Category Archives: Ohio

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

Good Friday Church

Good Friday, Amish, Amish church

Good Friday Church.

My wife and I had the privilege of living among the largest Amish population in the world for most of our adult lives in Holmes Co., Ohio. Scenes like this one were common. The Amish take their religious holidays seriously. Good Friday is one of the most solemn for them. They gather for church, often holding communion that would include foot-washing.

Amish churches are divided by districts and size. Since the Amish meet in homes or barns for their church services, the congregational size is usually kept at a manageable size for the hosting families. That is, each church group is about 100 to 120 people, including children.

Since the Amish rely on horse and buggy for their chief means of transportation, the distance to church is also an important consideration in forming each church district. As the buggies arrive at the home where the church is being held, Amish men will park the buggies, unhitch the horses, and put them in a pasture or barn depending on the weather. The service usually begins at 9 and lasts until 11:30 with a light lunch that follows.

“Good Friday Church” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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There really is no place like home wherever that may be

Holmes Co. OH, sunset, Ohio's Amish country

Holmes Co. hills at sunset.

By Bruce Stambaugh

My wife and I were returning from our winter hiatus on Amelia Island, Florida when I first spotted a glimpse of familiar mountains. We were still well south of Martinsville, Virginia in the folding foothills of North Carolina’s Piedmont region.

As much as we had enjoyed our time in the Sunshine State, we were glad to see those Blue Ridge Mountains that would guide us home. They earned that name long ago with the shadowy, bluish hue they cast from a distance. Their western cousins, the Allegheny Mountains, do the same.

We wound our way through south-central Virginia. We passed my maternal grandmother’s homestead and cruised through Roanoke, a city surrounded by those ancient, rounded ridges. From that point, the primary objective was to stay alive amid the bobbing and weaving strings of traffic on the always congested and dangerous I-81, which dissects the lovely Shenandoah Valley.

Holmes Co. OH, Amish farm

Holmes Co. farmstead.

It was the last stretch that led us home. Less than a year ago, our home was among the lesser but equally charming hills of Holmes County, Ohio. Ironically, they are the westernmost foothills of the Appalachian range that includes both the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains.

Neva and I had spent all of our adult lives living in Holmes County. We had resided in both the county’s western and eastern sections. In west Holmes, the valleys were broader and hills steeper than those in the more gently rolling landscapes of the east that were dotted with Amish farms and family-owned cottage industries. We loved our times in both the east and west.

After a lifetime of arriving home in Holmes County, my emotions felt conflicted, from incongruity to tranquility as we approached our newest county of residence near our grandchildren. Still, we shared the familiar feelings of comfort and security as we approached our Virginia home.

That amalgam of thoughts flooded my mind as Massanutten Mountain came into view. It’s the geographic landmark that juts through the center of Rockingham County and looms to the east of our new hometown, Harrisonburg.

Mole Hill, Harrisonburg VA

Mole Hill.

Exiting the interstate, I pointed the van west towards an even more iconic landmark, Mole Hill. It’s alleged to be a long-dormant volcano, now sprinkled with stands of mixed hardwoods, fertile farm fields, and homey farmsteads. Mole Hill appears to be at the end our street. In reality, it’s a couple of miles west the way the crow flies. Viewing that satisfying scene brought smiles to our faces.

Because we were so deeply rooted in the Holmes County community through schools, church, and local service organizations, it has taken us a while to indeed settle into being Virginians. This return trip from Florida personally sealed the deal.

Please click the photos to enlarge.

I never thought I’d consider any place but Holmes County home. I was wrong. As much as we enjoyed our time in Florida, it was reassuring to be back in the Shenandoah Valley.

A few minor complications arose, however. I couldn’t remember where the cereal bowls were, the bathroom light switch was, and that the wastebasket was under the kitchen sink. The weather also forced us to wear winter coats again.

I have a friend Ava who was born and raised just a few miles from our suburban Virginia home. She now lives in Ohio, and always celebrates returning to these “blue, blue mountains,” as Ava refers to them.

