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

April is a character

In a family of months

Redbuds in full bloom.

I’ve known a few characters in my lifetime. I bet you have, too.

By character, I mean a unique individual who enjoys life outside the expected societal norms. Every family, workplace, and even church seems to have at least one individual who fits the profile.

I’ve learned that you don’t have to be human to be a character either. Our long-departed rat terrier Bill fit that category.

Bill’s personality far outsized his small frame. He once jumped up to try a catch a Canada goose that flew low over our Ohio home.

Other non-human characters include our backyard blonde squirrel and a pair of mallard ducks that frequent our neighborhood.

Just being blonde and a squirrel is character enough. When other squirrels approach, Blonde rapidly flips her beautiful golden tail to defend her territory. Satisfied that all is clear, she stretches out on the cool grass in the shadow of the maple, relishing in her most recent victory.

The ducks are a different story. Even though our suburban home’s closest water sources are swimming pools, this pair flies around the neighborhood, landing on rooftops. From there, they scout out nearby birdfeeders and go house to house foraging for breakfast, lunch, and supper.

Characters, however, don’t have to be living beings or animals.

Take our Julian calendar, for example. Months have dynamic personalities, too. April earns head of the class and not necessarily for alphabetical reasons.

Among her 11 siblings, April can often be a bit obnoxious. That’s especially true when it comes to weather.

April showers bring much more than May flowers. April’s repertoire dishes out tornadoes, snow, frost, floods, 80 degree days, and more. Sometimes only hours separate those diverse conditions.

No matter where you live in the United States or Canada, April can be a stinker. She doesn’t rely only on April 1 to fool you. One day, it’s 15 degrees above average. The sun is shining in a clear blue sky, while songbirds fill the warm air with luxurious melodies. The sound of lawnmowers echoes far and wide.

The next day the fog is so thick the sun can’t even breakthrough. Soon the wind picks up, and storm clouds race across the landscape, pelting rain, hail, and producing winds that exceed the speed limit. It would be justifiable if the weather service issued an arrest warrant for April for perpetrating days like this.

It’s not that we don’t expect variety in the weather. It is spring, after all. But it would be pure pleasure to know it’s safe to store the ice scrapers and snow shovels for at least a few months.

I have anecdotal evidence of such events. One early April day, 20 inches of heavy, wet snow brought much of Ohio to a halt. Volunteer fire departments ferried medical workers to and from hospitals.

On April 3 and 4, 1974, massive and deadly tornados hit Xenia, Ohio, and many other locations in more than a dozen states. Holmes County was in the path of the storm, too.

The sky turned pea green, and everything grew still. The tornado never touched down, but instead, tattered and torn objects from Xenia drifted to earth. People found checks and personal effects from 150 miles southwest.

April continues to be a Jekyll and Hyde. Just as our redbuds were about to bloom pink and bold, back-to-back days of 20-degree mornings deadened their potential pink beauty. I hope they can recover from their frigid encounters.

April is a character, all right. She still has time to repent, however.

Creeping phlox and a lone blue anemone.

© 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

Evening Grosbeaks

I had heard that flocks of Evening Grosbeaks were in the Rockingham Co., Virginia area. However, I could never discover where they were showing up on a regular basis. Then a friend from Ohio, where we used to live, sent me a text with a photo of Evening Grosbeaks that were regular visitors at her brother’s feeders. He lived a little more than 10 miles from our home.

I called and received persmission to photograph the birds. The home owner, also a birder, said the birds usually fed in the morning between 7 and 9. My wife and I arrived around 8 a.m., and I drove slowly up the farm’s long driveway. As soon as I reached the back of the house where the feeders were, about 30 Evening Grosbeaks flew to trees not far away. I lowered the van windows and waited for them to return.

And return they did! I had both of my cameras along, and I clicked away. I had seen Evening Grosbeaks before, but never this close or this many. Normally, Evening Grosbeaks don’t venture this far south in the winter. But during irruption years, they appear almost randomly at various locations in the east and midwest. It is thought that an irruption occurs when the hatch rate of birds is high, but their usual food supplies can’t match the demand. Other species, like Snow Owls, also appear in irruptions. The Evening Grosbeaks were feeding on black oil sunflower seeds.

“Evening Grosbeaks” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Birds of winter are returning

A male Purple Finch eyed the black oil sunflower feeder.

I’m sitting at my desk, looking out the window, enjoying my favorite pastime. Several winter birds have returned and are feeding on and under the feeders that I hang each fall.

In this case, it’s a flock of chattering pine siskins partaking of black oil sunflower and safflower seeds. I mix the two varieties in a tube feeder that dangles from the lowest red maple branch in our front yard.

That’s what the sociable pine siskins were devouring. They are a dainty bird with a pointy little beak. Unlike other species, the siskins don’t seem to be too competitive. They dine cooperatively. The pesky house finches could learn a lesson from their smaller cousins.

I consider the siskins a real treat, an honor to have them partaking of my offerings. They tend to move around a lot in the colder months. They can be here one day and gone the next. So, I enjoy them and the other birds while they are here. I do hope they stick around.

