Here in Finland the winter finally starts to be over, the snow is pretty much gone and the air is alive with birdsong as our feathered friends start to think about their mating season. I took a short trip with my friend Mika Grönroos to the small Finnish island of Utö, which is often a fantastic destination for bird photography as it is the first opportunity for migrating birds to land after crossing the Baltic Sea from Central Europe.
On this occasion the wind, coming from the North, was not in our favour as it discouraged potential new arrivals from starting their migration into the wind. When we arrived the island was fairly full of birds and the wind was strong enough to keep them there... but by the next morning the wind was lighter, still discouraging the long journey over the sea but not strong enough to prevent birds leaving Utö for the Finnish mainland. This meant that the island gradually emptied during our visit.
On these trips the hope would be to see some of the less commonly seen species and also to have a chance to capture some birds in particularly nice surroundings, this is usually a target rich environment so there should be at least a few good opportunities, even if they only last for a few milliseconds.
On this occasion the most numerous residents of the island were starlings and chaffinches, not the most unusual of creatures... but there were also a decent number of dunnocks which are a bit harder to spot in normal circumstances.
A couple of dunnocks were always hanging around near a jetty, we knew this as whenever we walked past (which happened about 12 times a day... its a very small island) we were able to see them darting away before we could take their picture. It happened so often that it really seemed that they were toying with us.
There were also a good number of robins on the island. Robins are always nice birds to photograph and they have an agreeable habit of regularly perching on things (fences, tree stumps, posts, etc) which helps your chances.
The skies above the island were somewhat empty compared to previous trips, but there were some occasional interesting sights, such as this raven which flew over with the bloody remains of it's recent meal still in evidence.
There were very few waders staying on the island (although many were seen passing by) but there were some ringed plovers to be found.
One of the nice things about photographing birds in the spring is that the birds are at their most colourful at this time, anxious to impress prospective mates.
We spent quite a long time trying to get decent shots of a wren, a small and elusive bird which doesn't seem to stay still out in the open for too many nanoseconds at a time.
When walking through the eastern meadow the sound of sky larks could often be heard, sky larks are surely one of the more joyful and enthusiastic of singers, taking to the air to broadcast their message.
We enjoyed some very pleasant weather for the first part of the trip, it wasn't exactly warm but the sky was clear and there were beautiful colours at sunrise and sunset times.
We received an excellent hint from local bird authority Jorma Tenovuo that we might be able to find a black redstart near to our accomodation at the western end of the island, and his advice was very good indeed. We were able to find this beautiful bird within about 20 seconds of getting to the general area.
My final picture from this trip perhaps fittingly shows a dunnock, the bird we spent the most time photographing.
Althought this was just a short trip, it was refreshing to take a break from landscape photography and it was a pleasure to be back in Utö once again. Thanks a lot to Mika for another good trip!
Until next time,
My recent schedule has been rather hectic, and I am a bit behind in processing the results, so my blogs and my trips are a little out of sync... my last 4 trips have been the Dolomites, then Utö, then Lofoten, then Utö again, and I write this from a guesthouse in Vik, Iceland while the strong wind is whipping the heavy rain against my window. Today is a day for blogging rather than photography. This blog covers the second of those trips to Utö, a tiny island in the Baltic Sea which is something of a Mecca for Finnish bird photographers and bird watchers.
As usual on my bird photography trips, I was accompanied by my friend Mika Grönroos who is an excellent bird photographer and an active poster on Instagram... why not click his name above and follow him on Instagram!
The first thing we noticed was that there were a lot more small birds on the island than there had been last time, but that didn't necessarily mean that they would make themselves available for our photographs. We spent a considerable amount of time trying to get a shot of one of the wrens that we could hear, and occasionally see for a few milliseconds, near to our accommodation. Patience, persistence and luck are all needed in order to get opportunities for a decent bird picture, and then of course you need to get the shot when your opportunity arises.
As well as small birds, there were regular chances to see harriers flying over the meadow area in the east of the island and the scrub land on the south an south east.
It is always interesting to watch these large raptors hunt, even if they are usually a bit too far away to allow really good photographs. They fly low over the ground looking for their victims, and then undertake some mid-air acrobatics in order to quickly change their horizontal cruise into a vertical strike.
One pleasing thing about Utö is that despite it being such a tiny island (0.81 square kilometres) it has some recognisably different habitats in which you might photograph birds. Back in the village we encountered what is either a rare and interesting visitor or a boring and commonplace bird. A juvenile gull had been causing some interest in Utö for a few days as it appeared that it might be a Caspian Gull, a very rare find in these parts having never been seen in Utö before and only rarely in the whole of Finland. The national rarities committee will decide in due course if this individual was a Caspian Gull... or not.