Neva and I now know that same exhilarating feeling. With no disrespect to Holmes County, it was good to be home.

Allegheny Mountains, sunset, Shenandoah Valley VA

Blue at sunset, too.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under Amish, column, family, friends, human interest, nature photography, Ohio, Ohio's Amish country, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, travel, Virginia, writing

Alice always made me smile

By Bruce Stambaugh

Alice.

Alice always made me smile. Oh, she could be annoying. Even when I’d kindly caution her to keep her voice down, that didn’t stop Alice from being Alice. Nor did that stop me from liking her.

I got to know Alice at our little church in Millersburg, Ohio. I can’t even remember how long I’d had the privilege of being Alice’s friend. She was a friend to many, to whomever she met really. Alice just had that kind of outgoing, unabashed personality.

Nothing held Alice back. If she wanted something or wanted you to know something that she knew, she’d share, any place, any time. Tact and appropriateness of timing were never part of Alice’s arsenal. Ironically, consideration of others most certainly was. It’s what motivated her, drove her, caused her to fearlessly blurt out her innermost feelings with no compunction.

Alice could be a pill, even a pest. If she had your number, especially your phone number, Alice would find any old excuse to call you. Alice often rambled on and on if you would let her. That’s how much she loved you.

Alice attended church whenever possible. Other good folks went out of their way to provide transportation for her.

Alice loved Helen Steiner Rice poems. She’d read them aloud every chance she got in church, often in honor of someone’s birthday. Of course, Alice did so long after other announcements had already been made. Spitfire that she was, Alice didn’t need a microphone. She would just shout out her comments, prayer requests, and recitations as the spirit moved.

Alice could pull this off because everyone knew her situation. It wasn’t toleration mind you. It was admiration for her unequivocal love for others and her fierce desire to share whatever was on her mind. Nearly 99 percent of the time, her thoughts and concerns were for others, not herself.

Alice receiving communion.

As Alice did her readings or made her proclamations, knowing smiles radiated from all around the congregation. Every worship leader graciously acknowledged her comments and the service continued without a hitch.

In addition to poems, Alice loved a good joke and prank. Though often silly and uncomplicated, Alice laughed her wicked laugh as she told and retold the punch lines. Once when our infant granddaughter squeezed Alice’s index finger and wouldn’t let go, Alice was in heaven. She joyously reminded me of that incident whenever she could. That was Alice.

Several years ago, I escorted Alice to Texas to visit her only living brother, whose health was failing. People thought I was crazy to take on that formidable task.

Though dependent on a wheelchair, Alice traveled with no problems. The further we got from Millersburg, the quieter she got. The return trip proved just the opposite.

Alice listened to my every instruction. Deep down, she and I both knew just how much this journey, paid for anonymously, meant to her. Witnessing Alice embrace her brother Floyd was one of my lifetime thrills.

Quixotic as she was, Alice married late in life on the most romantic day of the year, Valentines Day, Feb. 14, 1970. She and her husband Charlie lived right behind our church. In recent months, Alice was confined to a nursing home, substantially reducing her mobility. Alice recently died there at age 95.

Alice’s unbridled love for life was an excellent gift to us all. In her memory and in her honor, I hope that same devotion becomes an exemplary measure of living out our own lives.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under column, friends, human interest, Ohio, writing

Beginning anew with feeding the backyard birds

tube feeder

Male Red-breasted Grosbeak and Male House Finch.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I knew when we moved from our home in Ohio’s Amish country to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley that my backyard birding experiences would change. I just didn’t know how much difference there would be.

Our Virginia ranch home is one of nearly 500 in an established housing development west of Harrisonburg in Rockingham County. Mature trees, shrubs, and well-manicured lawns surround the many-styled houses. However, none of the vegetation is as dense as we had had in Holmes County.

Over the years, I tried to create an inviting habitat around our rural Ohio home for birds of all species, whether they nested or just needed the cover to approach the feeders. Neva complemented my efforts with beautiful flowerbeds all around the house. Birds, bees, butterflies, and other wildlife thrived.

a bird in the bush

Male Northern Cardinal.

