Finding color in the dead of winter

Creek, marsh, and forest.

For the last few years, my wife and I have avoided winter’s harsh weather by escaping to our beloved Amelia Island, Florida. Amelia is a barrier island located as far north in the Sunshine State as you can get. It’s not balmy, but it’s never snowed there either.

We rent a condo on a beach on the Atlantic Ocean. Ideally, that setting should be retreat enough for me. I guess I’m just too fickle for such pleasantries.

Great Egret.
My favored place to commune on Amelia is Egans Creek Greenway. It’s an environmental paradise inside a paradise. Situated in the northeastern section of the 13-mile long island, Egans Creek meanders in multiple channels through a salt marsh wetland of grasses, reeds, and various plants and trees.

The greenway is a dedicated green space designed to protect the original environment for animals great and small. Part marsh, part maritime forest, part waterway, the greenway provides habitat for shorebirds, wading birds, birds of prey, songbirds, and mammals of all kinds.

Of course, it serves as a multi-purpose outdoor recreational gem for us humans as well. The greenway has dedicated paths for bikers, hikers, walkers, birders, and the just plain curious. Benches are placed every so often for people merely to rest and enjoy whatever comes along.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The nature preserve changes character with the tides. It’s brackish waters invite gorgeous birds, like herons, egrets, ibises, and roseate spoonbills.

As you might imagine for any marshland, reptiles thrive as well. On warm January days, I search for sunbathing alligators. Families of turtles and discreet but playful river otters also are fun to watch if you are fortunate to find them. I seldom see snakes.

In all the years we have been vacationing here, this year by far has been the most colorful on the greenway. The hues, however, were a curious mix of spring and fall.

Usually in dormancy for the winter, the greenway grasses showed green, delicate flowers bloomed, and leaf buds swelled pink. Others displayed brilliant yellow and red leaves of autumn. Vivid impressionistic landscapes displayed around every turn.

Cedar waxwings trilled high in the trees, waiting on the light blue cedar berries to darken to ripeness. American robins chirped in the thickets, unable to hide their distinctive call. Eastern bluebirds decorated barren branches.

Grey catbirds and northern cardinals shuttled from one bush to another like hyperactive children. A phoebe flicked its tail on an elevated tree limb, took to the air, grabbed an insect, and returned to the same spot.

Clapper Rail.
At high tide, a clapper rail came out of hiding in the reeds and swam across the creek only to disappear again. A stately osprey hovered silently overhead before snatching a dusky female hooded merganser off the surface of the water.

Thousands of yellow-rumped warblers chipped and darted from cedar to pine to maple and back again. In the shallow waters below, pure white great egrets with their sturdy yellow bills and stick-like, coal black legs waded in search for a fishy lunch.

A red-shouldered hawk perched on a snag in the middle of the marsh, unphased by the two-legged intruders that stood in awe snapping photos or zipping along on bicycles or walking their leashed dogs. With only predatory priorities, the buteo paid no heed.

Viewed altogether, the trees, the flowers, the bushes, the birds, the reptiles, and the bikers, even the dog walkers created living exhibits in an interactive art gallery. They painted the greenway an even lovelier retreat than I had expected.

It’s why I keep going back.

Colorful alligator.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

River Sunset

sunset, Amelia River, Fernandina Beach FL
River Sunset.

Sunrises and sunsets captivate me. No two are ever the same. That’s why I often head to downtown Fernandina Beach, FL to photograph the sunset during our winter stay.

The river setting proves an excellent place to capture a sunset’s beauty both in the sky and in the reflection on the river. The near silhouettes of boats and docks also add to the framing and composition of the photo. Of course, the clouds play a significant role in defusing and deflecting the light, creating an array of brilliant colors.

“River Sunset” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

Wandering my own secret garden

hooded mergansers, Egan's Creek Greenway
A lovely couple (Hooded Mergansers).

By Bruce Stambaugh

My guess is we all have at least one. You know. A place you can go to be alone with the world. You declare it as your personal retreat.

It could be your man cave or your sewing room. It could be a remote waterfall miles up a winding trail.

Your place of refuge might be a park bench or even a busy city street corner where hundreds of people pass by with no notice of you. Still, you’re at peace.

Others find solace sitting on the shore of a farm pond or pulling weeds in the family garden patch. It might be an art museum, or for that matter, even one particular painting that mesmerizes you.

I find my inspirational solitude in many venues. During the winter months, I recharge in a three-mile stretch of marshland called Egan’s Creek Greenway. The stream itself runs north through the middle of Amelia Island, Fla., where my wife and I migrate as snowbirds.

