Tag Archives: butterflies

In awe of fall’s many murmurations

meadow, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg VA

The hilltop meadow.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Have you seen them? Fall’s murmurations are everywhere, or at least they were. They can be as fickle as fall weather. In fact, it’s autumn’s cooler temperatures and shorter daylight hours that often spur them on.

European starlings create the defining form of murmurations that are often caught on video. Massive, migrating flocks of starlings whirl, dance, gyrate, and swirl, darting high and low, turning seemingly indiscriminately in the sky. One minute they mimic a ballet dancer, the next a fearsome Halloween monster. Sometimes they perform over land, other times they maneuver above great bodies of water. Either way, their machinations mesmerize human observers.

Common Buckeye, honeybees,

Getting buzzed.

These starling murmurations, so prevalent in the fall, appear cloud-like, pulsating as if scripted to a choreographed symphony. They change direction and tempo, moving from Beethoven’s measure to Springsteen’s beat. I once saw a murmuration where thousands of starlings turned and twisted like a tornado, so much so that other drivers also pulled over to watch the show.

As magical as they are, the starlings cannot claim a patent on this fascinating phenomenon. Though not as showy or perhaps even as noticeable, other creatures great and small participate in their own migratory matinees.

A recent Sunday afternoon sabbatical on a hilltop brought me to that conclusion. October’s bright afternoon sun bathed the land in warmth and beauty. I couldn’t have been happier.

West Virginia, Virginia, Appalachian Mountains

The blue mountains.

To my west, the Allegheny Mountains stood eternal, the hazy blue boundary line between Virginia and West Virginia. To the east, the Massanutten Mountain held watch over the city of Harrisonburg, which hummed with its usual busyness.

As pleasant as that was, the setting became secondary to the murmuration activity in the lovely hillside meadow before me. In its last days of seasonal, colorful productivity, hundreds of butterflies flitted everywhere. Multiple species competed for the blooms they far outnumbered. Thousands of honeybees, bumble bees, and beetles also joined in the frenzy for the limited floral offerings.

Monarch butterflies, meadow, wildflowers

Blooms and butterflies.

Though they weren’t captivating clouds of whirling birds, each insect species had its own style. Butterflies chased butterflies. Bees buzzed butterflies, usually unsuccessfully. It wasn’t uncommon for a ladybug, honeybee, a Monarch, and a Painted Lady butterfly to all inhabit the same blooming wildflower plant, appropriating whatever they could for their journey or hibernation ahead.

Overhead, turkey vultures sailed on rising convection thermals, additional byproducts of the generous sunshine heating the cooler landscape. Beyond the urban trees and down the hill, a red-shouldered hawk shrieked its call in an attempt to flush songbirds from their protective cover.

American robins appeared with only abbreviated chirpings. Silent and absent since their last summer nestings, robin congregations bobbed on yards and scavenged crabapple trees for any morsel of energy to wing their way to milder winter climes.

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An eastern phoebe launched from a solitary dogwood tree loaded with bright red berries. The bird had no interest in them, however. Instead, it captured an unsuspecting damselfly, and returned to the same perch in the same tree, wagged its tail one more time and disappeared.

On the way home, a rather lopsided V winged across the last of the sunset’s orangey glow. Even with car windows closed, I could distinctly hear the geese honking as the darkening sky absorbed them. At day’s end, I was elated to have observed a few of the other forms of nature’s murmurations, each with their own flair, their own personal signature.

What murmurations of fall have you seen? Look sharp. They’ll soon be gone, replaced by the coming season’s institution of slumbering stillness.

sunset, Shenandoah Valley

Waning sunset.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Emotions run high as school starts

boating, Lake Erie

Summertime fun has come to an end.

By Bruce Stambaugh

It seems like I just can’t get away from it. Retired from my career in education 18 years, butterflies still tickle my tummy this time of year.

From pre-school through college, the school year either has or is about to start for thousands upon thousands of students. Emotions can run high for everyone.

I remember those days all too well.

Edgefield School

Edgefield School as I remember it.

As a student, I always got excited about the start of another school year. I couldn’t wait until the class lists were posted a week or so before the fall term began. We never knew exactly when those blue-inked mimeographed lists would show up on the glass doors of the Edgefield School. Often times we depended on another student finding out and spreading the word.

Once posted, I hustled down Harrison Ave., turned left on 38th Street, and climbed those foreboding cement steps to the double glass doors of the three-story brick school building. Besides wanting to know who my teacher was, it was more important to me to know who my classmates were. Friendships in youth are critical.

