Category Archives: nature

Twenty-five years ago this week, dark-eyed junco provided inspiration for first column

I wrote my first bird column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this weekly column is marking its 25th anniversary this week. This column has appeared over the last three decades in a total of six different newspapers, which I regard as a personal achievement, as well as an accomplishment for our feathered friends. It’s on their behalf that I pen these weekly efforts to promote conservation and good will toward all birds. I have also posted the column as a weekly blog posting since February of 2014 at ourfinefeatheredfriends.wordpress.com.

Photo by Steve McLeod/Pixabay.com • The dark-eyed junco is a fairly common winter resident in the region. Rather widespread, different races of the dark-eyed junco are found throughout the North American continent.

I’ve played detective, helping people identify everything from “rain crows,” or cuckoos, to Muscovy ducks and double-crested cormorants. I’ve observed unusual birds, including white pelican, brant and roseate spoonbill, in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia and spotlighted them in these columns. I still take delight in the kaleidoscopic parade of colorful warblers that pass through the region each spring and fall as well as the fast-paced duel of ruby-throated hummingbirds and the occasional rufous hummingbird straying through the region.At my home, I also provide sunflower seed and other supplemental food for the resident birds like Carolina chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, song sparrows and downy woodpeckers.

Photo by Steve McLeod/Pixabay.com • The dark-eyed junco is a fairly common winter resident in the region. They are faithful feeder visitors during bouts of wintry weather.

Even as I write my silver anniversary column for “Feathered Friends,” local weather forecasters are predicting the winter’s first hard freeze. This prognostication of approaching winter weather is a perfect time to dust off this week’s column, which is a revision of the first bird column I ever wrote. This column focused on a common visitor to yards and feeders during the winter months. In fact, dark-eyed juncos should be returning to the region any day. Here, with some revisions I have made through the years, is that first column.

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Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the dark-eyed junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.

John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The dark-eyed junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.

Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens / A Dark-eyed Junco visits a hanging feeder.

Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.

During the summer months, a visit to higher elevations mountaintops is almost guaranteed to produce sightings of dark-eyed juncos. Juncos may nest as many three times in a season. A female junco usually lays three to six eggs for each nest, which she constructs without any assistance from her mate.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Dark-eyed junco nests on high mountain slopes during the summer month. This dark-eyed junco was photographed at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain during the summer nesting season.

Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.

 Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.

Since juncos are primarily ground feeders they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.

Photo by Ken Thomas • A dark-eyed junco perches on some bare branches on a winter’s day.

Dark-eyed juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.

There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and began a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!

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If you’d like to share your first sighting this season of dark-eyed juncos as the temperatures get colder, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. As always, the column is also a line of communication with fellow bird enthusiasts. I’ve enjoyed sharing stories about birds with countless readers over the past 25 years. I can also be reached on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. 

 

 

Nighthawks share the skies with many other migrants

Photo by Dr. Thomas G. Barnes/ USFWS • A common nighthawk perches on a low clump of vegetation during a rest period. Nighthawks are known for migrating in large flocks.

Autumn’s a chance for me to indulge my passion for warblers, with a few dozen species of these songbirds passing through the region in the span of a few weeks. They’re not the only migrating birds worth watching, however, as a recent Facebook post reminded me.

John Whinery, a fellow birder who resides in Fall Branch, Tennessee, reported some interesting observations Sept. 6 on Facebook.

“Been watching several hundred common nighthawks the last few nights fly down the valley next to the farm,” John wrote in his post. He also reported that he saw a female Northern harrier fly by at eye level about 20 feet from him as he watched the migrating nighthawks. The Northern harrier, once known as the “marsh hawk,” is one of many raptors known to migrate. 

Like such birds as warblers, vireos, thrushes, tanagers, flycatchers and hummingbirds, the common nighthawk, is a neotropical migrant. In addition, the common nighthawk has one of the longest migration routes of any North American bird. Twice a year, these birds migrate for distances ranging from 1,600 to 4,200 miles. Nighthawks that spend the spring and summer in Canada travel to southern South America for the winter months. 

With September advancing on the calendar, I have been keeping an eye on the treetops for passing warblers, vireos and tanagers, but I also remember to direct my gaze to the skies. Forgetting to look skyward could result in missing the passage of such varied migrants as chimney swifts, broad-winged hawks and common nighthawks.

So, what is a common nighthawk? First, this bird, despite what is implied by its name, is not a hawk. It’s also not strictly nocturnal. Particularly in the fall, nighthawks are active during daylight hours when engaged in catching winged insects. Outside of fall migration, these birds can often be observed over large parking lots or well-lit streets, snatching up insects swarming around the light poles.

The common nighthawk is one of three members of the nightjar family found in the region during the summer months. The other two nightjars are the whip-poor-will and chuck-will’s-widow, birds that produce their namesake vocalizations in the nocturnal hours. Both of these species migrate, but they don’t take the dramatic approach employed by nighthawks. Each fall, common nighthawks form large flocks, ranging in size from dozens to hundreds or even thousands of individuals, as they migrate south for the winter.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A common nighthawk chooses a perch atop a fence post for a survey of its surroundings.

Unlike whips and chucks, the common nighthawk isn’t active only after dark, which makes it much easier to observe these birds. They look somewhat like swifts and swallows but are much larger. They are brownish-gray birds with pointed wings and forked tails. They are easily identified by distinctive white patches on the underside of their wings.

The nightjar, or Caprimulgidae, family of birds is also sometimes known as “goatsuckers.” Apparently, in trying to explain the nocturnal tendencies of these birds, the Greeks came up with the imaginative but erroneous idea that birds like nighthawks liked to sneak into barns and have a meal of fresh goat’s milk. In reality, nighthawks feed almost exclusively on insects, including ants, wasps, beetles, caddisflies, moths, mayflies, flies, crickets, grasshoppers, and other insects. They capture much of their insect prey on the wing.

