Sunday, 11 June 2017

Of Gales, Cape Parrots and Crowned Eagle

Further surveys out of Grahamstown had to be cancelled due to gale force winds this week. Still, Wednesday morning Adrian Craig, Lynette Rudman (Eastern Cape Bird Club), Diane and myself headed out somewhat optimistically. Our destination was Fort Fordyce Nature Reserve, managed by Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism. This well signed, well looked after, quiet, forested reserve is quite a contrast to the Darlington Dam campsite.

We were warned on entrance that strong winds had already brought down two large trees, and we should park away from anything that might topple onto us. Ringing, our mission for the morning, was out of the question. Instead we went for some walk into the forest, where the trees did offer some shelter from the howling winds, but where birding was very quiet.

The birding highlight of the day would come late that afternoon on our way out. Lynette had some inside information that Cape Parrots were at the Baddaford farm stall. Sure enough, flutters of green and squeaks could be heard from the Pecan nut grove, and Lynette got us permission to head down a bit closer. The birding highlight for my day would have been the juvenile Crowned Eagle perched right overhead and that provided excellent viewing. But that would be eclipsed when eventually the parrots emerged en-masse from the green foliage. We’d been a bit disappointed when our trajectory to the pecan-nut grove had been cut off by an electric fence. As we stood wistfully wishing to get closer, trying to catch a glimpse of anything in the trees, suddenly the calling volume started to pick up. It was evident that there wasn’t just a small party of parrots here, but quite a few. However, none of us were prepared for the irruption of 160 parrots from the grove of trees that was no more than 100m long.

The parrots whirled and swarmed, many then settling in the large tree near us. The appearance of a Black Sparrowhawk caused further chaos to the clammering flock. Eventually, with the sun having disappeared from the valley, the flock took off and headed away, presumably in the direction of Hogsback, well know Cape Parrot hotspot.  Smaller groups were then observed coming down the valley, presumably from further off. The whole experience was stark contrast to my first efforts to spot Cape Parrot: I’d spent three days camping near Stutterheim just for a sighting of a pair flying high overhead. The Cape Parrots of Baddaford experience was a lot more reminiscent of the claylick experiences of the Tambopata River.

With the estimated population somewhere around 1500 birds, that we had seen roughly 200 (10 – 15% of the population), was a very very special experience.

Juvenile Crowned Eagle

Cape Parrots

Darlington Dam: Addo's best kept secret?

A dramatic week, with Cape Town battered by storms and the fires to the south of us wreaking havoc in Knysna: evacuations, houses burnt and lives lost in this historic seaside town. Despite that, the area is in the grips of a severe drought, with the sporadic rains from two months ago now a distant memory.

Still, my week started fairly well. I set off at 5am Monday morning to a Karoo Biogaps pentad just off the untarred R400 between Jansenville and Riebeek-east. The area was typical flat Karoo terrain, but with elements of succulent Albany thicket as evidenced by expansive stands of ‘noors’, a species of Euphorbia. The Sunday’s River, reduced to puddles, also winds its way through here. The pools of water and acacia thicket lining the river provided productive birding, with the cold early morning making way for a warm and pleasant day.

This was the first pentad where Sabota Lark would prove to be really common. Small parties were observed foraging here and there several times. White-fronted Bee-eaters provided some colour, and some nesting Rock Martins on the farmhouse were pointed out by the farmer. He also commented that he had seen Fish Eagle feeding on Angora lambs on infrequent occasions. The only raptor I’d see here would be the inevitable Pale Chanting Goshawk.

As I’d been unsure as to accessibility across the pentad, and the amount of time I’d need to survey it, I’d not made accommodation plans for that night. However, the farm tracks and dry conditions meant easy access across the pentad, facilitating timely completion of the survey come 5pm. I’d noticed the Darlington Dam was relatively nearby, and having never been there decided it would be a worthy place to explore for accommodation options.