My grandchildren didn’t have to run to the school to discover who their new teacher was. The principal sent a letter to each pupil. However, because of privacy reasons, they’ll have to wait until the first day of school to learn whom they will spend the next nine months with learning their lessons.

Talk about nerves. I’ve already heard some chatter about hoping so and so is in their class. Of course, once everyone gets their letters, I suppose most will know before school begins.

Though they might not admit it, I think the older the students get, the more nervous they are. With required proficiency tests in every state, there’s a lot of pressure on students to do well for themselves, their class, their school, and their district.

That’s likely the last thing on a freshman’s mind. No matter how big or small the school, peer pressure cuts across every aspect of today’s teenage life. I wouldn’t want to ever go back to those uncertain years.

The beginning of another academic year runs the gambit of emotion for parents, too. They’re glad to have the kids back on some predictable routine and some much needed free time for themselves. Some parents are just downright relieved that school is back in session. And yet, they’ve enjoyed the time with their offspring over the summer months.

School supplies have to be purchased, along with school clothes, and arranging for childcare if both parents happen to be working the same shifts. Finding dependable, safe situations can be stressful if not expensive.

cardinal flowers, spicebush butterflies

Butterflies of a different sort.

Even us grandparents feel the tension of the start of school. Wanting to help as much as possible and in any way can, we seniors like to stay abreast of what all the grandkids are doing, and how we can assist the parents. Cries for help often come at the last minute.

Good teachers, of course, have long been readying for this first day. I’ve seen their cars parked at the local schools all summer long, just the way I did when I was a principal. That doesn’t mean they won’t get those butterflies in their stomachs. Even the veteran’s do that. The same goes for bus drivers, custodians, cooks, secretaries, and all other staff members.

So whether it’s sending your first child to school for a full day of learning or whether you’re a seventh grader who can’t locate your assigned locker, take heart. You are not alone. Everyone else is either excited or anxious, too.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Summer Colors

Tiger Swallowtail, Silver-spotted Skipper

Summer Colors.

The Big Meadows area of Shenandoah National Park is a big, wide-open prairie-like saddle tucked between the park’s hardwood forests. It’s about midway along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah N.P. According to a park ranger, no one is certain why the meadow is even there. No matter. It is, and the wildlife loves it.

In the summer, Big Meadows is especially a haven for songbirds and insects. Bright and fragrant wildflowers serve as food and habitat for the beautiful butterflies. These thistle blooms were a magnet for this pair of Silver-spotted Skippers and this female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.

“Summer Colors” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Sharing the Sun

gulf fritillary, butterfly

Sharing the sun.

I was fortunate to catch this Gulf Fritillary as it landed on a flower in a nature preserve in northeastern Florida. The late afternoon sun brilliantly backlit the beautiful butterfly’s stunning orange and black pattern. Without being too poetic, the butterfly seemed to be sharing the sun with its absolute radiance.

I thought this photo served as a warm welcome into a New Year for everyone. “Sharing the Sun” in my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Where did summer go already?

corn shocks, Holmes Co. OH

Corn shocks already.

By Bruce Stambaugh

It seems like only yesterday that we were asking ourselves, “When will summer arrive?” I think that was in June when it was still cool and very wet.

Well, a lot has changed since then. It seemed like the summertime months turned on themselves. It was a Jekyll and Hyde summer to be sure.

The persistent rains of early summer suddenly ceased. After the deluge that created localized flash flooding in Holmes County on July 14, regular rains were scarce. We lapsed into a dry spell that lasted too long to help the corn kernels swell with sweetness.

July flash flooding, Holmes Co. OH

Flash flooding.

Initially, truck patches struggled with mildew, mold and rot in the chilly dampness of early summer. Later, though, as crops matured, their unquenched thirst did them in. They ripened ahead of schedule, withered on the vine or failed to produce the desired yield.

So here we are, the autumnal equinox upon us, and we’re wondering, “Where did summer go already?” As humans, we can be as fickle and contrary as Ohio’s crazy weather. It’s in our nature, and we have the grievance gene working overtime.

Therefore, now that September is waning, it seems only fair to wonder what happened to summer. My best answer is, “I don’t know.” I do know, however, that the signs of summer’s end have shown for some time.

School started weeks ago for many students, always a sure omen of summer’s demise. Summer flies other white flags, too.

Spurred on by the early rains, rows and rows of field corn sprouted lush and fertile, growing taller than tall. Without regular August rains, they have withered and turned brittle brown overnight. It’s been a long time since I remember seeing cornstalks standing like mustered soldiers this early in the harvest time.

