Bluebells on the Bluebell Trail

Virginia Bluebells beautified the space between the Bluebell Trail and the South Forth of the Shenandoah River in Shenandoah River State Park.

Friends told me that the Virginia Bluebells were at peak bloom along the Bluebell Trail in Shenandoah River State Park. I had to go see for myself.

The weather was perfect. Sunny skies and warm temperatures dominated the day. Both had been recent rarities in the Shenandoah Valley.

So, off I went, down what the Confederates called the Middle Road, to Timberville. From there, I took U.S. 211 east through New Market, up and across the Massanutten Mountain Range, and around the quaint town of Luray to U.S. 340.

A dozen miles later, I entered the park to find the empty entrance station. Due to staffing shortages, it’s an honor system to enter. You grab an envelope, place $10 in it, and deposit the fee into the slot. Hang the receipt from your rearview mirror, and you’re good to go.

And what a splendid day it was. First, I stopped at Cullers Overlook for a fantastic view of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, snaking its way north. Only a few more miles, and it converges with its twin, the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, at Front Royal. The majestic and historic Shenandoah River flows north to meet the Potomac River at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.

The South Fork of the Shenandoah River from Cullers Overlook, Shenandoah River State Park, Bentonville, Virginia.

As glorious as that view was, I didn’t linger long. I wanted to see the Bluebells. It was all downhill from there to the trailhead a half-mile away.

With camera and binoculars in hand, I eagerly set out on the mile-long trail. A swarm of insects greeted me only a few steps onto the earthen path. I had forgotten to pack the bug spray, so I raised my tolerance level and soldiered on.

Soon I began to pass folks who had a head start on me. They assured me that I couldn’t miss the lovely flowers as they headed to their vehicles. They were right.

Once the trail straightened out, patches large and small of Virginia Bluebells spread across the forest floor like a blue and green carpet. They even lined the riverbank much of the time.

I had an ample selection of flower photo ops. Since I also enjoy birds, calls from high above told me that warblers and other songbirds were foraging for insects among the emerging leaves.

The hungry little birds moved fast and furious, fueling up for their continued flight north. To my surprise, my attention focused on more obvious winged creatures.

Several butterflies flitted all around the trees and flowers in irregular patterns. I soon learned to stay still and let the beautiful insects come to me. Several were puddling on the path wear they found damp spots. They extracted nutrients from the moistened soil. A few stayed in place long enough for me to get a few decent shots.

Of course, I kept passing other hikers, and a few bikers who surprised me from behind. The butterflies flew but often returned within camera range.

I didn’t see as many birds as I had hoped, but I counted the trip a success. Communing intimately with nature tends to fill you with joy and appreciation. By the time I left, my cup overflowed

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Earth Day 2022!

Hikers enjoyed the Virginia Bluebells in full bloom as they walked the Blue Trail in Shenandoah River State Park south of Front Royal, VA.

Today is designated as Earth Day. It’s the annual reminder to care for Mother Earth. She’s our only place of residence.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Mirror Image

Silver Lake, Dayton, VA.

I frequent Silver Lake in Dayton, Virginia for a number of reasons. Birding and taking sunsets top the list.

I never know what I will find. Sometimes the sunsets are a bust. Sometimes few birds are present, not counting the ubiquitous resident Mallards.

Like most photographers, I look around for unexpected scenes. I couldn’t miss this one.

The clouds over the mountains to the west had moved east. Consequently, the sun sank behind the Allegheny Mountains without much color or fanfare.

The day’s last rays tinted the remanent clouds that lingered over the nearly still lake. This mirror-image perspective spoke volumes without saying a word.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

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

It Was a Sugary Kind of Afternoon

The initial stop on the Sugar Trail at New York’s Genesee Country Village and Museum.

I didn’t really know what to expect when our son and his wife informed us that we were going to a maple sugar festival. I knew that our daughter-in-law was super excited, which was enough incentive for me. Besides, what choice did I have? They had already purchased tickets, and it was a rain or shine event.

So, off we drove southwest from Rochester, New York, to the Genesee Country Village and Museum. We arrived in less than an hour, and it was clear from the crowded parking lot that we weren’t alone on this adventure.