I was somewhat (pleasantly) surprised to find that the dam falls under the jurisdiction of Addo Elephant National Park. However, unlike the main Addo section, things at Darlington are a lot more informal – there was no ranger at the gate, and I had to hunt around the houses to find someone who’d take money for entrance or camping. This proved to be very cheap – R60 excluding conservation fee, which must make it the cheapest SANPARKs camping fee of any of the national parks. I’d later find out that this is perhaps because there are no showers or running water: there is no ablution block along the lake edge to which I was directed. Toilets are very dilapidated and dirty long-drop toilets scattered along the lake edge. It is not surprising that there is toilet paper and poo behind most bushes, but the piles of litter were inexcusable as bins are provided. Darlington Dam is probably best known to the angling community, some of whom clearly need to clean up their act. Navigating catfish heads, shit and the litter along the lake edge is a putrid affair.

In fact, the original title for this blog post was Darlington Dam: Addo’s best kept (dirty) secret?

Enjoying the lake edge at the campsite was not what I was there for of course: the birding would make up for all that. Spotted Eagle Owl had already greeted me as I’d tried to navigate the un-signed tracks in the evening winter gloom to somewhere legal looking to put up my tent. Waterfowl and Water Dikkop bickering provided backdrop noise all night long. During the cold, long, pre-sunrise dawn was when I took my walk along the dam edge, where Red-billed and Cape Teal paddled off at my approach, Egyptian Geese and Shelducks complained loudly, and a variety of other birds provided distraction from the legacy of human presence. As a bonus, I was the only person there.

With the rising of the sun it seemed like a good time to go for a drive to explore the rest of the pentad outside the sturdy electric fence demarcating the camp area. For those more interested in game than birds, Jackal, Vervet Monkey, Baboon, Kudu, Gemsbok, Kudu, Rhebok or Reedbuk, Duiker, and Springbok were all seen. Meanwhile, birds of all sorts were non-stop along the water edge. I was surprised to see Cape Bulbul rather than Red-eyed Bulbul, and Karoo birds were generally lacking from the lengthy bird-list, despite the obvious suitability of the habitat. With 80 birds for the 4-5 hours birding, this is easily a site that could produce 100 birds for the day with a few more hours at this time of year, and probably a lot more with the summer migrants.

However, I had meetings in Grahamstown to get to, but on balance, I could have done with at least another day here. Addo clearly have big plans for the area, with a seemingly endless tract of sturdy electrified game fence stretching along the main dirt road. If elephant and lion aren’t there already, they will be soon.

Female Southern Black Korhaan

Blacksmith Lapwing

Familiar Chat on 'noors

Fish Eagle with a view

Grey-headed Gull

Kittlitz's Plover

Lark-like Bunting on noors

Red-billed Quelea, non-br

Sabota Lark


Oh yes, despite this rather alarming warning sign, I did not see or hear hippo, or see any tracks. If that is because they simply avoid the human habited lake section I cannot say.

Friday, 26 May 2017

The SHE in my Machine

So I take it that since computers can now beat humans at Poker, Go, driving safely and pretty much anything else, that the Singularity has happened. Apart from a slightly embarrassed silence from humanity (after all, who wants to get on a chair and boast about how stupid we are), the world hasn’t changed much down the line of how sci-fi movies made out we’d all soon be slaves to machines.

After all, artificial intelligence is still useful, and cute, so long as we get to hold it in the palm of our hands. I mean, if our much-smarter-than-us-phones start to threaten us with slavery and nuclear war, we’d just flush them down the toilet and buy the next slightly less belligerent model. Clearly though, if the machines are seeking dominance over us mortals, something that hasn’t been solved by them is the disconnect between computer reason and the human need to go where no man (or machine) has ever gone before. Let’s take the example of surveying birds in the Karoo.

The Karoo: dry, big, open space, endless dusty roads, a winter landscape drawn solely from the brown end of the colour spectrum, and where what counts as excitement here is watching a sheep getting so bored that it falls over asleep. And there are snakes: poisonous ones. I suspect that somewhere in the Karoo they’ve buried a black hole, because time warps here like nowhere else: a 20km drive can feel like eternity. Our computer is thinking: why do you even want to be there? Why would you go from one point in this landscape where everything looks the same, to somewhere else that looks like the place before?

Computer diagnosis: you are mad and I’m going to quietly steer you to a psychiatrist who will hopefully sell me to a homeless person on

So how did I figure that out? Well – I got lost on the first survey based out of Richmond: purely my own fault, based on too little sleep and not figuring out one dirt road from another. Seriously though: intersections on the back roads are rarely marked, and if they are it will be something like “AP1056” or “Turn left in the direction of a-town-you’ve-never-heard-of that sounds like a planet from Star Wars”. Alternatively you might want to go right.

