One of the many reasons I love Portland, Oregon is the easy access to beautiful, Pacific northwest forests. I can be in the middle of Forest Park or Tryon Creek State Park within 20 minutes of leaving my house. Given my affinity for owls, this is perhaps a wee bit too convenient.
One of the benefits of spending a ridiculous amount of time in forests looking for small owls is that I get to see and hear all sorts of other things. A friend of mine once described a little, dark bird that sounded like a modem. He said they littered the forest. Of course, he was describing the Pacific Wren, a bird that loves to sing. Within minutes of me blending into the background, they will hop up on their favorite perch and belt it out. It is almost shocking how much sound can come out of such a tiny creature.
Perhaps the second most conspicuous species behind Pacific Wren is the Song Sparrow. While Pacific Wrens are primarily restricted to forest habitat, Song Sparrows are not -- they breed in most places, whether it be my backyard, a grassy field, a wetland, or something in between. They are fun to see in the forest, though, especially when the light is favorable.
I also occasionally get to see an actual owl in the daylight, though if it is a Northern Saw-whet Owl, it is usually partially obscured by branches and leaves.
Fear not, though, if the owl I am seeing is a Northern Saw-whet Owl, I likely won't see it again in the same tree the next time I visit. I may not even see him again for several more days, if at all. But seeing that owl will definitely get me back in the forest, where I might see who knows what.
Monday morning found me doing my twice monthly goose survey at Ridgefield NWR in Clark County, Washington. I often don't know which area I will be covering until I show up. Good news greeted me as I arrived -- I would be covering Bachelor Island, my favorite portion of the refuge. Given the recent weather and time of year, I was hopeful I might encounter a Mountain Bluebird, Say's Phoebe, or perhaps even a Sagebrush (formerly Sage) Sparrow.
Sagebrush Sparrow, Auto-tour Route, River S Unit, Ridgefield NWR, Clark County, Washington, USA, February 2009
Bachelor Island borders the Columbia River, and contains large chunks of open fields, as well as shallow wetlands (favored by Dusky Canada Geese), and even some wooded areas. It is just a bit north and east of Rentenaar Road on nearby Sauvie Island, which is, of course, in Oregon. It is where most of my annual winter sightings of Golden Eagle west of the Cascades occur.
Golden Eagle on Bachelor Island, Ridgefield NWR, Clark County, Washington, USA, December 2012
The habitat on Bachelor Island seems to attract vagrants, including such surprises as Mountain Bluebird, Common Redpoll, and this American Tree Sparrow that was on Bachelor Island in December 2011.
Birds that breed on Bachelor Island include Eastern and Western Kingbirds, Yellow-breasted Chats, and Lazuli Buntings. So anytime I get to survey Bachelor Island is a good day, even if it means that I have to sort through a flock of 3,000+ geese to find that one bird with the collar.
Counting geese can be a bit overwhelming at times. Sometimes flocks number in the thousands, but after years of doing it, I've developed a feel for counting flocks. I record the flock size, note their behavior (feeding, loafing, flushed by predator, flushed by vehicle, etc.), and note which field they are in. The folks that manage the dozens of individual fields can then see which fields are being used by which geese, and use this information to better manage the habitat to benefit the geese.
My job is to not only count the flocks, though, but to find as many neck collars as possible, and record the three digit codes on those collars. Sometimes it can take 15 minutes or longer to get all three characters; sometimes I simply see a collar on a bird, and never record the characters on it. If the geese I am counting are minima Cackling Geese, the birds in the flock spend most of their time feeding, with their necks out of sight. Although I've developed a feel for counting large flocks, and even parsing out the various races of white-cheeked (Canada/Cackling) geese in the flock, I still haven't figured out a way to quickly see all the neck collars.
Semidi Island Aleutian Cackling Goose with collar. Note the square/blocky head, the pale breast, and, of course, the green collar.
Dusky Canada Goose with hard-to-read collar. Only a goose geek would photograph a Dusky when there is an Emperor Goose just beyond it.
Ah, much better -- giving the Emperor Goose the attention it deserves.
Dusky Canada Goose collars are red with white characters. Duskies are larger than cacklers, and very chocolatey in appearance.
A minima Cackling Goose with a leg band but no collar. Minimas have yellow collars with black characters such as "@", "=", and "%".