(Click on the photos to enlarge them.)

Fireflies faded, and crickets increased amid the dryness. Our feathered friends have dawned their duller wardrobe for safety sake. Their luxurious singing has muted with their habitat’s colors.

Migration is in full swing for birds and butterflies alike. Look quickly. They won’t stay. They have long, challenging journeys ahead.

Another obvious indication of summer’s passing is just how soon sunset seems to arrive each evening. And that’s after the sun was late in rising daily.

With the reduction in daylight hours, the air has cooled considerably overall. Of course we’ll still have some splendid days ahead. But day-by-day, week-by-week, the evening and morning coolness forces us to dress in layers to adjust to the daily variables.

Summer has gradually been waving goodbye in a very colorful fashion for weeks now. Deciduous leaves have been slowly changing from their summer greens into fall’s warmer fashionable trends of crimsons, yellows, and russets. Many leaves have just simply fallen off.

Healthy stands of goldenrod bend and recoil with the slightest breeze. Wild sunflowers separate highways from pastureland. The American Goldfinches couldn’t be happier, gorging on their fresh fruit.

Funny how we humans too often seem to want what we don’t have, and when it does arrive, we long for something else. I think that pretty much sums up summer and answers our rhetorical questions about summer’s arrival and departure.

We can’t control the weather or the seasons. We can only enjoy them whatever weather they bring. The key is to embrace the moment at hand, so we don’t have to look back and wonder where the time went.

Summer is about to depart. Let’s send her out with joy, as we usher in the harvest season with gladness and thanksgiving.

summer sunset, Holmes Co. OH

Goodbye summer.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

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Beauty in the Garden

Tiger Swallowtail

Beauty in the Garden. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

My lovely wife grows beautiful flowers. One of the side benefits of that is the flowers attract a variety of insects. I enjoy checking the flower gardens frequently, never knowing what I’ll find.

On one such foray, I spotted this incredible female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly flitting from coneflower to coneflower. Backlit by the morning sun, the colors radiated on this fresh, young butterfly.

“Beauty in the Garden” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

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A sign of spring

gulf fritillary butterfly, sign of spring

Gulf Fritillary butterfly. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

With spring set to arrive officially on Friday at 3:45 p.m., Eastern Daylight Time, I thought a splash of natural color would only be appropriate. I captured this Gulf Fritillary butterfly flitting among sand dunes on Main Beach, Fernandina Beach, FL in late January. The white spots on each wing indicate that it was a male.

“A sign of spring” is my photo of the week. Let’s hope we all see many more such signs in the days and weeks ahead.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

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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

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It’s beginning to look a lot like fall already

Oats shocks by Bruce Stambaugh

A field full of oats shocks before being gathered for the thrasher near Berlin, Ohio.

By Bruce Stambaugh

With Labor Day upon us, autumn will be right around the corner. In fact, if you look closely, signs of fall are already evident.

Some of the indicators are obvious, others more subtle. Some are predictable with still others seemingly a bit premature.

The days, often the nicest of the summer, have a sly, natural flaw. Day by day, minutes of daylight are silently subtracted from the previous day’s total. By month’s end, daily darkness will outnumber daylight once again.

The sun itself is moving more towards the center of the horizons at sunrise and sunset. Those driving true east and west running roads have already begun to frequently use their sun visors. The fall fogs, too, have clouded crisp mornings, the consequence of cool nights following warm days.

In the fields, the harvesting has begun. My Amish neighbors have long since gathered up the standing army of oats shocks and wheeled them off wagon load after wagon load to the thrasher.

Now it’s the corn’s turn. The field corn seems to have taken on drought status, drying up almost overnight. Brown has overtaken green as the predominant color in the standing sea. Smart farmers have already begun to cut their supply of silage to replenish the silos.

Fall webworms by Bruce Stambaugh

The homes of fall webworms shine in the sun.

In the woods and along highways, once glossy, emerald leaves have dulled and drooped. Some have already begun to drop without even changing color. Now and again a black walnut can be found standing stark naked, save for the cache of fall webworm nests it has involuntarily collected.

In the gardens, the picking of produce is a daily chore. Cucumbers, onions and tomatoes have hit their peek. Kitchens are cluttered with utensils for canning and freezing. The ripened fruits and vegetables that aren’t consumed at the dinner table find their way into jars and containers.

Even the sounds of the season have changed. Only a few American Robins continue to sing, and most likely they are sophomores practicing for next year’s prom. Instead of gathering nesting materials and snagging worms and insects, parent birds lead their fledglings to watering holes for liquid refreshment and necessary bathing.

