Category Archives: nature photography

Putting lifelong learning into practice

Old Order Mennonites, Shenandoah Valley

Sunday morning at Pleasant View Old Order Mennonite Church.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Exploring has always been in my blood. Curiosity has coursed through my veins all of my life.

The move from Ohio to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley merely whetted my appetite to become familiar with my new surroundings. A myriad of opportunities abound, either spontaneously or scheduled, to explore this beautiful, historic setting.

The view from Pleasant View Old Order Mennonite Church.

Many of my junkets have been self-started. A lazy afternoon’s drive around the rolling, scenic countryside brings new people and places into my life. The Shenandoah Valley region is rich in history, a personal favorite subject. I needed more.

I joined scores of other retirees who were also eager to still learn a few things in life. James Madison University, located in Harrisonburg, offers a Lifelong Learning Institute to that end.

I just completed my second class, an overview of Mennonites in the valley.
Phil Kniss, the pastor of Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, taught the class. He is an astute student of Mennonite history, so I knew I’d learn a lot.

The first session served as a historical survey of Mennonites, tracing their beginnings to the 16th century Reformation. Because of their steadfast beliefs, many Mennonites endured persecution to the point of martyrdom.

Consequently, many moved from their European homelands to the New World, where they hoped for a new chance to live peaceably. Unfortunately, conflicts followed them right into the 18th century as they settled in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. They tried to live in peace farming the fertile soil, but war found them again.

Armed with that information, class field trips sent us into the lives and history of the many sects of Mennonites in the valley. A small choir enthralled us with their magnificent singing at the local Mennonite high school that is celebrating its 100th year.

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At the Old Order Mennonite elementary school, I flashed back to former Ohio days of living among the Amish with their own private schools. The horse and buggy Old Order Mennonites are spiritual cousins to the Amish.

At the unassuming Old Order Mennonite church, a devoted preacher succinctly explained the scriptural basis for their simple way of living. Like all other Old Order men, he was clean-shaven but spoke Pennsylvania Dutch, an anomaly among his people.

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At the buggy shop, we laughed and learned through the wisdom of the father-son combo that so efficiently ran the business so necessary to the Old Order way of life. The elder’s humor kept us on our toes.

In an Old Order Mennonite home, we gave thanks and feasted on a scrumptious home-cooked meal. The sparkle in our host’s eyes twinkled her delight in our contentment.

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At Bank Mennonite Church, we learned of an orchestrated church split with genuine intent to agreeably disagree on specific theological applications while continuing a parallel spiritual path. Congregates dressed and lived like Conservative Mennonites in Holmes County, Ohio with a notable exception. Again, the men had no beards.

At the final class at Crossroads Heritage Center, we explored a type of living museum. Guides explained pioneer life as we wound through original, relocated old houses and various other buildings.

It was a fitting location for the last class. From high on a hill, the valley played out below us. The city bustled beneath the hot morning sunshine. Yet, the farmland’s still earthy springtime fragrances enveloped us.

From that vantage point, I imagined the struggles, the heartache, the determination and the desire to live their lives in community together through productivity, and finding peace and satisfaction in weaving their daily lives together.

Strangely and marvelously, I felt right at home.

View of the valley from the garden at Crossroads.

© Bruce Stambaugh

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Filed under Amish, architectural photography, column, family, history, human interest, nature photography, Ohio, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, travel, Virginia, writing

Beautiful bird, beautiful song

Dickcissel, Shenandoah Valley
When a friend posted on social media audio of Dickcissels singing at dusk, I wanted to see the birds. Dickcissels are rare here, according to birding records and range maps. Dickcissels are listed as scarce for Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley breeding maps.

With my morning and early afternoon tightly scheduled, I knew I had a small window of opportunity to find this beautiful bird with an even more beautiful song. Severe storms were forecast for the area for the early evening. I headed north 10 miles as soon as I could. When I reached the intersection where the birds’ song had been recorded, I immediately heard them upon exiting my vehicle. Finding them was a different story.

I had seen my first Dickcissels in similar habitat in Ohio. Unfortunately, they are drawn to alfalfa fields dotted with weeds like ironweed that grow taller than the legume the farmer planted. Sure enough, using my binoculars, that’s where I spotted the first male Dickcissel. I felt pressured to photograph the birds. Thunder rumbled in the distance near the Allegheny Mountains 20 miles west.