There are almost 80 species of nightjars in the world. Less than 10 occur in North America. Many of the common nighthawk’s relatives have been given descriptive names, such as long-trained nightjar, collared nightjar, spot-tailed nightjar, red-necked nightjar, golden nightjar, fiery-necked nightjar, swamp nightjar, pennant-winged nightjar, lyre-tailed nightjar, little nightjar, sickle-winged nightjar, rufous-bellied nighthawk, short-tailed nighthawk, sand-coloured nighthawk and least nighthawk.

So, keep looking skyward. The next flock of migrating common nighthawks may fly over your home. These flocks are usually on the move throughout September.  I’ve managed only three sightings of solitary nighthawks so far this migration season, which falls far short of the number John Whinery reported at his farm. 

I will keep watching the skies. Nighthawks can also appear almost magically, as if out of thin air. First, observers may see one of two birds, then several, followed quickly by dozens or sometimes hundreds as they wheel and cavort in the skies overhead with impressive grace and agility. I’ve seen flocks that would easily number more than 500 birds in locations throughout the region, although flocks often number only a couple of dozen birds. 

Photo by Jean Potter • A common nighthawk rests on a metal railing.

Gray catbird noisy visitor, but not one of region’s more showy birds

Gray

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay.com • A gray catbird visits a backyard bird bath for a drink.

Thomas A. Kidd contacted me in late June with a comment about one of my favorite summer birds. “I have lived in the City of Columbia, Tennessee, for 37 years and until this spring and early summer I had never seen the Gray Catbird,” he wrote. “They are very pretty birds that I enjoy watching from my kitchen window at the bird bath.”

Catbirds are experts at concealing themselves from prying eyes. The gray plumage blends into the shadowy sections of the tangles and thickets where the bird likes to hide itself. However, even when gray catbirds are reluctant to be seen, they’re almost eager to be heard. The catbird is extremely vocal with several calls and songs in its repertoire, including the rather faithful rendering of a fussy cat’s meow that provides this bird its common name.

They’re part of a family related to thrushes that are known as “mimic thrushes.” Besides its surprisingly accurate rendition of a feline, the catbird has several other common vocalizations. Despite their shy nature, they’re extremely curious. Imitating their calls or simply producing a squeaky sound will usually persuade the bird to move out of cover and search for the source of the noise.

Catbirds are part of the parade of returning birds each spring that includes species like rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and indigo buntings, but because they lack the brilliant plumages of these other birds their arrival would probably go unnoticed if not for the fact they are extremely noisy for the first few weeks they are back. Then they go silent again and remain quieter as they take up the serious business of raising young.

Catbirds are experts at concealing themselves from prying eyes. The gray plumage blends into the shadowy sections of the tangles and thickets where the bird likes to hide itself. However, even when gray catbirds are reluctant to be seen, they’re almost eager to be heard. The catbird is extremely vocal, with several calls and songs in its repertoire, including the rather faithful rendering of a fussy cat’s meow that provides this bird its common name.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A curious Gray Catbird peeks from dense cover. Attendees at the fall rally can look for catbirds and other species at any of the offered bird hikes.

They’re part of a family related to thrushes that are known as “mimic thrushes.” Besides its surprisingly accurate rendition of a feline, the catbird has several other common vocalizations. Despite their shy nature, they’re extremely curious. Imitating their calls or simply producing a squeaky sound will usually persuade the bird to move out of cover and search for the source of the noise.

Catbirds are part of the parade of returning birds each spring that includes species like rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and indigo buntings, but because they lack the brilliant plumages of these other birds their arrival would probably go unnoticed if not for the fact they are extremely noisy for the first few weeks they are back. Then they go silent again and remain quieter as they take up the serious business of raising young.

They are related to thrashers and mockingbirds, but scientists find them just different enough to warrant placing the gray catbird in its own genus. A relative known as the black catbird, which ranges throughout the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico as well as northern Guatemala and northern Belize, also belongs to a genus of its own. Both catbirds are classified as “mimic thrushes,” or Mimidae, of which there are about 30 species in the New World. There is a totally unrelated family of catbirds that ranges through Australia, Asia and parts of Africa. Some of these birds include the ochre-breasted catbird, tooth-billed catbird and spotted catbird.

The gray catbird is not as an accomplished mimic as some of its relatives, such as the Northern mockingbird. Nevertheless, experts have documented that the gray catbird can produce more than 100 different sounds. Males have motivation to constantly expand their repertoire, however, as doing so increases the likelihood of attracting a mate. They imitate other birds, but some have been recorded imitating frogs and other non-avian singers.

While not generally considered a bird to visit feeders, people have succeeded in attracting catbirds to feeders designed to offer grape jelly or orange slices. Planting fruit-bearing shrubs and trees is the best means of attracting these fascinating birds to your yard and garden. It’s also best not to clear away brush and tangles from your yard if you wish to attract catbirds. These are shy birds and will avoid areas that are too open and spacious. 

 

Daily twittering of chimney swifts part of summer’s background noise

Photo by Vinoverde/Adobe Stock • Chimney swift foraging on the wing for insects. Swifts are designed for life in flight. These birds do not perch but have special claws that help them cling to the sides of vertical surfaces such as cliffs or chimneys.

As spring turns into summer, afternoons and evenings at my home have presented daily shows from a small flock of resident chimney swifts. These graceful and aerodynamic birds are designed for a life lived almost exclusively on the wing. In fact, chimney swifts are incapable of perching in the manner of most birds. They can only cling to vertical surfaces, such as rocky cliff faces or the interiors of chimneys.

As they fly overhead, these swifts produce a high-pitched twittering. It’s not as musical as the songs of some birds, but neither is the sound unpleasant. In fact, the twittering of chimney swifts is a sound that I’ve grown to associate with pleasant summer evenings. Listening to these birds as they swoop in the sky overhead is a great way to relax.

