I wanted to explore the place more thoroughly.

I didn’t mind going solo at all. We each believe that doing our own thing has contributed to the longevity and quality of our marriage. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

You might know the refuge by its more colloquial name, Okefenokee Swamp. That is what the locals call it. Take a tour, however, and you will quickly learn that Okefenokee isn’t a swamp at all.

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Native Americans gave the sprawling area the name centuries ago. In English, Okefenokee means “land of the trembling earth.” The moniker fits. In the less disturbed marshy areas, the land beneath reverberates with each step you take.

Okefenokee has been a national wildlife refuge since 1937. It was designated a World Heritage Site in 1974.

Much more than a shallow blackwater swamp, the 403,000 acres that comprise Okefenokee are a beautiful blend of hammock forests, creeks, wetland prairies, and cypress groves. Altogether, they serve as the headwaters for both the Suwannee River and the St. Mary’s River, which marks the Florida/Georgia boundary.

My heart jumped when I saw this woodpecker land on the trunk of this longleaf pine. It was a yellow-bellied sapsucker.
I arrived mid-morning under hazy, smoky skies in early February. My main objective was to find the elusive and rare red-cockaded woodpecker. Okefenokee is one of the last remaining sanctuaries for the endangered bird.

I drove down the eerily lovely Swamp Island Drive in search of the woodpecker. I had never seen one, and after spending the morning trying, I still haven’t. I did see plenty of nest holes high up in the longleaf pine trunks.

I wasn’t disappointed. Just being among all the beauty and the sounds and earthy fragrances of nature was sufficient.

Hundreds of sandhill cranes cackled unseen in the wetlands beyond the pines that surrounded a small pond. An alligator laid like a fallen log on the pond’s far lip. A brown-headed nuthatch foraged on a tree trunk only four feet from me.

Bigger alligators rested roadside along shallow ditches. I found it surprising how much the vegetation changed at the slightest rise or dip in elevation. The scenery was stunning despite the gray overcast sky and smoke from a nearby forest fire.


Only a few feet from the boardwalk trail, alligators absorbed whatever warmth the day offered. Neva would not have approved. By the time I reached the observation tower, the sandhill cranes had quieted and were out of sight.

I learned much more about Okefenokee on the afternoon boat tour. Our guide explained that the deepest water was only four feet. The vast geologic basin was filled with peat, which is why it quivered when stepped upon.

Our small flat-bottom boat cruised between stands of cypress graciously draped with Spanish moss, which isn’t a moss at all. Huge alligators lounged along the way, while a highly venomous water moccasin soaked in the filtered sunshine. Red-shouldered hawks screeched from high perches on old snags.

As I headed back to our condo, I savored the day that had buoyed me. For Neva and me, that style of social distancing helps enrich both our individuality and our affinity.

A cypress grove along the Suwannee Canal.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Holy Week emotions mirror those of COVID-19

By definition, Holy Week transitions from the jubilant high expectations on Palm Sunday to the sadness and disbelief of Good Friday to the sacred joy of Easter morning.

This year Eastertime is symbolic of the current world situation. Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, Holy Week mirrors the global state of human existence amid the coronavirus pandemic. We face the same human emotions today as that mixed crowd of humanity 2,000 years ago.

Our lives have been turned upside down in this evolving medical crisis. No one can escape the grasp of the pandemic’s ramifications, whether we contract the virus or not. We are all affected.

A migrating Pine Siskin.
We all had high hopes with the advent of spring, especially at Easter. Now, all of that has changed. Unless you are one of the few remaining skeptics, reality has hit hard.

Personnel on the frontlines of helping to stem the epidemic are stressed and very fearful for their patients, their families, and themselves. Even following all of the recommended precautions has not been enough for some.

Schooling has taken on a very different and dynamic atmosphere for students, teachers, administrators, and parents alike. Challenging doesn’t begin to describe it. Nor does frustration, especially for those denied the much-anticipated pomp and circumstance of graduation ceremonies.

For those who live alone, the elderly, those who struggle with mental issues, or live with special needs, fear invades the interactions of daily living. Coping has never been harder.

Many have lost their jobs, income, and insurance benefits. Others employed in businesses deemed essential encountered the ignorance of others. The outrage of service workers filled social media as entire families show up to buy a hammer or just browse big box stores, clearly ignoring the social distancing safety recommendations.

Misinformation stokes the fear and invites unfounded rumors, which only leads to more confusion and doubt. Opportunists who price-gouge only see personal and financial gain in this time of crisis.

Where then is the Easter joy? We must look through the numbing heartache to see it.

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The warming weather, the blooming flowers, and budding trees, the emerald green grass, the colorful migrating birds, the friendly waves, and well-wishes of walkers as they pass by are but a few expressions of hope. Springtime’s renewal parallels that of Easter morning.

We should sing prayerful praises for those who tirelessly toil to save lives and defeat this virus. First-responders, law enforcement, pharmacists, doctors, nurses, utility workers, grocery store owners and their employees, and delivery people are only a few of today’s heroes.

Globally, folks with a passion for helping have unselfishly responded. Scores of caring people are making homemade masks and donating them to local service agencies.

Here in Harrisonburg, Virginia, many people have sewn and donated thousands of masks for businesses, the hospital, medical offices, fire departments, the volunteer rescue squad, and not-for-profit groups that shelter the homeless. My wife is one such person, though I doubt she would want me to tell you that.

In a pandemic, contagion ignores race, ethnicity, politics, borders, and social status. We all are potential victims and potential helpers. Our humanness makes us vulnerable, afraid, uncertain and exposed. And yet, it is those very qualities that inspire us to join as one at this most difficult time.

Together we must use our gifts and skills for the common good to rise to this once-in-a-lifetime threat. Only then will the anguish of Good Friday transform into the gratefulness of Resurrection Sunday’s love.


© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Contented


To stretch my legs and get some fresh air during our self-quarantine time, I took a short drive to a local park. I was the only one there. As I walked along the paved path, I found this female Mallard resting on a limestone boulder in a small stream near Dayton, Virginia. She looked pretty contented to me.

“Contented” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Basking Beauty


Eastern Bluebirds are some of my favorite birds. I love everything about them. Their colors are stunning, as this male perfectly models. Their songs are subdued, wishful, peaceful, and satisfying. They are docile, eat tons of insects and seeds, and are generally congenial to humans. Once on the decline, Eastern Bluebirds are making a comeback thanks in part to bluebird trails being established in appropriate habitat for them.

I took this photo five years ago in our Ohio backyard. This male was basking in the morning sunshine on a day late in March. Eastern Bluebirds made regular visits to my feeders year-round.

“Basking Beauty” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020