The little things of spring are spring

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After a long, chilly and wet winter and early spring, true spring has arrived in Ohio’s Amish country.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Finally, it really is spring! I was beginning to think we would never receive its blessings.

I for one am certainly glad to embrace May. In Ohio, it’s the calendar’s conduit between a long cold, wet winter and early spring, like we have experienced this year, and summer’s usual balmy offerings.

Springtime has much to offer nature lovers. She is especially mesmerizing. Spring lulls you to sleep with her vivaciousness, her lusty beauty and verdant perfumes.

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Once the weather warmed and the days brightened, the leaves of the deciduous trees quickly unfurled.
However, you have to be alert, or you could miss a few of her best offerings. In our hustle and bustle to catch up to what we think is important we may miss her most amiable samplings.

May is one of the main accomplices to this annual transition from hibernation to horticulture. The month has a lot to offer.
We have to pay attention though to absorb it all because the transforming processes evolve so quickly. One day we notice the maple tree buds swelling. The next, it seems, the full canopy has unfurled. How and when did that happen?

To grasp the full measure of spring requires the honing of all of our senses. For those poor souls with pollen or grass allergies, no reminder is likely needed.

Spring, and especially May, is anything but quiet. The spring peepers are the first to break loose. Their noisy outbursts are their celebrative acknowledgements that spring has arrived. The amphibious cacophony is music to our ears.

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Wild yellow and purple violets are in full bloom now in Ohio’s woodlots.

Just one sunny spring day beckons buttery coltsfoot and dainty spring beauties. They brighten dusky roadsides and carpet forest floors and spacious yard-lots alike. Yellow and purple wild violets and lacy trilliums soon follow in all their grace and glory.

Clumpy lawns have already been mowed, evening the emerald patchwork from one neighborhood to the next until the prodigious dandelions appear and reappear. Try as you might, there is no obliterating them. Overnight, their yellowy blooms turn to silky seedpods, which succumb to certain spring gales and find a home just around the corner.

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The beautiful sights and calls of the Baltimore Orioles fill the woods and neighborhoods in Ohio’s Amish country in and around Millersburg, OH.
For avid bird lovers, this is prime time for migrating birds, especially songbirds. A whole host of magnificently colored wood warblers, Golden-winged, Yellow-rump, and Black and White among them, pass through our area on their way north. A few, like the convivial Yellow Warbler and gregarious Baltimore Orioles, will stay to nest and brighten the days with their vigorous choruses.

American Robins have already chosen their first nesting spots, and not always in the choicest locations. Mud-based nests on door wreaths or porch lights are only temporary inconveniences to those who enjoy their early morning wake up calls without setting the alarm clock.

The sooty Chimney Swifts have returned and chatter as they snatch dinner with spring’s first batch of insects. American Goldfinches seemingly changed to their day glow yellow and contrasting black overnight.

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For once the magnolias bloomed without fear of a killing frost in northern OH.
Native shrubs and ornamental flowering trees light up the landscape with their rainbow of colors. One day the neighbor’s giant Magnolia is bursting in pink bloom. The next, her Cinderella gown morphs into a colorful comforter spread on the ground beneath.

Just like a fast moving thunderstorm, the rubies of spring don’t last long. Will we grant ourselves the privilege to gather them in?

It pays huge personal dividends to be alert and watch as spring magnifies the hills and hollows with sights and sounds and fragrances for all to behold. Spring is here. Let’s enjoy it before it’s gone.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Everyday should be Earth Day

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I learned the love of nature from my late father and the discerning eye to capture it from my late mother.

By Bruce Stambaugh

As far as I’m concerned, everyday should be Earth Day.

I got that attitude from my late parents. They weren’t environmental activists to be sure. But they appreciated nature, each in their own way. They respected the environment and taught their five children to do the same.

Dad loved to hunt and fish. As we grew up, he had each of his three sons tag along while he hunted. I don’t know why he didn’t involve our two sisters. I remember Dad once being so keen-eyed that he caught a cottontail rabbit with his bare hands. No buckshot was every fired.

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The late Marian and Dick Stambaugh at the cottage they built in southeast Ohio.

When we were old enough, we joined him hunting pheasants, squirrels, rabbits and grouse. Dad saw the benefits of hunting, being outdoors, bringing home game, teaching his children about wildlife and conservation.

Since I tended to be a fair-weather sportsman, I preferred fishing. Problem was, when you went fishing with Dad, it was an all day deal no matter whether the fish were biting or not.

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A pontoon boat on Clendening Lake in southeast Ohio.

