Tag Archives: bird migration

Birds and trees signal inevitable change

ice storm, male cardinal

Icy red.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The annual migration of birds has been going on for some time now. Fall in the birding vernacular doesn’t equal calendar fall.

There is a logical reason for that. Different species of birds begin their migration at different times. Shorebirds and songbirds often lead the winged entourage to warmer climes. Others trail along alone or in giant flocks to the delight of avid birders. To account for these time travel variances in the birding world, fall is the most extended season, running from August through November.

backyard birds

At the suet feeder.

The same concept is valid for trees and deciduous plants. Some species begin their winter hibernation sooner than others. Their various changing colors can foretell this annual transition. Poison ivy leaves often turn bright red before September arrives, while the glossy leaves of shingle oaks fade from emerald to russet and hang on until early spring.

For me, I welcome these transitions, especially the birding varieties. As the leaves of the red maples in our yard began to fall, birds I had not seen before began to arrive.

Storms brought down many of the remaining leaves. They also blew in flocks of birds, some temporarily. Others seem here to stay.

Last fall, our first in the Shenandoah Valley, birds were scarce at the feeders. The numbers and variety of birds were well below my expectations. I longed for the many beautiful birds we had had in Ohio.

Optimist that I am, I hung the feeders again right after Labor Day and attracted a few regulars. I can always count on chatty house finches and boisterous blue jays. Once the weather cooled, the suet feeder went up in the backyard.

backyard birds

An inquisitive Carolina Wren.

I was contented with the usual suspects, happy that even the Carolina Wrens made regular appearances. But I could not have anticipated what happened next. About six weeks ago, I noticed some birds that resembled the numerous house finches that frequented our feeders. A closer inspection with the binoculars told me that we had a small flock of purple finches with a few pine siskins thrown in for good measure. I was ecstatic.

I had never had purple finches at the feeders and only had had passing pine siskins that took a break to refuel during migration. I hoped beyond hope that the birds would stay. So far they have.

These are gorgeous birds, each in their particular plumage. The reddish hues of the male purple finches appear iridescent, especially if the sun reflects off of their foreheads where the winter colors are the brightest. Though much duller and muted, the rich browns and creams of the females’ feathers are equally stunning.

backyard birds

A rare visitor, a Red-breasted Nuthatch.

The more demur pine siskins tend to feed with the purple finches and the American goldfinches. Their brown stripes and flash of yellow at the wing tips make them striking birds as well.

The departure of the leaves and arrival of the birds mimic life. We can’t do anything about the past and try as we might, we can’t predict the future. Dull leaves and the arrival of purple finches are proof positive.

To be most productive, I strive to be present in each moment regardless of what change occurs. The mystery of it all sparks a spirit of gratitude.

I’m thankful the birds and trees keep reminding me that change is inevitable. If we pay attention, we can enrich our lives by embracing each subtle transformation, seasonal or otherwise.

For good or for ill, change happens. It is the way life is.

Purple Finches, Pine Siskins, House Finches, American Goldfinches

Finches feeding.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

8 Comments

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

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

2 Comments

Filed under birding, birds, column, human interest, nature photography, photography, writing

May is for the birds

May flowers

May flowers.

By Bruce Stambaugh

May is for the birds. That’s good news for those of us who live in northern Ohio.

Year in and year out, May tends to be a very pleasant month here. The days grow longer and warmer.

Garden flowers splash welcomed colors against neatly trimmed, emerald lawns. Rainbows of wildflowers carpet forest floors, hiding the decaying leaf litter for six months. Mushrooms and May apples join them.

But what broadens the smiles in many folks from ages four to 94 are the returning birds. Not that people have been disappointed with the aviary species that frequented their backyard feeders in the dormant months.

The colorful songbirds, all decked out in their mating wardrobes, radiate new life into their human audiences. I’m certain the birds are unaware.

Gulping grape jelly.

Gulping grape jelly.

You don’t even have to be a serious birder to know that feeling. When the first Baltimore Oriole flashes its black and orange and whistles its distinctive call, it’s officially May.

Out come the store-bought and homemade feeders full of grape jelly. Stand back and let the gorging begin.