That evening, surveying co-team lead Gigi Laidler showed me a neat trick: I could just enter the GPS coordinates of where I needed to go straight into Google Maps on my phone.  I.e. from ‘Your location’ aka in machine speak ‘Why are you even here? There is nothing here! You’re clearly lost’ to ’32.123s 23.145e’ aka machine speak for ‘Why do you even want to go there? Clearly there has been some mistake!

Never-the-less, a cute little blue line wiggles its way across the Google map. What is not so evident is that artificial intelligence is manifest in the Navigator: i.e. that seductive voice that tells us that in 600m we should be turning right. (Personal confession, I never thought that ‘In 600m, turn right’ would ever send me instantly into daydreaming about Scarlett Johansson, although in retrospect clearly this is part of the machine’s plan to control me because inappropriate daydreaming will definitely get me lost and hence I become more reliant on Google Maps for finding my way, ie. a downward spiral of addiction).  

Thanks to Google for that photo collage of the famous actress: apologies to any photographers not credited

The first attempt worked quite well: we were headed for a survey block just off the N1. Scarlett Johansson was clearly thinking “Yes! let’s get there, at least its 50km closer to Cape Town!”

The next journey would reveal the truth about the artificial intelligence in my machine. I entered coordinates for a pentad to the north, literally in the middle of nowhere. Up popped the little map, which I perused to see if it made sense, and it did. I confidently pressed the navigator button, and let Scarlett Johansson tell me I needed to turn right at the first intersection – one satisfied humanoid at the wheel!

A few kilometres down the road towards Richmond and Scarlett was having a panic attack: the screen had frozen. Clearly Scarlett was torn between needing to act in self-preservation and the need to obey her mad human master, although I’d only realise that later.

Since I knew this bit of the road, I closed the app while I navigated to the other side of the town, where I started the app again. I waited for Scarlett’s sultry tones, but she was speechless with fear. The first intersection loomed out of the pre-dawn gloom unannounced, but I was confident I needed to turn right (somewhat disappointed that I needed to have to do that alone).

A few kilometres further down the road and I shot by another un-named intersection. Didn’t I have to turn right here? I braked to a sudden halt. While I was trying to interpret blue dots from blue lines on the map Scarlett suddenly commanded: “Continue straight”.
“Are you sure Scarlett?” She remained silent, and I forgave her: I mean, she’s good looking and we all know a GPS can get confused from time to time; after all, I was very close to the intersection. Correcting myself onto the right road, I continued on. As the red-glow of dawn started to show off the table-top mesas, I glimpsed another intersection up ahead, helpfully named “AP random number”.
Continue straight!” commanded Scarlett. Reasoning that the command had been given with sufficient time and that she’d settled down, I continued straight, beguiled by the outlines of the curvaceous landscape.

But it dawned on me as dawn broke, that according to my odometer I should be where I needed to be, and that Hannover was not where I wanted to be heading. I looked down at the map, and was horrified to see that the blue dot of my position was now about 15 km from the blue line of the Google map! Clearly it was time to shut down Scarlett and resort to manual navigation.
Don’t take me to that land of no internet or cellphone reception! Don’t disconnect me from the Cloud! NOOooooo…!” silently wailed the virtual Scarlett.

Yeah right, like you’re gonna Ex Machina my ass – I’ ve got birding to do…. And that’s is what will always make us better than the machines: our bizarre desire to go odd places to take photos of little brown animals in a desire to better understand and protect them. It’s not logical, and hence Scarlett and I will never have much in common.

A Desert Cisticola on a precarious perch

Shocking picture of a Jackal Buzzard!

A poplar tree in late autumn colours added some color to the scenery

In my last post, I was pondering the lack of Lark-like Buntings. This time it was hard to do a point count without recording Lark-like Buntings: they were everywhere. Clearly the summer rains had done their job in the north-eastern Karoo region, and birds were loving the grass and seed cover. Pentad lists were between 50 and 70: double those of last months.

However, since its been some time since the last good rains, birds were regular visitors to water wherever it occurred: here a Lark-like Bunting takes a drink from a puddle next to a livestock watering trough.

