Witnessing the Ugly Side of Birding

The Bald Eagle flew shortly after I arrived on the scene.

At first, I did a double-take.

My wife and I had just turned the corner onto Erickson Ave. just west of Harrisonburg, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley. As we passed the Word Ministries Christian Church entrance, I noticed two large birds to my left, just south of the church.

Both birds furiously flapped their wings. But there was something extraordinary about what we were seeing. My wife observed that they both appeared to have white heads.

I initially thought we were watching two Bald Eagles interacting. But the eagle was riding the back of the other bird, steadily forcing it to the ground. I tried to keep an eye on the plummeting birds while slowly driving. Fortunately, there was no traffic.

The birds, still locked together, disappeared from view since the roadway was below the level of the sloping land. We were on our way home from church, so I dropped off my wife at the house since dinner was in the oven. I grabbed my camera and binoculars and hurried back to the scene.

The birds had flown northwest over a woods that lines the crest of a hill that separates the city from the county. The hostile interaction began when they got to the clearing south of the church.

My first view of the Bald Eagle.

I drove to the southwest corner of the parking lot and, from my vehicle, immediately spotted the Bald Eagle sitting in the open field. Through my binoculars, I saw the other bird. It was an Osprey, looking directly toward the eagle.

Within a minute, the eagle flew up and began circling overhead in vast swaths. I drove up to be closer to the Osprey. It was clear that this beautiful bird of prey was severely injured.

Ospreys and Bald Eagles often use the same habitat since both species are skilled at plucking fish from bodies of water. If one catches a fish, the other will pester the bird with its lunch to get it to drop it. Usually, it’s the eagle that chases the Osprey.

But we were nowhere near a large stream, lake, or pond. I wondered what had happened to cause the eagle to be so aggressive toward the Osprey. I took some photos and then turned my attention to finding help for the poor bird.

I posted on a local bird club Facebook page about my dilemma. Within minutes, birders suggested I contact the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro. That’s what I did.

The injured Osprey.

Since it was a Sunday, I expected the call to go to voicemail. But on the second ring, a young woman answered. I explained the situation, and she sent me a text with five names and phone numbers of trained wildlife rescue transporters to contact.

All the while, word quickly spread in the local avian network. Black Vultures, American Crows, and Common Grackles began circling overhead. A Cooper’s Hawk zoomed into a nearby tree. The eagle, however, was gone.

The first transporter I called answered right away. Unfortunately, the woman couldn’t help because she was driving to her daughter’s bridal shower. None of the other people responded.

Then I thought of Clair. I should have called him right away. Clair Mellinger is a retired biology professor emeritus from Eastern Mennonite University, and he lives just a quarter of a mile away.

Fortunately, Clair was home, and he told me that he was a trained transporter and had taken birds to the Wildlife Center before. He and his wife arrived in a few minutes.

Ospreys have razor-sharp talons and a sharp beak designed to tear apart the flesh of the prey they catch. Clair was ready. His pants were tucked into his hiking boots. He wore a thick jacket and gloves and carried a blanket to throw over the bird.

As Clair approached the Osprey, he could see just how badly injured the bird was. Its left wing was broken, and it wasn’t able to walk. So, picking up the bird was easier than we had expected.

Clair Mellinger with the injured Osprey.

The bird didn’t squawk or even try to move as Clair carefully carried the Osprey to the trunk of his car. He placed it in a plastic milk crate, put another one on top, and bound the two with bungee cords.

Before he left, Clair told me that he had never seen an eagle be so aggressive. The injuries were that bad.

I hoped the Osprey and its human escorts were on their way to a good outcome. The Virginia Wildlife Center is a noted rehab center.

Unfortunately, the eagle severely injured the Osprey; there was nothing the veterinarian at the center could do. An email informed me that the bird died in surgery the next day.

As an avid amateur birder, the news saddened me. I was happy to have an expert and trained birder like Clair to call on in this time of urgent need. And I was grateful to the rehab center for their efforts in trying to save the Osprey.

Clair told me that he figured that the Osprey was on its northern migration and passed through the eagle’s territory. Nesting eagles in the Shenandoah Valley are either currently incubating eggs or feeding young that have hatched.

This fact could have accounted for the once-in-a-lifetime altercation that my wife and I witnessed. We only wished the events would have had a better outcome for the Osprey.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

A Photo Essay for an Old Friend

The backyard red maple saw a lot of lovely sunsets.

I said goodbye to an old friend recently. I had the utilitarian red maple tree in our backyard cut down. I didn’t really want to, but it was the right thing to do.

The tree has served us well year-round in the short time my wife and I have lived in the Shenandoah Valley. We moved here from Ohio’s Amish country to be near our grandchildren.