Dad loved to take his grandchildren on lazy cruises on his pontoon boat on his favorite fishing lake, Clendening. He would motor up Coleman’s Run to one of the many giant, sandstone outcroppings, and tie up. It didn’t matter if we caught much or not. We lounged in the warmth of the afternoon sun and the fellowship.

There was just something about being out in the fresh air, taking in the natural beauty all around. One time we even heard a black bear scratching its claws on a tree trunk.

Our gentle mother gave us a more cultured look at caring for and appreciating the earth. She was an accomplished artist, and loved painting landscapes, usually in watercolor.

Using both vibrant and soft colors, Mom perfectly captured nature in her many seasonal moods. There is a sparkling stream cutting through a dormant, snowy pasture, a gently curving country road that leads your eye past a vernal woods on the left and a Victorian farmstead on the right, and a glowing array of blazing Holmes County, Ohio fall foliage, and a thousand more.

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Mom painted Dad walking through the woods, shotgun over his shoulder.
Mom even captured Dad on canvas. He is a mere silhouette, shotgun over shoulder, walking back to their cabin, empty handed as usual. Dad admired that painting in part because his lovely wife chose him as the subject. He also loved it for the scene, a lone hunter hiking through a shaded glen, the glassy lake shimmering in the background. It certainly reflected Dad’s child-like spirit of simply enjoying the invigorating experience of nature.

As a youngster, I remember helping Dad plant hundreds of tree seedlings on a steep, abandoned farm field overlooking Clendening. Thrusting those sprigs into the loamy earth was much more than a kind act of conservation. It was a true lesson in hope.

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The pines I helped to plant have grown tall along the lakeshore.

I say that because now I enjoy the view from the porch of the cottage that the folks built. My wife and I bought and remodeled it and use it in much the same way as Mom and Dad. We enjoy sharing the same woodsy lushness, the forest creatures, the starry nights, and the quiet calm as Mom and Dad.

Just like Dad did with his children and grandchildren, I can stand on the porch, point across the lake to the grove of tall pines and tell a story about when they once fit in the palm of a young boy’s hand.

Thanks to my savvy parents, Earth Day doesn’t just happen in April.

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The view from the cottage porch.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Bluebirds make me anything but blue

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Eastern Bluebirds take turns getting a drink at the little waterfalls of the backyard garden pond with an orange audience.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a familiar blue flash. A male Eastern Bluebird had landed awkwardly on the wooden framed feeder that held peanut butter suet cakes.

That same scene had been repeated in my backyard many times over the years. Intended for woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches and titmice, Eastern Bluebirds and other avian species have also enjoyed the rich protein offerings.

The first time I observed the bluebirds attack the suet, I took special notice. Eastern Bluebirds dine on protein-rich insects and their larvae. Suet apparently helped fill the void when insects, or berries for that matter, were unavailable in Ohio’s cold season, which this year has lasted much too long.

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Even in the winter, the colors of male Eastern Bluebirds radiate.

In the springtime, the male bluebirds burst into an iridescent, radiant blue that glows in the morning sun. They are in their flamboyant mating plumage, brilliant on head, back, wings and tail feathers. Their orange breasts contrast nicely with the showy blue. A splash of white on their wing shoulders and a snowy fringe along the birds’ bottom feathers nicely accent the flashy ensemble.

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The female Eastern Bluebirds have a beauty all their own.
Even the more subdued and shyer females could hold their own in a bird beauty contest. Their dullness, of course, is for natural protection from predators. Bluebirds are beautiful to say the least, and their cheery chatter and lyrical calls only enhance their artistry.

Bluebirds are not designed to cling to a typical suet feeder the way woodpeckers do by bracing themselves with their firm tail feathers. I marvel every time I see the bluebirds lunching at the suet.

The bluebirds often land atop the wood-framed feeder with wire mesh sides designed for easy access to the nutritious food. They

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The bluebirds perch as best they can to steal a bit of peanut butter suet.
perilously cling to the sides or bottom brace of the feeder, flapping their wings wildly as they peck at the soft suet. Since they keep returning over and over, day after day, to the suet, I have to assume that they aren’t expending more energy than is gained in the tricky process.

As their main course, the bluebirds and other songbirds regularly down chipped sunflower hearts that are offered at other feeders. They apparently use the peanut butter suet as dessert, and then wash it all down with occasional visits to the little waterfalls of the garden pond.

A half dozen pairs of Eastern Bluebirds frequent my feeders, shrubs and trees in the yard. If they choose to inhabit some of the bluebird houses erected around the property, I rejoice and stay vigilant. It’s a never-ending battle with the pesky House Sparrows to keep the bluebirds nesting.