Northern Black Korhaan - these noisy birds have been known to throw rider's from there horses when irrupting from cover at the last minute.

Namaqua Warbler in full cry

Plain-backed Pipit (YES IT IS!)

Rufous-eared Warbler

The lack of color the rest of the day makes sunsets especially pretty

During the heat of the day during one survey I waited by a small stream to watch the birds drinking and bathing. Red-eyed bulbuls were most frequently observed.

Puncture! Scarlett made me drive over that screw, I know it.

At one of the survey sites the farmer's dog decided to take me for a walk. Here 'Otto' surveys his kingdom.

While intersections on Karoo roads are poorly marked, bizarrely enough beautiful sunrises are well signposted.

Interesting ornithological observation: a group of non-breeding Southern Masked Weavers and Red-headed Finches were observed eating harvester termites at one point.



Monday, 15 May 2017

Break to Borneo

Its 6pm, the end of my first full day in the city of Bontang, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. The cicadas are battling to be heard over the mosque loudspeakers issuing the evening call-to-prayer. I'm on the edge of an 18-hole golf course fringed by mangroves. Looking beyond the mangroves is a wooden village on stilts in the water. Everything feels kind of surreal: it took 4 flights with over 17 hours flight time and a 6 hour taxi ride straight out of gran-turismo to get here, more than 36 hours travel time.

You know you're headed somewhere remote when the bookshops in the airports don't have a travel guide to where you are going. In transit through Singapore I found the first travel guide to Indonesia, as thick as my middle finger, and it had 2 pages on East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. In Jakarta, I find one Lonely Planet guide to Indonesia: I buy that and a bird book. I'm the only muzungo / gringo on the plane for the last flight to Balikpapan.

So: Some fast facts about Indonesia: it is an archipelago of over 17 000 islands, the largest of which
are Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Sulawesi and Papua. Indonesia is the world's 4th most populous country with over 255 million people. The official language is Indonesian, although that is a second language to 80% of the population. Even at the pretty fancy 3 * hotel, the English of the staff is basic at best, although that is not a bad thing: watching the waitress do an impression of a cow to explain an item on the menu will go down as a highlight of the trip.

I was last in Borneo more than 20 years ago as a backpacker, and then only on the northern Malaysian side: Sabah and Sarawak. However, most of the island belongs to Indonesia.

The reason for my visit to this area is not for birding! It is to learn about an IUCN project that uses species traits to examine their vulnerability to climate change. But more about that later. The first few days when not on the laptop I've been out birding in this tropical environment as much as possible.

Birding Bontang, Borneo.

While some countries, like Peru, have bigger total species lists, Indonesia has the highest number of country specific endemics: 381 of 1605 (24%) species! Perhaps as to be expected with such huge human impact, about 20% are considered to be species of conservation concern according to Morten Strange's Birds of Indonesia (the only bird guide to the birds of the entire archipelago, but even so only with 912 of the total number of species).

Some important Borneo birding facts: there 52 endemic species of the 669 species that can be seen here. The best bird book is Phillips' field guide to the Bird of Borneo. An example is one of the quick id by habitat plates, which pretty much was a one stop id page for birding around the hotel.

I'd only find out later that there was a sign saying 'entry forbidden' – it was in Indonesian, so I spent several afternoons and a bit of a morning out trying to spot feathered creatures in the secondary forest and mangroves lining the golf course.

One day of the workshop included a day trip into the Kutai National Park. This park was declared by the Dutch in the 1930's and has been shrinking ever since: originally 3 million hectares, it is now less than 200 000ha. That is admittedly still pretty big, but the drive along the road that skirts the edge of the park revealed massive rural settlements and oil-palm plantations in the park. With open-cast coal mines to the north, and oil palm plantations to the south, the protected area is under massive pressure. Droughts associated with El Nino meant that almost the entire park burnt sometime in the 90s. Given all that it is practically a miracle that Orangutans are still found here. An estimated population of between 1500 – 2000 is found in the park. It is one of the best places to see wild Orangutan in Indonesia, although certainly also one of the least straightforward to access, unless you come with your own car and a lot of preparatory work.