Chimney swifts are often most prevalent over the rooftops of cities, but swifts also spend the summer months in more rural areas. Flocks returning to summer roosting sites at dusk are an impressive sight. Hundreds of these birds can swoop in ever tightening circles around a large chimney, disappearing inside the chimney like feathered smoke.

Former names for the chimney swift have included chimney sweep, American swift and chimney bat. These birds, however, do nothing to clean the inside of chimneys, and bats are, of course, mammals. Swifts are not difficult to recognize, and their overall shape has often been described as “cigars with wings.” They are designed for flight and feed almost exclusively on winged insects. They even bathe on the wing, flying low over rivers and other bodies of water and skimming the surface in order to dampen their breast feathers.

In the United States, the chimney swift is the only member of its family found in the eastern half of the country. On the other side of the continent, the white-throated swift, Vaux’s swift and black swift replace the chimney swift in the western United States and southern British Columbia in Canada.

Worldwide, there are about 75 swift species. The family also consists of birds known as swiftlets, needletails and spinetails, but they’re all just variations on the the basic swift model. Some of the world’s other species include band-rumped swift, pale-rumped swift, white-throated swift, white-tipped swift, mottled swift, plume-toed swiftlet, drab swiftlet, silver-rumped spinetail and brown-backed needletail.

The largest member of the swift family is the purple needletail, a species native to Asia. This bird is almost ten inches long and can weigh nearly seven and a half grams. Another species, the cliff swift, makes a nest that is prized in Asian cuisine as an ingredient for “Bird’s Nest Soup.” The governments of various Asian nations regulate the harvesting of nests quite strictly to ensure that the human demand for the soup doesn’t deplete the overall swift population. It’s a lucrative enterprise, however, and some experts worry that poaching and unethical harvesting methods, such as taking the nests before young birds are capable of flight and survival, could endanger the swifts.

Fortunately, nests of chimney swifts in the New World have never become coveted for culinary purposes. According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency website, chimney swifts once nested and roosted in hollow trees in old-growth forests. When European settlers arrived, they greatly increased the number of potential nesting sites for swifts by putting chimneys on their buildings. The responsive swifts quickly took advantage of these new nesting and roosting sites. They build their nests, whether in chimneys or hollow trees, of twigs cemented together with their own saliva.

While chimney swifts are spread across much of the eastern United States during the nesting season, their winter home remained unknown for many years. In 1943, Peruvian natives recovered bands that had been attached to the legs of 13 swifts, helping to finally solve the mystery of where the birds spent the winter months. According to an article on the TWRA website, eight of the 13 bands came from birds that had been banded in the Volunteer State.

Of course, swifts are not the only birds in the summer skies. Taking a moment to gaze upward can reward you with views of soaring raptors, swooping swallows and foraging common nighthawks.

Photo by The Other Kev/Pixabay.com • This flying European swift is one of 100 species of swifts found around the world. Only one species, the chimney swift, is found in eastern North America.

 

Mississippi kite glimpsed on spring count becomes latest listed ‘life bird’

Photo by Richard/Adobe Stock • A solitary Mississippi Kite sits perched in a lakeside tree. These graceful raptors take their prey mostly while on the wing.

If you know many birders, you have likely heard them talk about “life birds.” These are any species that a birder has seen and identified in the wild for the very first time. It can be any bird species at all that the birder observes for the first time, whether it is a commonplace bird like a song sparrow or something slightly more exotic.

While taking part in the 77th consecutive Elizabethton Spring Count on Saturday, May 2, I saw something that, for our region, could be considered a little more exotic. The sighting certainly ranked as unexpected.

Unless one travels extensively, life birds can be hard to get once people have added to their lists most of the common birds around their homes. Finding a life bird during the ongoing pandemic brings its own challenges. I haven’t added a new life bird to my own list since a visit to South Carolina in June 0f 2016. During that visit to Huntington Beach State Park, I added a least bittern to my list of “life birds.”

My most recent “life bird” appeared closer to home and might qualify as my most unexpected life bird ever. The bird flew into view and onto my life list during the annual Spring Bird Count, which was conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club. Due to social distancing, many participants counted solo this year, myself included, although a few married couples birded together. I’ll always remember my pandemic spring count, especially for the 46th bird on my tally list for the day.

I found myself in the parking lot at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton around 11 in the morning. I wanted to scan the evergreens in that vicinity for Cape May warblers, a migrant that finds the tall conifers to its liking. I didn’t find any warblers, but I did surprise a perched raptor into making a short flight.

The instant I saw the bird launch itself into flight, I knew I was watching something out of the ordinary. The bird flew with a combination of grace and power that reminded me of a falcon, but I also glimpsed a barred tail that reminded me of one of the accipiter hawks. Then it landed on a dead branch in a tall sycamore that must have permitted the raptor an unobstructed view of the entire park. Although I’d never until that moment seen a Mississippi kite, I have studied illustrations and photographs. I felt fairly certain of the bird’s identity even before I used my phone to call up some birding sites to confirm my identification.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This Mississippi Kite became the first of its kind ever observed on one of the Elizabethton Bird Club’s Spring Bird Counts for Northeast Tennessee.

That’s when the fact I was birding solo hit home. I wanted some additional witnesses to this very unexpected find. In lieu of other observers, I turned to my camera. The bird had turned its back to me, but I snapped some photos and then made my way to a position that I hoped would allow for better photographs.

Alas, the resident American crows at the park had different ideas. Detecting a raptor in their midst, about a half dozen crows gathered to harass the perched kite. Before I could snap a new round of photos, the kite took flight and flew into a stand of tall trees located between the park and Sycamore Shoals Hospital.