As I was making my rounds on Monday, I noticed a flock of about 5,000 Cackling Geese taking flight in the distance, compliments of a hungry (or perhaps just bored?) adult Bald Eagle. Lucky for me, the flock split into two groups, in two different fields, by time I arrived. One of the flocks numbered about 3,000 -- most were minima Cackling Geese, with a handful of Taverner's Cackling/Lesser Canada thrown in. I scanned the flock several times with my binocular and came up with just one yellow (minima) collar. I got the scope on the collar, and recorded the codes. I then scanned the flock several more times with the scope, and picked up two more yellow collars. I then scanned the flock a few more times with my binocular, and saw no additional collars. I went along my way, surveyed a flock on the other side of the dike "road" I was on, and then surveyed this first flock once again with my binocular. Bingo! Yet another collar.
A gaggle of minima Cackling Geese -- how many do you see? Do any have collars?
Naturally, all the geese were feeding with their backs to me, so it took about ten more minutes to read that collar. Lucky for me, though, a Bald Eagle in the distance commanded the attention of the entire flock, all at once, so the next thing I knew, I was looking at 3,000 necks and heads sticking straight up. I had one more chance to scan the entire flock with all necks exposed, which is far less common than one might think. I came up with no additional collars. Finally, I decided to call it a day on this particular flock, and go on my way.
As I headed back to the office to turn in my data, I noticed a small bird flycatching from a fence line. A week earlier, I saw a Say's Phoebe in similar habitat, so my mind naturally raced to that conclusion. The view in my binoculars confirmed my suspicion. The bird was much too far for a good photo, but since Say's Phoebes require "confirmation" in eBird, I decided to snap a few photos for the sake of documentation. Unlike the photographer in me, the birder in me does not always care about composition when documenting rarities, so the bird often ends up in the center of the frame because it is easier and quicker.
Yep, that dot in the middle is indeed a Say's Phoebe. Here's a cropped version:
After turning in my goose survey paperwork, I decided to return to the auto-tour route and make a loop. Before going there, though, I thought I would swing back by the Say's Phoebe to see if it was still where I originally saw it (it was). I then headed straight to the auto-tour route, but was pleasantly surprised to encounter a second Say's Phoebe on my way. This second one was hunting from both sides of the road that connects the Bachelor Island bridge to the auto-tour route, a territory that has hosted its fair share of Black Phoebes, and even a Sage Thrasher or two. The second Say's Phoebe did not cooperate for photos, not even for bad ones, so I moved along.
Sage Thrasher, River S Unit Hunt Zone, Ridgefield NWR, Clark County, Washington, USA, April 2012
As soon as I returned to the publicly accessible portion of the refuge, the sky unleashed a heavy rain, at least by Oregon standards, where it mostly just drizzles throughout the winter. Although birding in the rain can be less than fun, it does have its upsides -- one such upside is that bird activity usually picks up as soon as the rain stops, especially for insect eating birds. Sure enough, the rain died down, and dozens of Tree Swallows were busy feeding in the air, grabbing those insects that I cannot see, not even with my binocular. I slowly made my way around the auto-tour route, thinking how lucky I am to have such a wonderful place relatively close to my house.
As I neared the final stretch along the south end of Rest Lake, I immediately noticed a white blob on the side of the road up in the distance. This was the same location where I had seen a Snowy Owl and Snow Bunting, so the flash of white brought back good memories. As I approached this white blob, it became clear to me that it was a gull. Gulls are relatively uncommon at Ridgefield, at least compared to the grocery store parking lots and manicured parks in the Portland/Vancouver metro area. I usually see no more than a few gulls on any given visit to Ridgefield, and those are usually flying by, with an occasional gull on Rest Lake. This gull, though, was walking on the ground, feeding as it went (had it not received the memo about the fast food options in the city?). It was a small gull, with a gentle head, and dainty bill -- amazingly, my first Mew Gull (that I can remember) at Ridgefield NWR. I've seen hundreds of Mew Gulls within ten miles of this location, but this was my first Mew Gull on the refuge proper. Even I was surprised at how exciting this was for me -- to finally see this common bird at one of my favorite places.