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The nests built by Eastern Bluebirds are usually made of soft grasses or pine straw, like this nest in progress.
In the spring, I check the boxes regularly. If I find a finely structured nest of soft grasses and pine needles, I know the bluebirds have won the battle. If the nest is disheveled and constructed with a junkyard of materials, I pitch it in hopes of discouraging the House Sparrows.

Often the bluebirds will perch in the large sugar maple in our backyard above the dangling suet feeder. After just a few bites of suet on this chilly April morn, this male bluebird instead took wing and swooped low across the wide stretch of open, freshly plowed farm fields, making a beeline for my Amish neighbors.

Were they using a different feed? Was the bluebird nesting in one of their boxes? The answers were really insignificant. What did matter was that the bluebirds were thriving for all to enjoy.

Watching that bluebird arch across those fields in the morning sunshine couldn’t have made me happier.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Anticipating one thing, finding many

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The predawn light at 6:38 a.m. on Feb. 1, 2013 on Main Beach, Amelia Island, FL.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I stood on the beach bathed in the pale pre-dawn light. I had gone there to photograph the sunrise over the ocean.

The air was chilly, but unusually still for the seashore. The Atlantic shimmered, uncharacteristically placid. With the tide in, the waves rolled gracefully onto the shell-strewn shore.

I wasn’t the only human on the beach at 6:45 a.m. A few other brave souls were also out before sunup. A silhouette jogged in front of me. Another walked the water’s edge towards me in a hitched gate.

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An early jogger zipped by me in the half-light along Main Beach, Amelia Island, FL.

All the while, I snapped away, capturing the thin orange line that divided the dark violet sea from the turquoise sky. I wanted to digitally document the gradual, subtle color changes of the new day’s sun.

We few humans weren’t alone as the sky slowly brightened along the beach.

Groups of first year shorebird chicks scurried at water’s edge, probing and pecking for food. Careful not to get their tiny feet wet, they darted at the ebb and flow of the frothy wavelets.

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Young shorebirds feed at the ocean’s edge.

Not far off shore, Northern Gannets fished for breakfast in their dramatic style. They circled with their long pointy white wings marked black as ink at the tips, and then plunged into the seawater. Satisfied, they again ascended and started the process all over again.

A little further out a pod of dolphins arched in and out of the water. Their fins revealed their foraging path.

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A gull and a Willet faced off on Main Beach in the early morning light.
A lone Willet snagged a snail from beneath the sand. Seeing an opportunity for a freebie meal, a Ring-billed Gull unsuccessfully chased after the skinny-legged bird. The Willet swallowed the morsel before the gull could steal the bacon.

Flocks of Black Skimmers winged just above the ocean surface, their lower beaks breaking the water in their feeding. They were out of sight in seconds.

By now, the lady with the gimp caught up to where I had stood for 20 minutes. Seeing that I had a camera, she berated me for standing pat, and beckoned me to where the water lapped at the firm sand. It was there that the best color reflected in the receding water and against the few clouds in the northeast sky.

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Clouds to the north beautifully reflected the rising sunlight.

As we admired the pastel radiance together, a whale broke the water. This unexpected find disappeared and our eyes searched until the first of many waterspouts blew high into the air.

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Birds circled above the Humpback Whale, making it easier to follow with the naked eye.
The blow spouts drew my attention to a congregation of gulls circling above the whale like an avian tornado. They simplified our whale watching. Just follow the birds, and glimpse the whale. I later learned that it was a Humpback Whale, my first ever whale sighting.

Amid all this activity, I continued to snap picture after picture of the ever-changing sunrise. Just as the sun finally peaked above the horizon, yet one last gem sparkled.

I would have missed it if it hadn’t been for the older lady from New York. She pointed out the sun’s low-angled rays glistening in the crest of the waves as they broke upon the shore. They were golden jewels in an aqua crown.

I remembered seeing the effect in paintings and thought the artists had overdone it. Now I knew they hadn’t. In precious minutes, the bejeweled waves disappeared, replaced by white-capped cousins. The sun was ablaze, bathing the seashore with its warming light.

I had gone to the beach to take pictures of the sunrise. I left enriched with so much more.

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The jewels in the crown of the waves made the sunrise even more spectacular.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Repeat vacations aren’t so bad after all

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Finding just the right spot to relax on Main Beach, Amelia Island, Florida in January is not a problem.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I used to question the wisdom and practicality of vacationing twice in the same location.

Perhaps my personal wanderlust interfered with my empathy for the travel preferences of others. With so many places to visit locally, regionally, nationally and globally, I reasoned why would anyone want to return to the same place year after year?
Surely the urge to explore and discover had to be greater than the certainty of returning to the same destination at about the same time each year. I’m rethinking that opinion.