Only a few years ago, a Mississippi kite in Northeast Tennessee would have been unheard of. The hills and mountains of the region are simply not the expected habitat for these graceful raptors. Faith Reeves, a resident of Elizabethton, Tennessee, a Facebook friend and fellow birder, saw the first two Mississippi Kites ever found in Northeast Tennessee. She saw and photographed the birds in her own yard on May 20, 2014, and May 13, 2016.

In addition, Don Holt observed a Mississippi kite in Washington County, Tennessee, on April 16, 2017.

Rick Knight and several other birders also saw several Mississippi Kites for about a week in late August of 2016. Observers estimated that these sightings involved from two to five different kites.

“The August observations are our only fall records,” said Rick Knight, a long-time compiler of birds sightings in the region. He added that fall is the season when kites are likely to linger.

“All spring records are overshooting migrants and are one-day-wonders,” Knight explained.

Hearing his explanation, I felt even more privileged to have witnessed this “one-day wonder” in my home county.

Photo by Myriams-Fotos/Pixabay.com • The red kite is an abundant member of the kite family in Europe and northwest Africa.

The Mississippi kite is a beautiful raptor. Adults are grayish-white with the head often appearing pale gray or almost white. Although the Mississippi kite can attain a wingspan of three feet, these birds weigh only seven to thirteen ounces. They feed almost exclusively on insects, which they capture in flight. Some of the insects, such as cicadas and grasshoppers, are ones that damage crops, making the Mississippi kite a friend to farmers.

These kites breed and nest in the central and southern United States, but they have expanded their range north in recent years. They leave the United States in fall to spend the winter in southern South America.

Several years ago I got the thrill of adding a swallow-tailed kite to my life list in some agricultural fields in southwestern Washington County. I’ve also seen swallow-tailed kites in Florida. There is one other member of the kite family that I’d like to add to my list. The snail kite is a dark bird with a hooked beak designed for feeding on snails found in wetlands. This specialist resides in Florida, as well as the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Other kites found around the world include the double-toothed kite, plumbeous kite, whistling kite, square-tailed kite, red kite and black kite.

It’s been a spring filled with many amazing bird observations. I can’t speak for others, but thanks to that remarkable kite sighting and glimpses of some other fascinating birds, not even having to bird solo in a pandemic can bring me down. I’ll provide more details on this year’s Spring Bird Count for Northeast Tennessee in next week’s column.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Mississippi Kite perched in a tree prior to being dispersed by some defensive American crows.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds make welcome return to region

Photo by TheSOARnet / Pixabay.com • Male ruby-throated hummingbirds usually migrate ahead of females. These tiny birds must cross the Gulf of Mexico, without stopping, to reach their nesting grounds in the eastern United States. The journey across the Gulf can take them 18 to 22 hours, dependent on weather conditions.

Pat Stakely Cook‎ of Marion, North Carolina, reported the earliest spring sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird.
Pat posted, “Hummingbird is back here in Marion, North Carolina,” on my Facebook page at 5;45 p.m. on Sunday, April 5.
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Sam Jewett emailed me to report a first spring sighting.
“My first red-throated one showed up Monday, April 6, at Lake James in North Carolina, and boy, has he been hungry,” Sam wrote.
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Judy and Bill Beckman, who reside on Springbrook Road in Unicoi, reported their own sighting.
“We just had our first hummingbird visit our feeder at around 5:50 p.m. on Monday, April 6,” the couple wrote in an email to me.
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Joy Patton, who lives in Marion, North Carolina, also reported her first hummingbird on April 6.
“I put my feeder up a few days early this year because the weather has been so nice,” Joy wrote in an email. “The second day, April 6, a male ruby-throated hummingbird visited and ate and ate!”
Joy added that her daughter, Cindy Pierce, who lives near Fayetteville, North Carolina, saw her first hummingbird that same day.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird lifts its wings to shake water droplets off its back.

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Judi Sawyer, a resident of Roan Mountain, Tennessee, reported the first hummingbird arrival on her Facebook page. Judi is a fellow member of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. “The hummers are back,” Judi wrote on her page on Tuesday, April 7.
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Bristol resident Vivian C Tester posted on my Facebook page on Wednesday, April 8, about her first sighting. “I just had my first hummer stop by,” Vivian wrote. “So glad I had just put my feeder out.”
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The ruby-throated hummingbird, known by the scientific name of Archilochus colubris, is one of more than 300 species of hummingbirds. All hummingbirds are found in the New World and are completely absent from the Old World. Male ruby-throated hummingbirds launch their spring migration about 10 days prior to female hummingbirds. Most of these tiny birds make an incredible non-stop journey across the Gulf of Mexico each year to return to our yards and gardens across the Eastern United States.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Despite a perceived disadvantage of size, ruby-throated hummingbirds are quite capable of thriving in a giant world.

Based on the number of people who shared hummingbird sightings with me, these tiny birds have a lot of big fans. If you would like to host your own hummingbirds, here are some crucial tips:
• Make your yard a zone that’s free of insecticides and pesticides. Residues of these chemicals can remain on blossoms, which then run the risk of sickening a hummingbird. In addition, hummingbirds subsist on more than nectar. They consume many tiny insects and spiders. Eating bugs that have been contaminated with dangerous chemicals can also sicken or kill hummingbirds.
• Provide shrubs and trees in your landscape to make your yard more inviting. Hummingbirds claim favorite posts and perches, where they will rest when they are not visiting our gardens or feeders. Shrubs and trees can also provide locations for concealing nests built by female hummingbirds.
• Cultivate plants that offer nectar-producing blooms. While hummingbirds are known to favor the color red, these nectar-sipping birds will also visit blooms of other colors. Some favorite spring blooms include the flowers of red buckeye, wild columbine, crossvine and native varieties of azaleas. As spring advances into summer, the diversity of flowers available to lure hummingbirds into your garden will increase dramatically.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches near a feeder that he is ready to defend from all comers.