After getting my fill of the Mew Gull (it walked right past my car, affording me excellent views), I headed back to the visitor contact station. I added the Mew Gull information to the white board, so that other visitors would know it was there, and decided to drive to the hunter's gate and back, as this is the only two-way section of road in the refuge, and it would allow me to get a little more birding in, without the full commitment of driving another full loop. Almost immediately, I noticed a Great Egret hunting relatively close to the road.
I positioned my car, set up my bean bag on my car door in my window opening, and waited. It did not take long for this Great Egret to hear potential prey in the grass. The bird walked quickly toward the source of the noise, with that crazed look and neck twitch I've come to recognize as the precursor to a strike. Sure enough, this magnificent, white bird lunged its bill into the ground.
Much to my surprise, the egret did not recoil with a vole, as I was expecting. Instead, the egret became enmeshed in a tug-of-war with an as-of-yet not-seen opponent. After thirty seconds or so of this tug-of-war, the egret withdrew its bill, displaying its next meal -- a rather plump, well-earned meal - a Townsend's Vole. That vole must have put up one heck of a fight.
As is customary when egrets and herons eat rodents, the egret broke the rodent's neck (at which point all resistance stopped), strolled to water nearby, rinsed off its meal, positioned it, and sent it down the hatch. I've seen Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons swallow rodents live, but at least this particular critter did not suffer that fate.
You can see more photos of the hunt sequence by clicking here.
After watching this Great Egret preen and then resume hunting, I decided to head down to Vancouver Lowlands to survey for streaked Horned Larks, as part of an effort being coordinated by the Audubon Society of Portland. I ended up finding no Horned Larks of any variety, but I did come across some pleasant surprises, including a pair of Western Bluebirds along LaFrambois Road in the Fruit Valley area of Vancouver. As is often the case with bluebirds, these two did not cooperate for photos. I watched the sparrow flock along LaFrambois Road for about fifteen minutes, but nothing unusual showed up.
My next stop was Vancouver Lake County Park, where I parked the car near the sparrow spot, and watched in silence for about fifteen minutes to see what would reveal itself. All the usual suspects were present, including this Steller's Jay, a bird for which I do not yet have a satisfactory photo. This particular photo fails for many reasons, but I do love how it shows the range of blue in the bird's plumage.
I continued down to Lower River Road. While walking in a field as part of my survey efforts, a Barn Owl exploded out of a tree. I felt terrible, as flushing nocturnal owls during the daytime is not a good thing. I like to think I have good observational skills, but I had just looked at the tree from where the owl appeared, and had not seen it. I was carrying my medium range lens, hoping for photos of banded Horned Larks, and did manage to snap off this photo of the Barn Owl as it looked for a new roosting location.
Fortunately, the owl soon landed in a nearby tree/clump of bushes, and returned to the land of the unseen. Rather than pursuing this bird, I immediately left the area. In my book, accidentally flushing an unseen Barn Owl in the daytime one time is a forgivable mistake; flushing the same bird twice is not -- it is harassment. Needless to say, I will be giving that clump of trees far more space the next time I'm in that area.
As the guilt of flushing the owl weighed on me, I decided to do the remainder of my Horned Lark survey from the roadsides. I've found that many birds are far more tolerant of approaching people when those people are in cars or even walking on a frequently used road. This Merlin was no exception to that theory, as it seemed utterly unconcerned with my presence when I pulled up in my car, set up my bean bag and lens on the roof of my car (quicker, easier, and stealthier than using a tripod), and photographed it at length.
If you watch a predator long enough, it will eventually check you out, as it is constantly checking everything out. If you anticipate this (and get lucky), you can sometimes catch it looking right at you.
My last stop was next to a wetland to listen to the chorus of Pacific Chorus Frogs. I did get out of the car for that one, to take it all in in stereo. As advanced as our technology is, there is nothing more hi-fidelity than hearing live music offered up by nature, especially a chorus of frogs.
February can be a great month to observe American Coots throughout much of the country. American Coots are gregarious, energetic birds, and if you watch a flock long enough, you are likely to see and hear some of their raucous and quarrelsome behavior, which can often be far more entertaining than anything on television. I photographed three coots fighting over a potential mate (or perhaps just a funny look?) four years ago this month.
