Winter Birding Brings Nature to All

Published in the Waitsburg Times, February 6th, 2020.

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Growing up a hunter, my mother and I agreed rarely in our views of humans interacting with our ecosystem, save for our thoughts on habitat conservation and a deep appreciation for nature’s beauty and songbirds. Sitting together by the back-porch door of her Appalachian home, sipping a warm beverage as a light snow falls through the naked deciduous forest, marveling over visitors to her bird feeders is something I have dearly missed since leaving home.

This is a simple example of the power that songbirds have on society as a whole. They may seem common, but are extraordinary in their natural abilities and habits. Equally extraordinary is their ability to bridge the gaps among cultures, ages, and social differences, connecting us with our natural world, inspiring artists, developing ornithologists and arousing wonder in young and old.

Birds represent spiritual and religious symbolism among many nations. They stand at the helm of conservation movements and non-profit organizations. They represent sports teams. Racheal Carson’s incredibly motivating Silent Spring touted the detrimental effects to songbirds from rampant DDT application in the 1950s, swaying her readership to pursue environmental legislation which eventually led to the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Songbirds serve as our most common connection to nature and can be admired by anyone, virtually anywhere and at any time, like today, right now, outside your kitchen window or patio door, from a city block or a secluded cabin.

Some of the typical species to the Waitsburg area in winter include the house finch, cedar waxwing, red-winged blackbird, house sparrow, Oregon junco, American robin, brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch, golden-crowned kinglet, northern flicker, and the list continues. The cedar waxwing is the masked species I enjoy the most as it descends from its montane habitat to overwinter in the foothills and valley floor.

One of the most fascinating aspects of songbirds is their plumage that changes with the seasons. The brilliant spring and summer colors, like the sunflower yellow of the gold finch, are shed for calmer winter plumage suited for survival. Songbirds can tough out incredibly cold temperatures by fluffing up their feathers, creating an insulating layer around their small bodies. Some species grow additional plumage to serve this purpose when molting during late summer or early fall.

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⇑⇑ A sneaky wren grabs a seed from beneath a flock of voracious gold finches as a female cardinal awaits her turn. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Phillips. ⇑⇑

Feeding and metabolic strategies support songbirds through the winter as well. They generally maintain an active body temperature at about 106 degrees Fahrenheit, and may slow their metabolism to reduce body temperature and conserve energy as they sleep. Like other animals, songbirds store fat to fuel their metabolism and insulate their bodies. Some species will store as much as 10 percent of their body mass as fat during winter.

Additionally, songbirds seek strategic roosting areas like natural tree cavities, dense grasses and evergreens or shrubs. While a common practice to remove birdhouses outside of the nesting season, Birds and Blooms recommends leaving them up over winter to provide safe, warm roosting opportunities. Specific roosting houses are available on the retail market as well.

Similar to birdhouses, hanging bird feeders is the most common method of “backyard birding”. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2016 census, over 65 million Americans have hung a bird feeder at some point, if not consistently. In winter, high-fat food sources including black oil sunflower, safflower, and suet cakes packed with seeds are what birds seek. But beware of “economy” seed mixes as birds largely discard the filler millet, milo, corn, etcetera, to get at the fattier sunflower seeds.

Would you like to see a specific species frequent your feeder? You may want to consider separating food sources or feeding stations. This will allow species to hone in on their favored items or feeding methods rather than jockey for space at a crowded feeder or avoid the feeder entirely. Additional information on different types of bird feeders and setting up feeding stations can be found online at https://www.fws.gov/birds/bird-enthusiasts/backyard/bird-feeding.php.

What about the birdbath? Having a water source in winter is important to songbirds. This is less critical in our banana-belt area of Washington, but when the temperature dips below freezing, birdbaths are well attended. A wide range of birdbath heaters can be found at Amazon.com. It need not be spendy, just reliable, and they actually make excellent holiday or birthday gifts for the birder in your family.