The wide variety of cover and available water and food sources for birds near our home enhanced the variety of species seen on or near our Holmes County abode. White-winged crossbills, bald eagles, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, pileated woodpeckers, various warblers, barn owls, long-eared owls, and screech owls were just some of the amazing birds we had seen in the 38 years we lived there.

I wondered what birds would find their way to our Virginia home. I hung birdfeeders and placed birdbaths in the front and backyards not long after moving in. Our one-third acre only had two red maples, one in the front yard and one in the back. Nearby properties held sycamore, white pine, wild cherry, pin oaks, sugar maple, mimosa, and various shrubs and flowerbeds. The closest stream was a half-mile away.

The rolling hills and broad valleys are reminiscent of those in Holmes County. But they are not the same, and I didn’t expect the birds to be the same because of that. They haven’t been.

I was thrilled when red-breasted grosbeaks and northern cardinals showed up at the feeders soon after I erected them last May. I had the ubiquitous house sparrows and house finches, too. But once the common grackles arrived with their new fledglings, the more desirable birds were crowded out. Even the bossy blue jays headed for cover. I took the feeders down for the summer.

I rehung the feeders in early fall, including the suet feeder, in hopes of attracting some woodpeckers and other suet-eating birds. Again, songbirds found the food quickly. The northern cardinals and house finches returned. A small flock of American goldfinches followed, too, along with mourning doves.

As the weather cooled, more birds arrived. A red-bellied woodpecker found the suet and often came early morning and late evening. A male downy woodpecker appeared irregularly. Dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows scratched at offering on the ground below. I was especially ecstatic with the latter. Their melancholy song seems to linger in winter’s frosty air.

Other yard birds included flocks of American robins. Unlike Holmes County where robins seek shelter in dense woods or migrate altogether, robins in Virginia linger longer. They forage on berries, crabapples, and grubs they find in yards and beneath mulch in flowerbeds. The robins particularly enjoy the birdbath for drinking and bathing.

A troop of European Starlings replaced the grackles as the rascals of the feeders. They’re pretty birds, but they can devour four cakes of peanut butter suet in a day. The woodpeckers shared my disapproval.

My bird feeders may not have attracted the variety of birds we had in Ohio. I keep them up anyhow to enjoy the ones that do appear. It’s a pastime that both my wife and I find more than worthwhile.

robins, birdbath

Gathering around water hole.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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

With the past in mind, decorating for the holidays took on a new look

holiday lights,

Our modest outdoor light display.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Decorating for the holidays is a given at our house. My wife and I have modestly festooned our places of residence ever since we were married.

Before that, we both grew up in homes that embraced the holidays with tinsel and trees, colorful lights and holiday wreaths, Christmas cookies and stockings hung with care. We carried over some of those traditions but also created new ones with our own family.

This year nothing changed, and yet, everything changed. We still decorated, just in a new location. Old traditions, long-held and revered, came to an end.

old ice skates, old wooden sleds

Holiday nostalgia.

We will miss our annual Christmas Eve morning gathering with dear friends and extended families for that meaningful and nutritious breakfast. Those warm memories are still held alive in our hearts.

With the move from Ohio to Virginia, we knew that preciousness would be left behind. We also anticipated new activities, new celebrations, and new gatherings with our daughter’s family and old friends who had relocated here, too. And one by one, those are happening.

With decent weather in late November, my energetic wife got a head start on the celebratory decorating inside and out. I had no choice but to join in. With a smaller house and fewer shrubs, our exterior lighting display lessened, too.

Just like all those years in Holmes County, Ohio, artificial greenery loaded with colored lights still got wound around the welcoming light pole that shines on the sidewalk and driveway.

Artificial evergreen wreaths adorned with burgundy and purple ribbons hang from each window. Below them, battery-powered candles offer soft reminders of the reason for the season. Strings of white lights brighten the porch and a unique old bench we recently purchased at an antique store.

Strings of cheery white lights twinkle from our little concolor fir tree we planted in honor of a dear friend, who died much too soon. Our “Jenny tree” shines brightly, just like our late friend did with everyone she met.

Christmas decorations, holiday decorations

Ready for the holidays.

Inside, we splurged and purchased a new artificial tree and hung trinkets and ornaments that hold personal memories. The same angel as previous years hovers at the top of the tree, blessing all who enter. Neva received it years ago as a gift from one of her students.

My creative wife has a magical touch in making the mundane shine with holiday cheer. A grapevine wreath wrapped with strings of little white lights bedecks the top of an old oak ironing board that Helen Youngs, our Holmes County grandmother, gave us.

The stockings hang from door pulls on the bookshelf instead of the old barn beam mantel on the brick fireplace in our former Ohio home. I’m sure Santa will find them just as quickly.

We do miss that fireplace. Its radiant heat and sweet-smelling goodness just seemed to say Happy Holidays each time I fired it up. Now, we take extra effort to share similar warmth in the season’s greetings we offer others however and wherever we can. After all, the Christmastime fire must always burn from within to ensure its joy is seen and felt by all.

Christmas decorations

Lighting up the ironing board.

The chances for a white Christmas in Virginia aren’t the best. I recall many an Ohio Christmas where that was also true. We joyously celebrated anyhow, and we will do so again this year.

At the darkest time of year, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas all are celebrated with lights. That is most appropriate.

All is well here in the lovely Shenandoah Valley. May the season’s joyous light bless you and yours whatever your holiday situation may be.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Filed under Christmas, Christmas deocrations, column, family, holiday decorations, holidays, human interest, Ohio, photography, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, writing

Moving to The Valley for the most important reason

Shenandoah Valley, sunset

The beautiful Shenandoah Valley at dusk.

By Bruce Stambaugh

My wife and I loved where we lived. We had spent our entire adult lives among the world’s largest Amish population in Holmes County, Ohio. Why would anyone want to leave that serene setting for the Shenandoah Valley?

Since we had visited The Valley several times in the last two decades, we could have provided numerous viable answers to that question. The picturesque mountains, the agrarian culture, the abundant natural beauty and recreational options, the rich history, the lively arts and educational opportunities all would have sufficed as legitimate reasons for new retirees to live in The Valley.

To us, however, those were all secondary benefits. Our move to Rockingham County was inevitable for one perfect, personal reason. Like so many retiring baby boomers, we wanted to be near our grandchildren in our senior years. We wanted to be close to them in their active formative years, and assist their busy household however we could.

little league baseball, grandson

Our grandson the pitcher.

We observed that we weren’t alone in relocating for that familial reason. We discovered many others either already had moved to the area or were going to do so. Grandchildren were important to them, too. That alone affirmed our decision to move.

Ironically, my older brother and his wife did the same thing for the same reason only in reverse. One month later, they moved from Williamsburg, Virginia to the exact same county we left in Ohio.

Before we pulled up roots, however, our daughter and her husband assured us that The Valley would remain their home no matter what path their careers took. With that, we moved to The Valley last May.

However, the planning and preparations began long before that. Before the move, we delved into the possibility of living in or near Harrisonburg. We spoke with friends who had already done so. Their advice was not to wait too long. The grandchildren grow up fast.

We researched the cost of valley living and discovered it was a bit higher than what we had experienced in Ohio. Housing was especially a concern. Our ever-alert daughter found a house in our price range that looked promising. Our real estate agent set up an appointment.

We liked the house and the location. We quickly agreed on a price with the owners. My wife signed the papers in a parking lot on the trunk of the realtor’s car late at night. Having gone home for some required monthly meetings, I signed electronically online, a new experience for me.

canning peaches, granddaughter

Our granddaughter helped with the canning.

We were in shock though. In our 46 years of marriage, my wife and I never had been spontaneous buyers. Here we were making the largest purchase of our lives only 48 hours after having seen the home.
Moving wasn’t an easy decision by any means. We thought long and hard about it. All the rest of our immediate family lives in Ohio, including our son. He gave us his blessing to move.

My wife and I were born and raised in Ohio. We spent our careers in public education there. We both served with several community organizations over the years. It wasn’t easy to let go of all of that.
To soften the change, we decided to deliberately take our time moving to the Shenandoah Valley. As quickly as we bought the house, we didn’t move in until 18 months later. My wife and I worked diligently for a year and a half to prepare for the move.

I’m glad it took us that long to transition from one place to the other. We didn’t want to merely cut and run from the people and place we loved. That interlude gave us the opportunity and space we needed to adjust to this major, life-changing decision.

Shenandoah NP, hiking

The exploring grandson.

We met with the local mover that we hired. A sincere young man, he clearly knew his business. We found the combination of his expertise and experience immensely helpful in deciding what to take and what to leave. Our Harrisonburg home was considerably smaller than the one in Ohio. We were downsizing after all.

We spent much effort sorting and packing clothing, furniture, and household goods. We found homes for family heirlooms that wouldn’t fit in our smaller Virginia home. We donated many items to a local thrift store. We also met with family members and close friends before we exited, often over meals. Relationships are worth more than any material item.

Between purchasing the house and moving in, we rented it to a family for a few months. After they left, we hired contractors to update the landscaping and the house. We wanted to put our own personal touches on the place to make it our own. The contractors were glad to have these small jobs during their usually slower winter season.

We’ve more than enjoyed our time in The Valley so far. We’re pleased that we took our time. Not everyone has the luxury of a slower moving transition like my wife and I did. But if you can, the benefits of taking your time can make it more than worthwhile. That’s especially true if you get to regularly enjoy your grandchildren.

grandkids, breakfast

Breakfast out with the grandkids.

This story appears in the current edition of Valley Living.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

Neva is my wife

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Filed under article, family, human interest, Ohio, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, writing

Joyously enjoying another snowy owl irruption

snowy owl, Harrisonburg VA

Snowy Owl amid the chaos.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The bird was pure magnificence. It’s chosen perch, however, not so much.

Here was a snowy owl, far from its usual winter range, roosting on a light pole in a large industrial parking lot. I wondered if others saw the paradox of the beautiful bird and its chaotic, manufactured surroundings.

A post of a photo of the bird on a local business’ social media page alerted me to the rarity. The caption simply said, “He’s back!” Upon investigation, I learned that the photo was actually taken four years ago when the last snowy owl irruption occurred.

Ornithologists label such outbreaks of snowy owls as irruptions. Usually, this owl species winters in Canadian provinces and summers further north in Arctic tundra areas. For reasons still being studied, every so often snowy owls venture far beyond that territory to the universal pleasure of birders. During irruption years, the birds scatter far and wide, going as far south as Florida.

To be forthright, I had been a little envious of birders back home in Holmes County, Ohio. A snowy owl had been spotted nearly in the same location as one in the last irruption four years ago, and not far from our former Ohio home.

snowy owl, Holmes Co. OH

The Holmes Co. Snowy Owl. Photo courtesy of Dave Findley.

The Holmes County owl was very cooperative, affording excellent looks and lots of stunning photos of the bird. For many, it was a life bird, meaning it was the first time those individuals had seen a snowy owl. I was happy to hear that the Amish farmer of the land where the owl had settled was glad to host birders as long as they were respectful of his property and kept a proper distance so as not to spook the bird.

The snowy owl in Virginia wasn’t nearly as cooperative. The day my wife and I saw it, it was three football fields away from a farmer’s lane where we observed the bird. The industrial area where it alighted abutted the farm.

We squinted into the early morning sun to see the bird. Even through binoculars, it was hard to distinguish the bird’s more delicate details. A fellow birder, as fellow birders often do, offered us a look through her spotting scope.

I used the full length of my telephoto lens to capture imperfect images of this gorgeous bird sitting contentedly among power lines and steel light poles. I got a better shot through the scope by merely holding my smartphone to the eyepiece. Even then the glaring sun’s rays, defused by growing overcast clouds, gave the photo a black and white look.

digiscoped snowy owl

Through the spotting scope.