I am still awaiting my first hummingbird of spring. I’m confident it won’t be long. Invariably, the first hummingbird to show up in my yard is a male with the gorget — or throat patch — of red, iridescent feathers that gives his species its common name.
He’ll be especially welcome this particular spring.
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Share a sighting, ask a question, or make a comment by emailing ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female ruby-throated hummingbird approaches a feeder for a sip of sugar water.

Think of the vireos as ‘Plain Janes’ of songbirds

Photo by FotoRequest/Adobe Stock • A red-eyed vireo grasps a tree branch, a common pose for this bird that spends time concealed in the woodland canopy. The red eye can be difficult to detect unless lighting conditions are optimal for observers.

The start of migration appears to be more of a crawl than a sprint this fall, but I have picked up a few signs. For instance, I’ve been hearing the scolding sounds of red-eyed vireos from woodland edges for the past few weeks. A dedicated singer at most times, this vireo seems more likely to produce a harsh, scolding cry at this time of the year. Other hints of the steady advance of fall migration include flocks of common nighthawks and chimney swifts congregating in the skies over my home and the unmistakable croaking of common ravens from nearby ridges.

So far, I’ve seen only a few warblers, including black-throated blue warbler and hooded warbler. At a glance, vireos would appear related to the wood warblers. Research into DNA, however, has led many experts to contend that vireos are more closely related to crows and shrikes. Like the flycatcher and hummingbird families, the vireo family is exclusive to the New World. With a mere 50 species, vireos and their kin are vastly outnumbered by flycatchers and hummingbirds. The majority of vireos resides in the tropics, but about a dozen species nest in the United States.

In East Tennessee Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina, vireos resident during the summer months include red-eyed vireo, white-eyed vireo, blue-headed vireo, yellow-throated vireo and warbling vireo. Most people are likely unaware of vireos. Although not uncommon, these birds are more frequently heard than seen. They spend much of their time in the forest canopy or in dense brush. When singing, they can remain at a perch, unmoving, for long periods of time.

Photo by Jean Potter • A red-eyed vireo sits on its carefully woven nest among a canopy of leaves.

The loud scolding calls of red-eyed vireos often heard this time of year are given apparently when the vireo is alarmed or irritated. This scolding vocalization is quite unlike the usual ones produced by this bird. First and foremost, the call is louder than one would think could be produced by a bird that is only about six inches long. During the summer season, the red-eyed vireo is also one of the most persistent of singing songbirds. Another common name for the red-eyed vireo is “preacher bird,” so called because of its tendency to unceasingly deliver its song.
The red-eyed vireo is still considered one of eastern North America’s most common summer breeding birds. At one time, the red-eyed vireo was probably the most common breeding bird in eastern woodlands. That, sadly, is no longer the case. Red-eyed vireos are olive-green above and clean white below. These birds show a distinctive head pattern consisting of a gray crown and white eyebrow stripe bordered above and below by black lines. Adults also have the red eyes that give this particular vireo its common name. The term “vireo,” originating in Latin, can be translated into English as “green bird.” It’s an apt description, as many of these small birds are primarily dull green in coloration. Consider the vireos the “Plain Janes” of songbirds.

Photo by Jean Potter • A red-eyed vireo fledgling calls for a food delivery, which will arrive in the beak of one of the young bird’s parents.

A red-eyed vireo painted by John James Audubon.

Other vireos that can be found in the United States, for at least part of the year, include Philadelphia vireo, plumbeous vireo and Cassin’s vireo. A specialty of Florida is the black-whiskered vireo, while the black-capped vireo is an endangered species found in Texas. Two others, Bell’s vireo and gray vireo, are identified as species of concern on the Audubon Watchlist.

Many species of vireo are also found in the islands of the Caribbean, including Jamaican vireo, Cuban vireo and Puerto Rican Vireo. The thick-billed vireo can be found in the Bahamas, which were recently pulverized by Hurricane Dorian. The thick-billed vireo is very similar to the white-eyed vireo, which is a summer resident in our region.

My only birding outside of the United States took place in the Bahamas 20 years ago. My highlights included two hummingbirds — Bahama woodstar and Cuban emerald — as well as bananaquits, black-faced grassquit, Western spindalis, Cuban pewee and other interesting species. I didn’t see a thick-billed vireo, but I did get my first-ever look at a Cape May warbler. I was visiting the Bahamas in January of 1999, which proved a fortunate time since many warblers migrate to these islands for the cold months. I’m hopeful that both people and birds on the islands Abaco and Grand Bahama and smaller islands most affected by the monster storm are able to recover soon.

Some of the more colorful common names for vireos include the dwarf vireo, golden vireo and yellow-winged vireo.  In Central and South America, the vireo family expands to include many birds with common names such as shrike-vireo, greenlet and peppershrike. Some of the varied species include lemon-chested greenlet, green shrike-vireo and the black-bellied peppershrike.

I still focus most of my birding efforts on warblers in the autumn, but vireos are always a pleasant diversion when the colorful warblers make themselves scarce.

Photo by Jean Potter • The blue-headed vireo prefers wooded habitats at higher elevations.

Cardinals don’t always look their best during late summer

Photo Courtesy of Gina Fannin • This female Northern cardinal, with a head devoid of feathers, appeared at a home in Cincinnati, Ohio. Although these strange looking cardinals often surprise people, they are not all that uncommon in late summer.

Gina Fannin wrote about an unusual observation of a follicly challenged Northern cardinal at her home in Cincinnati, Ohio. The bird in question, a female cardinal, had lost most of the feathers on her head. Gina took a photo of the bird, which she sent with her email, in which she asked if I have ever encountered a cardinal with such a problem.