In the summer, the backyard tree provided much-needed shade for us and the wildlife. The tree reached far above the peak of our home, helping to block the hot afternoon sun. Birds and squirrels were often seen lounging in the coolness.

Our grandchildren scaled the alluring tree with her low, sweeping branches. She oversaw their croquet games, soccer kicking, and baseball tossing. American Robins and Blue Jays nested high in her tender branches.

The red maple glowed most gloriously in the fall, of course. Her red leaves brightened chilly, gray autumn days. But the healthier front yard red maple always outshone her sister’s beauty.

In the winter, she cradled the various backyard bird feeders I hung from her lower limbs and placed beneath her silver trunk. White-throated Sparrows, House Finches, Purple Finches, Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, and American Goldfinches were just some of the species that rested on her branches.

Woodpeckers especially loved her. Downey, Red-bellied, Northern Flickers, and even a Pileated Woodpecker graced her offerings. American Robins roosted high in her crown as days drew to a close.

In the spring, her dainty, concealed blossoms attracted pollinators before I even realized they were there. In addition to her budding lime leaves, she sprouted her precious, life-giving seeds. Unfortunately, they were so numerous not even the horde of neighborhood squirrels could devour them all. The twirling seeds clogged our spouting and downspouts until we had gutter guards installed. More personally, they activated my allergies. I alone kept Keenex® in business.

Neither of those negativities led to her demise, though. No, I knew the tree was sick from the time we moved in nearly five years ago. Even a casual glance would have told any passerby that the tree had an issue.

The red maple was only one of two mature trees on our third of an acre. A second red maple frames the front yard. Even from the street, you could see that the color of the leaves of the two trees was different. The front yard maple’s leaves shown glossy and vibrant. The leaves of the backyard tree appeared dull, even sickly.

I knew that one large east-facing branch of the backyard red maple struggled to produce leaves. But last summer, when the region was in a moderate drought, the leaves suddenly turned brown and shriveled up.

A certified arborist showed me the reasons for the beloved tree’s demise. Insects had girdled the limb in question near the trunk, and the bark had flacked off. In fact, the bugs had burrowed into the trunk as well. No wonder woodpeckers loved the tree.

The arborist said the tree would live no longer than five years. We made the difficult decision to have the tree taken down, and replace it with another that hopefully will produce a crown that will mirror the qualities of the red maple.

My wife and I won’t likely live long enough to watch the replacement tree grow to maturity. We are resigned to watching the young sweet gum grow the way we have enjoyed watching our grandchildren morph from joyous youngsters into achieving and helpful youth.

Even when dormant, the red maple looked grand.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

A Hidden Treasure

I wouldn’t have seen this hidden treasure if it hadn’t been for another photographer. My wife, some friends of ours, and I were driving into Ft. Clinch State Park at the north end of Amelia Island, Florida, when we noticed a woman with a huge lens on a tripod aimed at a tree.

That could mean only one thing: she was photographing a bird. I parked and exited the van, eager to know what her subject was. She had me look through her long lens. This beautiful Great Horned Owl stared back at me.

I quickly pointed my camera at this beautiful bird and carefully snapped away. I quietly thanked the woman for graciously sharing her find with me. Thanks to her, I was also able to view this superb owl resting in the fork of a live oak tree.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

The Proud Papa

I remember the exact time and place I saw my first Bald Eagles. It was years ago in a state park near the shores of Lake Erie in northwest Ohio. Back then, Bald Eagles were far and few between.

I am so glad that they have been able to make a comeback thanks to the banning of pesticides like DDT and proactive conservation efforts. In fact, the Bald Eagle was removed from the endangered and threatened species list in 2007.

Still, I thrill at the sight of seeing Bald Eagles. I never tire of watching and photographing them. This particular Bald Eagle brought extra-special joy. My wife and I explored a park in northeast Florida, searching for shorebirds. A passerby on the trail told us about an eagle sitting on a nest in a tall southern pine overlooking the marsh. Of course, we hustled out and quickly found the huge nest several hundred yards south of a boardwalk that ran over the marsh to a river.

We could easily see the eagle’s head sticking above the nest using binoculars. That familiar thrill returned, just like every other Bald Eagle sighting. However, the eagle’s mate was nowhere to be seen. That changed when we visited again this week.

Mother eagle kept her two chicks warm while Dad proudly sat on a limb above the nest. He moved a couple of times, and I was fortunate to get this hand-held shot with my long lens fully extended to 1,365mm. I snapped several pictures, knowing that some of the photos would be blurry.

When I downloaded the shots to my laptop, I was shocked to see this clear photo, even when I cropped it. The beautiful bird was far away and I braced my elbows on the walkway’s railing to capture the shot.

