Category Archives: nature photography

The sights and sounds of summer’s end

goldenrod, rural scene

A field of goldenrod.

By Bruce Stambaugh

My wife and I sat on our back porch enjoying a light lunch. A gentle breeze sifted through the backyard as monarch and skipper butterflies flitted about, buoyed by the day’s brightness and coaxed on by instincts humans have yet to understand fully.

The rhythmical hum of neighborhood lawnmowers joined in concert to drown out the hypnotic cadence of the cicadas and katydids. As if they were following instructions, the leaves of red maples and sugar maples were beginning to blush just a tinge of their real color hidden all spring and summer by the chlorophyll.

Try as it might, Daylight Savings Time can’t delay the inevitable. The sun and the moon, the stars and the planets, work their seasonal magic, triggering an unstoppable unfolding of goodness and allergies alike.

Even in the noontime heat and humidity, senior citizens and expectant mothers walk their dogs on the broad neighborhood streets. In some cases, it’s the other way around, leashes fully extended, human arms straining to keep control and still chat on their cell phones.

Dragonflies dart here and there, somehow avoiding being lunch for some hungry migrating birds. Black and turkey vultures circle overhead, letting the convection vortexes carry them higher and higher.

White and yellow Sulphur butterflies zigzag their way past my window as if imitating fallen leaves being blown through the yard. A few grasshoppers jump from one blade of grass to another in short flights like so many commuter planes.

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Summer’s full corn moon has come and gone in one cool weekend, a pleasant relief from the storms and heat. But come Monday, the late summer swoon returned, ushering in more warm and muggy weather all across the eastern United States.

So intense was the dreaded combination of atmospheric siblings heat and humidity, some schools mercifully canceled or dismissed early. Without air conditioning, students and staff swelter, unable to conduct the proper learning processes.

That weather, however, eventually ends. Sooner or later, September’s customary, soothing elements do return. Blue-sky days precede comfortable evenings followed by starry nights. Unless infiltrated by tropical storm remnants, thunderstorms come and go without catastrophic consequences.

That’s what makes September the jewel in fall’s seasonal crown. It quietly but most assuredly melds August’s stubborn temperament into October’s Technicolor Dreamcoat landscape.

Until the first killing frost, September is the pollinators’ paradise. Squadrons of bees, flies, ants, butterflies, hummingbirds, and hummingbird moths follow the sweetness from fall bloom to fall bloom.

The mums’ warm colors have replaced the showy bubblegum petunias as the go-to domesticated floral display. Melons, gourds, pumpkins, and squash take center stage at produce stands. Thorny thistles and goldenrod populate the rural roadsides until they meet their sickled doom.

The furry critters must note the changes as well. The squirrels and chipmunks are bolder, more aggressive in their foraging, which is only appropriate. Their lives likely depend on the amount they stored if they can remember where they put their cache.

The morning and evening chatter at the backyard bird feeders is diminished to Song Sparrows and Northern Cardinals, with the Carolina wren making an occasional soliloquy. Now and then the northern mockingbird will chip in a few bars, too.

Once the winter migrants show up in a month or so, that scenario will change. Until then, we’ll enjoy the spontaneous choruses of the crickets, katydids, and cicadas. We’ll joyfully anticipate autumn’s arrival while summer’s pleasantries still linger.

Baker WV, West Virginia

A late summer thunderstorm.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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A sunrise that made my day

Ohio's Amish Country, Holmes Co. OH

The sunrise at its summit.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I sat in awe at the beauty unfolding before me. What I had seen compelled me out into the dawn of the day.

I had slept restlessly despite having been emotionally and physically drained by the previous days’ activities. I had returned to Ohio to assist our son in preparing to move before the professional movers would shuffle him off beyond Buffalo to upstate New York for his new job.

For two long, hard days, we sorted and packed his items, and cleaned the house he was leaving for a smaller apartment. I would also stuff our van with family heirlooms and thrift store pieces to take back to Virginia. It was hard to see him off, he and I both in tears.

With those emotions still stirring internally, I surrendered to what lured me outdoors. The day was dawning with a broken cluster of wispy gray clouds hanging in the eastern sky. A spot of pink hue peeked at the horizon, giving me hope of a lovely sunrise.

