Category Archives: birds

Beautiful bird, beautiful song

Dickcissel, Shenandoah Valley
When a friend posted on social media audio of Dickcissels singing at dusk, I wanted to see the birds. Dickcissels are rare here, according to birding records and range maps. Dickcissels are listed as scarce for Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley breeding maps.

With my morning and early afternoon tightly scheduled, I knew I had a small window of opportunity to find this beautiful bird with an even more beautiful song. Severe storms were forecast for the area for the early evening. I headed north 10 miles as soon as I could. When I reached the intersection where the birds’ song had been recorded, I immediately heard them upon exiting my vehicle. Finding them was a different story.

I had seen my first Dickcissels in similar habitat in Ohio. Unfortunately, they are drawn to alfalfa fields dotted with weeds like ironweed that grow taller than the legume the farmer planted. Sure enough, using my binoculars, that’s where I spotted the first male Dickcissel. I felt pressured to photograph the birds. Thunder rumbled in the distance near the Allegheny Mountains 20 miles west.

To my surprise, a Dickcissel rose out of the thick foliage and flew directly towards me, landing on a tree branch right above my head. As I raised my camera to capture the bird up close, it took flight and perched on an ironweed plant nearly a football field away. I clicked away anyhow.

I scanned the field in the direction of other Dickcissels that I heard. I found a pair about 50 yards south of my location. Just as I started to walk south, a male and female flew to the woven-wire fence that surrounded the hayfield.

I immediately stopped and found a place to brace myself to steady the camera. Even before I could get off my first shot, the female flew, leaving the male to sit along, singing eloquently. I clicked away hoping for some decent results. A light rain had already started obscuring the sun, which gave me less light to work with.

Finally, when a car approached from the south, the beautiful bird flew in the direction of its mate. I headed for the car, happy to have witnessed both the bird and its enchanting song.

“Beautiful bird, beautiful song” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Singing in the sunset

Shenandoah Valley, sunset

Singing in the sunset.


One of the joys about being in the out-of-doors is experiencing the unexpected. Nature’s ways never cease to pleasantly surprise me.

Such was the case recently when I went out to photograph the sunset. Doing so is always an adventure. You never know what the results will be. When I arrived at my chosen destination not far from our home near Harrisonburg, Virginia, I had a feeling my quest would be disappointing. I was wrong, not in the sunset so much as the aura of the setting.

I parked at the entrance of a nearby farm that doubles as an event center. I could see a thick bank of clouds hovering over the Allegheny Mountains 20 miles to the west. Usually, that means that the sun’s rays will be blocked from reflecting off of the congregation of cumulus clouds hanging in the evening sky. But I’ve learned that when it comes to sunsets, patience is a valuable virtue.

So while I waited, I watched the steers grazing in the sweeping, limestone-studded pasture. Other than the lone bull, they paid me little heed.

Soon, my attention was diverted to another source. An Eastern Meadowlark was belting out its evening song. At first, I had a hard time locating the bird. Just as the sunset reached its color peak, I spotted the bird high atop a deciduous tree whose leaves were in their infancy of unfurling. The song mesmerized me. It was as if the bird were serenading the setting sun. I have included a link to give you an idea of what I heard here.

If you can’t spot the Eastern Meadowlark, please click on the photo to enlarge it. Look for the bird center-right at the very top of the tree.

“Singing in the Sunset” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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The sounds of Virginia are similarly pleasing as those of Ohio

Old Order Mennonites, Rockingham Co. VA

Old Order Mennonite horses and buggies.

By Bruce Stambaugh

My Virginia office where I write is similar to my former Ohio office. Both were converted bedrooms right across the hall from our master bedroom. Just like Ohio, my desk is right in front of a big window where I can look out onto and into the world for inspiration.

Being an easily distracted person, I actually enjoy being diverted from my writing by life’s everyday interactions that I see. I find the digressions to be intriguing rather than agitating.

Coopers Hawk, Holmes Co. OH

Right outside my Ohio office.

Life’s noises, of course, filtered in, too. Contrary to what you might think, sounds stirred me as well.

The resonances I hear always have, do and will captivate me. Similarities abound between the Virginia and Ohio settings.

In Ohio, I loved the soothing sound of horseshoes clopping along against the hard macadam of County Road 201. On unusually quiet, warm days with the windows flung open, I could hear the rhythmical clack, clack, clack of the buggy horse’s cadence coming from a quarter mile away or more.

