Fall is for the birds

bird migration, Jacksonville FL

American White Pelicans wintering near Jacksonville, FL.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Fall is for the birds.

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

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

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

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

warblers, Florida

Yellow-rumped warbler in its duller fall colors.

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

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

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

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

eastern bluebird, bird migration

Male Eastern Bluebird.

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

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

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

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

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

barn swallow, insect-eating birds

A barn swallow on its delicate nest in June.

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

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

On behalf of birdwatchers everywhere, welcome to fall.

young birders, shorebirds

Young birders scope for shorebirds on mudflats.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Looking Up

overhead clouds, sunset, Shenandoah Valley

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

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

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

“Looking Up” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Transforming work into play

Holmes Co. OH, Millersburg OH

The prairie on the hill.

By Bruce Stambaugh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holmes Co. OH, Millersburg OH

Eastern Bluebirds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holmes Co. OH, Millersburg OH

Sunrise valley view.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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

Young Photographer

young photographer, Longwood Gardens, seeing beauty

I was intrigued by this teenager’s keen interest in photographing the beautiful flowers at Longwood Gardens in Kennet Square, Pennsylvania. We kept running into one another as we wound our way through the many colorful displays of flowers, pools, fountains, and outdoor gardens.

From my long-lived experience as a father, grandfather, teacher, and school principal, photography wasn’t a top priority for most teenagers. This young girl was the exception. After I took this shot of her capturing yet another lovely flower, I spoke with her parents, who stood at a distance, proudly admiring their daughter’s unabashed desire to photograph the gorgeous floral displays.

I showed them this photo and identified myself as a retired principal. Curious, the girl came over to us and viewed my shot of her shot of the flower. She smiled, and I showed her another shot I had taken nearby of a glass ceiling with steel girders. She liked it, so I answered a question she didn’t ask but was on her face. I had taken the abstract-looking photo while others were busy observing the apparent displays all around them. I looked up.

That was my photographic tip to this inspiring and aspiring youngster. “When others are looking one way, you look the other,” I told her. “You never know what inspirational subjects you will find to photograph.”

Next week, my Photo of the Week will be an example of that ditty of advice. For now, “Young Photographer” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Why I always dreaded August’s return

August, sunset, Virginia

An early August sunset.

By Bruce Stambaugh

August is upon us once again.

As I look back on it, I always dreaded the return of the eighth month. Through my not-so-nostalgic reflections, I realized that my reasons evolved across the decades.

As an elementary school student, I knew all too well what August’s arrival meant. We were down to one month of summer vacation.

Those were the days when agrarian mentality ruled the school year. All scholarly studies were squeezed between Labor Day and Memorial Day. When the county fair gates closed, the school doors opened.

Now, of course, no such luxury exists for students. Back to school shopping has already begun. With August at hand, many students start the daily countdown until the dreaded day arrives.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked school, well, the elementary version at least. However, I enjoyed playing much more so. Summer vacation generated much less stress for youngsters then. Our screen time meant going to the drive-in movie theater on Friday nights. Our phones stayed at home firmly affixed to the wall.

butterfly, wildflowers, Virginia

Male Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly on Cardinal flower.

So when the calendar flipped to August, the neighborhood gang of hooligans started planning our next sleep-out under the stars or our next daytime adventure at the creek down-over-the-hill. Time was a wasting.

In high school and college, it wasn’t playtime but work that got shortened by the start of school. At $2.06 an hour, I needed to work all I could to deter my own educational expenses. With younger siblings and a stay-at-home mother, it was the least I could do to help the family financially. My older brother set that model.

When I started my career in public education, I began to more fully understand the importance of August. It meant readying for another school year, only this time as the teacher and eventually principal.

The late summer days of August always meant sweating it out decorating my classroom before the students arrived. Those old schools didn’t have air conditioning. I could hear the busyness of protégés down the hallways also preparing for the coming school year. We came in early morning and early evening to avoid the afternoon heat.

August, Ohio's Amish country

Come August, summer winds down.

When I joined the administrative ranks, August meant meetings, which I loathed unless they were held on the local golf course. That venue seldom happened, however, despite the chatter around the window table at the locals’ favorite eatery.

I heard samplings of student whining from our son and daughter, who knew too well that the coming of August meant school band camps and fall sports practices. Our son chose wisely. He joined the golf team and scored much better than his father ever could.

Just like their parents’ childhood schedules, once the county fair ended, the school year began for our children, too. By then, however, Labor Day became the first school holiday, not the summer’s last.