It all started with a respectful bow, with the two coots flattening their crowns, perhaps signifying some sort of agreement to the terms of engagement:
This was quickly followed by an frenetic eruption of coots and water flying every which way --clearly, that third coot in the middle was not actually that interested in battling:
Before I could really process everything that unfolded before my eyes, it was all over, as signified by the post-fight bow, as outlined in section 5.4.2 of international coot law:
It appears the middle coot switched allegiance from the coot on the left to the coot on the right. Other than that, I had no idea to determine who actually won this epic battle. Of course, it occurred to me that these coots may have actually been rehearsing for upcoming roles in a Quentin Tarantino movie -- the scene was that surreal and over-the-top. Click here to see all of my photos of the entire fight sequence.
So besides being entertaining duck-like creatures, what are American Coots? They belong to the Rallidae family, meaning they are lumped together with rails and gallinules. Before I tell you about coots, I want to discuss their cousins.
Rails, such as the Sora and Virginia Rail, are like chickens of the marsh. They have long, chicken-like feet, and are more often heard than seen. Here is a King Rail that I photographed at San Bernard NWR in Texas:
And here is a smaller cousin of the King Rail, a Virginia Rail that I photographed in the same wetland where the infamous coot battle of February 2010 took place:
Rails are rather secretive creatures. They often compress themselves laterally as they sneak between the marsh grasses (and are the "rail" behind the "thin as a rail" saying). So those photos above are a bit misleading. A more typical good view of a Virginia Rail is something along these lines:
But if you do find a rail, change your plans and hang around for a while. Eventually, it might reveal itself a bit more, and potentially come out into the open, usually for all of 3 seconds, in a dead sprint away from the nearest human eye:
And if you get real lucky, it might reveal its nest:
What nest, you ask? It's that little cup like thing in the middle bottom of the photo, made out of brown grasses, topped off with green vegetation. This nest was so close to the road at Ridgefield NWR that I photographed it from my car window.
The rail family includes another species that is a bit more outgoing than its cousins - the Sora. Here's a Sora gathering food, showing off its long, chicken-like legs and toes:
Wait a minute! Why would a Sora be busy gathering food out in the open right in front of a person? It must either be extremely hungry, or it is feeding babies:
One neat thing about rails (and gallinules and coots) is that their babies tend to be adorable fuzzballs. Both Sora and Virginia Rail babies are covered with black feathers, and can be hard to distinguish when mom or dad are not nearby. But one does not need to know which species they are to enjoy their beauty. Of course, they are usually not very far from their parent, and they behave very similar to human teenagers, always screaming, "feed me!" (Am I the only one who looks at my children and sees baby birds screaming for food?)
Gallinules are similar to rails, except they tend to come out into the open more, and can often be seen swimming the water. Like rails, gallinules have chicken-like legs and feet, but they resemble coots far more than they resemble rails. Two species of gallinules occur in the US -- Common and Purple. Below are several photographs of Common Gallinules (formerly conspecific with the Common Moorhen, until 2011, when it was split out as a separate species), all taken in Texas. Here's one in open water, looking a lot like a colorful coot:
And here's one feeding at the water's edge, showing off its long, chicken-like legs:
And here's one swimming in... well, I'm not sure what to call that, but it made a neat photo (and provided great cover for the alligators!):
And here's one walking on land, completely in the open, looking for food, utterly unconcerned by that humongous eyeball (my lens) staring right at it:
Oh, how I would love to share with you some photos of Purple Gallinules, but I do not have any. The last ones I saw were in Texas, but they were less than cooperative for photos, and I was still early in my photography career. I once held a Purple Gallinule in my hand, but that was a dead bird I found in the winter ice on the shore of Lake Michigan, a very rare specimen for Chicago that quickly ended up at Chicago's Field Museum (of natural history). I believe Anahuac NWR is calling my name once again...
So, now on to the star of the show, or at least this blog entry -- the American Coot:
Many people think of the coot as being a duck, which is completely understandable. In my mind, coots seem far removed from rails, and are more like a cross between gallinules and ducks. (Now you see why I spent all that time on rails and gallinules.) Based on habits and appearance when in water, it is hard to believe that coots are more related to cranes than Mallards, but, alas, the experts tell us they are.