We checked in and were directed to the Sugar Shack, where the modern method of boiling maple sap down to create maple syrup was explained. In New York, it takes about 39 gallons of sap to make a gallon of maple syrup. I thought back to my Ohio days when I visited various sugaring operations. The general rule there was 52 gallons of sap to create a gallon of maple syrup. I wondered if the latitude had anything to do with the difference.

From there, it was on to sugar snow. That’s where maple syrup is poured over snow for a special tasty treat. In the absence of snow, crushed iced served the same purpose. We enjoyed it just the same.

Soon, we were on the Sugar Trail, where volunteers in period costume explained the maple sugaring evolution one station at a time. Our umbrellas went up before we even stepped foot on the trail.

The wet weather didn’t dampen the spirits of either our gang of six or the knowledgeable folks at each stop. They knew their stuff and shared how both Native Americans and white settlers took advantage of the sap run during February and March.

We learned a lot along the way. The walk was equally a figurative and literal stroll through the woods dominated by sugar maple trees. We followed the signs from stop to stop, ending up at how maple sap is currently gathered by most successful sugaring operations.

Plastic tubing is strung from tree to tree with plastic inserts that are tapped into the tree. Gravity carries the sap to the main collecting barrel instead of going from tree to tree emptying individual buckets full of the sweet stuff. In truth, only 2% of the water collected is sugar, thus the boiling of the water. Workers have to gauge the proper heat to avoid burning the syrup. Despite the mechanization, it’s still a tedious process.

By trail’s end, we were ready for lunch. A brief stop at an on-sight eatery got us going again. That’s when the real surprise came.

Genesee Country Village and Museum is a collection of historical buildings brought to the site for educational purposes. George Eastman’s boyhood home is in the village. Eastman was the founder of Eastman Kodak Company.

The village is divided into sections to represent the various architectural structures of the late 18th century into the early 20th century. Some of the buildings, like the Hosmer’s Inn and its smokehouse and the Jones Farm had guides in period outfits to give a brief description of the way life used to be in those particular times. We also enjoyed maple flavored goodies from the bakery.

The sun came out, and the temperature warmed, making our afternoon even more delightful. Most of all, it was a joy to spend these precious moments with family.

© 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

Doing the Right Whale Thing

I was sitting one recent morning at my desk that faces the Atlantic Ocean when I noticed a sailboat passing by at least a half-mile offshore. When I went to take a photo of it, I spotted something else in the water. I snapped a picture, ensuring I got both the boat and the unknown object in the frame.

I switched to my binoculars and couldn’t believe my eyes. The long dark object appeared to be a whale. The morning sunshine reflected off of its face. I had never seen a Right Whale before, but I was pretty sure that’s what it was. I took a couple more shots and then Googled the phone number to report the sighting.

Earlier, I had noticed a red and white airplane circling over the ocean just to the north of our rented condo. As I found the number, I put two and two together. Because they are an endangered species, most Right Whales are tracked by various science organizations, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I figured the plane must have been verifying the whale’s presence.

Because Right Whales are protected, the public is asked to notify authorities of any sightings. Right Whales migrate more than 1,000 miles south from the Canadian and New England coasts to warmer waters off the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida’s east coast. It is there that they calf their young.

Scientists estimate that less than 400 Right Whales still exist. Protecting them and their young is critical to the whale’s survival. Consequently, the requests to report their sightings.

My call went to voicemail at the North Atlantic Right Whale Project, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission division. It wasn’t long before I received a call back from one of their agents asking when and where I had seen the whale. When I told the person that a red and white plane had drawn my attention, enabling me to spot the whale, I was told it was one of the project’s aircraft.

The agent told me that what I saw was actually a mother and her calf and asked me to send my photos to them to help support the plane’s sighting. I gladly cooperated.

I looked closer at my photos. I could see two separate facial reflections, one large and another much smaller. I was ecstatic. The images aren’t top quality since the whales were a half-mile from me. I was glad for the sighting and more than happy to help identify this Right Whale mother and her baby.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

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