When the bus comes in, the fun begins

Crowds gather in Sarasota, FL when the bus from up north arrives.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The anticipation was almost tense, the excitement palpable, and the energy contagious.

The crowd gathered early, as if waiting to get into a sporting event. People milled around, talking with their inside voices though they were bathed in bright, Florida sunshine while standing in a church parking lot. But they weren’t going to a worship service.

Welcome to the bus arrivals from Amish country north to temporary Amish country south, also known as Pinecraft, an unincorporated section of Sarasota, Florida. Three times a week in February and March, the snowbirds cram the little parking lot where the buses unload.

By the time the bus pulled in, the attendance had swollen to nearly a 100. The crowd plus the cars, vans, pickups and two-wheeled and three-wheeled bicycles barely left enough room for the bus. In fact, the self-appointed welcoming committee spilled over into the narrow alley, making any passage by motorized vehicle impossible.

The atmosphere was part family reunion, part auction crowd. Some came to meet and greet. Most were there to watch. Men with white beards and denim pants with suspenders and women in pastel dresses and lacy white coverings predominated the scene. A few children in straw hats and long, plain dresses held tight to a parent’s hand. This entertainment was too lame for teenagers. Many of them were already at the beach.

The bus did pull in right on time opposite the tiny, stuccoed Pinecraft post office, and the anticipation grew as the assembled crowd waited for the bus’ door to open. It was as if Elvis himself would bebop his way down the bus’ steps.

Though all the cargo was precious, no one of that fame was expected to be aboard. Rather the murmured questions were simple. Who was on the bus that I know? How long will they stay? And where?

Appropriately enough, the bus had to turn off of Miller Ave. to enter the lot. A number of Millers were among those who waited. An unknown number of Millers were on the bus.

When the bus door did open, the answers appeared as the passengers made their exit one-by-one. With waves and smiles, friends and relatives welcomed the new arrivals to their transient winter home. The passengers returned the favor as they exited carefully down the deep steps.

Some in the crowd were drawn more by curiosity than the need to help carry luggage. They just wanted to see who was on the bus. Would there be people they might know aboard? What news from home would they bring?

In this particular case, “home” is most generally Amish country. Amish and Mennonites flock to this resort home away from home to escape winter’s chilly edge in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states, too.

Many of the Indiana and Ohio snowbirds travel Pioneer Trails buses to the Sunshine state. It’s their most economical, and in many cases, only choice. Their faith does not allow them to fly or drive, so they take the bus.

David Swartzentruber, owner of the Millersburg-based bus business, said Pioneer Trials has been fulfilling the transportation need for these individuals for 26 years. During the two peak months, buses arrive Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Passengers on Pioneer Trials are primarily from the Amish populations in northern Indiana and in Holmes, Tuscarawas and Wayne counties. Buses pick up passengers and their luggage at various locations around each geographic area. Most often, buses from Indiana and Ohio meet up near Cincinnati, combine their loads and continue south. The northbound bus from Pinecraft and the southbound usually connect near Chattanooga, Tennessee. The drivers switch buses and the trips north and south continue.

Swartzentruber said other bus companies also transport people to Pinecraft, especially from Pennsylvania, where Pioneer Trails does not have a route. He said the other bus companies do not travel as frequently as does Pioneer Trails.

As expected, most passengers were Amish, and most in their retirement years. However, some young families, with two or three young children, and a few teenagers seeking fun in the sun exited the bus.

Some in the crowd, like Christ Miller from Millersburg, were surprised to see their neighbors arrive. They knew they were coming south. They just didn’t know when. In this case, Miller welcomed his neighbors Jr. and Fannie Burkholder.

Like the onlookers, the stays of the new arrivals range from one week to three months or more. No matter how short or long their time in Pinecraft, they will make the most of their stay visiting, eating out and enjoying the normally pleasant weather.

Once the last passenger had luggage in hand and connected with friends and relatives, the crowd thinned quickly. In 15 minutes, the excitement was over at least until the next scheduled bus due in from the north. When it arrives, the gregarious process will begin all over again.

Winter is for the birds

Female Cardinal

By Bruce Stambaugh

I am of the opinion that winter is for the birds. I mean that literally.

Watching the backyard birds enjoy the variety of foodstuffs at the feeders is my winter’s entertainment. The various kinds of feeders are stocked with an assortment of options for the birds to devour, and are placed for safe access by the birds and convenient observation by me.

In the feeding frenzy, the birds put on quite a show.

Several kinds of birds enjoy the spoils of the tube feeder filled with sunflower hearts. The feeder hangs in front of the kitchen window and can accommodate six birds at a time, if all goes well. However, just like people, birds get greedy and guard their territory, even though there is plenty for everybody.

The American Goldfinches seem to be the best behaved, often feeding in families around the feeder’s cardinal ring. It’s named that so that cardinals can enjoy the seeds, too. Cardinals normally prefer a flat surface or the ground for feeding. But occasionally the bright red males and reddish tinged olive females will take advantage of their namesake.

Despite their bright coloration and moderate size, cardinals tend to be skittish creatures and fly off at the first hint of trouble. A few of the cardinals prefer the cracked corn that is spread at the base of the sugar maple. But so does the feisty Song Sparrow, which easily scares off the bigger bird. Using its clawed feet, the Song Sparrow jump kicks at the seed, even though it wouldn’t have to. Hereditary habits are hard to change.