Though it’s a public domain, I claim Egan’s Creek Greenway as my private secret garden. The town’s parks and recreation department maintains this sacred place. Lots of folks, locals, tourists and snowbirds like myself, frequent this marvelous reserve.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Their intrusions don’t bother me at all. In fact, part of the joy is meeting new friends who enjoy the same open space delights. The Greenway is a multiple-use resource.

When I go there, I wear my hiking shoes. I also don my birding vest to squirrel water, snacks, binoculars, a note pad and birding checklist. I also drape a camera around my neck. It’s my way of documenting each and every visit. Get the picture?

Palm fronds are brown from frost or wind damage. Deciduous trees stand bare. Grayish Spanish moss dangles from limbs high and low. A variety of bird species devour the deep blue berries of the cedar trees and the ruby red ones on sparkleberry bushes.

Subtle hints of spring appear even in February. Silver and red maple buds sprout crimson against the live oaks’ perpetual green. The dormant marsh grass stalks show mint green at their bases.

Even in cooler temperatures, people run, jog, bike, walk and bird along the greenway’s well-worn paths that parallel creeks and channels, and crisscross the marsh. On weekends and holidays, the place is abuzz with activity, human and otherwise.

Still, I stroll this paradise in search of whatever finds me. I frequent the Greenway alone, and with my wife, with friends, with family, with strangers. I don’t mind sharing this beautiful secret.

Each trek there unfolds anew with different characters. The results are the same.

On any given day, I can hear Navy helicopters on test flights over the Atlantic. Train engine whistles echo from the town two miles away. None of this interferes with my enjoyment.

A river otter munches on plants in one of the rivulets. A red-shouldered hawk sits on a snag, its harsh call contrasting with its feathery beauty. Gangs of American robins madly chirp when disturbed by a bossy pileated woodpecker.

A plump rabbit and a skinny doe nibble grass only feet away. Alligators and painted turtles soak in the afternoon sun as neighbors.

Gray catbirds gobble the sparkleberries while cedar waxwings down their namesake’s fruit. Scores of yellow-rumped warblers dart in and out of the thickets, plucking insects. Eastern phoebes sit and bob their tails.

Me? I just smile inside and out, thankful for my secret, sacred sanctuary.

Egan's Creek Greenway
Walking the Greenway.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

Industrial sunset

2016-01-21 19.22.36

When shooting photographs, I usually try to exclude anything that might be distractive to the main subject of the photo. However, I do make exceptions from time to time. This sunset scene on the Amelia River in northeast Florida fit that bill.

The glowing lights of the active paper mill accentuated the warm and cool colors of the clouded sunset. The gray clouds matched the venting steam of the mill’s smokestack. The orange reflection of the security lights balanced that of the setting sun’s on the river’s quiet waters.

“Industrial sunset” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

Friends of friends become your friends, too

friends, birthday celebration
Friends Ruth, Don and Ken before Gail arrived for the surprise. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

By Bruce Stambaugh

I contemplated the circuitous route of just how I happened to be sitting beneath a party canopy in this Ontario, Canada couple’s backyard. It’s a long but enjoyable story.

It all started when my wife was 14-years-old. Of course, Neva wasn’t my wife then. We married young, but not that young.

Neva accompanied her youth group to a church conference in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada in 1964. With hundreds of teenagers from around the U.S. and Canada attending, with the teens assigned to sleep in homes of local folks.

That’s where Neva met Ruth. Ruth’s family hosted Neva. Neva and Ruth connected right away, and they kept in touch. Seven years later, Ruth and her husband, Ken, attended our wedding in northeast Ohio.

They returned to Ontario. We set up shop here. We all began our careers and started families. We visited Ken and Ruth once when our daughter was just two. Now her youngest child is five. Time melts away, doesn’t it?

With the internet, texting, email, and online chatting science fiction, correspondence via regular mail diminished over time. Life got in the way of our long distance friendship.

About 20 years ago, that unexpectedly changed. Neva saw an advertisement for a tour. She called the toll-free number and guess who answered? Ruth.

friends meeting
Meeting place. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
Their personal connection was restored. Ken and Ruth have visited us here in Holmes Co., and we’ve returned to their place in Kitchener. We even vacationed together once. Sometimes we meet in between.

When Ruth learned that Neva and I had become snowbirds to Florida’s Amelia Island, she mentioned that their across the street neighbors also wintered there. That’s where our life circle began to expand.

Ruth exchanged contact numbers with their neighbors and us, and the result was pure magic. In February 2014, we arranged to meet Don and Gail at a coffee shop in Fernandina Beach, the island’s only town.

Before the first sip of coffee, the four of us were yacking away as if we had been lifetime friends. Gail was born in England and still has that lovely disarming accent that is as genuine and gentle as she is. Don was from Bermuda and carries that notorious island swagger with him still, even though he’s been a Canadian now for years.