 

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⇑⇑ Eastern bluebirds flock to the birdbath on a frigid, Virginia afternoon. Photo Courtesy of Carolyn Phillips. ⇑⇑

With the above in mind, feeder and birdbath placement for birding from the comfort of home is important, particularly for photography. Place the feeders where you and the birds can access them easily in all weather. Maintain a good line of sight to the feeder and place it an appropriate distance from the house to provide the desired photo effect (or to ensure that those of us with failing vision can still identify the species). Maybe you have a spot inside to set up a tripod and train the camera to the feeder. This will allow you to capitalize on quick opportunities when that special bird shows up. This can also contribute significantly to photo quality and clarity, as will clean windows.

Songbirds are the tie that binds humans to our natural world, and clearly arouse interest and emotion. The ease of birding at home provides an undeniable opportunity to experience that emotion and wonder from our couch or kitchen table; an especially attractive prospect when the jet stream delivers an arctic blast.

Regardless of how you do it, birding is entertaining, and a great way to knock the edge off of cabin fever. So, are you ready to get your birding on?

SIDEBAR:

Suet cakes can be made at home with a simple Crisco, peanut butter and sunflower seed recipe. Place ingredients in a medium sauce pan and warm. Mix ingredients together, let it cool, shape it in a container or on wax paper. Place in the freezer for 30 minutes to solidify and it’s ready.

  • 1-1/2 cup Crisco
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter
  • 1 cup sunflower seeds.

Swinging the Runs for Wallowa Steelies

Published in the East Oregonian, February 15th, 2020.

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The majority of my winter trips to the Wallowa River are characterized by slippery travel across Toll Gate under an active snow or ice storm. The five-foot walls of packed snow confining the highway are intimidating, yet comforting in the fact that I might simply bounce off the wall rather than ditch my rig in the creek draining the Elgin side of the mountain. Needless to say, as I stepped out of my rig at Minam State Park one glorious March morning, the bluebird sky offered immediate victory. The day was shaping up beautifully; my confidence high.

Flow conditions were about perfect. I typically fish steelhead on the descending limb of the hydrograph after a slug of water has coaxed fish to move upriver. I got a few nods from folks headed for the State Park honey hole as I donned my waders and strung up my fly rod. I am stubborn, like most fly fisherman, identifying almost exclusively as a swinger. By that, I mean I “swing” flies. It’s an artform that, when executed properly, is reason enough to fish. Steelhead be damned.

Once fully rigged up, I strolled down to the nearby run that was entirely vacant, save for the peculiar little American dipper that bobbed along the rocks at water’s edge. Across the run was a series of boulders that had dislodged from the railroad grade where the river pushed along the toe. The depth was right and I expected steelhead were holding in the current breaks behind the boulders.

Wading out to about mid-thigh depth, I rolled a short cast to the far side, threw an upstream mend, and waited as the line swept down and sank a few feet. I could envision my purple, egg-sucking leech wafting temptingly in the current. The cast resulted in a beautiful presentation and clean drift, but no grab. Typical.

Repeating the cast, I methodically worked downstream to cover the entire run. And to my surprise, half way through the run, a solid thump transferred through the line. Steelhead typically hook themselves when smashing a fly on the swing. Without a hookup, I moved on, dismissing the whack as a resident rainbow or bull trout not large or serious enough to bury the hook in the corner of their jaw.

Crossing over to the tracks, I headed toward the confluence with the Grande Ronde. The sun-warmed canyon hit a balmy 50 degrees. Fat, steely mule deer fed on greening grasses across the open south- and western-facing slopes. Steller’s jays and magpies screeched and flittered, among other songbirds, fleeing from the “swishing” of my waders.

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The railroad winding through the canyon cuts through a variety of large rock outcrops that typically hide critters on their shaded side. Passing through the cold shadows of a towering pillar, the hair on the back of my neck bristled. Instinct suggested a lurking cat, yet I’ve never laid eyes on a cunning cougar along that stretch of track.