This is obviously the "bird perching on a roof looking to my left" section of the blog post so now I can also mention that there were many pipits on the island during our visit, including this Meadow Pipit which struck some poses in the wind for us.
Pipits were not the only small brown birds that could be found hanging around near the village, this Bunting (I think it is a Reed Bunting but I am not 100% confident) sat nicely on the rocks.
The village was also serving as a resting point for a number of Robins, one of the more universally known bird species and also one of the easier ones to recognise even to casual observers thanks to it's distinctive red breast.
Our Friday afternoon activities were rather limited as it began to rain gently and then gradually increased in intensity to a level that could be described as deeply unpleasant. By the time we realised that it would be better to seek shelter it was already too late, we were pretty wet. The storm continued through the night.
The next morning we explored the island once again, thankful for a slightly brighter and drier day. The village was still full of small birds, including finches of many varieties.
Another well represented species was the Common Redstart, a few of these were very active in posing on different perches near to the harbour.
I always like to see Redstarts, and it has been very welcome that they have been visible on many of my trips this year.
One Redstart started to lie down on the beam of a boat trailer, rather than standing or squatting on its feet as you would usually see. It looked rather funny. I later noticed that a Robin had also made its way into one of the frames, this is not an unusual event, but 999 times out of a 1000 an unexpected second bird will not manage to get itself into focus as the focal plane with commonly used settings is only a few centimetres deep... unfortunately the Robin's leap took it slightly out of frame in this case, you can't have everything.
After leaving the village behind we set out to patrol the east meadow where we heard and then saw some Golden Plovers resting nearby in a rocky area.
I was particularly happy to see the Golden Plover as I had not photographed that species before, it increased my species count to 190 (or 191 if the Caspian Gull is a Caspian Gull).
We walked towards the south east of the island, together with Jouni Mäkelä and his friend, photographing a co-operative Coal Tit on the way.
After the Coal Tit became reluctant to continue the show we decided to head back towards the meadow following a path through the rocks and juniper bushes. As we made our way, there was a flash of colour and movement a few metres ahead of us, we had approached the hiding place of a Short-Eared Owl and it had decided to relocate itself.
Almost exactly two years earlier I had a similar experience in a different part of the island while on a trip with Pasi Kaunisto (another good one to follow on Instagram!) when a Short-Eared Owl burst out of the grass right in front of my nose. On that occasion I was so shocked that I just stared at the bird in amazement as it flew off, not managing to take a single photo, but on this occasion I had a more useful instinctive reaction, managing to capture at least a few successful frames before it disappeared again.
This kind of encounter is all over in just a few seconds and it is always likely that it happens at the wrong moment, the camera settings might be wrong for the situation or you might be facing in the wrong direction or you just might not realise what is going on until it is too late... but on this occasion any such difficulties were not fatal to my chances. The part where practice really pays off is translating the rapidly moving bird that you see with your eyes into the needed physical actions to raise the heavy camera and lens to your eye precisely enough so that your target is visible in the viewfinder, allowing you to focus and shoot. For a frustratingly long time - when learning to use a long telephoto lens - I would miss at least 90% of these split-second opportunities due to not being able to do this accurately and quickly enough... nowadays I guess my odds are improved a bit but still it is just as likely to fail as it is to succeed in these surprise occurrences.
The following morning was our last opportunity of this trip, M/S Eivor would leave for the mainland at about lunch time, leaving us about 3.5 hours of photography after breakfast. There were rumours once again of the Short Eared Owl and we searched in the meadow hoping for another glimpse of it... but we would not get a second chance this time.
There was however still time for another bonus species. On more than one of our previous Utö trips we bumped into other photographers who told all about seeing a Red-Breasted Flycatcher. Try as we might, and we did try a lot, we never managed to find one... but on this morning we finally put that right as a juvenile Red Breasted Flycatcher spent it's morning foraging for insects in the area near to the Utö shop.
This was a nice way to end another excursion to Utö, thanks again to Mika for a successful and enjoyable trip!
Last year I was lucky enough to visit the small Finnish island of Utö on multiple occasions, on the lookout for interesting birds during the annual migrations in spring and autumn. In 2018 I missed out on the spring opportunity but hope to make up for that in the autumn. My friend Mika and I planned short visits to Utö at both the start and the end of September, this post covers the first of those trips.
Utö is a tiny island (0.81 square kilometres) but it holds a special interest as a bird watching destination as it is the first (spring) or last (autumn) piece of land for a while on a number of migration routes between northern Europe and warmer parts to the south. It is also sparseley populated enough and with enough unspoilt territory that it appears as an attractive and safe stopping place for passing birds. There are no guarantees with this kind of activity, but on Utö you have at least a reasonable chance to see some interesting birds on any given day.