Somehow, though, we all survived those August perils. As a retiree, August has lost it sting. I don’t have the self-imposed barriers to hurdle anymore. I can relax in air conditioning as the thermometer hits 90.

Like all the previous years, I anticipate golden sunsets sinking beyond the horizon. I’ll watch for the Perseid meteor shower, hoping that the August haze has faded in the cool of the night.

The fraternal twins of retirement and maturity have a mellowing effect on sour attitudes. Instead of dread, this August I’ll breathe in a deep breath, say a prayer of gratitude for another new month, and enjoy the moments at hand.

Ohio's Amish country, Amish

Back to school.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Afternoon sun

Natural Bridge SP, Thomas Jefferson, Lexington VA

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

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

“Afternoon Sun” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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

Summer is a humbling time

Amish farm, corn, wheat, oats

Grains of Summer.

By Bruce Stambaugh

With all of its positive and pleasant attributes, summer makes it hard to be humble.

We all want to get out and take full advantage of the sunny days filled with warmer temperatures and a wide variety of activities. We fling ourselves full force into each day whether it’s for work or for play. We want to drink in every drop of sunshine, warmth, and blue skies, from dawn to dusk.

Hungry Mother SP VA

At the beach.

Toddlers, children, and teens fill the local swimming pools, both public and backyard venues, while adults keep watchful eyes on the less careful youth. Construction workers bask in the fair weather, narrowing four lanes to one with an arsenal of orange barrels.

Lawnmowers hum morning, noon, and evening throughout global neighborhoods. Contractors and excavators work sunup to sundown. Farmers are in their glory, beginning to harvest the fruits of their labor.

In many places, the corn reached far beyond knee-high-by-the-Fourth-of-July standards. In others, stalks stood only inches tall, drowned out by the super wet spring and early summer rains.

Amber waves of grain really did roll in the wind until giant combines gobbled them up or they formed rows of shocks like so many soldiers standing guard in Amish-owned fields.

Summer, however, has other, more drastic ways to get our attention with her weapons. Summer can humble us lowly humans in many ways. Think floods, wildfires, tornadoes, droughts, golf ball-sized hail, record heat and humidity.

No matter our stature or station in life, we all succumb to those prevailing conditions. Summer humbles us.

humble singFor those unfamiliar with E.B. White’s beloved children’s classic “Charlotte’s Web,” humility played a major role in the book’s plot and dialogue. The spider Charlotte wove “Humble” into the web that served to save the life of the precocious pig Wilbur. She wanted a word that meant “not proud” as Wilbur’s crowning characteristic.

But humility has a second meaning beyond the social one. Humble implies a willingness to learn, and thankfully summer has much to teach us. The lessons are all around us in a more pleasing, useful, and beautiful form than what disasters wrought.

Vegetable gardens and truck patches team with all sorts of goodies that nurture us. Tasty homegrown sweet corn, luscious red tomatoes, green, red, and yellow peppers, and tangles of zucchini are just a few examples.

Roadside produce stands and supermarkets tempt us with juicy peaches and vine-ripened melons. Generations ago indigenous Americans taught us to plant, tend, and harvest these marvels.

For those non-gardeners among us, we sniff and thump and feel and taste to select the best of the bunch like our parents and grandparents did. The poor fruits and veggies pay the ultimate price.

Please click on the photos to enlarge them.

Flower gardens are peaking with hollyhocks and zinnias and cultivated flowers, too. Leafy hardwoods provide shade and refreshing coolness from the oppressive summer heat for humans and critters alike.

Wildflowers and wildlife, too, show their stuff. Dainty spotted fawns venture out on their own while mom watches from more secluded spaces. Parent bluebirds and house wrens ferry insects, worms, and berries to their youngsters nearly as big as the adult birds.

Families crowd beaches and climb mountains on vacations, exploring new venues or returning to old haunts discovered by previous generations.

Where is humility in all of this? Using the educational definition, it’s merely a reminder of the responsibility of the created to care for the creation. That is about as humbled as we can get.

pasture field, cumulous clouds

Summer landscape.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Surrounded

Surrounded.


My wife and I have always been enchanted with this lovely farmette at Judy Gap, West Virginia. The charming setting flashes into view on U.S. 33 as you round a downhill curve traveling west. The plain, white farmhouse with the sweeping front porch certainly stands out. However, it is the regiment of matching and neatly maintained red outbuildings outlined in white that really catches the eye.