The river was superb, boasting a vibrant emerald tint through the deeper pools and runs. Shockingly, I was one of very few to venture down the track this day. Just as surprising, my casting was on fire. Everything played out spectacularly, save for the conspicuous lack of steelhead.

Over the course of about five hours I fished a number of runs, each promising enough to stimulate overwhelming anticipation. Butterflies danced in my gut with every swing, yet ended uneventfully, stripping the leech back in, taking a couple steps downstream and repeating the gig. The motions and results were always the same while my expectations remained of something different. The very definition of insanity.

Upon my logical brain regaining control, I turned upstream for the truck. Along the way, I came across a gentleman with a bobber and jig working a tight, deep cut at the base of a rock outcrop. He had a steelhead on a stringer and was fighting another. Admittedly, I was jealous, but simply admired his catch and moved along, not to spoil his revelry or sully my pride. I shot him a nod which provoked a satisfied smirk.

Not quite ready to quit, I waded into the run where I began the day and worked it just as I had that morning. The only difference this time was the steelhead that nearly ripped the rod from my weary hands on the fourth swing. My mind had already drifted to hot coffee and kicking my feet up when the characteristic tight-line slam of an eight-pound freight train trouncing my little leech jarred my brain into utter panic.

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Hanging on and feathering the spool, I was prepared for a long and strategic run, but something was amiss. Realizing the horror that my line had wrapped under a boulder distinguished that I was about to lose my only steelhead of the season.

Dashing into the current up to my waist, the rush of the river eroded the rock from beneath my feet. Being swept downstream and dancing to stay upright, I somehow freed the line. The fish responded immediately, turning tail and heading for the 150-yard-long riffle below the run. With few options, I gripped the reel tightly, stuck the butt of the rod into my hip and began backing toward the shore. If my aggressive effort didn’t break the fish from my eight-pound fluorocarbon tippet, the long riffle certainly would.

Surprise, relief and excruciating optimism collided as the rod rebounded, the fish turning upstream. Reeling wildly to keep the pressure on was all I could do. Tense moments of give and take finally ended as a massive tail sliced the water surface in the shallows downstream. The fish was spent.

Gliding the steelhead into my feet, I noticed the adipose fin was clipped. I beached her immediately, gazing graciously upon the brilliant, rosy stripe spanning the length of a healthy, speckled hen measuring somewhere around 26 inches. She was outright magnificent. And destined for my dining room table. I’ve never felt more accomplished or blessed upon landing any other steelhead in my fly-fishing career.

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Shed Hunting the Wheat Country

Published in the East Oregonian, March 21, 2020.

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March is a fine time to work a bird dog on the Palouse. With the upland season a couple months past and the snow freshly off the wheat fields, my girls and I took to a secluded parcel for a run and maybe put up a rooster or two. A bitter wind howled across the emerald green of the thriving winter wheat, battling the warmth of vibrant sunrays cast sharply from a bluebird sky.

Approaching an island of black locust and wheatgrass about 20 acres in size, a white object caught my attention. Beneath a golden fold of grass mashed flat from its former snow blanket shone a heavy chunk of what appeared to be bone. “How sweet would it be if that were a giant shed!” I thought to myself as I approached. You can imagine my surprise when I unearthed the only drop-tine whitetail antler I will ever lay hands on, complete with a split brow tine and soda-can base circumference.

The antler was weathered and cracked and had clearly lay there for several years. I wondered where that buck had come from. There was no other cover for miles and we were nearly 20 miles from a brushy river corridor in any direction. How had that buck dodged the modern firearms seasons so many years to put on such character?

I may never have such fortune to stumble upon a better shed in my lifetime. Whitetails are known for their adaptation to postage-stamp, patchwork covers. True to form, this guy clearly followed the playbook, shedding where no one would think to look in a relatively tiny and inaccessible patch of cover.

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Bagging elk sheds is exciting, but in my experience, it’s deer in the wheat country that offer the best shed hunting. A solid rule of thumb is to seek out bedding and feeding areas. South and west aspects are the warmest this time of year and typically offer better food sources. Deer spend the majority of their time in these areas and are more likely to shed there. While well-worn travel routes are hard to pass up, I have found so few sheds on trails that a nice walk or the occasional small forky antler is about the main prize.

