Little Owl on Skomer

Tuesday, May 31, 2011 Adam Tilt 18 Comments

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of spending several hours on Skomer Island just off the Pembrokeshire coast. After a weather aborted attempt on Sunday the rain that greeted us on waking did not look promising but the day very quickly turned into an absolute scorcher, with wildlife to match. Almost the very first bird that we saw after landing on the island was a Short Eared Owl hunting along the northern valley before it dropped out of sight beneath the horizon. A bit of repositioning soon gave us superb if distant views of the owl sat atop a hillock devouring a small mammal (presumably a vole) that it had grasped tightly in its talons. We saw it flying several more times during the day but it always seemed to return to the same spot. I wonder if a nest is nearby?

I remember being surprised that owls could be found on Skomer when I visited for the first time a couple of years ago, so you can imagine my amazement to find out that there were in fact two species that call this rock home. That second species is the Little Owl of which we saw one individual last time but at great range and very well camouflaged amongst the Bracken. This time around we received some excellent directions off one of the very helpful wardens as to where we were most likely to get some decent views, and boy was he spot on the money.

24387 - Little Owl, Skomer

When we had first approached the wall the Little Owl looked like nothing more than a rounded rock sticking out against the skyline. It was only as we looked more closely that we realised this was much much more than that. Amazingly we were able to approach within ten meters or so with the owl barely giving us a second look, its attention far more focused on the passing Gulls and Corvids. Presumably it knew that we couldn't pass the no public access barrier and therefore posed no greater threat than the sound of the motor-drive on my dad's SLR camera kicking into action. The views we had were simply spectacular and have to rank up there as wildlife moment of the year so far. Here are a selection of my favourite shots.

24391 - Little Owl, Skomer

24384 - Little Owl, Skomer

24382 - Little Owl, Skomer

24395 - Little Owl, Skomer

Of course owls aren't the main reason that people visit Skomer. That honour goes to the enigmatic Puffins that nest on the island in their thousands. The best place to see them is in the area around the Wick, although their numbers seemed lower than when we last visited. I think this was probably due to a combination of many birds being underground on eggs whilst the rest were out at sea fishing having probably been grounded the day before due to the poor weather. Whatever the reasons there were still more than enough to put on an excellent show, and it was also nice to finally catch one with fish in its mouth. Although we saw several birds with fully laden beaks they often landed almost directly in their burrows to prevent their catch being pilfered by the always opportunistic gulls. Probably a wise move.

24371 - Puffin, Skomer

24376 - Puffin, Skomer

24380 - Puffin, Skomer

While waiting for the boat to take us back to the mainland I had the opportunity to photograph Razorbills and Guillemots. Ironically the steps up from the jetty offer the best place on the island to get close to these two species, as the massive colonies elsewhere on the island are all too distant. A few Puffins also nest in this area and there are often a couple of Seals either hauled out on the nearby shingle beach or bobbing around in the water.

24402 - Razorbill, Skomer

24404 - Guillemot, Skomer

Other birds seen during our trip included Chough, Whitethroat, Reed Bunting, Sedge Warbler, Raven, Stonechat, Wheatear, Fulmar, Kittiwake, Shag, Cormorant, Gannet, Skylark, Swallow, House Martin, Meadow Pipit and many more. It really is an exceptional place to visit and I hope to return before the breeding season is done.


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An afternoon around the Lliw Reservoirs

Friday, May 27, 2011 Adam Tilt 6 Comments

Today was the very first day of annual leave that I have taken since Christmas, and boy did I need the break. The weather was forecast to be very changeable so we decided to head up to the Lliw Reservoirs above Swansea, once a fairly regular haunt but somewhere that we have not visited in well over a year. With the majority of people at work we pretty much had the place and its wildlife to ourselves. Within a few minutes we had already had excellent sightings of Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and a pair of Blackcaps, as well as hearing a Cuckoo calling from further up the valley. The forested areas around the lower reservoir were packed with groups of fledgling Blue Tits and Great Tits, while a very confiding Garden Warbler was an excellent surprise.