I am in a transitional period of my life, intentionally between full time employment and true retirement. I’m enjoying the freedom that comes with a flexible schedule.

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The harbor at Fernandina Beach, Florida offers many a scenic sunset.

I still like visiting new locales, seeing new topography, meeting new folks. I am also beginning to more fully appreciate the contentment of familiarity. I realized that fact recently while my wife and I bathed in the glow of another incredible sunset over the harbor at Fernandina Beach, Florida.

For someone who practically calls Lakeside, Ohio his summer home, it should have been obvious to me. I guess I considered our Lakeside stints more tradition than vacation. Silly me.

We had found Amelia Island almost by accident last year. It was an overnight stop on the way to our true vacation destination, Sarasota, Florida. We liked the island so well we spent two more days there on the way home. We were hooked.

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Charming homes line the streets of Fernandina Beach, Florida.
We loved the island’s charm, its beautiful beaches, its commitment to wildlife habitat preservation, its rich history, and the diversity of activities it offered. We had only skimmed the surface last year. We needed to return to further explore this intriguing community.

Last year the weather, like most places in the country, was exceptionally warm for northern Florida in January. We walked the nearly vacant beaches in t-shirts and shorts. I birded the island’s preserve. We dined on locally caught seafood. We were in paradise instead of Ohio in January. It felt marvelous.

This year we returned to this magical destination for two weeks in order to dig deeper into the island’s many treasures. The weather couldn’t match that of 2012, but we had fun nevertheless. Cooler mornings warmed into pleasant days. Shorts and sandals were only appropriate a couple of days this time around.

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Egans Creek Greenway offers biking, hiking, fishing and birding on the north end of Amelia Island.

We toured the local history museum, lunched outside at most restaurants, and collected perfect seashells of all sizes and colors. I hiked the paths through Fort Clinch State Park and Egans Creek Greenway enjoying the flora, fauna and breath-taking vistas and spring’s emerging pastels.

My epiphany came while I hustled around the boardwalks at Fernandina Beach’s harbor photographing yet another sunset. A patron sitting at a table of a dockside restaurant hailed me, wanting to know if this was my first time on the island.

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Amelia Island State Park, at the southern tip of the island, is a great place to relax, walk or fish.

When I innocently replied that it was not and then read the man’s surprised facial expression, it hit me. To him I must have looked like a child on Christmas morning as I dashed around trying to get different angles of the ever-changing colorful sky.
I had taken many, many sunset shots last year. Yet here I was plying for more. Lightning struck. I recognized why people did repeat vacations.

I was relaxed, happy, appreciative, satisfied, if not downright blissful. Amelia Island, Florida in January 2014? Why not? It could become our traditional winter vacation.

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© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Oh, the places I go and the people I meet

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A Manhattan-like traffic jam occurred in the snow-covered mountains of Virginia on our way to Florida.

By Bruce Stambaugh

My wife and I love to travel. It’s a common interest that we’ve had since we met nearly 43 years ago.

We feel fortunate to be at the station in life that allows us to travel when the opportunities arise. Of course we enjoy the various places we visit. We also like the people we meet along the way. We encountered a cast of characters on our latest trip to Florida.

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Walking the dog along Main Beach is a common sight on Amelia Island, Fla.

We have learned that a tank of gasoline will take us to Wytheville, Va., where the gas conveniently happens to be cheaper than most locations. We make it a regular pit stop if you get my drift. This go-round there was only one problem. The previous day’s heavy snow had brought down rural power lines. With no electricity, the pumps weren’t working.

I asked the kind clerks behind the counter where the closest station was with power. They said we had passed it seven miles back. I asked about further south, the direction we were going. They said they knew that Hillsville had power, and indeed that’s where we refueled.

We learned from a brief visit last winter that our destination, Amelia Island, Fla., had equally friendly and helpful people. It didn’t take us long to prove that correct again this trip.

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The food was delicious and the staff very helpful at Kelley’s Courtyard Cafe in Fernandina Beach, Fla.
After settling into our rental lodging, we went to the Happy Tomato Café in Fernandina Beach, Fla. for a late lunch only to discover that the eatery had closed for the day. Not to fear. A staff member came out and steered us to a competitor just down the street. We weren’t disappointed.

The waiter at this café was kind enough to direct us to the local grocery store. His directions were perfect.

On my first long walk on Main Beach on the Atlantic coast, I was photographing a flock of wintering gulls and skimmers. A middle-aged couple and their teenage son apologized to me for disturbing the birds and making them fly. I told them they actually had helped create the picture I had wanted, some birds on the wing, others on the sand.