You can dodge the masses by knocking on a few doors and maybe find some ground all to yourself. Small woodlots and eyebrows with a few trees to provide a windbreak should be given fair inspection. Deer will paw at the ground around these trees to create flat beds on steep slopes.

Deer generally shed their antlers from late December through March. Mule deer tend to yard up in large, visible groups on the open, grassy slopes, while whitetails commonly feed in the unseen crevasses of wheat fields this time of year.

Cabin fever pushes most big game hunters to wit’s end by now, and the prospects of shed hunting are too inciting to ignore. However, there is an ethical consideration to early shed hunting. March on the Palouse can be a deadly month for wildlife as they have hit rock bottom on fat reserves and food sources. A year like the present causes little winter kill as snow accumulations is minimal and temperatures are generally mild. But tough years with lingering deep snow and single-digit temperature can take its toll on a deer herd.

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Waiting to hunt sheds until about the time that spring gobbler opens is a best practice to leave critters unperturbed when they cannot afford to suffer additional stress and energy expense. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife doesn’t enforce restricted shed hunting seasons, but does offer tips to keep wildlife healthy, such as not pushing a herd too hard or pursuing them over consecutive days. One advantage to shed-hunting the wheat country is being able to spot sheds in stubble or green wheat with binoculars before hiking through feeding or resting critters with nothing to show for it.

Additionally, respect for public and private land and landowners is paramount. Sheds are the property of the landowner where they fell, requiring permission to collect them on private land. If you run a shed-hunting dog, ensure that it doesn’t run deer or elk as you hunt for antlers.

Bottom line: shed hunting is a lot of fun and a great way to get outdoors, kick the cabin fever, and grab some sun and exercise while waiting on spring gobbler or fishing seasons. Load up your pack, grab the binoculars, and enjoy the warmth of the sun on your back for a welcome change from winter. You just might find that shed of a lifetime.

Dreams, Misery and Steelhead

Published in the Waitsburg Times March 21, 2020

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The unusually warm 34 degrees greeted us under bluebird skies as we turned up Highway 153 toward Twisp. My last trip up this highway was five years prior in 2015; the last steelhead season open to the public on the Methow River as fish returns to the Columbia Basin continued to drop precipitously.

Memories of that last trip flooded my mind as I rode shotgun with my buddy Chas Kyger, a fish biologist with Douglas County Public Utility District in Wenatchee. If ever a man was anointed with supernatural powers through a fly rod, it was him. He taught me the ways of swinging flies for steelhead, the Methow River my training grounds.

Swinging flies is one of fly-fishing’s most artistic acts employing “spey” casting techniques and heavy sinking lines. A streamer is cast on across currents where steelhead hold during the long winter days. Placing a mend in the line to encourage the fly and line to sink, the angler then holds the line tight and lets the river push through it, creating an arching belly in the line. The fly swings across the river, following the arched path as the current pushes the line downstream, traversing steelhead holding waters at their eye level. At the end of the swing, the fly swiftly rises directly downstream of the angler. If a fish doesn’t take the fly mid-swing, the rising fly almost always entices the strike from a fish willing to play ball.

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A particular day of my February 2015 trip dawned just as serene, identically emerging from weeks of single-digit temperatures and chill-to-the-bone wind shear. Our first stop of the day, I found myself casting across conflicted currents, the sun glinting at retina-burning intensity from the river surface. Chas offered a bit of guidance. “Send the fly across that run and swing through the downstream trough. At the belly of the swing, hang on.”

Chas’s words echoed in the back of my mind as I set up a swing on our first run of the day, five years hence. I have never been great at the technique. But swinging flies is like riding a bike in the sense that you never forget how it feels to do it properly. Pulling tight on the line as it bowed, sending the streamer into the heart of the run, the feeling of perfection flushed over me. My body erupted in goose bumps. “This is the cast.” I said to myself, as if somehow mentally or spiritually connected to the fish that lay 60 feet off shore. The swing was perfect.