As has become our tradition on these Utö visits I collected Mika from his house and we drove (with the help of a short ferry crossing) to Nauvo where we would have a chance to do some "warm-up" photography before making the 5 hour boat trip to Utö on the good ship M/S Eivor.
The trip started well enough with a few smaller birds to photograph.
Last year I split my time roughly equally between my "normal" photography (landscapes and occasional city or architecture shots) and my "backup hobby" of wildlife photography, using one to get a break from the other. It might seem odd to turn to photography to give me time off from photography, but the activities and equipment are different enough to provide a refreshing change.
This year I have spent a lot less time doing pure wildlife photography with my Canon camera and long telephoto lenses and most of the bird photography that you have seen in some of my blog posts has been done with the Sony cameras and smaller lenses which I usually travel with.
I find it surprisingly easy to swap between the equipment from different manufacturers, possibly helped by using Canon and Sony for such different purposes, but I was happy to have this warm-up period before the real trip started.
When you see a bird you want to photograph, you then have to - as quickly as possible - aim your camera so that the bird is visible in the viewfinder. The bird may be flying, otherwise moving or partially concealed by leaves or branches, and may be tens of metres away. The camera + lens weighs over 6kg. You also have to get the bird in focus... while having the right settings for the (often rapidly changing) light. I find that the accuracy and speed of carrying out these precise motions and calculations decreases noticeably if you have not been practicing recently.
The challenges of bird photography are considerable.
The highlight of this pre-trip session came when we heard some calls that we did not immediately recognise. As you spend time observing different birds their sounds start to be familiar and often you know what you will see before your eyes can confirm it, but on this occasion the sounds just helped with "where to look". As we got clear of some trees beside a path we were walking on we were able to observe a pair of juvenile white tailed eagles having an animated discussion high above.
We took a coffee break after this encounter and made our way to M/S Eivor which left for Utö soon after. It was well after dark when we finally arrived so there would be no more bird photography until the following morning. Mika had been following the weather forecasts from multiple sources and the concensus seemed to be that it would be a bit changeable so we just had to hope that there would be enough light... as well as something interesting to photograph.
In the morning we were greeted by grey skies, a threat of rain, a lack of light and an island that was much more empty of birdlife than on any of our previous visits. Much of the island is covered with small boulders and juniper bushes, with occasional rowan trees - in busier times any one of these might provide an attractive perching place for smaller birds but on this occasion almost every vantage point was unoccupied.
Breakfast restored our spirits and we set out to explore once again. The day remained quite dark until close to to lunch time but at least we were able to see some occasional birds during our search.
We could tell from the constant calling that the juniper bushes were infested with goldcrests (Finland's smallest bird, weighing only 6.5g) in many places but they were even less willing than usual to show themselves.
The most common sightings during the day were birds of prey with many tens of sightings of both sparrowhawks and kestrels, often with multiple individuals of either species in sight simultaneously.
We also saw a Hobby on multiple occasions and a single Osprey which passed overhead on its way to wintering grounds which are probably in Africa.
After lunch the weather started to brighten up a bit and we continued our search during the afternoon, racking up over 20,000 steps for the day despite being on such a small piece of land in the middle of the Baltic Sea.
As the afternoon progressed the pattern remained pretty much the same, regular sightings of birds of prey with only occasional opportunities to photograph smaller birds.
When you did spot movement from the corner of your eye it was more likely to be a butterly or a dragonfly than a bird, both were present in good numbers all over the island.
We had hoped to see a few different Harriers during the trip, there had been sightings of Pallid Harriers on a nearby island, and in the afternoon we were rewarded with a good view of a Marsh Harrier as it patrolled the eastern part of the island.
For a day's bird watching on the mainland it could be considered a success to see a Hobby, a Sparrowhawk, and Osprey, a Kestrel and a Marsh Harrier as well as a few small birds but for a day on Utö the overall feeling was one of slight disappointment - there were no sightings of particularly uncommon birds and the overall amount of bird activity was very low, while the light was not that great for photography and there were no opportunities to get exceptionally close to any birds or to observe them in particularly nice positions.
The following morning we would only have about 4 daylight hours for photography before heading back to the mainland, but of course we hoped for a change in fortunes. As it turned out, both the weather and the bird situation were very similar to the previous day.
We noticed that Kestrels had a habit of perching on top of the buildings at the garbage station and tried to set ourselves up out of sight for a mini stakeout in that area. They really are beautiful birds.
The Sparrowhawk fly-bys also continued at regular intervals.
The village remained rather quiet apart from the constant circling of Barn Swallows who did their best to keep the local insect population under control and the occasional wagtail.
