Loving Shenandoah National Park

Old Rag is a popular hike in Shenandoah NP.

My wife and I have enjoyed Shenandoah National Park since we moved to Virginia three years ago. There’s a lot to love about the park, and it’s less than an hour away.

We’re not the only ones who appreciate it, of course. The estimates of annual visitors compare to those of Ohio’s Amish country, our former residence. Each location attracts millions of visitors a year.

Of course, the novel coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on tourist numbers everywhere. With the virus cases flattening out in Virginia, the park has mostly reopened.

When we want to break our stay-close-to-home routines, Neva and I head for the hills. Sometimes I will venture out alone, birding, hiking and shooting photos. It’s an enchanting place, a multi-sensory extravaganza.

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I hear the beautiful song of an indigo bunting, and I raise my binoculars, scanning the area for the likely source of the melody. Novice that I am at identifying bird calls, I want to make sure I am matching the right species with the song. I’ve learned that, like human accents, bird calls of the same species vary geographically.

Once I find the bird, I switch to my camera to try to get a decent photo. With the trees in full summer canopy, that’s not easy to do. Now and then, I am fortunate to find a bird singing in the open, and I click away.

I catch a slight, silent movement out of the corner of my eye. Is it a doe with a fawn, or perhaps twins? Is it a black bear grazing before nightfall? One never knows. On warm days, keeping a lookout for a lounging timber rattler while scrambling on a rock outcropping is always a good idea.


The park is a great place to take sunset photos, too. But sunsets in the mountains can be problematic.

The expansive, rolling Shenandoah Valley is bordered on the east and west by mountain ranges. Sunsets can be as disappointing as they are stunning. Weather plus geography equals a formula for the unknown.

When we lived in Ohio, all we had to do was look out our windows to know the potential for a spectacular sunrise or sunset. We were spoiled.

Here in the breadbasket of Virginia, the rising and falling topography makes it iffy to predict what the eastern and western skies will do at dawn or dusk, respectively. You hope, pray, and go for it. Sometimes you are disappointed. Other times, you are speechless.

(Mouse over the photos for the captions)

It can be cloudy and raining in the valley. The view from the mountains of the park, however, might be spectacular if you wait long enough. Pick one of the many west-facing overlooks along the majestic Skyline Drive, and prepare yourself for come-what-may.

The elevation of the old, folded mountains ranges up to 2,500 feet higher than that of the valley. From the park, you can see the Allegheny Mountains that mark the boundary between the Commonwealth and West Virginia.

Patience, intuition, and good fortune can be the formula for bathing in a dreamland. Even with a thick cloud cover, the sun can still break through, turning drabness into beautiful in the blink of an eye.

I’ve learned to be ready for the unexpected as the sun slinks below the jagged horizon. Will the clouds refract the sun’s rays into pinks and blues, lavenders and oranges? Or will they merely steal away the sun without fanfare?

You don’t have to have a national park to enjoy heavenly landscapes. Wherever you are, just wait and watch, and let nature do the rest.

Sunset in Ohio’s Amish country.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

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