My feet were nearly numb in the 33-degree water, but I scarcely noticed at that moment. Entranced in the artform as if painted on a winter canvas amid a naked granite-strewn canyon, the world faded into the background. I had nearly forgotten that I was fishing roadside among a few of Chas’s colleagues. I could have been deep in the heart of Kamchatka sharing a river bank with brown bears and felt no further separated from the world around me. It was just the river and I, and a few weary steelhead, soaking in the warmth of the golden sun to the soothing roar of the crystal-clear lifeblood of our planet and all that inhabit it. Precisely the moment when fate and timing collide with luck and instinct.

Serenity shattered among the riverside boulders as my 11-foot fly rod nearly left my hands at Mach speed. A sizeable fish swiped the fly and turned downstream, hooking itself deeply in the corner of the jaw. Frantically, I grappled the reel to retrieve the slack line and put the fish on the drag. With the butt of the rod buried into my hip, I read the fish’s movements, giving line when pressured, and taking quickly when relieved.

The hum of the drag and the feel of line gliding through the guides sends a chill down my spine simply recalling it, much less living it real-time. Witnessing the elegance of such a stunning critter utilizing its power and heft to stymy an opponent is an intense experience. Each terrifying downstream charge could be the last, leaving the steelhead triumphant. Yet, my handcrafted rod has landed dozens of salmon, steelhead and big Lahontan cutthroat over the years. Barring a faulty hookset, my connection with the rod leads me stealthily between aggression and compromise.

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Suddenly entering the scene, stage left, Chas extended a large landing net onto the submerged rocks before me. I carefully guided the fish toward shore, wincing with every barrel-roll as the fish fought feverishly to shake the fly. But alas, Chas lifted the net up around the fish, and I marveled at the 28-inch beauty that lay before me.

A wild hen, no doubt, brilliant with an olive dorsal, stark white underbelly, pepper-black speckles, and a rosy-pink lateral line. She was magnificent. A true phenomenon of nature’s grandeur.

The Methow fishery remains closed to the public; our opportunity to fish it being tied to our professions as biologists cooperating on a broodstock collection program with the Winthrop National Fish Hatchery. Assisting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, we quickly tagged the fish and moved her to a transport truck. She was destined to be spawned at the Winthrop hatchery and later released back into the river.

Landing a steelhead on the fly is a life-changing experience. It makes idiots and addicts of grounded folks, cultivating a sudden willingness to brave the most frigid, icy conditions and swollen rivers. The act itself, while an artform, is born of strict insanity. Cast, swing, move, repeat. No steelhead. Sometimes for days. Even weeks. No inkling of fish presence. No amount of technical savvy can change the outcome at times. Conducted in utter glacial misery. All while anticipating the unlikely bone-jarring grab of a weighty ocean-run missile that continually haunts our dreams, yet rarely our (my) flies. A single grab can carry an angler through a full season.

The sun glistened from the flanks of the hen as we lowered her into the hatchery truck. The high of having landed a steelhead on the swing was quickly replaced with despair. When would this happen again? It had already been five years since my last steelhead encounter. The Wallowa River in March lies ahead. The prospects are maddening.

Spring Trout on the Fly

EO published

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My Tundra bounced up onto the old wood plank bridge. The dark planks rocked and popped beneath the weight. I was pushing the width limit. My hands, white-knuckled on the wheel, managed to avoid shredding a quarter panel against the steel rails while the Selway River boiled a bit off color below.

Upon a safe dismount, I started the climb to a trailhead where I would embark on a journey into trout country. I knew nothing of the destination but suspected either cutthroat or rainbow. After all, it was Idaho.