This year the birds seemed simply to fall out of the sky. Person after person reported the first of the year Baltimore Oriole, Orchard Oriole, and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

It’s amazing how those little hummers remember where the previous year’s feeders hung. If they beat you to the punch, they’re hovering outside your kitchen window waiting for lunch or supper, depending on when their flight landed in your yard.

This year I beat them to it. I had the feeder cleaned and filled with fresh sugar water long before April melded into May. But the birds got the last laugh. The first bird on the hummingbird feeder was a male Baltimore Oriole. Yes, they like a sweet sip now and then, too.

So, out went the oriole feeder. I hardly had stepped away when a male Baltimore Oriole swooped in for his feast. A male Orchard Oriole, a bird that I had never seen feed at the grape jelly station before, soon followed.

Friends near and far reported orioles galore. Their joy mimicked that of the infectious calls of the birds themselves.

male rose-breasted grosbeak

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Then came another wave of exuberance. Folks from all around called, emailed, and showed me photos of a bird they had seldom had at their feeders before. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks held their own fallout party. Some people reported eight or 10 at a time feeding. Not only are these handsome birds fun to watch, but their song also matches their beauty.

Of course, a few rare birds pass through on their way further north for the summer. American White Pelicans and stately Black-necked Stilts made appearances to the area.

But this time of year, it’s the colorful warblers that serious birders covet. Scores of birders from around the world converge on the Lake Erie shoreline to watch and listen for this annual splendor. They are seldom disappointed.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Biggest Week in American Birding is held annually from early to mid-May in northwest Ohio’s Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. Scores of migrating birds, warblers, shorebirds, and birds of prey among them, rest and forage in the adjoining marshes, wetlands, and woodlots before heading over the lake.

Even if you can’t make it there, the birds may still come to you. The key is to be on the watch.

You never know what bright and cheery surprise may come your way in May. But look quick, because just like May, some of them might be gone in a vivid flash.

trumpeter swans

Lift off.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

5 Comments

Filed under birding, birds, human interest, nature photography, Ohio, photography, rural life, writing

For birders, migration is like Christmas in springtime

Bay-breasted Warbler, migratiing birds, locating birds

Migrating warblers, like this Bay-breasted Warbler, are often easy to hear but hard to locate since they usually stay high in trees and are constantly on the move feeding. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

By Bruce Stambaugh

Like children dreaming of Old St. Nick on Christmas Eve, this is the time of year birders have yearned for, longed for, relished.

For hardcore birders, spring migration is a Christmas morning that spans several weeks from mid-March to mid-May. Avid birders are especially on the alert now to find the many species they seek, and some they couldn’t even imagine.

Rock Wren, rare birds, spring migration

Rock Wren. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

When a rarity shows up like the Rock Wren did last spring, it’s a birding bonanza. The Rock Wren became a rock star. For several days, the bird from America’s southwest was a magnet, attracting folks from far and wide to Holmes County.

Such birds are the exception. The spring migratory norm is to view birds that either return here to nest or to catch a glimpse of those that are just passing through. Depending on the weather, the transients might stay a day or two, or just make a short pit stop to rest and refuel.

The challenge is to be at the right place at the right time to see and hear the birds.

For me, I’m just as happy to note the return of my backyard birds. The Chimney Swifts rattled the fireplace doors as they swooped into our chimney the evening of April 18, the same date as last year.

How do I know? Like most birders, I keep a list of when I see a species for the first time each year. In the birding world, that’s known as the FOY, first of year. For instance, the Red-headed Woodpecker was a day later than last year, arriving April 21.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Today’s birders use social networking sources to track the movement and appearance of the various species. That gives the flocks of birders a heads up on finding and photographing particular birds.

We are fortunate in Ohio to have one of the best locations in the country to observe and hear a wide variety of transitory and returning birds, especially warblers. This time of year both birds and birders pack Magee Marsh Wildlife Area.

A conservation group, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, located at the entrance to Magee Marsh in northwest Ohio, sponsors “America’s Biggest Week in Birding.” In fact, it’s going on right now.