If you are interested, you can watch the eagles via a cam from the American Eagle Foundation at this link.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Synchronized Foraging

American White Pelicans on the Amelia River, Fernandina Beach, Florida.

My wife and I showed a couple visiting us from Ohio around our favorite winter retreat, Amelia Island, Florida. We drove to Old Town Fernandina Beach, where lots of history has occurred. A small square, Fernandina Plaza Historic State Park, marks the site of a colonial massacre of Indigenous peoples and some French trappers.

We drove to the small parking area overlooking the Amelia River on a bluff. Soon, our attention was drawn away from history to the present moment. A small flock of American White Pelicans had landed along the river’s edge at the park’s base.

The beautiful birds formed a floating wedge of sorts and immediately began to forage in their unique synchronized fashion. We witnessed a ballet on the water, as the video shows.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Seeing these elusive migrators was one thing. Observing their feeding ritual was something else altogether.

These were the first arrivals. The photos were taken five seconds apart.

American White Pelicans migrate to the coastal areas of California, Central America, and the Gulf Coast States for the winter. They nest in the Midwest and western states, as well as the Canadian prairie provinces.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Christmas in Canun

A celebration with family.

The beach along the Gulf of Mexico at the resort where we stayed.

My wife and I wanted to wrap up our 50th anniversary year with the entire family in someplace warm. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Since our son’s career is in hospitality, we let him make the reservations. He found a family-friendly, eco-friendly resort south of Cancun, Mexico. However, it ended up that he and his wife couldn’t join us after all. Their doctor wouldn’t let her travel out of the country due to her high-risk pregnancy.

So, our daughter and her family, and my wife and I headed to Cancun without them with their blessings. We left Christmas Eve and returned on New Year’s Eve.

It was great to lounge in 85-degree weather on the beach with our three grandchildren and their mother and father. They enjoyed the waterpark, too, since the shoreline was rocky and uneven. We relaxed with them, chatting and teaching them card games.

Our reservations were made in early October, well before the omicron variant reared its ugly head. We double-checked with the airlines and the resort regarding their COVID-19 protocols. We were assured that all precautions would be taken, and that is what we experienced. We always felt very safe.

Here are some representative photos of our week-long experience at Sandos Caracol Eco Resort, Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

We traded Christmas trees for palm trees.

Palm trees provided plenty of shade for us, non-sun worshipers. The beach was lovely, but there were more rocks than sand under the water, which required water shoes to be worn to stay safe.

We spent Christmas Day getting acquainted with the resort. One of our grandsons and I explored the Mayan ruins on the resort property. We saw several giant iguanas, enjoyed a meal at one of the resort’s restaurants, saw the sunset, and watched a reenactment of a Mayan fire ceremony.

Of course, our oldest grandson and his dad had to try the jet skis while the rest of us watched from the shore. We also enjoyed the beautiful flowers and greenery that were all around us.

Because the resort is built in a jungle, we didn’t have to go far to find wildlife. Often, the critters came to us, mainly because people ignored the “Do Not Feed the Animals” signs. So, it was prudent to not leave anything on your balcony or your sliding door open. As a birder, I was pleased to see a variety of bird species. Some were life birds for me.

We enjoyed our time at the resort. Patience was paramount given that, like most everyplace else, the resort was short-staffed due to COVID-19. Being flexible enhanced our overall enjoyment of the Sandos Caracol Eco Resort.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Winter is waiting in the wings

When November wanes.

Like the last sliver of the moon, November is waning. December is upon us as if we needed a reminder.

After our crazy hot and dry summer and warm and pleasant October, November serves as a buffer between those golden memories and the chilly days ahead. She is readying us for whatever winter brings.

November likes to use her weather arsenal at every opportunity. The recent early blasts of cold weather have already been a one-two punch signaling that winter will soon officially be here.

November clearly understands her convoluted purpose. I recall summer-like weather early in the eleventh month. I sweated on a modest hike in a nearby state park.

Silver Lake, Dayton, Virginia, lived up to its name in November.

A few days later, I was photographing horses romping in the snow. November loves to tease us that way intermittently.

I have fond memories of family Thanksgiving gatherings where the football team of cousins played outside after we stuffed ourselves. I’m sure our parents gladly traded the precious peace for grass-stained blue jeans. Then again, I recall scurrying our young son and daughter from the car to the safety of grandma and grandpa’s farmhouse to avoid cold, stinging raindrops.

Weather, of course, isn’t the only transition from fall’s fairer days to winter’s worst. Every avenue of communication assaults us with seasonal offerings.

TV commercials full of holiday cheer and gift suggestions have aired for weeks. Radio stations blend in secular Christmas songs with hip-hop.