Rounding a bend in the old Forest Service road revealed a breathtaking meadow reach. The stream meandered its way to the Selway through a lush carpet of brilliant green grass and forbs. Native Trillium was blooming cotton candy pink in the company of a snoozing whitetail deer. A tantalizing plunge-pool appeared dark and fishy below a cascade of boulders and log jams. My foot mashed the brake pedal. I never saw the destination trailhead.

Large caddis were hatching as I donned my waders. Ogling them lustily lulled me into a giddy, unfounded anticipation.

Early spring fishing can be a straight up crap-shoot. Steady water temperature and relatively stable flow through the winter can offer equally stable action (albeit slow at times), but as days lengthen and air temperature increases, snow melt-swollen streams begin to change the game a bit. Nevertheless, I selected a classic high mountain pairing, a size 12 caddis dropping a size 16 pheasant tail nymph. And the dice rolled.

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Selecting the finest habitat set my confidence high, but the water temperature was glacial. I found the runs moving a bit too fast to present the fly well, even with a flawless dead-drift. I turned to the pocket waters and failed, then moved to the fringes where water velocity is slower with warmer temperature.

Young trout will often seek the fringes during spring high flows where holding water meets cover and food sources. With hopes high, I placed the caddis on the outside edge of a flow seam and just downstream of a boulder. At once the caddis vanished beneath the surface, the nymph taken by a young rainbow parr.

The parr life stage is physically characterized by a size range of approximately two to five inches and large “parr marks”, which are dark, oval-shaped marks along the lateral line. Parr marks serve as camouflage and are generally lost as the fish matures. In some cases, trout older than a year may retain lighter, yet obvious parr marks.

Modern fishing emphasizes the trophy fish, but the brilliance of a young wild trout returns the angler to a universal experience. A wild trout parr is a spectacle to behold, rich and vibrant with various mottling. The white anal fin tip, the fine black speckles among an olive dorsal, and the rosy pink lateral stripe of a rainbow express perfection as only a wild fish can. With a gentle pop of the barbless hook, I sent the parr on its way. Shuffling up to another hole, I was met with an encore performance, my three-weight rod dancing under the inconspicuous weight of the tiny gem.

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Mountain streams can run strong and cold in spring but can turn on in June if the flow is fishable. The best choice in spring and early summer may be desert water, and desert streams are not to be overlooked. These little blue lines flourish in May and June with aggressive trout and abundant food. Flows are typically fishable and many of these streams lend themselves to a number of fly-fishing techniques including traditional tenkara.

Desert streams provide prime opportunity to get creative. If you have been curious about a crack in the middle of nowhere spewing cold water through a sagebrush canyon, go for it. Seek pockets and plunge pools. Although the local game and fish office may not post anything about it, if it’s legal to fish, you may just find a new favorite stream. The Owyhee can be dynamite. What about its tributaries?

Desert lakes are ablaze in spring as well. For Lahontan cutthroat, I generally fish shorelines with scuds or buggers. If the fish are not up and cruising the shallows, they can be found deeper along shoreline boulders. A full-sinking fly line is about the only way to reach them, counting down to 20 feet or more before beginning a varied strip retrieve. Lahontans either hammer the fly or simply engulf it and just sit there, creating awkward tension. A sixth sense tells you when to set the hook. Heavy head shakes and deep runs are left to the drag.

Desert lake rainbows are cruising shallow weed beds at the edge of deep water, providing the appropriate mix of food and depth through the June time-frame. Dry flies are working now and traditional tenkara flies and methods can be effective as well. When the water is cold but a hatch is on, a dry fly with a dropper nymph is a fine option as midges dominate desert lakes, but matching the hatch can be crucial. When all else fails, sink a small streamer. Never will a 15-inch trout work the drag on a five-weight fly rod like a desert lake rainbow.

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Now, more than ever, you are itching to wet a fly. As a sunny day blooms, you need no excuse to shuck responsibility and undue stress for the symphonic chorus of the flush of courting songbirds, the mesmerizing roar of a stream or serenity of floating a lake as the water surface dimples from feeding trout. It’s time. Drop everything. Go fishing. And cherish the wild trout, big or small.