These folks welcome thousands of birders, amateur to professional, in hosting this attractive annual festival. Magee Marsh, a state park, is billed as “the warbler capital of the world.” Having been there on many occasions, I can attest to that.

Birders from around the world converge on Magee Marsh just to watch the warblers and shorebirds come and go. It’s not unusual to observe 20 or more kinds of warblers in just a few hours. Magee Marsh and the surrounding acreage are protected habitat that ensures safe harbor for migrating and nesting birds of all sizes, colors and species.

My first visit to Magee Marsh years ago was indeed like Christmas. A few steps onto the wooden boardwalk and I spotted a variety of colorful warblers decked out in their impressive breeding plumage. The brightly colored little birds looked like Christmas tree ornaments perched on low-hanging tree branches.

Where I live here in Ohio’s Amish country, we don’t necessarily have to drive that far to enjoy the migrating birds. The Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area, the Holmes County Trail, The Wilderness Center, and the many ponds and lakes in our area provide excellent habitat for a variety of birds.

Or you can just step outside and watch and listen. You just might think it’s Christmas in springtime.

overlapping birds in spring migration

Winter and summer residents, like this White-crowned Sparrow, and male Rose-breasted Grosbeack, oftern overlap during spring migration. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

7 Comments

Filed under birding, column

Breathe in breathe out, a routine too easily forgotten

autumnafternoonbybrucestambaugh

Autumn afternoon. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I sat in the warm sunshine on the back porch steps, eating my simple lunch, taking in all that transpired around me. I basked in the awesome day itself, one of several that we had as summer morphed into autumn.

Typical of fall days in northern Ohio, the day started cool, and took its time warming up. But thanks to skies bluer than my grandchildren’s eyes, the sunshine strengthened to enhance the day to beyond beautiful.

The air warmed, and the wind gently swirled in all directions. Compared to the quiet dawning of the day, everything seemed alive, moving, and vibrant. It was a glorious day, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the Day of Awe.

Sunrays streaming by Bruce Stambaugh

Day of Awe. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

I’m not Jewish, but I certainly was in awe. I had just returned from my weekly yoga lesson, where the students were again reminded to breathe in, and breathe out. It’s a way to encourage each of us to be conscious of just how important breathing can be.

Given our hustle, bustle lifestyles fueled by instantaneous updates from the outside world through our addiction to our electronic gadgets, we sometimes forget life’s simplest lessons. Breathing is one of them.

So there I was, enjoying my wife’s homemade hummus with crunchy gluten free crackers, a homegrown tomato, homemade refrigerator pickles, some fresh turkey breast and locally made cheese, washed down with homemade mint tea, breathing in, breathing out the beauty of the day. I felt ecstatic, really.

Dogwood berries by Bruce Stambaugh

Dogwood arsenal. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

My presence had chased away the Starlings and the American Robins, who were at war over the bright red, ripe dogwood berries. Like most conflicts, it seemed neither side won. In the fracas, most of the berries dotted the ground beneath the trees, their leaves growing more and more crimson.

I breathed in, and saw a family of Chimney Swifts skimming the fields behind our home, and circling over and through our stand of trees. I exhaled with a smile, overjoyed to see the friendly birds again. The ones that occupied our chimney had gone missing a few days prior, likely on their way south, like these chattering brothers and sisters were as they devoured every airborne insect they could.

My solitary picnic didn’t bother the ever-present American Goldfinches, now in their duller decor. They ate right along with me as long as I didn’t breathe too hard.

Clouded Sulphur butterfly by Bruce Stambaugh

Clouded Sulpher. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

At the front of the house, I breathed in another pastoral scene. Clouded Sulphur butterflies and bumblebees flitted about the fall blossoms, especially enjoying the blue salvia and bubblegum petunias my good wife had planted in early June. I breathed out a hearty thanks to them and to her for these special, significant insignificancies.

That’s just one of the tenants that I have learned from six months of yoga. Yoga is much more than physical exercise. Your movements, your thoughts, and especially your breathing need to be congruent. I think the pros call it mindfulness.