As we moved on up into the valley a Mistle Thrush shot across the path in front of us before landing off to our right. While watching it feed we spotted a Nuthatch fly into a hole in a nearby tree and were soon being regaled by the sound of a hungry brood hidden away in its depths. A second Nuthatch quickly arrived with a beakful of insects to continue the relay race that has new life as its prize.

A gorse bush a few meters further along the path held a family of Coal Tits that had recently fledged and were still being tended by their parents. The yellow gape, although fading, was still clearly visible on the individual that I photographed.

24351 - Coal Tit fledgling, Lliw Reservoirs

24353 - Coal Tit fledgling, Lliw Reservoirs

While taking these pictures Emma called from behind me to say that a Jay was harassing a pair of Stonechats. I turned around to see exactly that. The Jay was hopping along the ground in pursuit of the Stonechats that looked to be trying to lead it away from where they had first encountered each other. I imagine that the Jay was hoping to predate the pairs nest but it looked to be unsuccessful. All this was happening to the by now much louder sound of calling Cuckoos, one of which was sat on a telephone line further up the valley side above us. They were a constant feature throughout the day, both as an audio soundtrack and visibly as they flew up and down the valley. We can say for sure that there were definitely two different individuals, but believe there there may have been three or four.

If all this sounds pretty hectic then believe me it was. We literally went from one great find to the next, and its about to get even better. We had literally taken only a few steps from the Coal Tits when a couple of small birds flew into a nearby bush, flashing red rumps at us in the process. There is only one bird that I know of that has those markings, and a short search with the binoculars soon had us looking at a fantastic female Redstart. In the process of moving to get a better view I stepped near the edge of the stream that runs between the two reservoirs and sent a Dipper flying up the river. I could have kicked myself for not spotting it sooner but often the first view you get of them is as they shoot away.

Our next encounter was with a relatively tatty looking Blue Tit that was in a food gathering frenzy amongst the flowers of several Gorse bushes. It barely gave us a look as it hurriedly went about its business.

24354 - Blue Tit, Lliw Reservoirs

24356 - Blue Tit, Lliw Reservoirs

We guessed that its nest must be nearby and weren't at all surprised to hear tiny high pitched calls as we walked past an old stone wall. Thinking that the nest must be on the opposite side we leant over to have a look but couldn't see anything. It was only as we stepped back that we spotted the opening on our side and saw that a very young chick was well and truly wedged in a crack beneath it.

24358 - Blue Tit fledgling, Lliw Reservoirs

Why the chick had decided to make a break for freedom I can only guess but whatever its reason it was in a precarious position. Its efforts had already pretty much exhausted it and even if it had managed to free itself the likely outcome would have been a long fall and a slow death. We couldn't leave it like that so I got a stick behind the birds body and slowly eased it out of the crack and into my hand. Once there it was clear how far away from fledging age it was. Its eyes were barely open and the feathers still had a long way to go before they were fully developed.

24359 - Blue Tit fledgling, Lliw Reservoirs

We quickly popped the chick back into the nest where we could see at least two more hungry mouths calling out to us and then took a few steps back. Almost immediately the adult bird from the photographs above flew in with a juicy caterpillar as if nothing had happened. What with the Blackbird last weekend and now this we seem to be turning into some sort of bird rescue team!

The final walk up to the upper reservoir delivered a few more quality birds including a couple of Wheatears, a male White Wagtail, four Raven and a cracking pair of Redpoll.

24365 - Redpoll, Lliw Reservoirs

Bordering the water at the top is an area of forestry known as the Brynllefrith Plantation. A short walk around this before turning back was very productive. Our first success was with a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers that were nesting near the top of an old dead tree and were very vocal in letting us know that we should move on. We duly did and were soon looking at a stunning Tree Pipit sat calling atop another dead tree, shortly followed by a Spotted Flycatcher. In the canopy above us we could hear and see a flock of Siskin as well as another Redpoll.

With that it was time to head for home, not forgetting of course to check in on the Blue Tit family that were thankfully still in their nest having had no more adventurous urges. In all we saw 41 species including some real local rarities and several new year ticks. Somehow I don't think I will be able to leave it so long between visits here again.