Gina said that she has seen male cardinals suffering from baldness, but never a female. “I’ve lived here 24 years, and this is the first time I’ve seen a bald female,” she wrote in her email.

I replied to Gina by informing her that I’ve heard of these strange instances for many years. Bald-headed cardinals seem to be a summer occurrence. I usually get some emails or calls this time of year about people surprised by visits from “weird bald-headed” cardinals. I first began to get calls and email from readers in the late 1990s about this unusual phenomenon that seems to usually afflict cardinals, although I have also seen blue jays suffering from this same ailment.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This female Northern cardinal, shown with one of her offspring at a feeder in late summer, is exhibiting some problems with her feather molt.

I have studied the opinions of various bird experts, but there doesn’t seem to be consensus about the cause. Some believe the “baldness” is caused by an infestation of mites, which are small relatives of spiders and other arachnids. Others believe that the loss of feathers around the head is a part of a normal molting process. This theory is supported by the fact that cardinals do undergo molting in late summer, usually after the conclusion of the nesting season.

The process of molting removes old feathers, which simply drop from the body as new feathers emerge to take their place. For some reason, some cardinals and jays lose all their head feathers at one time before new feathers are ready to take their place. That’s why the condition is typically observed in the summer months. Both male and female cardinals can be afflicted with “bald” heads. It’s strange that the condition primarily affects these two birds, cardinals and jays, both of which have feather crests. On the other hand, cedar waxwings are also crested birds, but I have never observed or received a report on a “bald-headed” cedar waxwing.

Whatever the cause, a “bald-headed” cardinal is an ugly bird. Without feathers, a cardinal is transformed from a showy favorite among bird enthusiasts to a rather grotesque oddity that could aptly be described as resembling a scavenging vulture. Birds like vultures, however, have heads devoid of feathers for a very important reason: As scavengers, a feathered head would become quickly fouled as the bird reaches into the carcasses of dead animals to feed.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This young Northern cardinal visits a feeder in the Atlanta suburbs.

The cardinals I have seen with “bald” heads have been visiting feeders stocked with sunflower seeds or perhaps a holder offering a suet cake. So, the absence of feathers is not a hygienic adaptation on the part of cardinals and jays similar to the hygienic necessity of bald heads among vultures. The good news is that the condition is temporary. The normal molt for a Northern cardinal takes two or three months. The feathers on the head do emerge eventually, which is probably very fortunate for the afflicted birds. Feathers serve as insulation during cold weather. A “bald-headed” cardinal would probably have difficulty surviving winter cold spells.

We’re all accustomed to seeing cardinals at our feeders, but people who feed birds would probably be surprised by how much food cardinals and other feeder visitors obtain away from our well-stocked offerings. During the summer months, cardinals eat a variety of wild seeds, fruit and insects. Some of the fruit consumed by cardinals include elderberry, dogwood, blackberry and wild grapes. Young cardinals still in the nest (and fledglings for some time after leaving the nest) are fed mostly insects, including crickets, spiders, moths and flies.

To make cardinals comfortable in every season, offer plenty of thick vegetation, such as a hedge or row of shrubs, and consider planting some of the fruit trees and shrubs that will help these beautiful birds supplement their diet.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Northern cardinal with most of her head featherless.

Woodpecker still bears name of historic expedition’s charismatic leader

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The Lewis’s woodpecker’s common and scientific names pay tribute to the famed explorer Meriwether Lewis, who with his partner, William Clark, explored the American West.

The 215th anniversary of the launch of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition will be observed May 14. Also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, the enterprise became the first American expedition to cross the western portion of the United States and explore the recently acquired lands known collectively as the Louisiana Purchase. The Lewis and Clark expedition officially extended from May 14, 1804, to Sept. 23, 1806. As they drove deep into the American West, the members of the expedition saw wonders, including the feathered variety, never before beheld by people outside of various Native American tribes.

In authorizing the expedition, President Thomas Jefferson wanted to establish a reliable route for travel through the western half of the nation and to fend off any attempts by European nations to gain a foothold beyond the nation’s frontier. Jefferson also hoped Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would make some important discoveries about the nation’s native fauna and flora. Jefferson gave instructions for Lewis and Clark to collect bones they found during their journeys. He also asked them to keep alert for large animals that would be new to science. In particular, Jefferson hoped that the men he chose to head the expedition would help prove that the American mastodon still roamed the American West.

Mastodon bones had been found in the eastern half of the United States early in the nation’s history. Jefferson, accepting the widely held view of his time that God would not let animals go extinct, entertained the optimistic belief that large herbivores such as the bison of the American West roamed portions of the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase along with American mastodons. The expedition failed to find great herds of American mastodons trumpeting their way across the vast prairies and grasslands of the Western United States. As any student of history knows, however, the expedition made many important biological discoveries ranging from unique animals as the pronghorn antelope and grizzly bear to various fish, reptiles and plants.

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Meriwether Lewis gave his name to the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. as well as to the woodpecker named Lewis’s woodpecker.

The expedition also described nearly half a dozen species of birds that, at the time, had never been discovered and detailed by European Americans. These birds included the common poorwill and the greater sage-grouse. One of the birds — Lewis’s woodpecker — even memorializes the name of Meriwether Lewis and his important contributions to the success of the venture.

Lewis described the woodpecker that now bears his name as a bird “new to science” in one of his journal entries dated May 27, 1806. He made his observations of the bird while the expedition camped on the Clearwater River in what is now known as Kamiah, Idaho. He had mentioned the “black woodpecker” in earlier accounts in his journal, but during his time in the Idaho camp, he managed to shoot and preserve several of the birds. In his account, he described the bird’s behavior as similar to the red-headed woodpecker of the Atlantic states back in the eastern United States.