As promised though, after a couple of warm up walks through the forest, and a typically amazing Indonesia buffet that included things like Snake fruit, battered shrimps, we were rewarded with views of the arm of a large male Orangutan reaching for figs in a tree on the side of the river. Later, after another walk we had spectacular views of a female feeding very close to the staff accommodation of the rest camp / ranger post. Our group of researchers weren't the only ones to get great views, a local news documentary crew were also on-site.

Although a bit late in the day for birding, certainly the highlight of the walk through the forest with local guide Harya was the Greater Slaty Woodpecker, a Bornean endemic and also the largest woodpecker in the world! The photos are more personal glory shots than images that capture the beauty of the bird.

So what was the workshop all about? Anne Russon does research on Orangutans from the perspective of the development of intelligence. Of course she is also very concerned about them on an individual level, since these magnificent red-haired cousins of ours continue to be poached, with youngsters sold for the pet trade. The large number of rehabilitation and reintroduction projects across Borneo attest to conservation efforts aiming to deal with this. However, the threat of deforestation and fires (predicted to increase under some climate change scenarios) is a real concern, and so Jamie Carr, Climate Change Programme Officer of the IUCN Global Species Programme had organised this workshop to do a life history trait based assessment to climate change vulnerability. What is going to come of that.... you'll have to wait and find out!

In the meantime, enjoy some of the scenes from Borneo, and visit the forest while you can, as it is disappearing incredibly fast, as are the animals that rely upon it.

These photos in high res plus More photos:

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Of starry Karoo nights and friendly sheep

An early start to the week was hampered somewhat by a car battery made lazy by the cold weather, but luckily that fail was in reach of a charger with extension. My target for the week was to survey three pentads for the Karoo BioGaps project around Beaufort West. The first pentad was close to the area currently targeted for Uranium mining, a farm managed by Buyisile and partners. They run Angora goats for their wool.

After navigating the labyrinth of unmarked dirt roads behind the dusty town of Rietbron, I made it to Tulpleegte. Buyisile made me welcome with a cup of tea, and allowed me to set up camp in an unused shearing shed on the property, as the wind-chill factor was running temperatures down into the blue end of the colour spectrum. The farm had had good rains earlier in the month: the first in over a year. Buyisile told me that the rain had been a make or break moment for them, as the goats had started dying. Now, 10 days or so after the rain the grey bushes were hinting at the green within. I'd spent some time watching tortoises in the mud a bit earlier, and commented on this to Buyusili, who said “Yes, there are so many tortoises sometimes I think this is a tortoise farm and not a goat farm!”

The afternoon survey turned up the usual suspects for a Karoo flat-lands survey, plus some nice sightings of Double-banded Courser. The last survey was near the shed, where a shallow dam added a bit of depth to the birdlist.

After setting up my tent in the shed, displacing a small flock of House Sparrows in the process (sorry okes!) I was able to spend some time enjoying the sunset, serenaded by distant jackals. This gradually gave way to reveal the depths of the universe above. It had been some time since I'd done some star photography, and here is a choice of my favourite pics (all captured with a macro lens made for photographing bugs no less!).

Windmills and Stars, with the glow of Beaufort West in the background

Windmill and Taurus

20 second timelapse of an aeroplane traversing the sky, traversed by satellite trails

Acacia with a starry sunset

A sisal reflection in the dam

Pale-chanting goshawk stares up at the star spangled sky

With the thermometer struggling to reach double digits the Wednesday morning, and with some concern about the battery, it made sense to do the first surveys by bicycle. Bird of the morning would have to be a pair of Secretarybirds, warming themselves on top of their Acacia tree roost.

20 point counts for a day, separated 1km apart, puts one on a tight schedule, so once temperatures were up it was back to the old Mazda Drifter to cover a bit of distance across the pentad. Great views of Greater Kestrel were followed by one of the surveys most memorable moments: coming into camp with a herd of Angora goats, upon spotting me they came running towards me. They then proceeded to climb onto and into the bakkie! Some of the more cheeky ones even started nibbling my clothes to see if I was edible! This would have been a great script for a comedy-horror movie. Eventually, realising I was not about to feed them or give them a shampoo (yes, Buyisile does this) coupled with fact I tasted terrible, they wondered grumpily on.

Help! I'm being hijacked by a sheep!

Are these the Tulps of Tulpleegte?

