CATEGORY / East of Yellowstone

Species Account: Chukar

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It seems we have a pair of Chukars looking to set up housekeeping near the house. For the past couple of days, they’ve circled our house and a neighbor’s house. This morning the male (just slightly larger) kept watch while the female fed just behind our house. So fun to have the living room as a huge and very comfortable wildlife blind.

We’ve started to just walk Rhad in the front yard to make the back feel safer for these two and have gotten after him for starting to chase them. He can do ‘Rabbit Patrol’ but these aren’t rabbits.

And with the chance they might nest nearby, I’m excited to start a new Species Account for Chukars in my Field Journal. In it I’ll add details we observe as well as some research as it’s nice to have all of that in one location. More to come on these two as we watch them a bit more.

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Phenology Update for Late April

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I’m not quite sure what birds arrived yesterday, (I’m still learning the ones that make the sagebrush steppe their summer home), but this morning when taking Rhad out,the air was filled with their sweet singing. Over the past couple of weeks, it’s been a gradual shift, but this morning, with the dawn chorus in full gear, it feels like Spring is here.

On the 16th, we had a good 10″ of heavy wet snow that disappeared almost within a day. That’s the moisture we’ve needed. Since then, we’ve had bits of snow and rain. Winters often average out, and while we still may have fire issues this summer, at least the snow pack in the high country is a bit better.

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The snow melts and soaks in to give the grass a good jump start. Yellow dots can now show in the green with the first dandelions coming out down low in the valley and slowly working their way up. And the small yellow violas are out as well. I even found some white loco weed with a good set of blooms already out in a sheltered location near the house.

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The deer are still hanging around, but they wander much more now with the green grass emerging in earnest, moving slowly across the hillsides each morning and afternoon. The boys are starting to show their new set of antlers. A report from at least a week ago came in to say the elk in Sunlight had been blazing a trail through the snow along the path that takes them over to the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone.

Also got a report that the osprey are back on the nest at Half Moon Bay near Buffalo Bill Reservoir.We had seen some bird there, strongly suspecting it was an Osprey, but without binoculars and a stop, we weren’t fully certain. The Pelicans are seen many days, but not all, so it’s hard to say if they are migrants or the summer residents, but usually three to five are there when we see them.

The Western Bluebirds calling our yard home for the summer were seen mating about a week ago, not long after we stopped seeing nest material being brought in.

And on the human phenology, we’ve noticed a sharp uptick in the traffic – and motorhomes are more common on the roads. The travelers and summer residents are returning. The East Gate to Yellowstone opens up on Friday, and it’s good to see at least a few people seem to be starting their vacations here in Cody. Smart folks – a week in Cody is about right to see much of what’s here.

We’re looking forward to trying out the restaurants again this year along the North Fork. Last year The Trail Shop had a good cook and we visited it a few times, and we had neighbors reporting that Shoshone Lodge also had good food. I’ll be sure to report what we find this year.

Phenology Report – Early April 2015

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This week we’ve dipped back into winter, and I’m glad for it simply because we need the moisture. We had 4″ of snow on the 6th and 1″ on the 4th. Not much, but each snowfall melts to show just a bit more green. The day before a storm moves in, we often have glorious weather that gets us itching to get outside more.

This has been an incredibly mild winter here and most everywhere I’ve gone in town, people are already talking about the hard summer we’ll face if we end up with a dry spring as well. That, and the consequences of a mild winter – ticks and voles.

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The ticks are thicker than I’ve seen in many years – making me choose walks that take me down the middle of a road. But on April 2, arriving like superheros, the Gray-capped Rosy-Finches showed up by the hundreds. The worked the sagebrush, flying over, and I’m hoping – eating the ticks. They would fly in and a few would land, the next landing in front of them, then more landing in front of those – looking like they a giant rolling cloud. Or perhaps a sticky roller – picking up the ticks along the way. They moved in a few times and pretty much covered the area around here – so I’m hopeful that they knocked the ticks down at least a bit. I’ve been seeing them every day or two, so the food supply must be enough to support them.

I’ve also noticed birds following the deer and the elk around – magpies in particular – jumping up and picking off what I assume are ticks. I saw some cowbirds lining a horse’s back in a pasture on the valley floor, so they are back.

The voles are starting to filter into more and more discussions I hear in town. They are thriving and lawns are suffering. The voles are bringing in the raccoons who can dig some pretty large holes going after them as a meal. Between this and the high deer population in town, it might be a lean summer for gardens. After doing a lot of research, my mom and others are resorting to gassing the little buggers.