American Coots tend to form large flocks, they swim out on the open water, and they are hardly secretive. They have lobed feet -- a cross between the chicken like feet of rails and the webbed feet of ducks. Coots need a runway to take off. As a result, when freezes suddenly hit an area, coots may end up in a pond that is too small to facilitate take-offs, much to the delight of Bald Eagles, which have been known to hang out at such places until the supply of coots runs out. Coots can dive to evade predators, but if they keep coming back up for air in the same exact spot, the predator usually wins. Here's a coot showing off its beautiful lobed feet:
Here's what they look like when they are taking-off -- it is about as elegant as a fully-loaded military transport plane, where you just hope it can get enough speed to become airborne:
And here's what a flock looks like as it stands on ice around the last of the remaining open water, hoping that nearby predators won't notice the lack of escape routes:
I suspect coots rarely take flight to evade predators such as Bald Eagles and Red-tailed Hawks, as coots are clumsy flyers. On numerous occasions, I have seen them dive underwater repeatedly, popping up in different locations, making it hard for the predators to predict the coot's next move. So while a small amount of open water, such as what is shown, restricts coots from taking flight, the main reason it exposes them to predation is due to the relatively small area in which a large number of coots would need to submerge themselves in order to escape. And when coots re-emerge, they don't appear slowly -- they tend to pop up rather suddenly and rather buoyantly, much like an empty, upside down water bottle would. Another look at those cool feet, which are often the only thing left after an eagle eats a coot:
Many years ago, in the middle of a Chicago winter, I saw a Snowy Owl wake up, stretch, cough up a pellet, fly over to a small patch of open water, pluck off a coot, and enjoy its first meal of the night, all in a matter of 15 minutes or so. At the time, I wondered if the strategy of the American Coot was to breed like mad, hoping that numbers alone will ensure their survival as a species. Most times I see them now, I still wonder that, because coots seem to end up in dangerous situations far more often than most other denizens of wetlands. In addition to the issue of coots remaining in areas without sufficient open water, many times I've had to stop my car to allow a massive flock of coots cross the road, all under the watchful eye of some raptor, such as a Bald Eagle or Red-tailed Hawk. (Hmm, I'll take the one on the left, fifth from the back...).
Fortunately, American Coots lay between 2 and 17 eggs per clutch, with most clutches having between 8 and 12 eggs. In addition, coots will have multiple clutches per year. Their nest is a floating platform, usually anchored to upright stalks. Coots will build many floating platforms, choose one to use as a nest, and then expand upon it. Coot babies, as with rail babies, are adorable, such as this one being fed by its parent - note the wings out and mouth open, a behavior exhibited by many species of birds that roughly translates into "Feed Me!":
Back to my theory of coots not necessarily being the brightest of birds, here's one appearing to eat the head of its baby. It did not.
In the photo below, a baby coot watches its parent dive for food. Unlike Pied-billed Grebes, which sometimes just sink into the depths, coots have a rather awkward, buoyant approach to getting underwater. Their return to the surface is equally buoyant and entertaining. It's almost as if they are full of air, can't expel it, and must work against physics to stay submerged. Finally, they succumb to the buoyancy of the air, and pop out of the water as if being shot from a cannon. A really small cannon. Ok, it is more like what happens when you submerge a beach ball underwater, and then let it go.
Eventually, the babies must molt and grow into adults. Along the way, they take on an appearance that almost appears to be that of a different species:
But their lanky legs and feet are there to give away their identity:
As soon as they are in the water, though, those long legs and lobed feet are out of sight:
Another interesting characteristic of coots is their frontal shield, which is a hard plate extending from their upper bill to the top of their forehead. In American Coots, this shield is generally white, with a red bulb on top, matching the color of the stripe on their bill.
Every now and then, I encounter an American Coot with some extra yellow in their frontal shield. It ranges from just a little...
... to a huge amount of yellow
At one point, it was believed that substantial yellow on the frontal shield indicated the coot was a Caribbean Coot. Some argue that the Caribbean Coot is not a separate species from the American Coot (click here if you want to geek out, coot style). The photo shown above was widely distributed among bird people in 2011, with some suggesting it could have some Hawaiian Coot genes, while others suggested that it was within normal variation for an American Coot. Regardless, it was a neat bird to see!
Hunters sometimes refer to American Coots as Mud Hens, as they apparently taste like mud. A friend of mine who hunts once shared his favorite coot recipe with me: (1) put a brick inside of the coot's chest cavity; (2) bake in the oven at 350 F for several hours; (3) remove the brick from the chest cavity; (4) discard the coot and eat the brick. I'm guessing this explains why I often see dozens of coots in front of blinds with hunters inside, but never seem to encounter hunters with coots as part of their take. Perhaps the coots know exactly what they are doing when they fill up on muddy vegetation.