My wife and I both recognized how fortunate we were to hear that sound so regularly. Often we heard families talking or singing or sometimes occasional boom boxes blaring. Teenagers will be teenagers no matter their culture.

I miss that element of living among the Amish. Though Old Order Mennonite farms are close by our Virginia home, I’ve never seen or heard one of their buggies on our suburban neighborhood street.

Transport for Christ parade

Semis rumble down CR 201.

I always said that our Ohio home was built on the Berlin-Wooster expressway. County Road 201 served as the chief artery between those two locales. It made easy access to both places, especially for semi-trucks. That was one sound I despised.

I loathed their use of jake brakes heading north down Number 10 hill, a ski slope-like descent. The obnoxious clatter frightened birds, bikers, and four-legged animals and woke me up, often at 3 a.m.

We don’t have that problem now. Every now and then a large delivery truck cruises past the house. It’s the exception, not the rule. Most passers-by are bikers, walkers, and leashed canines.

A mechanical sound I did enjoy during Ohio winters was the county snowplows clearing the road of the latest snowfall. They always did a marvelous job. One year they knocked down our mailbox three times in the space of two weeks.

snowplow, Virginia

VA snowplow.

In Virginia, it doesn’t snow enough for the state to invest in snowplow equipment for secondary highways. Instead, they contract local farmers to clear the roads with big plows on large tractors. If I hadn’t been out shoveling myself, I would have never heard them. The snow seemed to muffle their diesel engines.

Sounds that reach my office aren’t always external. In Virginia, I can easily hear the washing machine thumping and the clothes dryer spinning, buttons and zippers clinking against the tumbling metal drum even though the laundry room is at the opposite end of our ranch home. Remembering to go empty the machines is another story altogether.

Our Ohio home was a bi-level. My office was upstairs, the washer and dryer were downstairs. I seldom heard the cycle-completed buzzers. At least that was my excuse.

I still hear children playing, dogs barking, birds singing, jets sailing overhead, sirens whaling in the distance. Those are universal sounds that are part of the human condition.

It’s been a year since we moved to Virginia. The similar reassuring sounds of life in the Commonwealth mimic those of the Buckeye State. Those are sounds I can live with anywhere.

Hose Co. #4, Rockingham Co. VA

Even Santa and Mrs. Claus rolled by our Virginia home.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Finding happiness where least expected

backyard birds, Harrisonburg VA

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Male House Finch.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I had high hopes for attracting backyard birds to our Virginia home. I hung feeders from the two maple trees on our property almost as soon as the movers had unloaded our household goods from the moving trucks nearly a year ago.

Well, maybe it wasn’t that quick, but still, the feeders went up, one in the front yard and one in the back. I also erected a jelly feeder for the Baltimore Orioles and a sugar water feeder for the ruby-throated hummingbirds.

I was excited about starting our retirement years anew in Virginia. The grandkids were paramount in deciding to relocate. Birding came a little farther down the priority list.

Still, I wanted to see just what birds I would attract. To my surprise, it didn’t take very long for some prized yard birds to appear. Northern cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, American goldfinches and other species found the feeders right away. Tufted titmice, and black-capped and Carolina chickadees made occasional appearances, too. I was ecstatic.

Ohio backyard birds.

The results nevertheless were mixed. The numbers and species, however, were much fewer than what I had seen in Ohio. Back in the Buckeye State, orioles gulped grape jelly by the jarful. Hummingbirds zipped to my feeder by the kitchen window. At least seven woodpecker species visited my feeders, including pileated woodpeckers that brought their young to gorge on peanut butter suet.

Songbirds were abundant and frequent visitors, too. Showy white-crowned sparrows were favorites. I especially enjoyed the eastern bluebirds. They brightened any dull Ohio day with both their brilliant springtime feathers and their sweet lullaby calls.

In Virginia, daily drama cropped up around the bird feeders. Large, bossy, and noisy common grackles consistently scared the more desirable species away. They also drained the feeders once they brought their young. In addition, scores of squirrels munched their way through the feed they could reach. The more sought-after birds didn’t have a chance, so I took the feeders down for the summer. In Ohio, I fed the birds year-round.

I rehung the feeders in the fall. With the pest birds elsewhere, the better backyard birds returned. I was happy for that, and even more pleased when the dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows arrived for the winter.