Before this snow came in, we had a few amazing days of warmth and little wind. We even touched in the 70s out here. I had a chance to simply sit outside for a bit and read in the sun – gathering in a bit of Vitamin D. The plan for the day was to crunch out some work on the computer, but it seems a Canadian Goose hit a power line and the power was out for three hours. Delightful break, but I’m sorry the Goose had to sacrifice him/herself to get it. I also saw my first butterflies as well as some mayflies, thanks to that break.

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The bluebirds seem to have sorted out who is going to live where this summer. The pair who won our at our nest box visit every morning and evening, but are gone for much of the day, but the nest building has begun and they are increasingly busy at that task.

One morning this past week, a Kestrel flew by and landed on the fence for a few minutes – the pointed wings shooting past the window caught my attention more than anything. It stayed long enough for me to grab the binoculars and spend a minute or so just appreciating the colors and beautiful markings on it since it was too far away for a photo. I’ve heard they are a sign of a healthy environment, and it is a pretty complete ecosystem around here.

The grouse should be strutting on their leks each morning now, but we’ve yet to get up early to head out to watch them. We’ve especially kept an eye out here near the house because we’ve flushed grouse on numerous occasions, but now that we’re specifically looking for them, we’ve not seen them. And we need to plan a trip to a Sage Grouse lek as well.

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The rabbits around our house are also thriving – it’s not uncommon to look out and easily see a half dozen out eating the fresh green grass or sitting against a wind break of some sort, soaking in the warmth. That brought a Golden Eagle in to hunt close to the house one morning, but unfortunately, we didn’t get many shots – just don’t have better lenses, but it was amazing to see this bird up close in the early morning light.

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And on Easter morning, a juvenile Red Tailed Hawk spent his time looking for an Easter bunny breakfast. And he had a tag-along Clark’s Nutcracker. Wherever the hawk landed, the nutcracker was a fence pole away. Maybe the nutcrackers are nesting somewhere nearby.

In the last week of March, we heard that someone in the area watched a moose swim across Buffalo Bill Reservoir to the dust abatement dike on the North Fork side, climb up and then settle down for a nap. Also a Grizzly Bear walked all the way down Green Creek to valley floor. A neighbor also reported seeing tracks on a road above their house – so they are out and about.

 

Western Thatching Ants

2015-03-29 11.26While on a walk today, Mike and I noticed an ant mound with the inhabitants covering the top. I snapped a photo and looked them up. They are Western Thatching Ants. A neighbor said they’ve been out on warm days for a few weeks now, but this was our first time noticing them.

After reading and watching a couple of videos, I’ll have to keep an eye on them for birds – and steer clear of them – don’t really want to get bit.

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Here are some of the sites that helped me to learn more:

http://www.naturenorth.com/summer/Ants/Thatching_Ants.html

https://www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/western-thatch-ant.cfm

Elk are on the move

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Just a quick phenology note to say the elk are starting to be seen in new locations as compared to even a few weeks ago. Sometimes we’re seeing them in large bands, but also now in smaller ones. The other day by the Wapiti Post Office, there were four of them standing just as close together as they could. This morning, a larger group seems to be down behind the School.

Somewhere recently I heard about an article saying that while there are fewer elk around due to wolf predation, the ones that remain are tough and mean – getting much better at defending themselves. The group seen above didn’t stay very long – incredibly alert, someone out walking a dog at least a quarter mile away from them was enough for them to turn and move over the hill.

The deer are also moving a bit differently around here – so the migration is underway.

Phenology Report: Mid March 2015

21 MAR 2015 - Ishawooa Horse Head on Southf Fork  near Cody, WY

21 MAR 2015 – Ishawooa Horse Head on Southf Fork near Cody, WY

Spring is coming early here – and the low snowpack is a concern to many. Already the Ishawooa horse’s head on South Fork is clearly showing. The horse’s reins hanging down will eventually melt enough to ‘break.’ This is used as an indication of when the highest runoff is over and the mountain passes are clear enough to travel. Compare this year (above) on March 21 to last year (below) on June 15:

15 JUNE 2014 - Ishawooa Horse Head

15 JUNE 2014 – Ishawooa Horse Head

In fact, even a drive up to Pahaska, near the East Gate of Yellowstone had hardly any snow. For those of you who know the area, we didn’t even see any snow or ice on the banks of the river until we were almost to Kitty Creek.

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But today as I type this, we’ve had bit of snow and it’s still snowing up higher – and more is in the forecast. I’m always happy to see snow or rain out here – thankful for the moisture.

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebirds have returned for the summer.