Wrapping up the morning surveys it was on to Beaufort West, for a rendezvous with atlasing addict Stefan Theron. Stefan works for 'landbou' but is a real expert on Karoo birds, having at one time held the record for the most birds in a pentad in the Western Cape. He provided a bunch of hints, tips and insights, and put me in touch with the farmer who owns most of the land for the next pentad I had to survey. As this is bisected by the N1 and public dirt road, I'd been just planning on using those for the survey. I'd later be very grateful for the contact as I'd underestimated the truck noise on the N1, which made the first counts along that route an absolute pain. But that was for the following morning: the afternoon was spent surveying the quiet, southern Hopewell road. While by this time very hot, it was an unforgettable section of road that I will forever remember as Bat-eared Fox alley. At almost every point somewhere in the distance I'd pick up one of these exquisitely cute little foxes X-raying the ground for insects with their enormous ears. They certainly outscored the Aardwolf sighting along that route.

I overnighted peacefully in the Karoo National Park at the campsite arriving late and leaving early, so with nothing to report for the park itself, as I had to hit the northern side of the pentad at sunrise. The quiet of the park contrasted enormously with the roar of the N1: the highway that never sleeps. Luckily for me Ian Murray, the farm owner was around. He very kindly allowed me access to the farm, and also provided one of his farm-hands (Marius) to act as guide and gate opener. Once onto the farm it became clear the rains that had fallen to the south had not made it here, apparently no rains >10mm have fallen here in 2 years. To record anything during counts I had to scan the far distance for Karoo Chats and other perching insectivores.

While the species tally for the pentad would prove to be lower than the 34 of the previous pentad, there was one birding highlight: while approaching one point count location which coincided with a reservoir, a pair of brown, chirping brown things approaching proved not to be Lark-like Buntings, but Sclater's Larks. This is an unmistakeable little lark with a tear-drop marking below the eye, but also one that is incredibly scarcely reported. The birder/photographer will ever begrudge the scientist needing to take distance and behaviour data, because by the time that was done the birds had finished drinking and flying off to be engulfed by the vastness of the Karoo.

Wrapping things up, and with a new battery providing a bit more confidence in the Drifter bakkie, it was off to Klein Waterval. This farm, in the shadow of the Swartberg mountains had just been purchased by Adriaan Nortjie of Caroluspoort Game Farm, and they were waiting for me. Armed with gate key, a cup of coffee and chilli-biltong, all kindly provided by Adriaan, it was into the rough and hilly terrain of Klein Waterval. The terrain was in stark contrast to the flat and almost featureless pentads of the previous days. By the following day I had to count it as a minor miracle that the sharp shale rock and spear-like Acacia thorns had not resulted in a puncture.

For the evening I'd booked into the Groot Waterval guest farm not too far away (although a glance the wrong way at the wrong time meant missing the sign and getting lost, negatting that particular benefit). Now, if you are considering a Karoo holiday I have to strongly recommend Groot Waterval, not too far from Prince Albert. The hospitality was exceptional: I was invited to have dinner with Danie and Narina Le Grange and their son Terblanche; after which I felt like part of the family. You can find them here:

Friday morning was the wrapping up of the Klein Waterval pentad. Despite also having received the good rains (that washed away the Swartberg Pass just past Prince Albert), I was surprised again by the low species count, this time the lowest of the three pentads for the week at 29. By contrast, surveys in the pentads from March had provided species lists generally over 60 species. In general, granivores were scarce, with another bird noteable by its absence being the Lark-like Bunting. Here, perhaps due to poor summer rains, there was an almost complete absence of grass across the pentads, which might partially explain this. So: its not only if you get the rain, but also when you get it, that appears to be important for determining species richness in the Karoo. It is also clear that in order to maintain the unique species community, that vast areas will need to be maintained in near-natural state in order to provide the resources to those species that have to track resources in space and time.

Again, thanks to Buyusili de Bruyn, Stefan Theron, Ian Murray, Adriaan and Janien Nortjie and the Le Grange family for another memorable week of Karoo Birds Surveys.

And lets wrap it up with some bird shots...

Greater Kestrel

Double-banded Courser

Karoo Chat

Karoo Chat with grasshopper lunch

Karoo Chat (you should know that by now)

Bat-eared Fox

Only possible selfie of the sections surveyed by bike...

The Drifter adrift in the Karoo

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