I sat in the morning’s coolness on the patio waiting breathlessly for the show to begin. Would those clouds enhance or hinder a brilliant sunrise? The answer found itself in patience, not my best quality.

Flowers reflect first light.

Nevertheless, I remained nearly alone overlooking Millersburg, Ohio from our friends’ place high on a hill. A light, feathery mist lingered over the hardwoods, farm fields, and commercial properties that filled the Killbuck Valley.

As the sky brightened ever so slightly, a menacing caw, caw, caw punctuated the morning air. I strained in the dim light to find the source of the harshness. Suddenly, a pair of inky figures, their black wings flapping furiously, repeated their raucous call.

The two American crows were on a beeline southwest in hot pursuit of another crow far ahead of them. It was like two undercover cop cars chasing a crook.

The only other sounds were human-induced, the distant hum of a few vehicles, and a dump truck on an early run from the gravel pit down the road. Neither crickets nor katydids had awakened yet.

Then it happened. A silent burst of radiance raised me out of my chair and freed me from my stupor. I danced barefoot into the dewy lawn. I soon found myself at the southeast corner of the yard where I had a better angle to view the sunrise and could ignore the obnoxiousness of an ill-placed cell tower, its red lights annoyingly blinking.

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Ironically, the only camera in hand was the one on my cell phone. So I hypocritically began snapping photo after photo of the stunning, flowing scene changing second by second.

Those once gray clouds now glowed gold, yellow, orange, red, pink, mauve, and crimson. In the foreground, security lights and streetlights twinkled below the incredible show. One would think I was observing my first ever sunrise the way I clicked away.

Still, I continued to capture the incredible drama before me, not for myself so much as for others. In such a setting, my joy comes as much in the sharing as experiencing the splendor. When the sun finally poked above the horizon, I walked back towards the house.

This sunrise had awakened me as no other had. I felt renewed and refreshed from the emotions and exertions of the previous days. I was ready to begin my journey home.

For most folks, if they saw it, this was just another sunrise. To me, it was a blessed miracle.

Millersburg OH, Holmes Co. OH

Even the northern sky flashed radiance.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Celebrate life’s milestones as they happen

A memorable sunset.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Milestones. We all have them throughout our individual lifetimes.

These life events deserve recognition. There is no better time than the present to acknowledge and celebrate them as they occur.

The start of a new school year is such an occasion, and many of my friends on social media celebrated that event. Multiple posts of children and grandchildren heading off for the first day of school were shared.

I joined the party.

Our oldest grandchild is a child no more. Evan began his high school experience as a freshman recently. His younger brother, Davis, entered his first year in middle school as a sixth grader. Our granddaughter Maren started third grade at her elementary school.

Three students, three different schools, three different time schedules. That’s a family milestone with crisscrossing ramifications. Neva and I are glad we’re close by to help weave the way through that tangled web of unfolding activities.

granddaughter, granddog,

Observing the observers.

Disbelief overtook the significant adults in the lives of the three grandkids. How did we reach this place in time already?

Evan, Davis, and Maren just took it in stride as if it were just another day at school. Perhaps they are the wisest of the group.

With Labor Day upon us, I’m also reminded of the importance of vocational milestones. Being recognized for loyal service to a company for an extended period of time is an honor. Some businesses do a marvelous job of employee recognition while others not so much.

Knowing I had spent my first career as a public educator, a friend asked me about my favorite memories of school. Walking those school hallways for 30 years, I wasn’t sure how to answer at first. I had had so many enriching and endearing personal experiences that I hardly knew where to start.

The moon and Mars.

First of all, I loved my jobs as a teacher and then as an elementary principal. Both positions were most assuredly milestones on my timeline of life.

I remember the joy of watching my very first students file shyly into the fourth-grade classroom, unsure of how to react to their very first male teacher. Given the characters in that crowded classroom, it didn’t take long for their various personalities to emerge.

As a principal, the first day of school was a joy for me. Much of my energy and that of the support staff went into preparing for that day to ensure a smooth start to another school year.

As I reflected further, though, I realized that the most important milestones for me weren’t the first or last days of school. No, the many precious moments on particularly hectic, stressful days are what enriched my life the most. The significant memories for me were the touching ones. Gold watches can’t compete with group hugs from sweaty, sticky kindergartners returning from recess.

Anniversaries, birthdays, retirements, promotions, owning your first home, completing your first marathon race, competing in the special Olympics are but a few of society’s valued milestones. But for me, the most cherished ones can’t be memorialized in any material or monetary form.

Monarch butterfly

A Monarch butterfly making a fuel stop.

The milestones that mean the most are at hand in everyday life happenings that we all experience. A monarch butterfly refueling on a sunflower. The unexpected grasp of a child’s hand around your finger. The moment the full moon peeks over the horizon. A bright double-rainbow arched in the sky after a fierce thunderstorm.

These are but a few of the highlights that I cherish. What are yours?

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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I’m Mr. Blue

I'm Mr. Blue, Smith Mountain Lake SP

I was fortunate enough to catch this male Eastern Bluebird looking over its shoulder. Like a good father, this bluebird seemed concerned about the welfare of its mate. The female was nearby, having landed on a bluebird box where all indications were that the pair had young. Both had been carrying insects into the box.

I loved how the afternoon sun accentuated the bird’s colors. For those old enough to appreciate the title, I couldn’t help but think of the 1959 song by the Fleetwoods, “Mr. Blue.”

“I’m Mr. Blue” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Butterfly Season

butterflies

From little on up, everything about butterflies intrigued me. The sizes, shapes, colors, flight patterns, unpredictable behavior around flowers, they all got my attention. They still do.

In August, when late-summer wildflowers are in full bloom and butterflies are migrating south, I am awestruck each and every time I see one of these flying beauties.

Even though I know certain species of butterflies frequent woodland habitats, I am always amazed when I see them flitting among stands of mixed hardwood forests. Butterflies seem to be able to find blooms that we humans ignore. Perhaps that’s a lesson for us. Slow down. Take notice of your surroundings. Enjoy what you discover. Sometimes it takes a butterfly to guide you to the flowers.

That was not the case, however, when this beautiful female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly lighted on this Joe Pye weed blossom. Joe Pye weeds grow to be six-feet tall, and their multi-headed flowers are lovely, fragrant, and serve as butterfly magnets. Other pollinators love them, too.

I used my telephoto lens to capture this shot recently in southeast Ohio. “Butterfly Season” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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How retirement was meant to be

Virginia sunset, August susnet

Sunset wakes.

By Bruce Stambaugh

There we were, two couples sitting around a table at 10 o’clock on a beautiful but sultry Monday morning playing cards. Our only objective was to win the game.

Nana Neva and I had taken an extended weekend break from our part-time grand-parenting duties to explore a less-familiar area of Virginia with another retired couple.

We had worked all of our lives to reach this point. Playing cards followed by a round of dominoes seemed like the perfect way to begin a new week, especially on a hot and muggy morning.

We played until lunch and then walked down the slanting limestone driveway to a cozy eatery in a marina for some fabulous homemade ice cream. Choosing which flavor became the toughest decision we made all day.

The location had much to do with our buoyant attitude. We had rented a cottage situated on a point overlooking a man-made lake where the dam generated hydroelectricity. The lake was long and narrow, the product of a few creeks damned up to fill steep valleys in southern Virginia.

Such a project brought more natural benefits than producing power. Wildlife thrived.

Each morning and evening a resident bald eagle perched on a favorite snag, often on the same limb a quarter of a mile across the bay from us. We had a perfect view from our deck that faced the water, made murky by a series of recent heavy rains.

Osprey, Virginia

On the watch.

Before breakfast, I spotted an osprey perched on a dead pine farther up the narrow bay. The “fish hawk” stood tall and stately in the morning mist.

Pileated woodpeckers called and flew back and forth across the water, too, landing if only briefly in the sizable wild cherry tree in our front yard along the shoreline. An eastern kingbird, a much smaller species, chased the much larger woodpecker upon every approach. Fierceness is the kingbird’s nature.

The ripe fruit of the lakeside tree drew songbirds, too. The kingbird didn’t seem to be as bothered by the Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, red-bellied woodpeckers, and even young redheaded woodpeckers. I could have stayed there all day to watch that show.

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The previous day we ventured to Rocky Mount, the county seat where my maternal grandparents were born. We researched family records in the historical society. The lilt and soft, southern accent of our hostess could have been my grandmother’s.

In the process, I was a boy again, standing in the hot Virginia sun inserting a nickel into a parking meter for my father. Dad had to finish the task because I wasn’t strong enough to turn the knob so the coin would activate the meter. The street meters have long disappeared, just like the department store where a relative had worked.

We visited the Booker T. Washington National Monument where the famous educator was born and freed as a slave. The sweltering heat and humidity made it easy to envision the slaves toiling in the parched fields.

Back at the cottage, boats rippled the reflected sunset as they headed in for the evening. Spiders devoured gnats trapped in the delicate webs on the deck just as a young eagle glided across the dusk’s burnished light.

This is what retirement was meant to be. We are grateful to be at this phase of our lives.

That said a palpable quietude subdued any thought of celebration. Too many others would not know the same joy and appreciation. Empathy should temper our golden years. Compassion must rule the way to ensure a purposeful retirement.

retirement, Smith Mountain Lake SP Virginia

A picture of retirement.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Fall is for the birds

bird migration, Jacksonville FL

American White Pelicans wintering near Jacksonville, FL.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Fall is for the birds.

Now, I love autumn, and birding is one of my favorite hobbies. It’s just that bird seasons don’t quite match up with those designed by us humans.

When the calendar flips to August, fall bird migration season has officially begun. It ends come December.

Migration, of course, isn’t confined to only those months. Some shorebirds started their long journeys south in July. Many of them have a long ways to go. For example, pectoral sandpipers nest in the high Arctic tundra and winter throughout South America. Consequently, they need plenty of time to fly those thousands of miles north to south.

The start of migration varies significantly according to the numerous species. Besides shorebirds, different types of birds of prey, songbirds, and waterfowl all migrate.

warblers, Florida

Yellow-rumped warbler in its duller fall colors.

Those four months are needed to allow all varieties of birds to complete their journeys. Winter in the bird world runs December through February. Spring is March, April, and May. That makes summer the shortest season with just June and July.

It’s not like the birds take notice or even care about months. They behave on natural instincts with recent research indicating that some birds can actually see the earth’s magnetic poles. Stars and the position of the sun in the sky also may motivate our avian friends to embark on their extended trips.

Some birds will migrate only short distances, say from mountainsides to the valleys below. Others migrate medium distances, moving just a few hundred miles south.

Not all birds migrate, however. Some, like American robins, often congregate in flocks once the nesting season is over. Sometimes extreme weather pushes them out of their normal range where they can find the necessary food supply to survive.

eastern bluebird, bird migration

Male Eastern Bluebird.

Other birds, like eastern bluebirds, will also group up for both warmth and safety. It’s not unusual in the throes of winter to find several bluebirds huddling for warmth in one bird box.

Fall and spring are the seasons most birders relish. They long for the opportunity to see birds that are only passing through the area. They may just get a glimpse of a rare and endangered bird like a Kirtland’s warbler, a bird that nests in the jack pines of northern Michigan and winters in the Bahamas.

In the spring, birds are in their brightest mating colors. The males are the most colorful. The females tend to be duller for practical reasons. They need to be subtler so as not to attract attention to their nests.

It’s just the opposite in the fall. With the breeding season over, the birds transform into less noticeable color schemes. They need to blend in with their surroundings as best they can to be less conspicuous to predators.

When it comes to living, birds need the same essential elements as the rest of us. Water, food, and habitat are crucial for birds to survive, whether nesting or on the move. Forests, fields, fencerows, dead trees, mudflats, marshes, ponds, and waterways all serve as vital habitat, depending on the bird species.

barn swallow, insect-eating birds

A barn swallow on its delicate nest in June.

Food is a primary motivator for those that migrate. Swallows and purple martins thrive on insects. That’s why they arrive in the spring and leave when the insect supply diminishes. Of course, they require appropriate shelter, too.

More than half of the 650 species of birds in North America migrate. With migration already underway, it’s why birders everywhere have their binoculars, spotting scopes, and cameras ready for action.

On behalf of birdwatchers everywhere, welcome to fall.

young birders, shorebirds

Young birders scope for shorebirds on mudflats.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Looking Up

overhead clouds, sunset, Shenandoah Valley

In last week’s Photo of the Week blog post, I featured a teenager photographing flowers. I told her parents how inspiring it was to see a young person so interested in photography, something far beyond selfies. When the young woman joined the conversation, I gave her some advice. I told her to look around when everyone else is looking at the obvious and showed her an example of what I meant. She and her parents thanked me, and we parted ways.

“Looking Up” is an example of taking my own advice, something I too often fail to do. Just ask my patient wife. While recently photographing a sunset after the passage of some summer thunderstorms, I was ready to leave when I happened to look overhead. This is what I saw, the remaining rays of the day highlighting some roiling cumulonimbus clouds.

I couldn’t believe all of the beauty that was right above me while I waited on a spectacular sunset that didn’t materialize. As I told the young photographer, look all around you. You just might find something spectacular to capture and share.

“Looking Up” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Transforming work into play

Holmes Co. OH, Millersburg OH

The prairie on the hill.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Several years ago, our lifetime friends Dave and Kate built their dream house on a hill overlooking Millersburg, Ohio. They picked the perfect spot.

From that lofty vantage point overlooking a lovely valley, Dave and Kate can see the county courthouse clock tower, the school where they both taught, and the hospital where their children were born.

The setting is marvelous, the view fantastic. Still, through hard work and creativity, the couple has managed to improve their surroundings, not only for themselves but for the wild things, too.

About five years ago, Dave decided to turn work into play so to speak. He kicked the cows out of the five-acre, pastured hillside that surrounded the house. His goal was simply to let nature take her course.

Before the European invasion 300 years ago, a dense, mature forest covered most of what is now Ohio. Dave wanted to test an old theory that the land would replenish itself if allowed to go fallow.

So instead of cows grazing, grasses, plants, and seedlings began to sprout freely. Today, the results are impressive, producing rewards that even the amiable couple could never have imagined.

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On an all-too-brief return to our Ohio haunts, Dave led me on a walking tour of his mostly-spontaneous prairie. We traversed a looping pattern of mown paths that crisscrossed the rolling hillside topography.

Up and down and around we walked. All the while Dave pointed out some of the changes that had already naturally occurred. In some spots, he had helped things along with saplings and young trees he had planted. He checked on them like a mother hen guarding her chicks.

Of course, he encaged the plantings with wire mesh to stymie the ubiquitous and free-ranging deer that nibble the tender and tasty leaves and stalks. Sometimes it worked.

Wildflowers and plants now flourished in the prairie plots where heifers used to munch. The floral growth attracted appreciative pollinators that flitted and buzzed about while we ambled along. Bees and butterflies, flies, dragonflies, and damselflies all made appearances.

Holmes Co. OH, Millersburg OH

Eastern Bluebirds.

Several pairs of eastern bluebirds tended to their nests in boxes Dave had erected. Some had eggs, some second brood hatchlings. Others were empty. When we cleaned out an old nest from one birdhouse, a bluebird pair began building anew a short time later. Dave’s face glowed.

At the bird feeders, Ohio’s smallest to largest woodpeckers and several species in between vied for the suet offerings. Both pileated and red-bellied even brought their young to learn to forage for the protein.

On the parameters of the property, red-tailed hawks dove from shaded oak perches, unsuccessful in snagging a mammal breakfast. An indigo bunting began its song but stopped short, a typical behavior this late in the summer.

Cedar waxwings preened in the morning sunshine on dead ash snags. American goldfinches harvested thistledown for their late-season nests.

The gnarled, amber trunks of giant Osage orange trees served as living statuaries in the young reclaimed landscape. Their coarse-skin fruit hung lime-green and eerie, like so many Martian brains.

Once dormancy dominates the prairie, Dave will mow down this marvelous and necessary wildlife habitat to eliminate the human-made nuisance multi-flowered rose bushes. Of course, he’ll save the trees, both those he planted and the multitude of volunteers that are thriving.

That adage is coming true. Left to grow on its own, this come-what-may former pasture is an ever-changing habitat for all things bright and beautiful. The environmentally friendly owners couldn’t be more grateful.

Holmes Co. OH, Millersburg OH

Sunrise valley view.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Afternoon sun

Natural Bridge SP, Thomas Jefferson, Lexington VA

The afternoon’s sun illuminated this already impressive natural wonder near Lexington, Virginia. The unusual rock bridge formation, once owned by Thomas Jefferson, is the critical feature of Natural Bridge State Park.

I particularly liked how the sun’s deflected rays seem to glow beneath the arch of this natural wonder.

“Afternoon Sun” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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