As for the birds returning, the Bluebirds are back – and in our little pocket of houses, each has at least one bluebird nesting box and the birds are battle out where they will live for the next few months. We have a pair that has been busy protecting their claim on the bird box behind our house. The Mountain Bluebirds returned on March 10 to most of the greater Yellowstone area. That was also the day a report came in of Sandhill Cranes over on South Fork outside of Cody. Since then we’ve seen them as well.

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Sandhill Cranes flying overhead on 21 Mar 2015

On a drive around the area, we spotted three bison on North Fork – all plodding their way west toward the park.

A bull bison that spent the winter east of Yellowstone

Bison seen along the North Fork of the Shoshone River 21 March 2015

And we saw numerous bands of Bighorn Sheep in the lower part of the North Fork – most were ewes, but a few rams were in the mix as well.

Two Bighorn rams keeping to the edge of the road along the North Fork Highway

Two Bighorn rams keeping to the edge of the road along the North Fork Highway

The mule deer bucks in the area have mostly lost their antlers – I did notice one large buck rubbing his head in the sagebrush as his new set of antlers is starting to come in. Must be similar to cutting teeth.

All along the North Fork, the aspen had their catkins nearly fully out. The Cottonwoods are getting ready to follow with the buds on all the trees quite swollen. We did stop by Newton Spring Picnic Area and noticed the Gooseberry bushes are already sending out leaves. Looking down at the base of the bunch grass in the area, there’s more and more green showing. Dandelions have their first leaves out, but no blossoms yet.

In town, the lilac bushes are starting to send out their leaves and I spot crocuses and daffodils blooming in a few yards.

So spring is well on its way here in the Cody area, but I’m glad to see winter hanging on for a bit to give us a bit more snowpack.

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You can see more of my Yellowstone Phenology Notes here and be sure to check out my other sites/blogs – SnowMoon Photography and Geyser Watch.

And make time to get outside yourself and enjoy watching spring arrive in your area!

Species Account: Mountain Lion Kill

 

MtnLionEntryThis past week I’ve worked to pull together more bits and pieces to get my field journal in better shape before all the spring information starts coming in. What I’m finding is that I have much to add. I’ll be sharing more of the actual set-up soon, but one thing added recently are more species accounts. These are sections in my field journal for stories about specific species of plants and animals. One story comes from early in February of a Mountain Lion kill that happened about 400 yards from our house. It’s the first in a section created for Mountain Lion observations.

The journaling was written up on that day – writing things up right away is important as details get fuzzy rather quickly. I imagine there might be a few grammatical mistakes in there, but for now I’m not terribly concerned. I keep the writing in an InDesign file – and may also add in photos, but I thoroughly enjoy having a physical field journal. If there are mistakes that bug me, I’ll rework it at some point, but for now just make notes on it.

Journaling Reads:

Wednesday 4 Feb 2015 – at home in Wapiti – My normal routine is to get up and take Rhad out while Mike sleeps in a bit longer. We are in predator country – with lots of prey – so I take along a firearm I’m familiar with and a flashlight. This morning, the wind was calm and I heard the Great Horned Owls hooting almost non-stop from a ridge up above us. An inch or two of snow that had fallen overnight helped to send that sound along. On our way in, I take a closer look at the track left by a mouse – who had just enough snow to stay covered, and popped out a couple of times.

As the day slowly lightened, I started to see the outline of the hills above us, then finally enough light to scan the wind-gnarled trees on the ridge where the owls sounded like they might be. Before I could scan all the trees, my attention was shifted to the coyote that had just come into view on that ridge, trotting along and occasionally stopping to try a jump on a mouse or vole. Soon a second one appeared. As this one approached, they moved along at a fast pace, their structure allowing them to nearly float along with an easy gait.

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The deer near the house were attentive, and if Mike and I lost the coyotes’ location, the deer would point the way. Scanning the hillsides, we noticed a third one sitting near the top of a ridge, simply watching from above. Across the gully from this one sat another large dark dot – a Golden Eagle – that seemed about the same size as the sitting coyote. Again, we say, “those are huge birds.”

We kept watching the scene, and then notice quite a few birds near the bottom of the gully between the sitting coyote and eagle – mostly magpies, but also a raven or two…and then surprisingly, a second golden eagle rises and flies off. While we can’t see it directly from the living room, there’s a carcass there.

After getting ourselves ready for the day – the outing to see what we can see pushes us along. Soon we’re in the Jeep, to get the plowing done to a neighbor’s house who wants us to work to keep the road open to his place and conveniently takes us by the carcass. We stop in one spot and see the sagebrush is still hiding this cache. We wind our way up the hill and from above, we can see it’s a deer.