Regardless of their intelligence, I find American Coots to be one of the most entertaining birds to watch. So the next time you encounter coots in the field, if you notice them with their wings extended and their head hunkered down, like this...
... stick around, because you might be in for a treat!
Rhett Wilkins (Portland's own owl-whisperer) and I went owling last night in southwest Washington. We were hoping to take advantage of the light generated by all of the recent snow blanketing the ground. We were not disappointed!
Minutes into our journey, Rhett spotted our first Great Horned Owl, perched on a low snag next to the road. A few miles down the road, we came across our first Barn Owl, sitting on a fence post, right next to the road. And then another. We decided to get out of the car and try our luck on foot. Walking in the snow at night, mist falling on our faces, seeing what nature would reveal to us was delightful. We eventually stumbled across a very fresh, small owl pellet, likely from a Western Screech-Owl, although we could not rule out Northern Saw-whet Owl or Northern Pygmy-Owl. We never did find that small owl, and decided to get back in the car.
And then we stumbled across another Barn Owl. And then another. And another. Most paid no attention to us, like this one that showed off its backside as it was hunting from a fence post relatively far from the road:
We were lucky enough to find some hunting from right next to the road. Some would fly as our car approached, but others would keep on doing their thing, not at all concerned about us, like this one (check out the frost on its head!):
Eventually, this particular owl did check us out -- perhaps to see if we were catchable prey?
Apparently we were a bit boring, as it went back to looking for a more modestly sized meal:
By this point we had seen 6 Barn Owls and 2 Great Horned Owls. Once again, we decided to abandon the car and give owling-by-foot another attempt. This time, we were not disappointed. Rhett, who really can see in the dark, almost immediately spotted this Short-eared Owl:
And then I spotted what I thought was a large owl pellet. My flashlight quickly informed me that the lump in the snow was not an owl pellet, at least not yet! A Northern Red-legged Frog in the snow!
Needless to say, this cold-blooded amphibian was not moving very fast. Well, we didn't see it move at all, except for breathing and blinking. We left the frog where we saw him, wondering if Short-eared or Barn Owls eat frogs (hopefully not!). We then found another Barn Owl -- our seventh of the night. We eventually ended up back in the car, and added one more Great Horned Owl to our list. Our final tally was 7 Barn Owls, 3 Great Horned Owls, 1 Short-eared Owl, 1 Northern Red-legged Frog, 1 Song Sparrow (heard only), many Mallards, American Wigeon, and Cackling Geese (all waterfowl were heard only).
One might wonder, "How do I go find owls on my own?" In a nutshell, finding owls is a lot like finding other birds, except that owls are skilled at hiding during the day, and tend to be most active at night. A good first step is to figure out what habitat they prefer, grab a flashlight (or not -- silhouettes can be pretty cool, too) and binocular, and head out into the night. Keep both your eyes and ears open, and be persistent, for as all experienced owlers know, finding owls can be very much hit or miss.
Once you get to the right habitat, don't expect owls to jump out at you. For owls of open country, scan fields to see if you can see any owls flying. Check out every possible perch location. And be patient. For forest owls, use your ears as much as your eyes - hearing an owl can often be as rewarding as seeing one. And be very patient. Did I mention patience?
If you decide to go owling in the daytime, add 10 times more patience, and look for whitewash. I find owls in the daytime less than 10% of the time, but I search a lot, so I find a lot of owls. I onced checked the same clump of trees several times a week for many years without success, and the one day, I was face to face with a Long-eared Owl. For those outings where you don't find owls, enjoy your time outdoors, and consider your experience a free or inexpensive education.
The above photos were taken at a focal length of 200mm, which is lower magnification than most binoculars. Below is a photo taken at 85mm, which is slightly magnified from what the human eye sees:
All of these photos exist thanks to Rhett's willingness to hold my flashlight while I operated the camera. Be sure to check out Rhett's blog at http://www.owlcentricity.com/ -- he's even more into owls than I am.
Want to see more owls? You can see more photos I've taken of owls at http://www.scottcarpenterphotography.com/owls
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