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Yellowhammers on camera at last!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011 Adam Tilt 6 Comments

24345 - Yellowhammer, Cwm Dulais

As you can see I have finally succeeded at getting those elusive Yellowhammers on camera after many failed attempts over the last few weeks. The bird shown here is not one of the usual pair that I watch up on Bryn-bach-Common (they were there but were keeping well into the shadows) but a new bird for me further up the Cwm Dulais valley in the vicinity of the old colliery. It posed perfectly in full sun against a clear sky whilst belting out its familiar call of a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeeeese. Amazingly for this species I was able to approach relatively close before it started to look hesitant and I dropped back a few meters. A quick glance to check that I was no threat and it was soon singing away happily again. These are by far my best Yellowhammer shots and I am very pleased with them to put it mildly.

24342 - Yellowhammer, Cwm Dulais

24348 - Yellowhammer, Cwm Dulais

Also out in the valley was my first Swift on patch for the year along with the usual Swallows and flocks of constantly on the move Linnets. Unfortunately though it seems that the Cuckoo has either stopped calling or moved on. I hope its the former as I'd love to get another chance to photograph it before the year is out. Two Buzzards and a Red Kite were quartering the valley sides while the woods on the return route held a Jay and a pair of Bullfinch. A quick scan of the river didn't result in any Dipper sightings but there are long stretches that are now out of sight due to vegetation growth so there is every chance that it is still hiding away somewhere. We last saw the Dipper back in February so at least we know that it made through the winter. I'll keep you posted if I see him.


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Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

Monday, May 23, 2011 Adam Tilt 15 Comments

I had such grand plans heading into this weekend but a combination of atrocious weather and a change of heart led me in a completely different direction. I had intended to pay a visit to the Mumbles Pier kittiwakes on Saturday and then head up to the Elan valley on Sunday in search of Pied Flycatchers and Wood Warblers. As it turned out I spent both days (when it wasn't raining that is) renovating our garden patio in anticipation of a barbecue summer. Yes I know I'm probably kidding myself but the result of all that work is that I now have a place to sit outside after work and enjoy all that nature has to offer. I also got to purchase a pressure washer which turned out to be one of the most fun gadgets ever. The only downside was that after scouring the slabs of umpteen years of dirt and grime I looked up to see that most of the dirt was now scattered over the house. The wind this weekend has been the bane of my life let me assure you.

But I digress. The reason for mentioning these antics in the first place was to bring me onto the subject of the bird life seen in and around the garden this weekend. As usual there were a good number of raptors about across both days but the three Red Kites that we saw flying around together is one of the best displays we have had. I believe that we also saw part of a courtship ritual between two of the birds as one flipped upside down, almost touching talons with the bird above before they carried on flying around together. It would be fantastic to see some youngsters in the air come the end of the year. A pair of Buzzards and a pair of Ravens were also regular visitors.

New life was very much in evidence with the male and female House Sparrow regularly ferrying food back to their nest in my garage roof. We had feared that the nest had failed after the body of one of the chicks appeared at its entrance, but now think that it probably died of natural causes and was simply removed from the nest by its parents to avoid any possibility of infection. Nature can be harsh at times but you can't fault the attentiveness of these particular parents.

A less natural phenomenon, and something that we are slowly losing the battle with here, is stray cats. While repairing the garden gate I heard an almighty commotion from the other side so flung it open to have a look, losing a vital screw in the process. The scene that greeted me was rather surreal and over in a matter of seconds. The neighbours cat was running towards me with a newly fledged Blackbird in its mouth while the adults chased and shouted at it for all they were worth. The threat of my foot in its face got the message across rather more clearly at which point the cat dropped the bird and fled. The birds instincts took over then as it headed for the nearest cover and proceeded to lay low. The problem now was that the parents were over the other side of the road and I was torn as to what to do next. Should I leave the fledgling where it was and risk it being taken again by another cat or try to reunite it with its parents? I chose the latter option and picked it up to carry it a way down the lawn to where the parents could see it. The chick immediately ran down the lawn, across the road and into another garden where it again lay low but this time with its parents directly overhead keeping a close if somewhat loud vigil. We also kept an eye on it for a while and all seemed well so hopefully that's one less bird that has fallen victim to our burgeoning stray cat population.