A short way farther, we see the unmistakable round holes of a mountain lion – each hole with a clearly defined paw print. It has followed – for the most part – the road we need to plow. I used my hand to generally measure the stride of the prints (as defined in James Halfpenny’s book, Scat and Tracks of the Rocky Mountains) were about 40” apart. Just over the ridge from the kill, where the pine trees grow in a more wind protected area, the tracks wander a bit. Perhaps this is where it paused for a bit to eat more of a portion taken. In one spot, where it took a shortcut to cut off a couple of curves in the road, it came down a steeper bank, sinking fairly deep into the mud as a heavy animal would.

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At one point, we notice a second set of tracks heading the opposite direction, but following the cat tracks. We guess the coyote, but it also could have been a fox (still need to look up info on the difference in tracks) – finding an opportunity to scavenge what the mountain lion left.

As we plow farther along, the tracks continued east along the road in a steady pace. We finally reach the house where we turn around and head back again and decide to invite our friend Kevin along to check out the carcass. By late morning, we figure there shouldn’t be anything on the carcass – and as we pass through again where we can barely see it, we’re right.

We head in to do a couple of chores, and then meet up with our neighbor, Kevin, and head over. Walking along the hillside with enough snow to hide all the rocks I found myself carefully following Mike and Kevin’s tracks as I worked through this opportunity to practice my balance skills.

Arriving at the carcass, we see it was a doe and we start to figure out the crime scene. About 15 feet from the carcass is a spot clear of snow – we guess where she had bedded down. Her neck is torn open, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that was how she was taken down, but definitely a possibility. The internal organs are all gone except the stomach and intestines. The ‘top’ front shoulder and leg is missing (a closer look at the photos later on shows it there under the rib cage). The meat from the top (her left) side is pretty much gone. We had noticed the Golden eagles jumping up – likely trying to flip her over. (Gory photo #1 and Gory photo #2 – click on them if you want to see)

Around her are a myriad of bird tracks and wing prints in the snow. And a single line of cat tracks, well covered with snow heading up the gully. So that would mean the cat full from feeding headed to a spot to rest…we guessed probably just over the ridge where the pine trees are more numerous.

We spent about 10-15 minutes there, and then headed out. Throughout the day, we watched birds come and go – tons of Magpies, some ravens and 4 Golden eagles – likely the breeding pair and perhaps another breeding pair. We only saw one on the carcass at a time. A second often watched from the hillside above. Usually when one moved in on the carcass, the other moved out. Rarely did we every see two on it at any one time.

Mike measured the distance on the map to find the carcass was 382 yards away – we had guessed about 400 yards. Nice to know we’re fairly accurate on guessing distances. It’s a skill that can’t be practiced enough.

As the day wore on, we watched the deer and the birds, but no sign of the coyotes again or any other mammals on it. At last light, a group of three deer walked up far enough to see the carcass, perhaps paying their last respects to a family member, and then moved off to the east.

Note: A couple of days later when out with Rhad just before bedtime, Rhad stuck close to me and the hair stood up on my neck a few times. The cat was near and watching. Luckily no encounter with it, though.

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Products used in my field journal:

Ravens Dance and a bit more phenology

Raven Behavior 4 Jan 2015

Been meaning to get this bit of phenology up – at least of the ravens in the area. I watched this pair through binoculars for a good five minutes – two steps to the left, then one would bow and display and the other would return the bow. Then it was two more steps to the left. By the time I grabbed and moved the spotting scope to get some photos, the one here on the left was beginning to lose interest in the dance. I’ve not seen a lot of flight dances by them yet, but this was fun to watch.

We’ve been watching the Golden Eagles as well – but no visits that we’ve seen yet to their nest on the cliffs above us. On calm nights, we can still hear owls calling out their territory hootings. A pair from pretty much north of us, and a single return call to the west.

A neighbor reported his first deer shed from this year – about an 8″ spike antler.

Had another windstorm come through – a chinook that melted the snow, and pretty much did in the solid ice building on Buffalo Bill Reservoir much to the ice fishermen’s disgust. Calm, sunny and cold today, though, so perhaps the ice will make a solid return.

Sorry for the lack of regular posts – just a nose/grindstone thing. Lots of projects seeing attention – a few new products coming to the store soon as well.

UPDATE: The Golden eagles were seen close together this evening, and swooping and dancing in the air. Fun to watch.

Wildlife up the North Fork 26 Dec 2014

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Merry Christmas!