The picturesque scene certainly conjures up a multitude of questions. What purpose does each building serve? Why are they situated every which way? Do the owners know just how gorgeous their property and unique set of structures are? Do they fully appreciate the beauty of both the setting and their artistic contribution to it?

As a stranger, I’ve never had enough nerve to stop to ask these intrusive questions. Instead, I am content to both admire and share the Currier and Ives-like scene.

“Surrounded” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Mere observation brings renewal

Lakeside OH, Chautauqua Lakeside

The fountain in front of Hotel Lakeside.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I’m sitting on a bench beneath the shade of a determined sugar maple tree, perhaps its verdant growth encouraged by the view I’m enjoying. Who or what wouldn’t be heartened with these delightful surroundings.

Youngsters set sail on skiffs, their teenage teachers guiding them into and out of the steady east wind, tacking, and turning this way and that, the multi-colored sails energized by the steady lake breeze.

Only weeks ago a much different scene played out in this same location. One nor’easter after the other pounded the shoreline that now houses a single-file line of dinghies slotted between wooden four by fours.

The shoreline lost, as it always does, against such strong forces of nature. So did the dock, which had its securely anchored metal benches washed overboard.

Today, however, is different. The lake breeze is just stiff enough to keep Old Glory and the nautical signals continually flapping and a lone great egret working overtime to a new upwind fishing spot.

Beyond the pier’s end, a cigarette boat slices with ease through the small waves of Lake Erie. Sun worshippers, fisher-people, and swimmers all bask in the sun-drenched day, thankful the oppressive heat and humidity of recent days have been replaced by these ideal conditions. Not a single contrail pollutes the all-blue sky.

Purple Martins and tree swallows also sail over all the human aquatic action, skimming the latest hatch of Mayflies from the air.

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Parents and proud grandparents stand along the shoreline or in the pavilion watching their sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters sail away on the blue-green water chop. In a matter of minutes, they safely return, smiles replacing any lingering fear of their maiden voyage.

Just off of the end of the reinforced breaker wall of native limestone, fishermen bob in their bass boat, casting and recasting without success. They soon move on to calmer and hopefully more productive waters.

Back on shore, walkers stroll the sidewalk that runs the full length of the shoreline that makes Lakeside lakeside. This Ohio resort town, appropriately known as the Chautauqua on Lake Erie, is bustling with activity on this Sunday afternoon.

Lifetime Lakesiders gather on other shaded wooden benches like they have for decades like their parents and grandparents did before them. Only the seats are different. The view, the busyness of recreation, education, arts and crafts, and entertainment of the friendly, gated community unfold all around them just as it did when they were children, too.

Bicycles and golf carts wait patiently for their drivers and passengers in the green grass along the blacktop’s edge. The bikes stand unlocked, and ignition keys dangle freely in the carts. Such is Lakeside.

Daring teenage girls try their hand and legs at paddle boards, nimbly dropping to their knees when their hesitation takes hold. They eventually regain their confidence and return to their paddling.

The Westminster chimes of the clock tower atop the nearby pavilion bong 3 p.m., followed by bells singing “How Great Though Art.” Behind me, a gurgling fountain lures a toddler away from her mother until she beckons her daughter to the spotting scope aimed at Perry’s Monument on Put-in-Bay.

These few minutes spent observing, absorbing, listening, looking, appreciating all that is Lakeside, Ohio renews my body, mind, and spirit. Given this setting, that’s what is supposed to happen.

You don’t have to be at Lakeside to garner these healthy, in-the-moment results. But it sure helps.

Lakeside Chautauqua, Lakeside OH, swimming

Fun in the sun.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Weathered

weathered storefront, old store, Mill Creek VA

Weathered.

There’s an old adage in photography that goes something like this: When others are shooting the obvious, look around, look behind you, look up, look down. I try to remember that when I focus on a particular subject matter, be it a landscape, sunrise, sunset, or wildlife. Another perspective might bring you greater rewards.

Such was the case when I stopped to photograph a church in rural southwestern Virginia. Rolling, high hills lined with Christmas trees served as the backdrop of the distinctive country church, which was outlined in bright, red paint. It made a very satisfactory photo.

However, when I turned to return to the van, I spotted this old, weathered building across the road. I loved its unique character, especially the age-dappled clapboard siding sandwiched between the two tones of green. I wondered about its history. What was its original purpose? Was the building being used for any reason now?

The old building’s aged appearance jumped out at me. “Weathered” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under architectural photography, human interest, Photo of the Week, photography, travel, Virginia