Today I was able to reap the fruits of my labour and sit in the garden after work to watch the world go by. My hope is that if I make this a regular thing the birds will get used to my presence and lose some of their inhibitions. Things have already got off to a great start with one of our shyest residents, the Collared Dove, already fairly happy to share the same space as me although he kept a very close watch.

24339 - Collared Dove, Pontarddulais

The Dunnock, probably our most tame bird, was also very accommodating although it kept to the shade during my stint.

24341 - Dunnock, Pontarddulais

The opportunity to just sit and watch from a single location should never be undervalued as you often see behaviours and events that you would otherwise have missed. For instance this evening I saw a Raven fly past with what appeared to be a birds egg in its mouth, as well as watching a Carrion Crow do its best to raid the Jackdaw nest in my neighbours chimney. Fortunately (or not I suppose if you are the Crow), the Jackdaws put up a good fight and soon sent it packing after some fantastic mid-air battles. I also witnessed the arrival of the local Goldfinch population with their fantastic cacophony of calls. Now if only I could get them to use better table manners at the feeders. Do they not realise how expensive Niger seed is these days!?


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Butterflies, Damselflies and a Bee

Friday, May 20, 2011 Adam Tilt 5 Comments

It may just be my personal perception but I get the impression that Butterflies have had a bumper Spring this year. Whenever I have been out walking it has been hard to miss the sheer quantity and variety of species that have been on the wing. Orange Tips in particular have been very abundant, both locally and when I was down in Devon a couple of weeks ago. One recent individual in Bishopston Valley on Gower was very approachable, allowing me to get photographs of its green and white outer wing as well as the vibrant inner that gives this butterfly its name. Even better was the fact that it was feeding on its favourite food source the Cuckoo Flower, which is also known as Lady's Smock.

24155 - Orange Tip Butterfly

24156 - Orange Tip Butterfly

A less common Butterfly also seen on the same day was the following Small Copper. We found it feeding along the cliffs that border Three Cliffs Bay where the strong breeze was keeping it close to the ground.

24149 - Small Copper Butterfly

Damselflies and Dragonflies have also been emerging with a recent visit to the Cors Dyfi reserve delivering a couple of Four Spotted Chasers and numerous Large Red Damselflies. I followed the pair below around for a good while before they finally settled down long enough for me to move in with the macro. Whenever I see Damselflies in their mating position I wonder if the traditional heart shape that we all know and love originates from the shape made by these delicate creatures.

24289 - Large Red Damselfly

My final inclusion for this post is a Bee, again taken around Three Cliffs on Gower. The large white object in the photo is actually a piece of plastic that the Bee had presumably mistaken for a flower. The thing that I found fascinating about this particular shot is that I have caught the Bee with its proboscis fully extended, something which I have not seen before. Unfortunately I forgot to take a full body shot so I haven't been able to get the identification down to anything more detailed than 'Bee'.

24146 - Bee

Bringing things bang up to date there were still Cinnabar Moths emerging around the garden yesterday as well as numerous other moth species that I have yet to identify. I really need to get a moth trap built and operational as soon as I get some spare time.


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Emerging Cinnabar Moths

Tuesday, May 17, 2011 Adam Tilt 6 Comments

Long term readers may remember a couple of my posts from last year showing the Cinnabar Moth caterpillars that I found feeding throughout our garden. Despite the relatively large numbers however I never actually saw one of the moths themselves. On Sunday that all changed as we were fortunate to witness the aftermath of a small scale emergence of these distinctive creatures from their pupal stage. Cinnabar Moths pupate for around nine months which will have taken them from August last year right through the winter until now. A couple still had very crumpled wings that they were slowly drying in the sun, while others were further along in the process and on the verge of taking to the air.

24338 - Cinnabar Moth, Pontarddulais

24336 - Cinnabar Moth, Pontarddulais

24333 - Cinnabar Moth, Pontarddulais

After taking these photos I had a good hunt around the garden to see if I could find any evidence as to where these moths may have spent their winter months, but there was no sign. I guess they must have been tucked away somewhere well out of the way to survive the extreme cold we experienced in December. I look forward to seeing more of their caterpillars this year.