As it turns out, both Lewis’s woodpecker and the red-headed woodpecker belong to the Melanerpes genus of woodpeckers, which also includes about two dozen species ranging North and South America, as well as the islands of the Caribbean. The other members of the genus found in the United States include acorn woodpecker, gila woodpecker and red-bellied woodpecker. The term Melanerpes comes from ancient Greek words for black (melas) and creeper (herpes), which roughly translates as “black creeper.” Lewis’s woodpecker, one of the largest of its kind found in the United States, can reach a length of 10 to 11 inches. In 1811, the famous naturalist Alexander Wilson composed the first description of the bird for science and named it Melanerpes lewis after Meriwether Lewis. In addition, the bird’s common name has always identified it as Lewis’s woodpecker.

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Photo by Dave Menke/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • Lewis’s woodpecker is found primarily in the west. It eats insects, mostly caught in the air, as well as fruits and nuts. The woodpecker also shells and stores acorns in the bark of trees.

These woodpeckers nest in open ponderosa pine forests and burned forests with a high density of standing dead trees. They also breed in woodlands near streams, oak woodlands, orchards, and pinyon-juniper woodlands. In appearance, Lewis’s woodpecker stands out from other American woodpeckers. Its unique appearance includes a pink belly, gray collar and dark green back, quite unlike any other member of its family. In behavior, it also differs from other woodpeckers. This woodpecker is fond of flycatching, perching on bare branches or poles and then making flight sallies to capture winged insect prey. It has also been described as flying more like a crow than a woodpecker.

We haven’t been good stewards of the woodpecker that the famous Expedition brought to our notice. According to the organization Partners in Flight, Lewis’s Woodpeckers are uncommon and declining. Their populations declined by 72 percent between 1970 and 2014. Lewis’s Woodpeckers are threatened by changing forest conditions as a result of fire suppression, grazing and logging. These factors often leave pines of a uniform age in the woodpecker’s favored habitat and fewer of the dead and decaying pines crucial for the bird’s nesting success. Humans could help Lewis’s woodpecker thrive by not removing dead or dying trees from western forests.

After the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned to the eastern United States and reported back to Jefferson, he was awarded with 1,600 acres of land. He meant to work on publishing the journals he kept during the Expedition, but kept finding himself distracted. In 1807, Jefferson appointed Lewis governor over the Louisiana Territory that Lewis and Clark had so famously explored. He governed the territory from the Missouri city of St. Louis, which became known as the “Gateway to the West” as more Americans expanded into the territory they had learned about thanks to the famous Expedition.

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Meriwether Lewis in a pose painted with him wearing garb he chose for the expedition.

Lewis spent two troubled years trying to administrate the new territory, but he became entangled in political squabbles and financial difficulties. Things got so difficult for him that Lewis decided he needed to travel to the nation’s capital in person to clear up the mess. On his way to Washington, D.C., he stopped at an inn along the Natchez Trace about seventy miles southwest of Nashville. He died of gunshot wounds on Oct. 11, 1809, and historians have debated ever since whether his death resulted from suicide or murder. Regardless of the nature of his demise, he earned a place in the history books. He’s also remembered every time a birder lays eyes on the woodpecker that bears his name. When the bird is researched in a field guide or on a web page, the more curious individuals are sure to dig a little deeper to learn who provided the Lewis in the woodpecker’s name. His name will continue to be recalled as long as this unusual western woodpecker continues to fly in its beloved pine forests.

I’ve never seen a Lewis’s woodpecker, although I have visited Utah twice to make the attempt. Lewis’s woodpecker is listed as an uncommon permanent resident on the state checklist, so perhaps I will need to be more diligent the next time I visit its home range. I see the red-bellied woodpecker, a smaller relative of Lewis’s woodpecker, on a regular basis. This common bird more closely resembles what most people expect a woodpecker to look like, and it will visit feeders for such fare as sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The red-bellied woodpecker is a close relative to Lewis’s woodpecker.

In next week’s column, I’ll continue my anniversary tribute to the Lewis and Clark Expedition with a discussion of the bird that honors William Clark, the other partner in the famous westward expedition of discovery.

Readers continue to share hummingbird tales
Garry Cole sent me an email recently to share a hummingbird story.

“I have been following the progress of hummingbird sightings as the birds moved closer to East Tennessee,” Garry wrote. “I read with envy how neighbors all around me had seen these jewels, but none had visited my home here in Hickory Tree near Bluff City.”

Then, on April 23, as Garry sat in the yard, a male ruby- throated hummingbird stopped and hovered less than a foot in front of his face.

“He looked me squarely in the eye as if to say, ‘Well, I’m here. When are you going to feed me?’”

Garry noted that the bird arrived at about 8:15 p.m. “I immediately went inside and prepared my feeder,” he said. “Now, I have at least four that visit my feeder every day. There may be more, but I have only seen four at one time.”

His hummingbirds drink about eight ounces of sugar mix every two or three days and seem to feed more frequently between 5 and 7 p.m.

Tom Brake shared via Facebook that hummingbirds have also returned to his home on Peaceful Valley Road in Abingdon, Virginia. In his posting to my Facebook page, he informed me that he had his first hummingbird sighting of spring on April 28.

Myra Harris message me on Facebook to let me know her mom, Mae Bell Byrd, who lives in Flag Pond in Unicoi County, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird on April 12.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Welcoming back hummingbirds also involves making sure that they remain healthy and safe while spending the next six months in our yards and gardens.

Now that hummingbirds are back, take some simple steps to keep them healthy

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Welcoming back hummingbirds also involves making sure that they remain healthy and safe while spending the next six months in our yards and gardens.

Bristol residents Don and Donna Morrell saw their first hummingbird of spring at 10:19 a.m. on Monday, April 15. “My wife put the feeder up last week,” wrote Don in an email to me. “We live behind South Houston Dam.”

Gordon Aiton, who lives on Elm Street in Erwin, Tennessee, saw his first hummingbird of spring at 7:04 p.m. on Friday, April 19.