I suppose I can still say that since technically the 25th is simply the transition from Advent to Christmas. A big part of me wishes we could continue the celebrations because these days are the best in my opinion. The big celebration is done, and now we can really relax enough to enjoy all the work. That’s what Mike and I strive to do, despite the world wanting to resume that light speed pace.

Yesterday we did just that – along with lots of other people in the area. You see, the snow fell on Christmas Day and the wind was calm yesterday. It was the perfect excuse to drive up the North Fork of the Shoshone – east of Yellowstone.

We drove all the way up to Pahaska (as close as you can drive to Yellowstone’s East Gate in winter), where many were out cross country skiing, snowshoeing and sledding, and then slowly made our way back down. The parking lot was fairly full at Sleeping Giant Ski Area. Above it, the wind had only reached the tops of some of the ridges.

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We hoped to see some moose, and eventually saw that shape in the willows.

141226J1250612It was a yearling that still seems to be surviving by itself. Normally you see Mom with them still.  Amazing to see it still thriving.

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Big Horn sheep were sprinkled all along the way – still in rut, though we never really saw a battle. There were ample photo opportunities, though.

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The bachelor bison were out, but we didn’t stop by to see them, and we spotted a few elk as well, but nothing close enough to warrant a stop. Just before we left the canyon, a car was pulled over and it took us a minute to see what they saw – eagles. Lots of them in a couple of trees. Unfortunately, no good shots of the bunch because many flew off, farther downstream.

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At first glance, we thought we saw both Balds and Goldens, but the ‘Goldens’ turned out to be immature Bald Eagles.

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And then we noticed all the ravens – on an elk carcass that wasn’t terribly old. No wonder all the eagles were in the trees – they were full. And whatever took down the elk (one of the wolf packs in the area? Mountain Lion?) probably also wasn’t terribly far away. We glassed the hillsides, but didn’t see anything.

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The photographers started coming in as well. My camera doesn’t have the best of lenses, so no way to really zoom in much more than I have it here, so we didn’t stay much longer.

Back at home, we also managed to see a coyote on the hills above us and watched a group of about 20 deer chase him off. A good wildlife watching day for certain.

Phenology Report 20 Dec 2014

Today we wait for the next snowstorm to move in here on the North Fork of the Shoshone – east of Yellowstone. We can see it’s already snowing in the park, which is a good thing. The east gate opens up on the 22nd for the winter season with Gary Fales Outfitting being the one to contact for information on heading into the park this winter from the Cody side.

We had a good warm spell that melted much of the snow here and left us with some beautiful wind-free winter days. Snow moved in on the 14th and left us a “hard-working 1/2″ (as a neighbor called the 5-6” or so we ended up with when less than an inch was predicted). The day after the storm was cold, but also wind-free, and pulled me outside to take some photos. The frost clung to nearly everything, and the fog would cut off views except for single spires at times.

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We watched a Northern Goshawk just barely miss a rabbit lunch just a few feet from our front deck. We had seen a hawk around the area in the distance, but never when we had the binoculars handy to see what type of hawk it might be – all we could really see was the lighter colored underbelly.

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Also this past week, we started to hear a duet being sung where only a solo Great Horned Owl had been heard before. Courting season for them appears to have begun.

On another fabulous winter day this week, we went with a friend out to hike around in the forest – and saw deer, a couple of Bighorn Sheep that heard us chatting and headed over the far ridge. Also saw at least one set of elk tracks mixed in with the deer tracks. It felt so good to get outside and away from unpacking boxes. The rut is winding down, but patches of blood were found from an apparent tussle between two of them that didn’t leave much of a trail. It always amazes me how quickly they can clot up.

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We got a report that Sunshine Reservoir over by Meeteetse had a brave ice fisherman testing it – the ice was reported to only be 2-3″ thick at this point.  The water levels at Buffalo Bill Reservoir are up a bit – just at the overflow level of the dust abatement dike where we’ve seen fishermen and bald eagles over the past week or so. Also have seen golden eagles in that same area when driving to town to do some Christmas errands. On the warm, calm days, we even saw a couple of boats out on the water there.

Photographer, Sandi Sisti has found a bull moose or two up farther toward Yellowstone, and as usual has captured some great shots.

Here in Wapiti, some neighbors have spotted wolves, likely from the Absaroka Pack in the past week or so. We’ve kept our eyes out for them, but haven’t seen or heard them. Also, we heard via hunters that the elk normally seen between Meeteetse and Cody are being kept up on Carter Mountain by the wolves in that area.

The snowstorm moving in today is supposed to stay for the rest of the week and give us a strong shot of having a white Christmas. Have a great week!


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