To my surprise, a Dickcissel rose out of the thick foliage and flew directly towards me, landing on a tree branch right above my head. As I raised my camera to capture the bird up close, it took flight and perched on an ironweed plant nearly a football field away. I clicked away anyhow.

I scanned the field in the direction of other Dickcissels that I heard. I found a pair about 50 yards south of my location. Just as I started to walk south, a male and female flew to the woven-wire fence that surrounded the hayfield.

I immediately stopped and found a place to brace myself to steady the camera. Even before I could get off my first shot, the female flew, leaving the male to sit along, singing eloquently. I clicked away hoping for some decent results. A light rain had already started obscuring the sun, which gave me less light to work with.

Finally, when a car approached from the south, the beautiful bird flew in the direction of its mate. I headed for the car, happy to have witnessed both the bird and its enchanting song.

“Beautiful bird, beautiful song” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under birding, birds, human interest, nature photography, Photo of the Week, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, weather, writing

Singing in the sunset

Shenandoah Valley, sunset

Singing in the sunset.


One of the joys about being in the out-of-doors is experiencing the unexpected. Nature’s ways never cease to pleasantly surprise me.

Such was the case recently when I went out to photograph the sunset. Doing so is always an adventure. You never know what the results will be. When I arrived at my chosen destination not far from our home near Harrisonburg, Virginia, I had a feeling my quest would be disappointing. I was wrong, not in the sunset so much as the aura of the setting.

I parked at the entrance of a nearby farm that doubles as an event center. I could see a thick bank of clouds hovering over the Allegheny Mountains 20 miles to the west. Usually, that means that the sun’s rays will be blocked from reflecting off of the congregation of cumulus clouds hanging in the evening sky. But I’ve learned that when it comes to sunsets, patience is a valuable virtue.

So while I waited, I watched the steers grazing in the sweeping, limestone-studded pasture. Other than the lone bull, they paid me little heed.

Soon, my attention was diverted to another source. An Eastern Meadowlark was belting out its evening song. At first, I had a hard time locating the bird. Just as the sunset reached its color peak, I spotted the bird high atop a deciduous tree whose leaves were in their infancy of unfurling. The song mesmerized me. It was as if the bird were serenading the setting sun. I have included a link to give you an idea of what I heard here.

If you can’t spot the Eastern Meadowlark, please click on the photo to enlarge it. Look for the bird center-right at the very top of the tree.

“Singing in the Sunset” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under birding, birds, human interest, nature photography, Photo of the Week, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

Full Moon Rising

pink moon, full moon, Harrisonburg VA

Full Moon Rising.


Precisely at 8:05 p.m. on April 29, 2018, the full moon rose over the Massanutten Mountain range just east of Harrisonburg, Virginia. I stationed myself atop a hill behind Eastern Mennonite University on the city’s northwest side to ensure I had a clear vantage point to view the moonrise. I wasn’t disappointed as the moon peeked right at a change in elevation in the landmark mountain ridge. Massanutten runs through the center of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley from Harrisonburg northeast to near Strasburg.

I was fortunate that the evening was clear and the humidity was low, which allowed for a perfect view of the full moon. “Full Moon Rising” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under human interest, nature photography, Photo of the Week, photography, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, weather

Finding happiness where least expected

backyard birds, Harrisonburg VA

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Male House Finch.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I had high hopes for attracting backyard birds to our Virginia home. I hung feeders from the two maple trees on our property almost as soon as the movers had unloaded our household goods from the moving trucks nearly a year ago.

Well, maybe it wasn’t that quick, but still, the feeders went up, one in the front yard and one in the back. I also erected a jelly feeder for the Baltimore Orioles and a sugar water feeder for the ruby-throated hummingbirds.

I was excited about starting our retirement years anew in Virginia. The grandkids were paramount in deciding to relocate. Birding came a little farther down the priority list.

Still, I wanted to see just what birds I would attract. To my surprise, it didn’t take very long for some prized yard birds to appear. Northern cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, American goldfinches and other species found the feeders right away. Tufted titmice, and black-capped and Carolina chickadees made occasional appearances, too. I was ecstatic.

Ohio backyard birds.

The results nevertheless were mixed. The numbers and species, however, were much fewer than what I had seen in Ohio. Back in the Buckeye State, orioles gulped grape jelly by the jarful. Hummingbirds zipped to my feeder by the kitchen window. At least seven woodpecker species visited my feeders, including pileated woodpeckers that brought their young to gorge on peanut butter suet.

Songbirds were abundant and frequent visitors, too. Showy white-crowned sparrows were favorites. I especially enjoyed the eastern bluebirds. They brightened any dull Ohio day with both their brilliant springtime feathers and their sweet lullaby calls.

In Virginia, daily drama cropped up around the bird feeders. Large, bossy, and noisy common grackles consistently scared the more desirable species away. They also drained the feeders once they brought their young. In addition, scores of squirrels munched their way through the feed they could reach. The more sought-after birds didn’t have a chance, so I took the feeders down for the summer. In Ohio, I fed the birds year-round.

I rehung the feeders in the fall. With the pest birds elsewhere, the better backyard birds returned. I was happy for that, and even more pleased when the dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows arrived for the winter.

Virginia backyard birds.

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It’s not that I expected Virginia to be Ohio. They were two different locales with entirely different habitats altogether. For bird watching, habitat is crucial.

We no longer lived in a rural flyway like we did in Ohio. The habitat of our suburban neighborhood in no way remotely resembles the bird-inviting one we had in Ohio. It is also wholly unfair to compare one year in Virginia to a lifetime of appreciating Ohio birds.

I photographed all the various birds I saw in Ohio. I have hundreds, perhaps thousands of digital shots. Reviewing them revives fond memories for me. But as much as I would like to, I can’t linger there.

Now, I take pleasure in the natural springtime wakeup calls of the white-throated sparrows, song sparrows, and cardinals. I pay more attention to the gregarious American robins that I once took for granted. I chuckle at the effervescent northern mockingbirds that frequent our neighborhood.

I miss those Ohio birds to be sure. However, the recent appearance of a migrating pine siskin sparked an epiphany.

That little bird brought home a valuable life lesson for me that is apropos far beyond the birding world. Be happy with what you have.

Harrisonburg VA

Where I feed the backyard birds.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under birding, birds, column, human interest, nature photography, Ohio, Ohio's Amish country, photography, rural life, Virginia, writing

Patience and a warm coat required

spring, Virginia, Shenandoah Valley

What spring should look like in VA.

By Bruce Stambaugh

It’s been a long winter. That’s true whether you live in Minnesota, where winter seems eternal, or here in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where consistent spring weather should have arrived long ago.

When it comes to weather here, there are no guarantees. Put another way, if you don’t like the weather, just wait a while. It will change.

I’ve heard people say that about the weather in Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Florida to name a few locations. Regardless of the state of residence, they are all correct. Apparently “here” is a relative place. Weather in many areas is even more fickle than politicians or used car salesmen.

That seems especially apt now when winter seems determined to hold her icy grip on the good folks in many states. Just when we think spring has arrived with a lovely warm day, the next day brings cold and wind and too often more unwanted snow.

snowstorm, Virginia

An early spring snowstorm blanketed Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

People mumble about the unseasonable cold, impatient to get outside in shorts and t-shirts and work or play in decent weather. Excavators, contractors, and landscapers make promises they can’t keep to customers, and then justifiably blame the lousy weather for the delays.

Temperatures far and wide are 20 degrees Fahrenheit or more below average for April. It isn’t the first time, however, that the weather has played havoc with people’s springtime schedules. Record lows are in the teens from bygone years long forgotten.

I can remember a frost on June 2. My wife recalls snow on her birthday, May 27. Our young son once endured a nine-mile ride home in a four-wheel drive fire truck from a friend’s house during an April snowstorm that dumped 20 heavy, wet inches on Holmes County.

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Of course, two days later, the only remaining evidence of the storm was the snow piles from parking lots being plowed. The weather did warm up. It will warm up again, eventually.

After all, haven’t the daffodils bloomed? Aren’t the tulips ready to show their bright colors? Aren’t the tree buds swollen or even already unfurling? Has your lawn been mowed? Aren’t the robins calling out their territorial cacophonies? I bet the answers are mostly in the affirmative to that little springtime quiz.

Yes, it’s been a long, cold, wet winter, but nothing that we haven’t seen before and will likely see again. It’s just that we are so anxious for warming sunshine and frolic outside that we often lose our perspective. No matter what state of residence, we forget that all of this has happened before, not in the same order perhaps, but with the same frustrating results.

white-throated sparrow, Virginia

A handsome male White-throated Sparrow.

The other day I observed a brief, hopeful moment in my backyard that exactly proves my point of this year’s overlap of winter and spring. Side-by-side, a white-throated sparrow jumped and scratched for seed on the ground while a chipping sparrow pecked at the same offerings like a couple on a dinner date. The latter may stay, while I’ll soon miss the former’s magical song.

Seeing those two species together served a not so subtle reminder. Life goes on, just not at the pace or with the climatological conditions we humans desire. But eventually spring will indeed out-muscle winter, the weather will warm, and we’ll soon be complaining about having to mow the lawn twice a week.

Humans, you see, can be as capricious as the weather. In truth, the annual transition of hibernation to rebirth will find closure. Just be patient and keep a warm coat handy.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under birds, column, human interest, nature photography, Ohio, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, weather, writing

Blue Moon Eclipse

blue moon, eclipse, Amelia Island FL

Blue Moon Eclipse.

Sometimes the stars do line up for you. In this case, it was the moon and the sun. On the morning of January 31 precisely at sunrise, the first blue moon of 2018 began a total lunar eclipse. You can see the beginning of the eclipse at about 11 on the moon’s face. The moon sank below the horizon before the eclipse was total.

I was fortunate to be able to capture the extended but broken reflection of the moon in the Amelia River at Fernandina Beach, FL. Dawn’s first light illuminated the sailboat moored in the river.

“Blue Moon Eclipse” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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At this age, I appreciate every step I take

Main Beach Fernandina Beach FL, beach walking, beach bike

The beach where we walked.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Aging can be a pain.

By the time my wife and I had returned from our winter’s stay in northern Florida, we both had unintentionally joined the ranks of the walking wounded. It was as uncomfortable as it was annoying.

I love to walk. It’s one of the few times I can actually multitask. I can walk and talk, walk and listen, walk and learn, walk and think, walk and snap pictures. Walking is an easy exercise for young and old alike.

There’s only one catch. If you are physically ailing, walking isn’t so much fun. Towards the end of our two-month Florida stay, my wife and I both began having problems getting around.

In my wife’s case, walking has long been a chore for her. Arthritis in your feet tends to do that to you. Since Neva’s left foot was particularly touchy, our walks on the beach together were shorter and less frequent than in previous years.

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Soon, I began to feel discomfort, only in my right foot. I thought it was the hiking boots that I had brought along. They weren’t new, but I actually hadn’t worn them regularly until we got to the Sunshine State. I figured they would be useful to tromp around Egans Creek Greenway where I love to bird, hike, and take too many photos of birds, landscapes, people, alligators, and any other critters I encountered.

I also wore those clunkers on the beach when we first arrived. The weather was chilly and often foggy. The high-topped boots steadied me in the soft sand and kept my feet dry when the tide suddenly surged further onshore than anticipated. The longer I wore them, the more my right foot hurt. So I switched to my gym shoes, which seemed to lessen the pain.

That didn’t last long. The pain in my right foot increased substantially no matter what I wore. As we packed the van to return home, I noticeably limped.

When you live on an island that’s only 13 miles long and two miles wide, vehicular trips are usually of short duration and caused me no discomfort. As we headed north on the interstate, it didn’t take me long to realize just how much pain I was in. By the time we reached Charleston, South Carolina, my foot was numb and pain shot up my right leg.

Fortunately, an urgent care facility was just up the road from our hotel. When I described my symptoms, the kind physician’s assistant said, “You don’t have a foot problem. You have a pinched nerve in your back.” Lab tests affirmed the diagnosis.

evening on the beach

Smiling through the pain.

I had already made an appointment with my podiatrist in Virginia. Neva took that spot while I visited my family doctor. Neva had reason to complain. She had a hairline fracture in her foot and exited the doctor’s office with a walking boot. She had no recollection of when she might have incurred the injury.

My doctor prescribed muscle relaxers and sent me to physical therapists. For a month now, expert therapists have worked their magic, and my pain has subsided.

Neva got the all-clear after wearing the walking boot only three weeks. She still wears it if the pain returns. We’re just thankful she is finally finding some relief.

With the limp and pain eliminated, I’ve begun short walks to get back into shape. Given our age and these experiences, we more than appreciate every step we take.

shorebirds, beach

Worth the pain.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Fogbow

fogbow, Little Talbot Island SP FL

Fogbow.

I’m a weather nut, geek, groupie, whatever you want to call me. The weather has fascinated me since I was a child. My wife will verify that I get antsy in severe weather. I’ve tried to channel that excitement and energy into practical action. I’ve been a severe weather spotter for the National Weather Service since 1975.

Imagine my surprise when the fog rolled in off of the Atlantic Ocean while walking a beach near Mayport, FL one afternoon. I was surprised and thrilled to see this rare fogbow appear. I was extremely fortunate to be at the right place at the right time because fogbows don’t last long and are seldom photographed.

Fogbows are cousins to rainbows. Fogbows form from the sun reflecting in millions of tiny water droplets that make up the fog. Since it takes one million cloud droplets to make a single rain droplet, the fog droplets are too small to adequately refract the colors that create rainbows. Consequently, the fogbows shine bright white but only for a brief time. Because of their color, fogbows are also called ghost rainbows, white rainbows, or cloud bows.

You can get a feel for the size of the fogbow by comparing the people below the far left end of the weather phenomenon. “Fogbow” is my Photo of the Week.”

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under human interest, nature photography, Photo of the Week, photography, travel, weather

Give thanks for springtime

Amish farm, sheep, green fields

Springtime in Ohio’s Amish country.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Spring! It’s a word that rolls off our tongues with joy and passion. I give thanks for this vibrant, vernal season, especially after the long, cold winter too many of us had to endure.

This past winter surely tested our patience. But patient we must be. As much as we welcome springtime into our lives, she, too, can be fickle and bring mixed messages. Much like fall, springtime weather can embody all four seasons. Still, let’s give thanks for springtime.

I realize that in our North American society, Thanksgiving is reserved for the fall. Canadians annually celebrate their Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October. U.S. citizens wait until the fourth Thursday in November.

The Thanksgiving holidays acknowledge all that we have. The reflective focus is on the harvest, glad to have reaped the benefits of all the hard labor used to produce the yield. But we also need to be thankful for the spring. There are no apples without the blossoms and the pollinators.

I’m grateful for springtime even though some years, like this year, she takes her good old time making her presence known. Still, I say, let’s all express our thanks for spring’s debut.

Spring’s arrival creates a variety of reasons to rejoice often based on where you live and what activities ensue. Much action has an agricultural bent. Suburbanites will gas up their lawn mowers for the first of many rounds around the yard. City dwellers will pot tomatoes, peppers, and petunias to baby on their balconies.

More ambitious gardeners with sufficient plots of land will plant their seeds and seedlings, always keeping a wary eye on any frosty forecast. Flowerbeds will be mulched, windows washed, and if time allows, neighborly visits will resume right where they left off last fall.

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Songbirds fill the twilight with concertos. Dormant lawns, long browned from winter’s sting, green up from an overnight shower. Azaleas, daffodils, dogwoods, redbuds, and forsythia brighten the awakening landscape. Shouts of children riding bicycles or skateboards echo through neighborhoods regardless of setting.

For all of this, I am thankful. Why not? It is the season of renewal, and after the winter that wouldn’t end we all need a breath of fresh air, we all need to inhale those sweet fragrances, we all need to enjoy each moment as the bees, birds, and butterflies reappear.

No matter how long spring takes to settle in to fit our particular comfort level, we should be most thankful that the season of hope and renewal is upon us. In keeping with that regeneration, it’s good to express our thanks to others each and every opportunity we can. Share your joy with others the way a mother robin cares for its young. Spouse, plumber, daughter, son, grandkids, stranger, receptionist, parents, waitress, checkout person, or whomever you meet will do.

Life is in a constant state of change. Spring is that reminder to us to embrace not just the new season, but life itself. The message of the purple crocuses is to put away your fears. Spring is here. Life is good.

Without the season of renewal, there can be no harvest. At this sacred time of year, let our thankfulness replicate our gratitude for life itself, the life we have lived, are living, and the experiences yet to come.

I’m thankful for spring’s freshness, its vibrancy, virility, brightness, and renewed blessings. Life’s eternal cycle of renewal has returned once again. Let’s rejoice and be glad in it!

blooming crocuses

Rejoicing in the sun.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under birds, column, holidays, human interest, nature photography, photography, rural life, weather, writing