Phyllis Moore saw her first hummingbird — a male — at 7:50 p.m. on Friday, April 19, at her home in Bristol, Virginia.

Lynda Carter emailed me to report her first spring sighting of a male ruby-throated hummingbird at her feeder after lunch on Monday, April 15, and a second male appeared on Friday, April 19, a little after 1 p.m. Lynda said she lives at the end of Embreeville mountain in the Lamar community near Jonesborough, Tennessee.

Susan Okrasinski, a resident of Kingsport, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird of spring on Easter Sunday, April 21.

“On my way into the kitchen I just saw (be still my heart) the first hummer of the season — whoo hoo!” Susan wrote in a post on her Facebook page. “It was a female, which is unusual as the males come up first and the females follow.  What a nice Easter surprise!”

Joanne Campbell, who lives at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page about her first spring hummer. “Had our first hummingbird sweep into our courtyard on Tuesday, April 23,” she wrote in her post.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A ruby-throated hummingbird seeks nectar from small blooms on a flower.

Every hummingbird’s arrival at our homes after an absence of nearly six months is nothing short of an epic achievement on the part of this tiny bird. According to the website, hummingbird.net, most ruby-throated hummingbirds make a daring journey across the Gulf of Mexico to return to their summer homes in the United States and Canada. They typically depart at dusk for their nonstop Gulf flight of up to 500 miles, which takes 18 to 22 hours, depending on the weather.

Now that we’ve welcomed them back into our yards and gardens after such a harrowing journey, it’s important as good hosts to make sure these tiny wonders are kept safe.

Some ways of ensuring that our hummingbird guests are kept healthy and secure are simply common sense. For instance, don’t use pesticides, herbicides or any other sort of toxin anywhere close to the vicinity of a sugar water feeder or a flower garden. Hummingbirds are such tiny creatures with such intense metabolisms that it only takes a minute amount of any harmful substance to sicken or kill one of these little flying gems.

Feeding hummingbirds is easy, but many people try to complicate the process. Only common, pure cane sugar, mixed to a ratio of four parts water to one part sugar, is a safe choice for these birds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Hummingbirds have even inspired ornaments and keepsakes in their image, a testament to their popularity and beloved status as yard and garden visitors.

For emphasis, I’ll repeat again that only common, pure cane sugar is safe for hummingbirds. There are no safe substitutes. Do not use organic, raw or brown sugar. Confectioner’s sugar, which contains an anti-caking substance (often corn starch, silicates or stearate salts), is also hazardous to hummingbirds.

There’s also a type of sugar known as turbinado sugar, which is named for the process of spinning the sugar in turbines to crystallize it. The crystals are rich in vitamins and mineral valuable for human health, but they are lethal for hummingbirds. Iron is one of the minerals contained in turbinado sugar. Hummingbird metabolism has a low tolerance for iron, which is present in the molasses added to brown sugar and in agave nectar. These are natural substances, but that doesn’t make them safe for hummingbirds.

The ratio of four parts water to one part sugar utilizing pure cane sugar most closely duplicates the nectar that hummingbirds obtain from some of their favorite flowers. Why try to mess with nature’s perfection?

I cannot imagine why anyone would supplement sugar water for hummingbirds with such human beverages as a sports drink or Kool-aid, but there have been reports of people doing so. Be aware that such additives will only risk the health of these tiny birds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Female ruby-throated hummingbirds must face many demands if they are to be successful at nesting and raising young, both tasks being done without assistance from male hummingbirds.

Honey is another substance, although perfectly natural in its origins, that should be avoided. Honey encourages the growth of fungus, which can quickly incapacitate or kill a hummingbird. A packet of artificial sweetener might taste great in your iced tea, but do not add such substances to the solution in your hummingbird feeder. These artificial sugar substitutes offer nothing of nutritional value for a bird with an extreme metabolism with excessive energy demands. In theory, a hummingbird mistakenly feeding on nothing but an artificial sweetener would soon starve to death.

It’s also important to change out your feeders and clean them as often as every one to three days. In extremely hot weather reaching more than 90 degrees, the sugar solution may need to be changed and the feeder cleaned on a daily basis. That’s not as difficult as it sounds. I prepare sugar water and store it in plastic juice containers. Refrigerated, the solution will last longer and can be doled out on a daily basis until a new supply is needed.

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Photo by sapphir1/Pixabay.com • Although a natural substance, honey should not be fed to hummingbirds as it can promote a fungus harmful to hummingbirds.

Don’t use any type of soap or detergent to clean the feeders. The best advice I’ve read is to stick to hot water and vinegar, which will not leave behind a residue that could potentially harm the hummingbirds.

Do not put any sort of red dye or coloring into the sugar water, and do not purchase commercial solutions that incorporate red dyes. Some scientific studies suggest that red dye is a recipe for disaster with hummingbird. Such dyes are thought to lead to kidney failure and certain death for the hummingbird. There’s also plenty of evidence to suggest that banning red dye is an exaggeration of the peril. Taking that into consideration, I still err on the side of caution. Perhaps the red dye will eventually be proven harmless. Until that time, I prefer not to risk the health of my resident hummingbirds.

I’m often asked if the sugar water feeder itself should be red. There is ample evidence that hummingbirds are attracted to red. According to information from the National Audubon Society website, current thinking is that the red dye, as just mentioned, may not be good for them, nor is it necessary to attract hummingbirds. The color on a feeder is enough to attract them. Most feeders incorporate some red parts into their construction. People can mix their own nectar using 1/4 cup sugar to every 1 cup of water.

It’s a lot of work to attract hummingbirds and keep them safe and healthy. I’d like to think the rewards we get from these small birds make the effort worthwhile.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female ruby-throated hummingbird, lacking the bright throat patch of a male, surveys her surroundings from a low perch.