We chattered like teenagers at a soda shop. It didn’t take long to discover that both Don and I had been volunteer firefighters. As if that wasn’t enough to cement our friendship, photography and nature were also common hobbies.

Having been to Bermuda a couple of times ourselves, we knew many of the locales they mentioned. Don shared stories from his childhood until the present.

true friends
Gail and Neva. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
Gail and Neva got along famously, too. While Don and I were off shooting too many photos, our wives were happy just to shop, browse thrift stores, or sit and share. They clicked like childhood friends.

A carpenter by trade, Don was intrigued to learn that the wood industry was king in our county. Over the next month, we would take day trips together, go out to eat, or just play dominoes. That pattern repeated last winter.

That brings me back to sitting under the canopy. We surprised both Don and Gail by crashing her surprise birthday party.

For that little coup, you can blame Ken and Ruth. That’s what lifelong friends do for one another. They help create other equally robust friendships.

That’s the thing about friendship circles. They enrich your life.

friends
Friends. © Don Brown 2015

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

Pippi Longstocking comes to life on Amelia Island, Florida

Villa Vilekulla, Pippi Longstocking
The real Villa Villekulla. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

By Bruce Stambaugh

Art often imitates life. It’s more unusual to have it happen the other way around.

On Amelia Island, Florida, art and life have harmonized, especially for one particular children’s fictional character, Pippi Longstocking.

Pippi Longstocking was the brainchild of Swedish children’s author, Astrid Lindgren. She wrote a series of adventures about Pippi that have been read and reread by adoring youngsters around the world. The books have been translated into 64 languages.

Pippi books have been so popular that Hollywood had to join in the fun, too. Several versions of Pippi Longstocking movies have been made.

In 1988, an Americanized version of the original Swedish story was made into a movie, which was filmed entirely on Amelia Island. Island tour guides like to point out various locales where scenes from “The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking” were shot.

Lighthouse cottage, Pippi Longstocking, Fernandina Beach FL
The lighthouse cottage where Pippi threw the bottle into the ocean.
Most of the scenes were filmed in or near Historic Downtown Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island’s only city. The only seashore scene, which was very brief, was filmed just down the beach from where we have stayed on vacation.

When our three grandchildren visited us in Florida near the end of January, they wanted to see some of the locations as depicted in the movie. They had seen the movie, thanks to Nana, who had it on videotape from her teaching days.

Nana packed the tape so the kids could review the various locations in the movie. They watched the light-hearted film, and we were off on our Pippi tour.

Since the setting of much of the book and movie was in Pippi’s dilapidated house, the Villa Villekulla, we headed there first. In previous years, the house looked much the way it appeared in the movie, unkempt, disheveled, and badly in need of a fresh coat of white paint.

Imagine our surprise, and the grandkids’ disappointment, when we found the house being remodeled. A distasteful olive green siding replaced the weathered white clapboards so prominently featured in the film.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It was evident that the remodeling project was a work in process. The owner had replaced some of the windows of the Victorian-style home. Others were boarded up.

We later learned that the beloved house had been vandalized, purchased, and was being restored with the purpose of giving tours. In the movie, the villain tried repeatedly to obtain the home by deceit so the old house could be demolished and replaced with a moneymaking scheme.

The grandkids were disappointed to learn that the big tree in the side yard where Pippi and her neighbor friends so often played was the convenience of the producer’s imagination. They discovered how movies are produced.

We visited Centre St. in the quaint downtown area, where most of the movie was filmed. The ice cream shop was actually the oldest saloon in Florida. The building Pippi flew her bicycle by just happens to house a toy store named “Villa Villekulla.”

One puzzle remained, however. Where were the orphanage scenes shot? I found the answer after the kids left. Those scenes were filmed at a private school just north of Centre St. Ironically the old brick building originally had been a home for orphans.

When the sun broke through, and the temperatures warmed, our grandchildren’s attention turned from fantasy to reality. They played on the seashore in front of the lighthouse-shaped home where Pippi threw the bottle with a message in it for her father.

Imagination and reality met on the beach. Our grandkids couldn’t have been happier.

Pippi Longstocking, pink sunset
A sunset just the way Pippi would have liked it. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

After the rain

raindrops on berries, color contrasts
After the rain. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

The gray, rainy day drove our little group into the local history museum. We enjoyed our 90-minute tour but were ready for a tasty lunch from one of the excellent restaurants in historic Fernandina Beach, Florida. We exited the museum and discovered the rain had stopped, at least for the moment. As I turned the corner of the old brick building to head to the car, these bright berries quickly caught my eye.

I loved the way the glistening raindrops, ready to drip, made the berries shine. Their fire engine red brightened the dull day.

“After the rain” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015