I don’t know if it was my breathing, the gorgeous day, my tasty lunch, or that combination that put me in such a peaceful mood. I just know that I want to keep breathing in and breathing out as long as I can.

With that, my mind wandered to too many friends I know locally and globally who would love to love this day, yet who have little opportunity to do so. Illnesses and real wars prevent their abilities to breathe in and breathe out the way I was.

I’ll just have to do it for them.

Changing leaves by Bruce Stambaugh

Turning red. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Leave a comment

Filed under column, news, Ohio, photography, writing

Birds and birders: Two of a kind

boardwalkentrancebybrucestambaugh

The west entrance to the Magee Marsh boardwalk is a great place to begin the birding.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Birds and birders have a lot in common. This thought struck me on my latest trip to northwest Ohio’s birding mecca, Magee Marsh Wildlife Area.

Billed as the Greatest Week in American Birding, the event coincided with the peak of the spring warbler migration. Warblers, and other migrating birds, use Ohio’s airspace as their launching pad to their northern breeding grounds.

Before the birds cross Lake Erie, they tend to rest along its shores. There they replenish their strength by devouring insects that flit around the budding and blooming deciduous trees, shrubs and wildflowers. Shorebirds scour the marshes and shores for their nourishment.

woodcockbybrucestambaugh

This American Woodcock chose the median of the parking lot to make her nest.

As an amateur birder, I enjoy watching backyard birds and observing passers through with equal zeal. But if I want to see a multitude of colorful migrating birds packed into one location, Magee Marsh is the place to go.

The marsh and its 2,200 surrounding acres serve as a sprawling wildlife sanctuary with varied habitat types, including estuaries, marshes, scrub lands, woodlots, rocky areas, beaches and of course the lake itself. The area also provides sportsmen with seasonal controlled hunting and fishing.

birdhabitatsbybrucestambaugh

Magee Marsh has many habitats that attract several species of migrating birds.

During bird migration season, the only shooting of birds permitted is with cameras. Believe me, plenty of shots are fired in search of the perfect picture of the incredible songbirds, shorebirds, and birds of prey.

In my meandering around the boardwalk, trails and beach, I discovered something that should have been obvious. Birders have a lot in common with the birds they watch.

boardwalkbirdersbybrucestambaugh

Birders checked out warbler on the boardwalk at Magee Marsh

Like their feathered friends, birders come in all shapes, sizes and ages. Just like the birds, birders sport different hues and clothe themselves in a variety of colors, including camouflage, worn more to soothe the birds than hide from predators.

There are other comparisons, too. Some birders maneuver and forage in solitude for their targets. Others travel in organized groups. Most birders are quiet, but some let loose with an effusive chatter when a flashy warbler or rare bird is spotted.

When a shorebird captures a fish, it often finds itself quickly surrounded by others hoping to also steal a bite. When a birder discovers a coveted find, others gather around hoping to capture the image through their spotting scopes, binoculars, or cameras. Those without scopes are graciously invited to better view the often-concealed bird. Birders are genuinely kind people.

youngbirdersbybrucestambaugh

A young family took a break from their birding at Magee.

When a bird is located along the boardwalk at Magee, birders bob and weave, stretch and stoop to get just the right viewing angle. Birds do the same in search of food or checking out habitat. Most birders go in search of birds, like the many warblers that flit from limb to limb decreasing the insect population. Others sit and wait for the birds to come to them, like a Great Blue Heron patiently waiting for a fish to spear.

Camaraderie and sharing are normal in the sport of birding. Staunch birders make life lists, month lists, day lists, yard lists,

capemaywarblerbybrucestambaugh

This Cape May Warbler dined on insects before heading across the lake.

state lists, annual lists, and just about any other kind of list you might imagine. That’s how serious they take this popular sport.

If someone finds a bird they can’t identify, a more expert birder gladly assists in teaching how to properly confirm just what species it is. Teaching and learning are just as important as appreciating the birds and their habitats.

Perhaps that is why birding is one of the most popular sports in the world. During the Biggest Week in American Birding, global citizens flock to northwest Ohio in hopes of seeing a special species.

