Officially welcoming another autumn


Residents of the Northern Hemisphere are on the eve of yet another autumnal equinox. Autumn officially begins at 9:30 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, September 22.

Autumn has given us plenty of warnings even before her arrival. Instead of turning red, many of the leaves on our backyard maple have simply been falling off one-by-one for weeks. We can thank the leafcutters for much of that.

The crazy weather of this insane year has also played a role in the dying leaves, along with other climatological irregularities. Let’s count the ways.

In late spring, an extended spell of chilly, wet March-like days did their damage. The steady damp weather kept farmers out of fields over much of the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains.

Some bird species even delayed nesting because the weather was so foul. If birds did nest, naturalists found hatchlings dead because their parents couldn’t find enough insects to feed them.

Then just like that, it got hot and dry. Here in western Virginia, the furnace was on one day, and the air conditioner the next. Vegetation flourished in such conditions, causing the humid, hot wind to carry various pollens far and wide. According to my allergist, I wasn’t the only one sneezing.

The day the rains started in mid-July.
About the time Major League Baseball finally began in July, the heavens opened up. The rains canceled games, and so did COVID-19 because too many players tested positive.

Record rains pelted the full length of the Shenandoah Valley. August usually is a hot and dry month here. Not this year. The weather was more like June should have been. We mowed our lush lawn twice a week for several consecutive weeks.

All the while, fall kept creeping upon us. Butterflies, relatively scarce during June and July, began to arrive. So did the ruby-throated hummingbirds. Now they are all filling up their tanks for their annual southern migration.


The yellow, green, and black Monarch caterpillars have morphed their way into magnificent orange and black butterflies. Predators have learned to avoid dining on them since the Monarch’s appetite for milkweed renders them bitter, according to lepidopterists.

That dreaded F word, F-R-O-S-T, has already made appearances across the northern reaches of the U.S. Can the rest of us be far behind?

If you listen to the jingles and jargon on TV, this is pumpkin spice everything season. Despite the marketing ploys, I’ll gladly stick to my decaf mocha lattes. They’ll taste just as robust when the first freeze hits.

Of course, hurricane season peaks in the first few weeks of fall. The National Hurricane Center has already increased its predictions for both the numbers and intensities of those tropical storms.

Out west, you can’t breathe the air. It’s so oppressively hot and thick with smoke from record-breaking fires that have caused death, destruction, and devastation to humans, wildlife, and entire towns. More than 10 percent of Oregon’s population has been evacuated as of this writing.

Unfortunately for those millions of west coast folks, the sky has glowed an apocalyptic orange for all the wrong reasons. A good frost or even a lovely blanket of snow would greatly help those tired firefighters slow the infernos.

Autumn, of course, abounds with fiery colors, orange included. In addition to the winged creatures, mums, maples, pumpkins, and gourds are but few of the things that warmly usher in fall.

Climate change has undoubtedly played a part in stirring up 2020’s weird and wild weather. It’s been a universally strange enough year already all the way around.

Let’s welcome fall with a blissful hope for more normal global weather patterns.

The right kind of orange.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Teasel


I loved how the afternoon light highlighted the prickly details of this dense stand of spent teasel heads. Likely, several varieties of birds thrived on the seeds of these thorny remains.

I was happy that the farmer had let these beauties stand for all to enjoy. “Teasel” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Enjoying September’s melodies

Singing September’s song.

We’re already pushing to the middle of September. Have you heard the many melodies she’s already played?

If not, please don’t fret. If September plays her usual gig, she will beautifully and joyously harmonize her way into October.

We have to pay attention morning, noon, and night to fully appreciate September’s numerous odes. It’s a perpetual concert out there.

September has many modes of singing to us. That’s good news for those of us with diminished hearing. The seasonal songs are ubiquitous and indiscriminate.

Crickets, katydids, and locusts lull us with their winged cacophonies. Nature’s stringed rhapsody signals the season’s end and celebrates each day’s closing.

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A tiny screech owl’s raspy soliloquy provides a brief interlude to the insect symphony. The chilling tune means trouble for little four-legged rodents romping around in summer’s last evenings.

If you listen carefully, you might be fortunate to catch the call of migrating birds piping on the wing high overhead. If you can’t hear them, aim your binoculars at the moon and enjoy the sideshow.

September croons to us in color, too. Her many blooms of gold, crimson, yellow, red, and even blue paint a many-colored musical in flower gardens, along roadsides, and in unkempt fields.

The month’s repertoire includes occasional towering thunderstorms. Their lightning dances and their thunder booms, drumming fear into almost every canine within miles.

At the storm’s end, perhaps she will surprise us with a dangling rainbow. Look quick before that high note fades. Remember to breathe in the aftermath, refreshing, clean, pure.

September invites us to sing along with her eclectic playlist. The crisp snap of husking the golden ears of sweetcorn is the prelude to perhaps the year’s last fresh corn on the cob.

Of course, the hiss of canners still sings, bubbling with goodness and a kaleidoscope of colors. Besides corn, salsa, beans, tomatoes, pickles, peppers, peaches, grapes, and apples all play their fruitful parts.

I adore the choruses in the outdoors the most. Find a pleasant spot in the woods, and just sit, watch, and listen as the sounds of silence come floating in decorative displays.

Migrating butterflies flutter to their specific tunes. Groups of Monarchs congregate in the coolness and safety of trees until the morning sun dries and warms their wings.


Swallowtails, fritillaries, Buckeyes, and skippers flutter their notes in their particular and various flights. It’s always amazing how they can find the slightest blooming speck to nourish them on their way south.

Brilliant sunrises and sunsets add magical backdrops to September’s forte. The trick is to rise in time to catch the morning show or to stop what you are doing and embrace heaven’s evening song.

The deciduous trees, of course, join the colorful choir one leaf at a time. Their intensity increases as the month wanes. They usually wait until October for their triumphant exit.

Still, whatever voice they can bring to September’s musical is much appreciated. We humans inadvertently join the band with our out of tune rakes and mechanical blowers.

Nevertheless, September’s concert is a joy to grasp. That’s true even if the neighborhood skunk makes an unwelcomed visit.

We can still enjoy the many classical notes of the year’s ninth month. At day’s end, the stars and planets twinkle their universal choruses, glorifying the heavens above.

If we are attentive and diligent, we breathe in deeply this joyous song of creation with all of our innate senses. Consequently, September would love to have you sing along.

Amish scholars walk to their private school in a September morning haze.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

The Doting Mother


I spied this female Eastern Bluebird peering over the top of the leaves of this tree early one morning. I heard her plaintiff call, and then another from a slightly different location. A quick glance around revealed this juvenile basking in the morning sunshine.

Apparently, mom just wanted to make sure her baby was alright, or perhaps they were searching for breakfast in the wild cherry tree. “The Doting Mother” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Feeling stressed, fearful? Head outside!

The misty morning view from the Skyline Drive.

Awash with news and information about COVID-19, it’s easy to feel tense, confused, irritable, fearful, or even bored. Due to the global pandemic, millions of people of all colors, religions, cultures, and languages are experiencing similar trepidations.

A sense of hopelessness can be emotionally overwhelming. There’s a way to help overcome that despair. Head outside!

Studies have shown that connecting with nature calms fears, and uplifts spirits. I embrace those findings as often as I can. I recently headed to my favorite get-away place, Shenandoah National Park.

Mine was a twofold mission. Besides going into the wild, this was my first hiking experience since my knee replacement surgery last September.

I started early to beat the heat and humidity. The sun hadn’t yet risen over the Blue Ridge Mountains as I approached the park on U.S. 33. I exit that road into the park at Swift Run Gap.

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Rounding a slight curve on a typically hazy summer morning, I noticed a large dark object in the opposite lanes of the divided highway. I slowed and rolled past a massive black bear standing beyond the grassy medium.

The magnificent creature looked both ways and then bolted across the roadway. It promptly disappeared into the steep, wooded hillside before I could even grab my camera.

Buoyed by that encounter, I arrived at the trailhead in high spirits. Surely, anything that I would experience the rest of the day would be anti-climactic, unless I saw another bear on the hike. I didn’t.

I walked a few yards on the Appalachian Trail to where it intersected with the trail I wanted, the Mill Prong. It was all downhill from there until the return trip.

The forest was amazingly still. No birds sang, and no vehicles hummed along the nearby Skyline Drive. I took in every moment, the wildflowers, the ferns, brightly colored fungus conspicuously growing on dead trees. The distant sound of water gurgling its way down the mountainside lured me onward.

I heard or saw no one else. A gray catbird burst from a bush beside the trail. A feisty squirrel angrily scurried away, flapping its tail in disgust of the human disruption.

I rested at the shallow stream. The morning sun filtered through the forest canopy, sparkling the gently rippling water. I felt exalted.

Farther downstream, I sat on a large rock and just enjoyed the sound of water trickling over ancient boulders. On my return trip, I passed a few other hikers. Each one donned face masks as we passed on the trail. More gratitude and thoughtfulness mutually expressed.


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When I reached the parking lot, the strengthening morning sun spotlighted some bright orange Turk’s cap lilies just off the trail. Their beauty drew me like a magnet. I snapped my camera’s shutter over and over, trying to preserve the glory I beheld perfectly.

Suddenly, a female tiger swallowtail butterfly alighted on the same flower that I was photographing. Again, delight and gratitude filled me to the full.

In the rest of the world, the pandemic raged. But in the wild, only the big black bear, the forest’s serenity, the kindness of other hikers, and this tango of floral and fauna mattered.

I was thankful for each magical moment, and for the skillful surgeon who had replaced my knee. Gratitude is appropriate anytime, but especially during this pandemic.

Connecting with nature does indeed do wonders for your soul. You can find peace and gratitude in a local park or even your backyard.

Get outdoors, follow the prescribed safety rules, and enjoy all that comes your way.

The splendor at trail’s end.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

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

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.

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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

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