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Climbing Cadair Idris Part 2 - Craig Cau to the summit!

Monday, May 16, 2011 Adam Tilt 7 Comments

When I left you in the last post we were standing atop Craig Cau, contemplating the final push to the summit of Penygadair. I'll admit that my legs were pretty tired by this point so a quick snack was in order. Unfortunately the wind kept taking the crisps I was trying to eat right out of my mouth so the proportion of the bag that I actually consumed was rather limited. And yes we were eating normal food, not those namby pamby high energy bars that I saw a couple of posers munching on.

With batteries recharged it was time to push on. Unfortunately Craig Cau is a peak, which means that from the top there is only one way you can walk - down.

24320 - Cadair Idris

The steep descent and even steeper climb up to Penygadair certainly used a few muscles that I hadn't exercised in a while. The occasional Wheatear served as an ideal excuse to stop and take a breather, as did a very surprising Red Kite that was absolutely pelting along with a strong tailwind. Despite these avian distractions we eventually crested the summit just after lunchtime, the perfect time to arrive anywhere really. As usual people were insisting on sitting right next to the trig point that marks the summit but I eventually managed to snatch a photo clear of people.

24322 - Cadair Idris

Far more impressive, and surely one of the main reasons anyone climbs mountains, were the views that stretched out around us as far as the eye could see. The photos below are taken looking roughly North West towards Barmouth.

24331 - Cadair Idris

24332 - Cadair Idris

We spent a good while soaking up the atmosphere before it was time to move on and head back down. Our return route took us back along the opposite side of the valley from the one which we had climbed, along what was in the main a nicely sloping grass path. I really wouldn't recommend coming up this way however as the descent when the path really started to head downwards was brutal. In places it was nothing more than a glorified scree slope turning our walk into an only slightly under control slide.

24323 - Cadair Idris

If you do get the chance to climb Cadair Idris I would highly recommend it. It's just the right level of challenge for a fit person and the scenery is beyond spectacular. Next on the list must be Snowdon then I suppose!


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Climbing Cadair Idris Part 1 - Minffordd to Craig Cau

Sunday, May 15, 2011 Adam Tilt 6 Comments

One of the main objectives of our long weekend away over Easter was to finally climb Cadair Idris. Sitting at 893 meters high it's not the tallest mountain in the UK, or even in Wales for that matter, but it is one of the most beautiful and one of the most difficult. My history on this mountain stretches back at least fifteen years to my first, and so far only, successful attempt at its slopes. It was a hot summers day and I convinced my parents to push on to the summit long after they had intended to turn around and head back. I can remember the excitement of wanting to climb a real mountain for the first time and the amazing views that we got from the top. Ever since I have wanted to go back, but with the exception of a weather aborted attempt in 2006 I hadn't had the chance. Until now.

24303 - Cadair Idris 24302 - Cadair Idris

We turned up bright and early at the Minffordd car park (in my opinion the only way from which this mountain should be climbed) in the hope of beating the crowds and any incoming weather systems that may have been developing. We scored well on both points.

The first part of the climb involves passing through mature woodland alongside the Nant Cadair and its impressive waterfalls. The path here is steep and rocky but man made steps have made the going relatively easy, if tiring. The trees were alive with the sound of Willow Warblers, Chiffchaff and Goldfinches, while next to the water we spotted our first Grey Wagtail of the year.

24306 - Cadair Idris

Another 150 meters up and the woodland starts to thin and open up into the valley that makes this place so spectacular (above). At this point the final destination is still out of sight around the corner but the anticipation is growing.

Fifteen minutes more walking and the expanse of Llyn Cau opens up before you. Formed in the hollow of rock scooped out by a glacier, legend has it that spending a night by its water will find yourself awakening as a madman. An ominously empty tent erected on its shores didn't do much to dispel the myth!

24327 - Cadair Idris

24329 - Cadair Idris

Llyn Cau is the point at which most people turn back as from here on the paths are much rougher, steeper and looser underfoot. Falls and deaths are not uncommon so its pays to keep your wits about you. The route we were walking takes you up the left hand side of the above photo and along the top of the rim to the peak on the right. Believe me when I say its even more spectacular than it looks here, with every step revealing a new vista across the lake and the valley beyond.