Don’t even get me started on the mail. Sales flyers, myriads of requests for year-end donations, and open enrollment options for us Medicare folks fill our mailboxes. Social media ads and email blasts join the sales conspiracies.

Every time my wife and I head out, we notice more Christmas trees set up in homes along our various routes. A few folks have even jumped the season and decorated their outdoor trees and shrubs with holiday lights. Stringing them up in fair weather is one thing. Turning them on well before Christmas is another.

My energetic wife has joined the efforts. Our battery-operated candles already adorn the windows of our modest ranch home.

November’s gradual trend towards crisp, cold air clears the atmosphere, allowing the stars, planets, and constellations to sparkle. Of course, you have to bundle up to enjoy the celestial show, but it is more than worth it.

I’ve had my birdfeeders up for weeks now, and I am still waiting on that first rarity. Until the purple finches, pine siskins, or evening grosbeaks appear, I’m content with the regulars, but not the pesky, intruding squirrels.

I still enjoy the house finches, Carolina wrens, blue jays, white-breasted nuthatches, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and pairs of northern cardinals. I do keep a sharp eye out for a few stray cats that aim for a carryout feathered meal.

A small flock of American robins recently began to start each day at the heated backyard birdbaths. With the steam rising from the warmed water into the cold air, all the splashing resembles an avian spa.

Soon we will flip the wall calendar to its last page. We’ll scramble to find the 2022 calendars that we bought or that arrived in one of those large manilla fundraising envelopes.

As much as I love the rebirth of spring, the warm days of summer, and October’s many golden hours, I accept November’s transitional role. Dormancy is a necessary part of life.

As an Amish farmer friend of mine recently told me, “Winter is waiting in the wings.” Indeed it is.

The sun sets on November.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

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

Celebrating Being Cancer-free

Anniversary flowers.

Anniversaries of momentous events are generally worth celebrating. Even though we kept it low-key, our 50th wedding anniversary earlier this year was a memorable milestone.

Birthdays fit the bill, too, especially if they end in zero or five. That’s our western culture for you.

Even the anniversary of a loved one’s death needs to be remembered, reverently, openly, and most certainly emotionally. My dear mother would have been 100 on June 22. I can still hear her comforting voice, soft and clear.

Some anniversaries, however, give me pause. I always feel that way each year I get the all-clear pronouncement from my urologist.

I have been cancer-free for 10 years post-robotic prostate cancer surgery. My PSA continues to be immeasurable, meaning no detectable cancer.

When I posted those results on social media, I did so with hesitancy. I hesitated because I know too many people who have not made it through their cancer journey or are currently struggling with the disease.

I am a sensitive old guy, and posting about my good fortune could be tantamount to rubbing it in. I certainly didn’t want to come across with that attitude.

Research shows that such a mindset stems from survivor’s guilt, also called survivor’s remorse. It’s a circumstance where a person survives while others in the same situation don’t, and you feel conflicted, guilty, and remorseful about your outcome versus theirs.

It might seem irrational, but the condition applies far beyond dealing with cancer. People who survive motor vehicle wrecks or a military conflict while others are maimed or killed exhibit survivor’s guilt.

A friend of mine survived the bombing of the Marine base in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983. He happened to be away from the barracks at the time of the explosion. Guilt and anger ebbed and flowed throughout my friend’s life.

I empathized with him at the time but didn’t fully comprehend his feelings until I went through my own traumatic experience. When I met other prostate cancer patients who didn’t have the same successful outcome as me, I understood my Marine friend’s agony more fully.

Despite my reluctance, I am glad that I shared my decade of good fortune on social media. I credited my skillful surgeon and expressed thanks for the excellent medical insurance that got me through physically and financially.

A few of the comments in response to my post drew my attention and perhaps sent me over the hump of the lingering compunction. One particularly caught my eye. A former student shared about her current struggle with cancer.

She thanked me for sharing my good news. She said that seeing that others make it through the Big C gives her and other patients like her hope. Reading that brought me great joy.

Signs of hope in nature.

Her response deeply touched me because she has already been through the cancer medical mill with her husband. As a young man, he fought the good fight and won. His humility concealed his challenging journey.

Now his wife is traveling down the cancer highway. I wish her and her family all the best and will endeavor to stay in touch.

Society can easily be dismissive of others without really knowing their unique situations, hardships, and achievements. Friends need to pay attention.

Venezuelan visual artist Carlos Medina captured my sentiment with this quote, “A soul that carries empathy is a soul that has survived enormous pain.”

We can empathize by recognizing and being with the hurting, listening to their stories, or simply holding them in prayer. In those encouraging actions, there is no remorseful guilt. 

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

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