In further conversation, the couple and their son revealed that they were lettuce farmers near Jacksonville, and rattled off local restaurants that purchased their produce from the local farmers’ market. I indicated that we had sampled the fare of several of them.

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Bike riding and para-sailing are just two of the many outdoor recreational activities on Amelia Island, Fla.

Later an elderly man walking his dog on the beach struck up a conversation with me about surfers and para-surfers he had seen. In our protracted discussion, I learned much about the man’s long, productive life as a government contractor.

At the Amelia Island History Museum, it was volunteer guide Paula’s turn. A retired social studies teacher, she was ideal for the job. She rattled off more information than my brain could absorb. I’m glad she didn’t give us a pop quiz at the end of her lecture.

At the Maritime Museum on the waterfront, Don was equally congenial, though more laid back. Retired Navy officers are like that. We spoke as if we were long lost friends. Now we’re just new ones.

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In Savannah, Ga., Nate made roses from reeds.

On a day trip to Savannah, Ga., we met Nate, who made roses out of reeds for his living, which was modest by any standard.
“Just call me Peanut,” Nate said. And so I did.

My wife and I savor our travels together. We enjoy the outgoing people we meet even more.

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Sunsets are spectacular over the harbor at Fernandina Beach, Fla.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Birding through the bathroom window

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Sunsets through the bathroom window are pretty anytime of the year. This was taken in early Nov. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh

By Bruce Stambaugh

This time of year, especially when inches of snow cover the ground, birds flock to my backyard feeders. Please excuse the pun.

I hope you won’t mind me telling you that I get the best view of the various and sundry species of birds through the bathroom window of our modest country home. The kitchen window is good for observing birds, too, but it can’t match the wider view from the bathroom.

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A male Cardinal ate oil sunflower seeds on a recent snowy day. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh
I wouldn’t blame you if you thought this a bit odd. It’s not really. From the bathroom window, I get the best look at the several feeders stationed around the backyard.

The bathroom is on the main floor of the house and faces to the west, which is particularly advantageous on rare sunny winter days. The afternoon sun shines brightly on the birds, adding enhanced brilliance to their winter plumage.

From the restroom vantage point I can see most of the backyard, from the perennial wildflower patch at the south to the back porch at the north. In between and straight out from the window are the little garden pond and the mature sugar maple tree. Birds are attracted to both for different reasons, water and cover, respectively.

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A pair of Eastern Bluebirds sip water at the garden pond. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh
An electric heater keeps the pond from freezing. The pump that creates the miniature waterfall runs year-round, serving as both an avian drinking and bathing station.

The maple tree, with its impressive crown, is king of the backyard. I can see all but the very top of the tree through the window. Songbirds and birds of prey perch on its welcoming outstretched branches. Its crinkled, exfoliating bark serves as a helpful tool for woodpeckers and nuthatches. They wedge sunflower seeds into the cracks and use their pointy beaks to hammer open the shiny black shells to reach the prized protein hearts.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker frequents the suet feeder. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker frequents the suet feeder. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh
The platform feeder and hanging feeders are also visible from my unusual viewing spot. Like most birders, I keep a camera handy to record the antics of the many aviary visitors. I capture other critters, fox squirrels, opossums and groundhogs, at the pond and feeders, too. Please know that the ironic humor of keeping a camera in the bathroom doesn’t escape me.

The digital photos help me record the comings and goings of these valued visitors all year long. Wintertime is my favorite, however, especially when a good snowfall blankets the ground. I fill the feeders, and await the action, camera in hand. The birds seldom disappoint.

Occasionally I witness a special happening. A Sharp-shinned Hawk makes a sneak attack hoping for an afternoon snack. It zips by

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A Sharp-shinned Hawk landed in the sugar maple in search of an afternoon snack.
Photo by Bruce Stambaugh
the kitchen window and lands in the maple. I rush to the bathroom window in time to click away at the red-eyed accipiter.

Timing is often everything in bird watching. I have been able to photograph Red-headed Woodpeckers and Baltimore Orioles feeding simultaneously from the same suet feeder. From the bathroom window, I have had the perfect angle to catch brilliant Eastern Bluebirds chowing down on chipped sunflower hearts.

I have also seen a dozen or more deer munching in the shaded meadow far beyond our yard. I’ve been fortunate to see the neighbor’s horses romp on hillside pastures beneath the old windmill. I have snapped inspiring sunsets in every season. The list could go on and on.

Birding is a sport that can be enjoyed anytime, anyplace, even from the bathroom. For those who know me really, really well, that shouldn’t come as a real surprise.

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The honey wagon cometh. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013