Virginia backyard birds.

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It’s not that I expected Virginia to be Ohio. They were two different locales with entirely different habitats altogether. For bird watching, habitat is crucial.

We no longer lived in a rural flyway like we did in Ohio. The habitat of our suburban neighborhood in no way remotely resembles the bird-inviting one we had in Ohio. It is also wholly unfair to compare one year in Virginia to a lifetime of appreciating Ohio birds.

I photographed all the various birds I saw in Ohio. I have hundreds, perhaps thousands of digital shots. Reviewing them revives fond memories for me. But as much as I would like to, I can’t linger there.

Now, I take pleasure in the natural springtime wakeup calls of the white-throated sparrows, song sparrows, and cardinals. I pay more attention to the gregarious American robins that I once took for granted. I chuckle at the effervescent northern mockingbirds that frequent our neighborhood.

I miss those Ohio birds to be sure. However, the recent appearance of a migrating pine siskin sparked an epiphany.

That little bird brought home a valuable life lesson for me that is apropos far beyond the birding world. Be happy with what you have.

Harrisonburg VA

Where I feed the backyard birds.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Patience and a warm coat required

spring, Virginia, Shenandoah Valley

What spring should look like in VA.

By Bruce Stambaugh

It’s been a long winter. That’s true whether you live in Minnesota, where winter seems eternal, or here in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where consistent spring weather should have arrived long ago.

When it comes to weather here, there are no guarantees. Put another way, if you don’t like the weather, just wait a while. It will change.

I’ve heard people say that about the weather in Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Florida to name a few locations. Regardless of the state of residence, they are all correct. Apparently “here” is a relative place. Weather in many areas is even more fickle than politicians or used car salesmen.

That seems especially apt now when winter seems determined to hold her icy grip on the good folks in many states. Just when we think spring has arrived with a lovely warm day, the next day brings cold and wind and too often more unwanted snow.

snowstorm, Virginia

An early spring snowstorm blanketed Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

People mumble about the unseasonable cold, impatient to get outside in shorts and t-shirts and work or play in decent weather. Excavators, contractors, and landscapers make promises they can’t keep to customers, and then justifiably blame the lousy weather for the delays.

Temperatures far and wide are 20 degrees Fahrenheit or more below average for April. It isn’t the first time, however, that the weather has played havoc with people’s springtime schedules. Record lows are in the teens from bygone years long forgotten.

I can remember a frost on June 2. My wife recalls snow on her birthday, May 27. Our young son once endured a nine-mile ride home in a four-wheel drive fire truck from a friend’s house during an April snowstorm that dumped 20 heavy, wet inches on Holmes County.

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Of course, two days later, the only remaining evidence of the storm was the snow piles from parking lots being plowed. The weather did warm up. It will warm up again, eventually.

After all, haven’t the daffodils bloomed? Aren’t the tulips ready to show their bright colors? Aren’t the tree buds swollen or even already unfurling? Has your lawn been mowed? Aren’t the robins calling out their territorial cacophonies? I bet the answers are mostly in the affirmative to that little springtime quiz.

Yes, it’s been a long, cold, wet winter, but nothing that we haven’t seen before and will likely see again. It’s just that we are so anxious for warming sunshine and frolic outside that we often lose our perspective. No matter what state of residence, we forget that all of this has happened before, not in the same order perhaps, but with the same frustrating results.

white-throated sparrow, Virginia

A handsome male White-throated Sparrow.

The other day I observed a brief, hopeful moment in my backyard that exactly proves my point of this year’s overlap of winter and spring. Side-by-side, a white-throated sparrow jumped and scratched for seed on the ground while a chipping sparrow pecked at the same offerings like a couple on a dinner date. The latter may stay, while I’ll soon miss the former’s magical song.

Seeing those two species together served a not so subtle reminder. Life goes on, just not at the pace or with the climatological conditions we humans desire. But eventually spring will indeed out-muscle winter, the weather will warm, and we’ll soon be complaining about having to mow the lawn twice a week.

Humans, you see, can be as capricious as the weather. In truth, the annual transition of hibernation to rebirth will find closure. Just be patient and keep a warm coat handy.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Give thanks for springtime

Amish farm, sheep, green fields

Springtime in Ohio’s Amish country.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Spring! It’s a word that rolls off our tongues with joy and passion. I give thanks for this vibrant, vernal season, especially after the long, cold winter too many of us had to endure.