The purple finches have returned, too. Like the siskins, I never know how long they will stay. I just keep filling the feeders and appreciate their beauty. Birders ogle over having purple finches, and the glorious but unpredictable evening grosbeaks even more so.

The white-throated sparrows have also arrived for their six-month hiatus from the Canadian provinces and the northeastern forests. They are marvelous birds to both watch and hear. I never tire of their hop and kick approach to feeding on the ground.

The song of the white-throated is the delight of winter. Neva and I hear their distinctive, lyrical whistle when we walk in the morning. Their cheery call quickens our step on chilly mornings.

The dark-eyed juncos and white-crowned sparrows have just begun to arrive. More will likely appear as the weather grows colder.

I enjoy the year-round birds, too. Is there anything more beautiful than a bright red northern cardinal perched on an evergreen branch? If it happened to have snowed, it creates a Christmas card moment for sure.

I can always tell when the neighborhood Cooper’s hawk is on the prowl. Stealth as it is, the songbirds can’t always fly for safety. So, they freeze in place by staying still and low or press tightly against a tree trunk, hoping not to be spotted.

I don’t mind if the sly hawk captures one. It has to eat, too. However, my preference would be to snag a few of the noisy, hoggish European starlings. They devour the suet cakes like they are candy.

I enjoy the various antics and interactions of my feathered friends. The Carolina wren’s repertoire of songs alerts me to be on the lookout. Sure enough, it bounces around our front porch, checking nooks and crannies for any dead insects.

The wren also partakes of the seeds and suet. Birds need their protein, too. That explains why American robins peck beneath the suet feeder while the starlings sloppily gorge themselves. The robins gobble up the dropped suet pieces from the unruly gang overhead.

I always am pleased when the northern mockingbird makes an appearance at the suet, too. Even the starlings yield to this aggressor.

I marvel at the various woodpeckers that make infrequent stops. The downy is the most faithful, followed by the red-bellied and northern flickers. I’m still waiting on the pileated to make its initial appearance this year.

That’s half the enjoyment of being a birder. You never know what to expect next. You just have to keep watching and appreciate what arrives, starlings excepted.

This Pileated Woodpecker got the last of the peanut butter suet on March 24, 2020.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Letting Creation find you

Looking west from a point in Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park.

Even though the morning’s southeast breeze was gentle, the leaves rained down like ticker-tape parade confetti. I was in my favorite outdoor space, Shenandoah National Park’s Big Meadows.

Big Meadows is an anomaly. No logical or scientific reasons can explain why the expansive meadow sits in the middle of this popular national gem.

Scientists have determined that there is nothing unique about the soil’s geologic makeup or bedrocks below that would create a meadow in the middle of a forest. In a matter of yards, the foliage changes from plants of a kettle-like marsh to wooded hillsides. I imagined Big Meadows as God’s thumb stamp of approval on these ancient mountains.

In the short time we have lived in Virginia, I’ve found fall is my favorite time to visit this gorgeous spot. From our valley home, the weather appeared to be perfect. But when you visit the mountains, conditions can be changeable at any time of year. I packed for the unexpected, and that’s what I got. With every step, creation’s glory unfolded.

You could hardly call my creeping along as hiking. I followed the parameter of the southern part of Big Meadows. In three hours, I covered only a mile and a half. A wooly worm would have made more progress, but likely not shared my joy.

I wasn’t out to break any endurance records. I went to see whatever came to me as I strolled along and through the area’s various topography. In the mountains, just a change in altitude of a few feet makes a big difference in the kinds of vegetation that grow.

This gently sloping mead is home to flowers, grasses, reeds, trees, and assorted creatures great and small. As an invader of their varied habitat, I tried to remain obscure.

With fall’s migration, I knew plenty of bird species might be passing through on their way south. I expected year-round residents, too, along with a few lingering butterflies.

Resident eastern bluebirds and handsome field and song sparrows greeted me. Eastern phoebes, magnolia warblers, blue-headed vireos, Carolina chickadees, and dark-eyed juncos darted about, too.

Dressed in their duller non-breeding feathers, some birds, especially the warblers, went unidentified by this average birder. Chirps near and far came from other species that I couldn’t locate.

I crept along the raggedy edge that separated fields from woods, exhilarated. I lingered in a high place beneath a sweeping white oak at the meadow’s southernmost border, where I could see near and far.

Contentment filled me as I sensed all the life around me. Instead of hiker, birder, or photographer, I was an uninvited but appreciative guest. Every moment bore existential meaning.

The first frosts of the season created a festive carpet of fall’s primary colors that spread across the landscape. The leafy trees and evergreens looked on in envy. Red-tinted green leaves, spent wildflowers, delicate ferns frosted golden, ruby-colored blueberry leaves, and russet grasses decorated the earth like it was Christmas.

Overhead, the sky also joined nature’s artistry. One minute, it was pure cerulean, the next white fluffy clouds.

Suddenly, a fog rolled in from the eastern piedmont. The steady breeze soon carried it to the western slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I breathed an appreciative silent prayer of gratitude for all these sights and sounds. The old withered away, yet the promise of rebirth remained.           

At every step that I took, I was delighted to have observed all that found me.

The fog that hung over Shenandoah National Park even after I left.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020