Well-worn butterfly by Bruce Stambaugh

A well-worn tiger swallowtail butterfly took advantage of some wildflowers.

The volume and frequency of the cicada and katydid songs have lessoned considerably. Even the crickets have quieted down.

Butterfly on phlox by Bruce Stambaugh

A butterfly enjoys late blooming phlox.

Butterflies of all sizes and colors squeeze whatever nutrients they can out of the fading cornflowers and black-eyed susans. The humming birds, too, seem to sense an urgency to store up extra energy for their upcoming southern vacation travel.

Squirrels are in their glory, cutting as many beechnuts, hickory nuts and walnuts as they can. Thrifty creatures that they are, they also bury future meals for harder times ahead. Only they can’t always remember where they put their stash.

Next spring, when the saplings begin to appear, we will learn just how forgetful the squirrels were. But between now and then, many pleasant days lay ahead, and probably some less than desirable ones, too.

There is yet one more indicator that fall is knocking on our door. Campaign signs have already begun to litter urban, suburban and rural roadsides. They are as prolific and unsightly as the ugly webbed homes of the worms.

The obnoxious yet gaudy campaign posters are a human-induced reminder of what nature is about to bring. Autumn will be here before we know it, and there is little we can do about it except to enjoy the ever-changing colorful show.

Cows grazed at sunset by Bruce Stambaugh

Cows grazed on a hillside at sunset.

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Revitalization weekend at the cottage

By Bruce Stambaugh

It had been an unusually stressful week for me. You would think that in semi-retirement, stress wouldn’t even be in my vocabulary. But it is.

Without going into the sordid details, here is a sampling of the week’s chain of events that had sent me over the top by Friday’s end. My six-year old grandson got whacked in the face with a metal baseball bat. The next evening, his daddy severely injured his right knee rounding first base in a softball game.

Maren by Bruce Stambaugh

Our 10-month old granddaughter, Maren.

The following day our daughter reported that our 10-month old granddaughter’s first tooth finally had broken through. In and of itself, that was a good thing. However, Miss Maren was still pretty cranky, with other teeth ready to make their appearance.

Other nerve-racking events oozed into our normally quiet lives in Ohio’s Amish country, too. For confidential reasons, I won’t reveal the nasty details, other than to say one of the logjams required a plunger.

Clearly you can see that the weekend getaway to our cottage was just what the plumber needed. It was the necessary salve to my pent up emotional sores.

First of all, my wife and I feel fortunate to have the cottage my parents built in 1975. We purchased it from them a couple of years ago and finished it the way my mother had always envisioned it would be.

The cottage’s location alone has several advantages. Its rural hillside setting on the natural shoreline lake is the most obvious. Having good neighbors who own other nearby cabins is another.

The cottage by Bruce Stambaugh

Our cottage retreat in southeast Ohio.

But the cottage makes for an ideal sanctuary for other reasons. We have no landline. Cell phone reception is marginal at best. There is no television, no email, no Internet. Other than electricity, the cottage is the epitome of electronic reclusiveness.

Right after we arrived Saturday morning, we went to work cleaning up inside and out. Though the cottage was locked up tight and unused for a couple of weeks, insects not surprisingly managed to make themselves at home. My wife soon took care of that.

Meanwhile, I donned gloves and pruners and attacked the weeds with a mission. That’s no easy task on a steep slope that falls away quickly to the graveled lane below. But just being out in the fresh air was invigorating, and the exercise personally beneficial.

The real blessings came at the marvelous supper my wife prepared. We ate the tasty meal on the open-air deck.

For dessert, we simply sat on the porch and watched and listened. Cicadas intermittently sang their monotonous song. Colorful butterflies enjoyed the sweet fragrance of various wildflower blossoms.

Butterfly by Bruce Stambaugh

A tiger swallowtail butterfly enjoyed a variety of wildflowers.

A Carolina wren serenaded us with its luscious calls. Chickadees and tufted titmice played and fed in the surrounding mixed hardwoods. Cardinals sounded their evening songs. A great blue heron grunted from water’s edge, hidden by the forest curtain.

A gentle breeze rustled the nervous leaves of a quaking aspen. Human induced sounds intruded, too. We have accepted the fact that lawnmowers, weed eaters, shouting children, dogs barking in the distance are all part of the cottage life at times.

Altogether this harmonic mishmash of sights and sounds must have worked its magic. I slept 11 hours that night.

With those revitalizing results, we should embrace the cottage’s graciousness more often.

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