This past winter surely tested our patience. But patient we must be. As much as we welcome springtime into our lives, she, too, can be fickle and bring mixed messages. Much like fall, springtime weather can embody all four seasons. Still, let’s give thanks for springtime.

I realize that in our North American society, Thanksgiving is reserved for the fall. Canadians annually celebrate their Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October. U.S. citizens wait until the fourth Thursday in November.

The Thanksgiving holidays acknowledge all that we have. The reflective focus is on the harvest, glad to have reaped the benefits of all the hard labor used to produce the yield. But we also need to be thankful for the spring. There are no apples without the blossoms and the pollinators.

I’m grateful for springtime even though some years, like this year, she takes her good old time making her presence known. Still, I say, let’s all express our thanks for spring’s debut.

Spring’s arrival creates a variety of reasons to rejoice often based on where you live and what activities ensue. Much action has an agricultural bent. Suburbanites will gas up their lawn mowers for the first of many rounds around the yard. City dwellers will pot tomatoes, peppers, and petunias to baby on their balconies.

More ambitious gardeners with sufficient plots of land will plant their seeds and seedlings, always keeping a wary eye on any frosty forecast. Flowerbeds will be mulched, windows washed, and if time allows, neighborly visits will resume right where they left off last fall.

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Songbirds fill the twilight with concertos. Dormant lawns, long browned from winter’s sting, green up from an overnight shower. Azaleas, daffodils, dogwoods, redbuds, and forsythia brighten the awakening landscape. Shouts of children riding bicycles or skateboards echo through neighborhoods regardless of setting.

For all of this, I am thankful. Why not? It is the season of renewal, and after the winter that wouldn’t end we all need a breath of fresh air, we all need to inhale those sweet fragrances, we all need to enjoy each moment as the bees, birds, and butterflies reappear.

No matter how long spring takes to settle in to fit our particular comfort level, we should be most thankful that the season of hope and renewal is upon us. In keeping with that regeneration, it’s good to express our thanks to others each and every opportunity we can. Share your joy with others the way a mother robin cares for its young. Spouse, plumber, daughter, son, grandkids, stranger, receptionist, parents, waitress, checkout person, or whomever you meet will do.

Life is in a constant state of change. Spring is that reminder to us to embrace not just the new season, but life itself. The message of the purple crocuses is to put away your fears. Spring is here. Life is good.

Without the season of renewal, there can be no harvest. At this sacred time of year, let our thankfulness replicate our gratitude for life itself, the life we have lived, are living, and the experiences yet to come.

I’m thankful for spring’s freshness, its vibrancy, virility, brightness, and renewed blessings. Life’s eternal cycle of renewal has returned once again. Let’s rejoice and be glad in it!

blooming crocuses

Rejoicing in the sun.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Long-tailed Duck

Silver Lake, Dayton VA, birding

Long-tailed Duck.

I only had a few hours to give to the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). This would be my first for Rockingham Co., Virginia. I had participated in several CBCs before, all in Holmes Co., Ohio. I primarily served as a driver for the many Amish birders who turned out each year on the designed day. CBCs are conducted at various dates near the end of December each year around the country. They help keep track of the numbers and species of birds seen from year to year.

Weather often plays a role in the varieties and the total number of species seen. This particular day in Rockingham Co. began crisp and clear. I decided to spend my limited time searching around Dayton, a small community five miles south of where we live. I hoped the man-made Silver Lake would yield some unusual species. I wasn’t disappointed.

The bright morning sun had burned off much of the haze. Right after I had parked my vehicle, I spotted this beautiful Long-tailed Duck, a rare visitor to Rockingham Co. With the morning light in my favor, I was able to capture this photo of the stunning duck in its winter plumage. I particularly liked how the churned water of the paddling duck reflected the turquoise sky in sharp contrast with the more murky surface of the lake.

“Long-tailed Duck” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Beginning anew with feeding the backyard birds

tube feeder

Male Red-breasted Grosbeak and Male House Finch.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I knew when we moved from our home in Ohio’s Amish country to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley that my backyard birding experiences would change. I just didn’t know how much difference there would be.