Other sparrows show their faces as well, especially if the ground is snow-covered. The pretty Tree Sparrow, with its distinctive yellow bottom bill, joins the feast along with the showy White-crowned Sparrow. The latter is one of the few species that sings in the winter. Their beautiful tune can warm even the coldest day.

The real fun begins when the acrobatic nuthatches, Chickadees and Tufted Titmice arrive, which they often do simultaneously. I am fortunate to have both White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches, a first for me, coming to the feeders. They are the only birds that move headfirst down the trunk of a tree.

These birds take full advantage of the menu offered at the feeders. If the black oil sunflower seeds aren’t available, they might enjoy some extra protein that the suet provides. Or they might savor a hulled peanut.

All these birds give way when the bully Blue Jays appear. They loudly announce their arrival, and scatter the other birds with their arrogant intrusion. The jays gulp down a gullet full of seeds before flying off with their meal.

An even bossier bird is the Red-bellied Woodpecker. It wants to dine alone while partaking of the smorgasbord offerings, especially enjoying the peanuts. But they can be finicky, too. The next trip in the same bird may hit the ear corn.

Perhaps my favorite visitors are the Eastern Bluebirds, normally not noted as feeder birds. They do enjoy the brilliant holly berries right from the bush out front, but they also have been seen imbibing at the suet and sunflower feeders.

There are times, though, when the birds just don’t show up at all. It’s then that I know that perched nearby is the neighborhood Cooper’s Hawk, which loves a songbird lunch.

Occasionally I know that the swift hawk has enjoyed my feeders, too, at least indirectly. A pile of House Finch feathers atop the snow provides the proof.

Female Red-bellied Woodpecker

Finding the fountain of youth

The historically maligned Ponce de Leon was actually
well ahead of his time. That’s what I concluded
after a wintertime visit to Florida.

I have three adorable grandchildren,
proof enough that I am no spring chicken.
I won’t mention the other obvious aging clues.
While on my tour of the Sunshine state,
visited so long ago by the Spanish explorer,
I stumbled upon exactly what he was looking for.

The fountain of youth really does exist.
No matter where I went, a store, a restaurant,
a theater, even the beach, the result was the same.
I was the youngest one in the crowd.
Where admission was charged, I received the youth rate,
while everyone else got the senior discount.

I discovered what the conquistador could not.
In Florida, 62 is the new 16.
Poor Ponce was at the right place, wrong time.

Bruce Stambaugh

Feb. 4, 2010

Tracks in the snow

Wing prints from the red-tailed hawk

By Bruce Stambaugh

I love when snow covers the dormant winter ground. The beauty is enhanced when the blanket is refreshed with daily snowfalls the way it was earlier in the month.

Snow illuminates everything, even at night. The defused light of a waning moon can still glitter the landscape like a mirror to the stars. A glowing sunrise, a rarity in the normally dreary Ohio January sky, sparkles the morning countryside all around.

The unbroken whiteness seems to connect everything it has touched. It softens the harshest angles of any nondescript building and compliments the already lovely evergreen bows with inches of powdery beauty.

The view beckons me outside. But I hate to make tracks in the snow. I don’t want to do anything that pollutes the purity of the picture perfect scene. Suddenly, the rumbling of the snowplow shakes me from my idealistic stupor. Reality is calling.

The birdfeeders need attended to, the sidewalk and parking pad must be shoveled. Disturbing the beauty isn’t an option. The garbage can has to be wheeled to the roadside and I need to replenish my inside stack of firewood. All of these activities require me to do what I do not want to do. I have to break the virgin snow.

I bundle up much like I did when I was a kid readying to go sledding. Only these endeavors fit the chore category. Still, I get to be out in the invigorating elements.

It doesn’t take long to realize my naivety. Other creatures have been out and about well ahead of me. Bird tracks are evident at the garage door. I didn’t even hear them knock. Rabbit tracks are obvious. Even deer have visited the yard.

Still, I step respectfully, trying hard to bother as little snow as possible. On repeat trips, I retrace my previous tracks. The cottontails seemed to have the same rule.

I feel forgiven for my obsessive/compulsive behavior. Every now and then, while I am doing something mundane, I witness something extraordinary. Recently while retrieving the morning paper from its plastic delivery tube, I found a rabbit flattened on the road.

I mercifully tossed it into the snow near the low bush at the end of the driveway. Later that day, I spied a red-tailed hawk sitting on the snow beneath the bare canopy of the sunburst locust tree in the front yard. The bird flew off before I could take its picture.

Curious, I went out to see why it had been on the snowy ground instead of perched in its usual roost in the pine thicket. I couldn’t believe what I found. The hawk had pounced on the dead rabbit and repeatedly tried lifting off with it. Evidence of that deduction was a crooked path that led away from the roadside shrub where I had pitched the deceased to the locust tree.

There in the snow, on each side of the furrowed trail, was a series of periodic wing imprints. They reminded me of the snow angels we used to make as kids. I must have discovered the beautiful raptor while resting from its numerous futile efforts of trying to get the frozen bunny airborne. Instead, it dragged its catch through the snow.

A closer look revealed that the hawk had begun to tear the rabbit apart, apparently hungry enough to cancel its instinctive routine of capture, fly, perch and eat.

Next day I returned to the scene of the crime. The rabbit was gone. Spots of blood stained the snow. No other tracks of any kind were apparent. The wily bird must have returned to claim it’s prized meal.

I learned an important lesson. Tracks in the snow tell dramatic stories.