That was only appropriate since this snowy owl showed both colors. Layers of black barring covered the rounded owl’s back, indicating that this was either a female or young snowy. The feathers of mature males are almost entirely white.

With the sighting of this Virginia snowy owl, any lingering envy I had of the Ohio snowy melted away in the morning sun. I was contented.

Within days, other snowy owls began appearing south of the Canadian border. Several more found their way into northern Ohio and other states, too, including another one in Virginia.

It would have been too much to expect a snowy owl to appear in the Shenandoah Valley. And yet, here it was, an early Christmas gift perched on a light pole.

That’s just the way life is. When we least expect it, beauty appears in the most unlikely places, even a factory parking lot.

snowy owl, Rockingham Co. VA

The Snowy Owl later found more conducive habitat at another nearby farm away from all the industrialization.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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

Losing a friend who was a friend to all

Raymond Buckland

A few of Buck’s books.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The news of my friend’s death fell heavy upon me as if all of Autumn’s trees had simultaneously shed their rainbow of colors in one smothering, leafy avalanche. Raymond Buckland meant that much to me.

I wasn’t alone. As word spread of Buck’s death, other friends who knew him began sharing words of praise on social media. All lauded his kindness, generosity, and love for life. He was truly a caring and gentle soul who touched many people around the globe.

Buck’s spiritual heart was full of love and light. His human heart had finally failed him.

Raymond Buckland

Raymond Buckland.

I met Buck through our weekly writing group, the Killbuck Valley Writers Guild. We met every Sunday afternoon for three hours at Jitters Coffee House in Millersburg, Ohio. I think Buck picked that venue as much for the yummy pastries as the central location. At the writers’ group, we called him Buck. To others, he was Raymond or Ray.

Born in London, England, his alluring British accent enhanced his magic words that he loved to read aloud. Buck was facetious about details, extracting them from his broad life experiences and incorporating them into his informative, vivid, and descriptive writing. He often used the settings of his formative years as the scenes for his many books. When asked, Buck didn’t really know how many books he had written in his lifetime. It must have been at least one for each of his 83 years of dynamic living.

Buck never bragged about his accomplishments or his awards. He would share the good news of course, but always in ways that encouraged and motivated his beloved writing troupe. Through living, reading, and research, Buck became an expert in a wide variety of subjects ranging from mystery writing to witchcraft. His preferred mode of transport, however, was a Corvette, not a broom.

Buck never foisted his beliefs onto others. Nor did he judge others for theirs even though they may have differed. Writing came first and foremost for Buck. It’s how he made his living. It’s how he connected with the world. It’s why he formed and nurtured the writing group.

Raymond Buckland

My last shot of Buck.

The genre of writing didn’t matter to Buck, just so long as you wrote. We had song lyrics, poems, allegories, newspaper columns, essays, narratives, short stories, science fiction, non-fiction, and novels both written and read in our little collection of scribes.

We had lots of laughs in our writing group thanks to Buck’s good sense of humor. He put that jovial approach into supportive action for the good of the community. Buck helped organize and sponsor comedy night benefits as fundraisers for the Holmes County District Public Library.

Buck showed his generosity in various forms. If he knew you were serious about writing, Buck would gladly spend his valuable time advising and encouraging writers, novice and experienced alike. He also freely gave away computers, books, and various writing resources.

He was a realist and idealist, a visionary and a professor all rolled into one loveable and likable human being. Buck’s generosity was a byproduct of his gracious living.

Buck believed in using descriptive, sensory words efficiently. As he would remind us, one word is better than two. “Show, don’t tell” was another essential writing reminder. Showing is precisely how Buck lived his storied, charitable life.

Buck loved music, both playing instruments and singing. He was as engaging as he was creative. In part, that’s what attracted so many readers and writers to him. It’s also why he will be missed so very much by so very many.


Buck enjoyed participating in the benefit comedy nights.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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