Our Virginia ranch home is one of nearly 500 in an established housing development west of Harrisonburg in Rockingham County. Mature trees, shrubs, and well-manicured lawns surround the many-styled houses. However, none of the vegetation is as dense as we had had in Holmes County.

Over the years, I tried to create an inviting habitat around our rural Ohio home for birds of all species, whether they nested or just needed the cover to approach the feeders. Neva complemented my efforts with beautiful flowerbeds all around the house. Birds, bees, butterflies, and other wildlife thrived.

a bird in the bush

Male Northern Cardinal.

The wide variety of cover and available water and food sources for birds near our home enhanced the variety of species seen on or near our Holmes County abode. White-winged crossbills, bald eagles, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, pileated woodpeckers, various warblers, barn owls, long-eared owls, and screech owls were just some of the amazing birds we had seen in the 38 years we lived there.

I wondered what birds would find their way to our Virginia home. I hung birdfeeders and placed birdbaths in the front and backyards not long after moving in. Our one-third acre only had two red maples, one in the front yard and one in the back. Nearby properties held sycamore, white pine, wild cherry, pin oaks, sugar maple, mimosa, and various shrubs and flowerbeds. The closest stream was a half-mile away.

The rolling hills and broad valleys are reminiscent of those in Holmes County. But they are not the same, and I didn’t expect the birds to be the same because of that. They haven’t been.

I was thrilled when red-breasted grosbeaks and northern cardinals showed up at the feeders soon after I erected them last May. I had the ubiquitous house sparrows and house finches, too. But once the common grackles arrived with their new fledglings, the more desirable birds were crowded out. Even the bossy blue jays headed for cover. I took the feeders down for the summer.

I rehung the feeders in early fall, including the suet feeder, in hopes of attracting some woodpeckers and other suet-eating birds. Again, songbirds found the food quickly. The northern cardinals and house finches returned. A small flock of American goldfinches followed, too, along with mourning doves.

As the weather cooled, more birds arrived. A red-bellied woodpecker found the suet and often came early morning and late evening. A male downy woodpecker appeared irregularly. Dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows scratched at offering on the ground below. I was especially ecstatic with the latter. Their melancholy song seems to linger in winter’s frosty air.

Other yard birds included flocks of American robins. Unlike Holmes County where robins seek shelter in dense woods or migrate altogether, robins in Virginia linger longer. They forage on berries, crabapples, and grubs they find in yards and beneath mulch in flowerbeds. The robins particularly enjoy the birdbath for drinking and bathing.

A troop of European Starlings replaced the grackles as the rascals of the feeders. They’re pretty birds, but they can devour four cakes of peanut butter suet in a day. The woodpeckers shared my disapproval.

My bird feeders may not have attracted the variety of birds we had in Ohio. I keep them up anyhow to enjoy the ones that do appear. It’s a pastime that both my wife and I find more than worthwhile.

robins, birdbath

Gathering around water hole.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Ripple Effect

shorebird, Florida

Ripple Effect.

I intended merely to capture an image of this shorebird, which I believe to be a willet. I was pleasantly surprised when I viewed the photo on my laptop. The light breeze of the evening rustled the water’s surface to create a dynamic background for this drab-looking bird.

“Ripple Effect” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Standoff at Cooks Creek

black angus steer, bald eagle, Harrisonburg VA

Standoff at Cooks Creek.

Birding is so much fun. You just never know what you will find, see happen, and be able to document.

As I was returning home recently, I spotted a Bald Eagle high in a sycamore tree right beside the highway. I turned the car around as quickly and safely as I could and parked well away from the bird. Just as I exited my vehicle, the eagle flew low across Cooks Creek and landed in a pasture field. I was in luck but didn’t know just how fortunate I would be.

As I hurried along the roadway, I noticed a black Angus steer move towards the eagle. The steer was about half-way between the eagle and me. Soon it broke into a gallop, which drew the eagle’s full attention. The steer stopped at the west side of the creek bank opposite the eagle on the east side.

If they had a discussion between them, it was short. The steer bounded down the embankment and towards the eagle. Of course, the eagle flew straight back for the sycamore tree. At the last second, the magnificent bird changed course and zoomed back over the steer and out of sight.

Whether you are a birder or not, this indeed was a once in a lifetime occurrence. I’m exceedingly glad I got to see and document it.

“Standoff at Cooks Creek” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Filed under birding, birds, human interest, nature photography, Photo of the Week, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia