Category Archives: Shenandoah Valley

Long-tailed Duck

Silver Lake, Dayton VA, birding

Long-tailed Duck.

I only had a few hours to give to the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). This would be my first for Rockingham Co., Virginia. I had participated in several CBCs before, all in Holmes Co., Ohio. I primarily served as a driver for the many Amish birders who turned out each year on the designed day. CBCs are conducted at various dates near the end of December each year around the country. They help keep track of the numbers and species of birds seen from year to year.

Weather often plays a role in the varieties and the total number of species seen. This particular day in Rockingham Co. began crisp and clear. I decided to spend my limited time searching around Dayton, a small community five miles south of where we live. I hoped the man-made Silver Lake would yield some unusual species. I wasn’t disappointed.

The bright morning sun had burned off much of the haze. Right after I had parked my vehicle, I spotted this beautiful Long-tailed Duck, a rare visitor to Rockingham Co. With the morning light in my favor, I was able to capture this photo of the stunning duck in its winter plumage. I particularly liked how the churned water of the paddling duck reflected the turquoise sky in sharp contrast with the more murky surface of the lake.

“Long-tailed Duck” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

Leave a comment

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

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


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

Almost Home

Old Order Mennonite buggy, Virginia, Shenandoah Valley

Almost Home.

Out for an early evening drive, my wife and I came upon this Old Order Mennonite buggy near the summit of Mole Hill Rd., west of Harrisonburg, Virginia. Having lived in Holmes County, the heart of Ohio’s Amish country, for most of our adult lives, we were used to following buggies up and down the rolling hills and winding roads.

Now that we live in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, we occasionally have the same experience since we live near Dayton, the center of life for the thriving Old Order Mennonite community. Like the Amish, they, too, stay rooted to the land by using the horse and buggy as their chief means of local transportation and by their rural, agrarian lifestyles. Also, like the Amish, they hire drivers to take them on longer trips.

Shortly after I snapped this photo, the buggy turned left, hurried up a long lane to home. The short scene was a happy reminder of the life we lived in Holmes Co., Ohio, and an affirmation of the new life we have begun in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

“Almost Home” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018


Filed under Amish, human interest, Ohio's Amish country, Photo of the Week, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

Standoff at Cooks Creek

black angus steer, bald eagle, Harrisonburg VA

Standoff at Cooks Creek.

Birding is so much fun. You just never know what you will find, see happen, and be able to document.

As I was returning home recently, I spotted a Bald Eagle high in a sycamore tree right beside the highway. I turned the car around as quickly and safely as I could and parked well away from the bird. Just as I exited my vehicle, the eagle flew low across Cooks Creek and landed in a pasture field. I was in luck but didn’t know just how fortunate I would be.

As I hurried along the roadway, I noticed a black Angus steer move towards the eagle. The steer was about half-way between the eagle and me. Soon it broke into a gallop, which drew the eagle’s full attention. The steer stopped at the west side of the creek bank opposite the eagle on the east side.

If they had a discussion between them, it was short. The steer bounded down the embankment and towards the eagle. Of course, the eagle flew straight back for the sycamore tree. At the last second, the magnificent bird changed course and zoomed back over the steer and out of sight.

Whether you are a birder or not, this indeed was a once in a lifetime occurrence. I’m exceedingly glad I got to see and document it.

“Standoff at Cooks Creek” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017


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

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


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

Light on the Shortest Day

Christmas lights, memorial tree

Light on the Shortest Day.

The winter solstice, the day with the least amount of daylight in the Northern Hemisphere, arrives at 11:28 a.m. Eastern Standard Time today. Historians note that ancient peoples celebrated this day with festivals of light in recognition that from this day forward daylight slowly but inevitably increases until we reach the summer solstice in six months. They further portend Christianity affixed Christmas to coincide with these secular celebrations. Regardless, Christmas has been on December 25 for ages, though it’s doubtful that is the actual date of Jesus’ birth.

Nevertheless, the holidays are filled with images of lights. Houses are decorated in honor of the season. Businesses, too, join lighting up the dark December nights. Entire towns and cities hold holiday lighting festivities and light up their downtowns with seasonal decorations and glowing lights.

Our family has joyfully joined in that tradition for 46 years. This year, in our new location in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, we planted a little fir tree in the backyard. We call it our “Jenny tree” in honor of a friend who died much too soon at age 47. Jenny was a light to the world, to everyone she met, her family, the children with whom she shared at the school where she worked, and of course her coworkers.

Accordingly, I decided to fill our little Jenny tree with white lights. They burn night and day throughout the holiday season as a reminder of the light Jenny so lovingly shared in life.

But for me, today is more than the winter solstice. It marks eight years since my father died. He loved Christmas. Furthermore, my wife’s father died 16 years ago on December 22. And Jenny’s brother, Steve, died of cancer 27 years ago also on December 22. Our little Jenny tree shines its radiance for all of these good folks that we loved and miss so much.

“Light on the Shortest Day” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017


Filed under Christmas, Christmas deocrations, family, friends, holiday decorations, holidays, human interest, Photo of the Week, photography, Shenandoah Valley, 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


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


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

The Enforcer

Belted Kingfisher, Silver Lake Dayton VA,

The Enforcer.

I love birding. You just never know what you’re going to find or see. When I came upon this Belted Kingfisher sitting on this sign, I both chuckled and snapped a picture.

I think the content of the photo speaks for itself. “The Enforcer” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017


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

Dusk at Pleasant View

Old Order Mennonite church, sunset in the Shenandoah Valley

Dusk at Pleasant View.

Photography helps keep my mind sharp. It motivates me to see the beauty that is all around me, to photograph scenes that I couldn’t even imagine existed.

With a few wispy clouds in the evening sky, my intended mission might be to capture a lovely sunset, only to be disappointed as the sun sinks below the horizon with unremarkable results. Nevertheless, I stick to the objective, looking for opportunities for creative shots as I traverse the countryside.

I arrived at the Pleasant View Old Order Mennonite churchyard shortly after sunset. Baren deciduous trees and a few evergreens populated the property, planted in part to shade the horses during the Sunday morning worship service. This was a weekday. I had the place to myself.

I could see the Allegheny Mountains to the west outlined by the evening’s golden light. When I came to this particular spot, I was transfixed. The trees seemed to guide my focus through the opening in their canopy far above and beyond the lovely skyline. There was no irony here whatsoever. The modest, horse-and-buggy driving Old Order Mennonites were spot on to declare this vista a pleasant view. For me, being in this moment was a spiritual experience, one of those spontaneous happenings in life that catches you by surprise and stirs your soul.

“Dusk at Pleasant View” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017


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