The joyous return of the migrating birds


As the colorful leaves fade and twirl in the wind, another splash of luster arrives to dot the landscape. Migrating birds appear to see the winter through. I relish their return.

Many of the birds, of course, merely pass through on their way to much warmer southern climes. The ruby-throated hummingbirds, for example, have long been gone. A stray late one might yet be seen. Most are far south of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley by now.

I’ve had two tube feeders hanging from the red maple trees in the front and back yards for weeks now. Many of the year-round regulars have begun to partake in the free sunflower seed buffet.

Male Red-bellied Woodpecker.

The noisy red-bellied woodpeckers are hard to miss. Their iridescent red-striped head and contrasting black and white ladder back are as flashy as their aggressive behavior. They’re not bullies. They just know what they want and help themselves.

Our smallest woodpecker, the downy, is much more pensive and much less flashy. Only a blotch of red on the back of the head identifies the male from the similarly marked black and white feathered female.

Every now and then, a northern flicker or two will show up at the birdbaths or forage for ants in the mulch on warmer days. With their earth-tone coloration, they are handsome birds for sure.

An array of bedecked songbirds frequents the feeders, too. A cheery chip, chip, announces the presence of the bright red northern male cardinals and their khaki-colored mates. That color combination enhances any bird feeding station.

Northern Flicker

It’s the richly feathered Carolina wrens, however, that keep the cooler fall air filled with music. Their protein preference is to search for dead insects than to settle for seeds. Even the peanut butter suet isn’t their first choice.

The beautifully patterned song sparrows might belt out a chorus or two. However, it’s the plaintive call of the white-throated sparrows that thrills me. They have only now just begun to arrive. Their hop, kick, and scratch feeding tactic is a joy to watch as well.

The white-crowned sparrows are the showpieces of the sparrow species. Their distinctive black and white stripes can’t be missed. Their looks alone qualify them as the feeder referees.

Red-breasted Nuthatch.

A lone eastern towhee made a brief appearance in the back yard recently. It foraged beneath the pines that border the neighbor’s property. It was a first for my Virginia yard list.

Last year, I was pleasantly surprised by the appearances of a small flock of purple finches. Though less colorful than their male counterparts, the females stood out with their creamy patches and brown streaks. Neatly attired red-breasted nuthatches also appeared intermittingly. I’m hoping all of them return.

Given the recent report on the loss of nearly 30 percent of North America’s bird population in the last 50 years, I’ll be happy with whatever birds do arrive. Several species have even been declared extinct. Europe is experiencing similar losses of bird species.

The extensive study covered nearly the exact timeframe that I have been watching and feeding birds. All the while, bird populations have slowly been declining. Losses of habitats in nesting, migrating, and wintering locales have hurt the bird numbers. Climate change and herbicide usage are other suspected causes of the birds’ demise.

Despite the bad news, I’ll continue to feed the birds in the fall and winter. The birds provide welcome entertainment during the dormant months. The way it’s going, the birds will need all the help they can get.

A male Northern Cardinal braved an ice storm in search of food.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Enjoy each moment as it occurs

I didn’t realize how much I charged through life until I couldn’t. Getting a new knee will do that to you.

Much like my late father, I wanted to get as much out of life as I could. Dad would come home from work, eat supper, and off he would go to his next adventure. His chosen activities ran the gamut of his interests: softball, arrowhead hunting, fishing, hunting, or attending one of his many organizational meetings.

With all this time on my hands in recuperation mode, I have come to an insightful realization. I mirrored my father for too long in my life. I had and still have many interests. Besides my career in public education, community service consumed much of my time.

Volunteer firefighting, township trustee, hospital trustee meetings, and church leadership all demanded my time. Those days are over. I still enjoy the out-of-doors just as Dad did. In my open-air times, I shoot birds, too, only I use a camera.

The inspection.
This time of year, the leaves are usually my main focus. Given my current limited mobility status, however, that has mostly changed. Unless I go for a drive with my chauffeur wife, I enjoy the colors that I can see from home.

What better time than October to change gears, relax, and just embrace each moment as it arrives. The air has cooled. The front and back doors are propped open, inviting a refreshing and gentle breeze to flow through the house.

The morning sun illuminates our neighbor’s home across the street. A glorious blue sky serves as the backdrop, and a handsome birch tree and a tinting red maple stand as bookend accents. Their fall decorations of yellow mums and cluster of orange pumpkins give a warm welcome.

To the south, the sun bathes the backyard, too, highlighting the pale green, elongated leaves of the shingle oak we transplanted from our Ohio home. Those leaves, also, are slowly transforming to a gilded brown and will rustle in the winter winds until springtime buds displace them.

A family of house finches chatters softly in the blue spruces above the white picket fence of another neighbor. Northern cardinals chip in adjacent pines before taking turns at the black oil sunflower feeder. A family of eastern bluebirds checks out a birdhouse for possible winter habitation.

With the afternoon sun beaming, I return to my reading on the patio. The natural warmth seems to enhance the book’s enlightening content. To keep my leg limber, I shift positions as often as I turn pages.


Towards evening, it’s rush hour at the birdbaths. American Robins, unseen and unheard for days, suddenly swamp the three aquatic venues available. The hand-honed sandstone bath proves the most popular. Others settle for the water dish and the old cast iron pedestal basin.

Living life at my modified and sometimes stationary pace is inspirational. In my reposed state, I marvel at the rosebuds outside my office window, closed tight in the morning, and fully opened by mid-afternoon.

Both the Harvest Moon and the Hunter’s Moon have come and gone. The first frost has ended the growing season in many locales while others have experienced their first snowfall. Winter is knocking on the door. October’s showiness will soon be over.

It is with great gratitude that I embrace each moment as it arrives, glad that my previous busyness is history. My sincere hope is that I’ll still apply this moment-by-moment attitude when I no longer have to sit icing my elevated knee.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Finding a new sanctuary

Big Meadows.

Not long after we moved to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley more than two years ago, I sought a nature spot. I wanted a place where I could practice my photography, quietly watch birds, or simply do some walking.

I had many such places within an hour of our home in Holmes County, Ohio. They all had their unique features that attracted many folks in addition to fulfilling my photography, birding, and hiking desires. I had hoped to find one location close to our Virginia home that met those needs, too.

I have plenty of choices when it comes to getting out into nature for walks, birding, and photography in the Shenandoah Valley. I hit the trifecta if I can incorporate all three into one trip.

When you have a national park within the boundaries of your county, the answer seems obvious. It’s a 40 minutes drive to the park’s closest entrance. Shenandoah National Park was formed out of parts of eight Virginia counties, Rockingham among them.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The park offers a host of options for visitors, though I have only been able to thoroughly explore a few so far. Big Meadows is one of those, and to date, it has been my go-to spot.

Big Meadows is a wide-open space on the summit of Skyline Drive at mile-marker 51. Its simplistic name perfectly describes its main feature. The place is a big meadow.

What’s it doing there, and why? With the park’s dense forests, fast-running streams that often lead to crashing waterfalls, Big Meadows is an anomaly to the park. No one seems to know how or why Big Meadows was formed. It’s certainly a fish out of water given the diverse geology, geography, and biology in Shenandoah National Park.

Big Meadows is and always has been lush with wildflowers, grasses, and low shrubs. Archeological research reveals that Native Americans camped in Big Meadows. Evidence shows they used controlled burns to flush out the abundant wildlife of the area. The park service still uses controlled burns to keep Big Meadows Big Meadows.

The area is more than a big meadow, however. The Byrd Visitors Center offers an informative display on the formation of the park, along with a gift store, and restrooms. A way station for hikers, an amphitheater, a lodge, restaurant, campgrounds, picnic areas, and multiple hiking trails can all be reached from Big Meadows.

A few photos from my most recent visit to Big Meadows. Please click on the photos to enlarge them.

Of course, the Appalachian Trial runs on the west slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the edge of Big Meadows. Waterfalls are not far away along with some incredible views of the Shenandoah Valley.

On a hot summer’s day, Big Meadows is a pleasant escape from the valley’s heat and humidity. The temperature on the mountain can be 10 to 15 degrees cooler.

Even for those who aren’t able to hike very far, Big Meadows offers a lot. Visitors can sit in their cars while butterflies flit from one group of flowers to another. I’ve even seen dark-eyed juncos pecking for food around the Byrd Visitors Center in the summer.

The winter weather gets so wicked, however, that I tend to only visit spring, summer, and fall. Besides, the park often closes the Skyline Drive in the winter anyhow.

Everyone needs a place to get away, a place to relax, to take a load off, retreat from the hectic, pounding pace that we’ve come to know in the early 21st century. Big Meadows is such a place for me. Where is yours?

The view of the Shenandoah Valley from Big Meadows Lodge.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Why September is the golden month

September in the Shenandoah Valley.

My wife caught the moment perfectly. We sat on our back porch enjoying our usual simple Sunday supper.

“It’s really still,” Neva said. In response, I looked up. I am not sure why, because silence can’t be seen.

As usual, though, she was right. For no dogs barked, no lawnmowers purred, nor were any voices heard.

An unusual phenomenon caught my attention. A light breeze blew through the back yard, rustling the red maple leaves. Though they quivered steadily, they, too, were silent. I found that both eerie and fascinating.

I relaxed in the uplifting and refreshing quietude. Such an instance enables you to see the moment itself as it is, not as you want it to be.

Turning.
Here we were only on the first day of the month, and already September issued forth one of its many golden moments. If the ninth month kept to its course, there surely would be many more, hurricanes notwithstanding.

The stillness seemed to be the day’s crown jewel, adorning a crest of many arches already naturally appointed. I noted a few of the maple’s eastern-facing leaves had already tinged.

On my morning walk around the neighborhood, I had noticed that other trees also had begun to transform their leaves. A giant sugar maple showed reds and orange where the morning’s first light peeks over the eastern hill that separates the city from the country.

A helter-skelter pattern of blotchy brown infested the fringes of the pointy leaves of a mighty pin oak. I had to wonder if it was seasonal change, blight, insects, or a combination of those causes.

Overhead, a disorganized flock of Canada geese winged it south. I heard the honking long before I saw the birds. Someone or something must have disturbed their foraging in a nearby farmer’s field to be out of formation.

Not the usual V-pattern.

On social media, birders in Ohio and Virginia alike shared photos of western sandpipers, red knots, and other gorgeous birds visiting local mudflats and waterways on their return trip. Birds know when it’s time and September gladly greets them.

The summer’s heat had taken its toll on flowers, whether wild or cultivated. Even recent decent rains couldn’t revive them.

On the way home from church, I had noticed the once lush leaves of the soybean fields had dulled to pale green. Interspersed flecks of diluted yellow appeared randomly, much like the pin oak’s disorderly display.

In contrast, fields of sunflowers glowed golden, a living symbol for the month itself. September is notorious for being the gilded sibling among its peers. Could jealousy be why August stirs and spins its tropical trouble into its September sister?

September relishes its title. It shows off its stuff at county fairs, produce stands and in supermarkets. The honeyed tones of summer squash, cantaloupes, the last of the season’s sweet corn, and the early ripened gourds and pumpkins prove the point.

Pumpkins galore.

I suppose that is only appropriate since stores are already pushing fall sales and Halloween merchandise. If they haven’t already done so, primary classroom windows will mimic the fall colors with a run on yellow, red, and orange construction paper.

Of course, with the flip of a mental sports switch, our attention has turned from baseball to football. High school, college, and pro scores dominated the front pages of Saturday morning newspapers, at least the ones that still publish.

Crickets trading musical text messages woke me from my muse. September is here, and I intend to enjoy every moment the fair-haired month has to offer. I hope you can as well.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Atlantic Puffin


My wife and I booked the first wildlife and lighthouse boating excursion of the year out of Bar Harbor, Maine in mid-May. The guide had promised that we would see lighthouses, harbor seals, bald eagles, and Atlantic Puffins. It was the latter that most intrigued me.

I had never seen a puffin in the wild. I not only wanted to see some but photograph the cute birds, too. The tour guide and ship’s crew made good on all their promises. When we got to Petit Manan Island, Maine, everyone including the crew was surprised to see dozens of puffins. We stayed a safe distance away from the birds to ensure their safety. At first, small flocks circled the boat in a feeble flight. I snapped away.

While nearly everyone else was focused on the birds in the water and on the island ahead of us, I spotted a few loners in the ocean that appeared nearer the boat. I did my best to steady the camera and focused on one particular puffin bobbing on the choppy waves.

After taking several pictures, I checked to see if I had any keepers. I was pleasantly surprised to find this shot of a puffin with nesting material in its bulbous beak. Puffins are often photographed with multiple small fish sticking out of both sides of their bills. But nesting material was another matter. Another photographer on board had the same capture. We were both overjoyed to have a decent shot of something not often seen.

Adding the Atlantic Puffin to my life list was one thing. Capturing this shot was something else altogether.

“Atlantic Puffin” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

The colors of August

Wheat shocks at sunset.

The colors of August captivate me. Living nearly all of my adult life in Holmes County, Ohio gave me a full range of that summer paint pallet.

The pleasing contrasting greens and golds quickly got my attention. I admired the rolling contoured rows of lush green field corn against the toasted waves of winter wheat.

In the eastern part of the county, wheat shocks stood as sentinels guarding the fattening ears of corn nearby. Unfortunately, their presence seldom deterred the deer from nibbling the outer rows to the cob.

The blooming alfalfa brought pretty butterflies, honeybees, and other vital pollinators. The swooping swallows had their own feast, especially when the farmers made their August cuttings whether by tractors or horse-drawn mowers.

August was when the vibrant green leaves of deciduous trees began to curl in the heat, humidity, and parched soil. By month’s end, a few even turned brown or began to color.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I always enjoyed the flowers that bordered blossoming gardens or multiple flowerbeds like my wife cultivated to perfection. Hollyhocks were my favorite until the gladiolas raised their pink, red, yellow, and white flags.

I would be negligent if I failed to mention the summer birds, some of which had already begun their return flight south. Though not as vocal as earlier in the year, most still showed their breeding colors.

The flashing iridescent red on emerald of the male ruby-throated hummingbird and the flashy orange and black of Baltimore orioles spruced up any welcoming yard, if only temporarily. Sometimes the two species vied for dibs at the sugar-water feeders.

By months end, early morning coolness brought silent, silken fog that glowed bronze with the rising sun. If eyes were sharp, silver droplets dotted the dewy threads of spider webs artistically strung from one barbed wire strand to another.

Much of that changed, however, when my wife and I moved to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Like Holmes County, the Valley, as locals like to call it, is the breadbasket of the south. Agriculture still rules the rural areas.

Farming is a bit different here, however. Though the Old Order Mennonites still drive horses and buggies, they man the latest farm machinery invented. As thrifty as their Amish cousins, they often farm right up to the roadway.

Though the topography is similar, strip cropping is seldom used. No-till farming seems to be the in thing here. The result is wide swaths of wheat sown between two fields of field corn or the tallest soybeans I have ever seen. It’s still green and gold, just different species.

With soil that hardly ever freezes and being further south, the growing season is longer. Farmers and gardeners get an earlier start on planting and consequently harvesting. The colors I was used to in August begin to appear in July. Produce stands evidence that.

The produce peak, however, still seems to be August. My wife and I can attest to that thanks to the generosity of our son and daughter’s families. They gifted us a weekly produce box known as CSA, Community Supporting Agriculture.

End of August morning.
We have already enjoyed weeks’ worth of fresh, organic produce that is as tasty as it is luscious to admire. Mellow yellow summer squash, prickly green pickles, plump red tomatoes, sweet red beets, orange cantaloupe, and juicy red watermelon make our summer meals perfect.

Happy to merely admire the colors, I almost hate to have Neva slice, dice, fry, cook, and can the colorful lot. I change my mind, however, with the fresh salsa alone.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Dreaming on a dreamy day

A pleasant June afternoon.

It was only 3 in the afternoon, and I felt like taking a nap.

I had slept well, gone to physical therapy for my cranky back and my bothersome tennis elbow and had my ouchie knee taped. When I got home, I took my morning walk around the neighborhood.

After a light lunch of leftovers, I got busy writing and met my deadline. I grabbed the book I had failed to crack on vacation and headed for the sun-drenched patio adjacent to our back porch. I took a glass of clear, cold water with me and plunked down in a lawn chair with my back to the warming afternoon sun.

Earlier that day, a friend in Ontario, Canada had posted a photo of herself wearing a winter jacket. It was early June. I just chuckled and went on about my day. I was exceedingly glad that yesterday’s front had cleared out the heat and humidity from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, giving us this glorious day.

Instead of sleeping, I wanted to take advantage of the pleasant weather. So there I was on the patio, book in hand, my focus elsewhere. The sky was the bluest blue, occasionally interrupted by fluffy cotton balls that lazily floated high overhead.

Backyard color
Given the series of recent damp days, it was nice to sit outside without getting wet. However, at my age, I mind my dermatologist. I wear sunscreen and a broad-brimmed hat in the bright sunshine.

The northwest wind that had brought the below normal temperatures also waft intoxicating floral fragrances from an unknown source in the neighborhood. I knew it wasn’t me. I hadn’t yet showered.

The high-pitched humming of lawnmowers from three different directions buzzed in my ears, grating against the loveliness of the heavens and the sweet-smelling aroma. Life isn’t perfect, I rationalized.

Besides, those necessary but annoying mechanical noises had competition. Northern cardinals sang their repertoire of melodies. I can’t prove it, but I am pretty confident sound engineers mimicked the cardinal calls when they invented electronic emergency vehicle sirens. They just gave them strange, non-avian names like yelp, warble, and power call.

Still, the birds crooned and chased one another. It was nesting season after all, and birds follow their innate instincts to protect their territories and their young. Common grackles attacked a common crow that likely tried to steal one of their babies.

On the wire.
That’s the only way I can explain why one would fly away with a baby rabbit dangling from its bill. Furthermore, the distraught mother bunny desperately hopped in feeble pursuit of the crow. I had recently witnessed the kidnapping unfold in our neighbor’s front lawn.

American robins joined the cardinal chorus as if it were dawn, not mid-afternoon. Chimney swifts twittered overhead. I wanted to reply, but unlike a certain important someone, I don’t tweet.

About then, an American goldfinch lighted briefly at the birdbath right beside me. It flew at my slightest first movement.

One by one, the lawnmowers ceased. Mourning dove coos lulled me back to my book. I read a chapter and headed back inside to take that nap.

It had been a busy day, and I didn’t even mention that I had made a morning trek to the county landfill to deposit yard clippings and recycling. While unloading the cardboard, I chatted briefly with a professional baseball player who lives in the county. He was gracious as usual, but I’ll admit to being mildly disappointed that he never mentioned my Cleveland Indians t-shirt.

It’s great to have fair weather, even if it’s only for a day or two. It’s better, however, to be retired to fully enjoy it.

A dreamy end to a dreamy day.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019