24315 - Cadair Idris 24313 - Cadair Idris

Along the way several ancient cairns mark the main path and from experience I can tell you that they are very useful in the fog. The view above shows one of the largest on the Craig Cwm Amarch ridge, looking across to our goal and the highest peak in the range, Penygadair.

By the time we had reached 660 meters the haze that had plagued most of our days away was starting to develop once again. What you can't tell from the photos is that the wind was also growing considerably in strength. Strong gusts would frequently try and grab your leg away from you mid step, just to make those slopes a little bit more daunting. It was around this time that a fell runner raced past us, rather putting our efforts to shame. The fact that he went up and down twice during the time that we went up and down once is simply insane!

Another hundred meters up and we were finally at the top of Craig Cau, the second highest peak on the mountain, standing tall at 791 meters. I remember this point of the journey well from when I was a child as originally I had believed it to be the peak of Cadair Idris itself. You can imagine my disappointment when I looked across to see Penygadair towering above us. I think my girlfriend was experiencing a similar set of emotions in the photo below.

24319 - Cadair Idris

This time however I knew better and in part two we will make that final ascent.


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Gannets and Manx Shearwaters,Tywyn

Wednesday, May 04, 2011 Adam Tilt 6 Comments

By seven o'clock on Monday morning I was sat in the car on Tywyn seafront, gently rocking from side to side as it was buffeted by winds approaching gale force six. An hour earlier we had been forced to get up and take the tent we had been staying in for the last four days down before it suffered damage or was dismantled for us by the weather. Now I'm not a morning person so this particular turn of events did not sit particularly well with me, especially seeing as it was also freezing cold. Never one to waste a day though I got my binoculars out for a quick scan of the sea and was amazed to see thousands upon thousands of Manx Shearwaters streaming past. They were far closer to land than I have ever seen them before resulting in some superb views. They were so good in fact that I woke up my sleeping girlfriend to let her know just how good. The various mumbles I received as a response were either an acknowledgment that nature had once again delivered a fantastic show, or that I should just shut up and leave her alone. Whichever it was those mumbles soon turned into a brisk walk along the promenade as at least a hundred Gannets had joined the Manx Shearwaters and were now involved in a feeding frenzy a few hundred meters off the beach.

P1080216 - Gannets, Tywyn

I have never seen a spectacle quite like it! There were waves of Gannets smashing headfirst into the sea one after the other whilst all around Manx Shearwaters were skimming across the surface of the sea. As the minutes ticked by more and more birds joined the ever expanding group until it stretched for some distance along the Tywyn coastline. Then after half an hour it was all over and the birds had dispersed in a matter of moments. I was left almost speechless by the whole thing but had thankfully filmed a few short videos that capture the action better than any photo ever could.

Walking back to the car a small flock of four Common Terns were right overhead battling with the winds, which when added to the two Red Breasted Mergansers that had flown in off the sea earlier gave a pretty good list for so early in the morning. The gale force winds undoubtedly had a part to play in bringing the birds in, which just goes to show that all weather can have its benefits.You just wouldn't have guessed that the previous evening had been so lovely.

P1080206 - Sunset over Barmouth

The rest of the weekend had been wall to wall sunshine and despite the lack of photographic opportunities we managed to pick up some great new species for the year. The highlight has to be the pair of Ospreys that have returned to the River Dyfi and are now incubating eggs for the very first time at the reserve. I really hope that they are successful as I'd love to visit again later in the year and see the fledglings after they have hatched. Also on the reserve we spotted a Lesser Redpoll which is the first one that I have seen for a couple of years. A bit further south on the River Tyfi we found a pair of Little Ringed Plovers back on their traditional nesting grounds along with a huge colony of Sand Martins. Heading North again six Common Sandpipers at Penmaenpool well and truly signalled their arrival, while a walk along the abandoned railway line delivered a cracking Garden Warbler in fine voice. The Spring migrants were rounded off nicely on our last evening with the very first Swift of the year over Barmouth. I love this time of the year.


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