To hear the various lyrical birdsongs and behold the flashy mating plumages first hand is truly a treat. To see the smiles and satisfaction on the faces of the elated birders is equally rewarding.

happybirdersbybrucestambaugh

Birders tend to be pleasant, engaging people.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

1 Comment

Filed under birding, column, news, Ohio, photography, writing

Enjoying spring’s aviary adventures

Amish farm by Bruce Stambaugh

A typical springtime scene in the heart of Ohio’s Amish country near Mt. Hope, OH.


By Bruce Stambaugh

We are fortunate to live where we do here in northern Ohio, especially in the Holmes County area. Our manicured farmlands, brushy fencerows, dense woodlots, numerous lakes and the wetlands of the Killbuck Valley provide an abundant variety of habitats that attract an equal abundance and variety of birds.

In our busyness, we should stop, look and listen to the free show that is all around us. The many birds, some just passing through, others that will make their summer home here, can fill our senses with amazing music, incredible color, and entertaining activity. No admission charge is needed.

canadagoosebybrucestambaugh

A Canada Goose and a lone gosling glide in the marshy Killbuck Valley north of Millersburg, OH.


Even before sunrise, the chorus of songbirds begins to warm up like a pre-concert symphony. Usually the American Robins are first to welcome the new dawn with their varying songs. Soon others like the Northern Cardinals and Song Sparrows join in. By first light, a cacophony of warbling fills the morning air. Everyday brings a new chorus.

Once the morning brightens, the birds mix a paint palette of colors into the recital. Now at their height of intensity for procreation purposes, the colors of the birds are positively stunning. Their appointed markings are a pleasure to behold.

White-crowned Sparrow by Bruce Stambaugh

A White-crowned Sparrow stopped for fuel on its way north.

The male White-crowned Sparrow, with its alternating bold black and white stripes atop its head, could serve as a referee amid all the commotion and scramble for seeds at the backyard feeders. Instead, it is intent on fueling up for its long flight deep into the Canadian northlands.

Pairs of Cardinals forage for their breakfast of cracked corn and oil sunflower seeds. Like two teenagers in love, the bright red male feeds his adoring but duller mate in their courting ritual.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak by Bruce Stambaugh

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are regular visitors to backyard feeders.

Without hesitation, the impressive Rose-breasted Grosbeak sallies onto the feeder hanging only inches from the kitchen window. Even in a brief glimpse it is easy to see how this bird got its name, its rosy breastplate all too obvious. The female, on the other hand, is awash in rich creams and browns, all for protection against hungry predators.

Baltimore Oriole by Bruce Stambaugh

A female Baltimore Oriole enjoys frequent visits to the bird grape jelly feeder.

The Baltimore and Orchard Orioles enjoy quick snatches of a grape jelly concoction housed in upside down bottle caps on the porch railing. A couple of quick gulps and they are gone, but never far away. Their liquid warbling says they’ll be back later for more.

The regal Red-headed Woodpeckers command attention from humans and aviary audiences alike. Without being bossy, they clear the feeders all to themselves. No doubt their brilliant red, white and black attire and their size have a lot to do with that.

Red-headed Woodpecker by Bruce Stambaugh

A male Red-headed Woodpecker visits the peanut butter suet feeder several times per day.


The Red-bellied Woodpeckers are bolder, both in sound and behavior, their iridescent red head stripes as flashy as strobe lights on patrol cars. Their noisy chatter serves as a warning siren announcing their arrival.

Even the little Black-capped Chickadees come dressed for the dinner party. Their tuxedo-like coloration is fresh and ready for the spring prom. They zip back and forth from tree branch to feeder, neatly holding the seed with their feet, while their tiny beak chisels for the main course, the sunflower heart.

Chipping Sparrow by Bruce Stambaugh

Even the little Chipping Sparrow is a joy to observe.


One hates to turn away from the aviary activity to see what might be passing overhead. An American Eagle, a Great Blue Heron, flocks of Mallards? It’s springtime in Ohio. All options are open in this intermingled habitat.

It is amazing what we can observe, especially when our feathered friends enter our life space. We just need to stop, look and listen.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2012

4 Comments

Filed under Amish, birding, column, Ohio, photography, writing