I always enjoy visiting Utö, there is something satisfying about the simple rhythm of my days there where sleeping and eating are the only things to disturb the hunt for photogenic birds. Thanks once again to Mika for another good trip, hopefully we will have a bit better luck and a bit better light when we return there in 4 weeks time.
Until next time,
This week I found myself once again heading for the remote island of Utö, along with fellow photographer Mika Grönroos, as we made our third pilgrimage of 2017 (my fourth visit in total) to this Mecca for Finnish bird photography. This was a short trip of 2.5 days, so I should be able to use fewer words to describe it... last week's post from Lofoten turned into something of an epic.
In September, on our previous trip, we saw a remarkable amount of large birds of prey (buzzards, hawks, falcons, eagles and harriers) but on this occasion it was the tiniest of birds that got most of our attention. One exception to this was to be the highlight of the trip after we received an alert (thanks to Jorma Tenovuo!) about a Tengmalm's Owl (also known as a Boreal Owl in North America) which was sitting in the upper branches of a fir tree near to the old post office.
Owls have to be among my favourite birds, their huge faces are very expressive and they are great fun to photograph, if only you can find them. The rarity of spotting an owl adds to their attraction. The Tengmalm's owl is a relatively small variety of owl and this individual was in a bit of a challenging spot as it was sitting in shadows, surrounded by branches, with strong back-lighting. This picture was taken while lying on the ground in order to get an angle to shoot upwards with the minimum amount of obstructions.
On the same morning we had a close (or closer than usual) encounter with another large hunter when a juvenile Hen Harrier flew directly towards us as we walked in the south of the island. The bird seemed not to notice our presence until it was about 25 metres away which gave some nice opportunities but it was a real challenge to focus on the fast-moving, low-flying bird against the background of rocks and bushes. Luckily I managed to get it in focus and capture a few frames just before it disappeared behind a large rock.
While these larger predators were not so plentiful this time, smaller birds were present in large numbers. The meadow in the middle of the village was full of European Robins and Common Redpolls and there were good possibilities for photographs of each in the pleasant afternoon light on Friday.
Another common sight was a Brambling, a member of the finch family, whose plumage seems perfectly adapted for hiding in bushes at this time of year.
Another new sighting for me was a Great Grey Shrike, an attractive little black white and grey predator. This bird was comparatively easy to spot due to it's habit of perching on top of things, such as in this case, a rowan bush, but it was not easy to creep close enough to get a good picture.
The majority of our time was spent hunting for birds that were even smaller still... the elusive wren and the tiny goldcrest (Europe's smallest bird).
Trying to get pictures of a wren is a challenging business, they are a bit unusual in that they seem to prefer to hide rather than flying away, but they are so brilliant at hiding that it is very hard to get a picture of them even though you might know almost exactly where they are. During the trip we spent a number of hours staring at different juniper bushes waiting for a wren to reappear after it had darted into the shadowy interior... but we ended up with only very few wren pictures.
I don't know how many Goldcrests there were on the island, but it must at least have been in the hundreds. Their enthusiastic high pitched tweeting could be heard almost constantly throughout the island and their presence is much easier to detect (compared to a wren) as they are tiny bundles of nervous energy, always on the move. They are a challenge to photograph nonetheless as they are tiny, fast moving and spend a good deal of their time obscured by branches and undergrowth.
On Saturday night, the final night of the trip, a cloudy and rainy day had given way to a clear night and a myriad of stars were once again easily visible in a way that those who spend their nights in cities could never imagine. The lighthouse at Utö is a great landmark and once again I had to include it in my photos from the island.
Well, that's it for this time. Another really enjoyable trip to Utö, by now a very familiar and comfortable destination for me. I hope to be there again before too long.
Thanks to Mika Grönroos for another good trip, and to Jorma Tenovuo for alerting us to rarities and interesting sightings.
PS - In order to read a bit more about where Utö is and how to get there you can have a look at the blog post from my previous Utö trip in September.
This week's trip was to the remote island of Utö in the Archipelago Sea off the south-west coast of Finland, my friend Mika Grönroos joined me once again as we continued our bird photography efforts.
Utö is the southern-most inhabited part of the territory of Finland and is accessible by a daily boat service which departs from Pernas. The journey takes 4-5 hours depending on how many stops the boat makes on its way through the archipelago (the route includes Nötö, Aspö, Jurmo and sometimes Berghamn).
The scenery of the surrounding area is typical for the archipelago with many small islands and protruding rocks, sometimes populated with sea birds, sometimes hosting signs to mark traffic routes or impart other helpful information to help ships and boats pass through these waters.
This was my third visit to Utö (I was there in October 2016 and May 2017) and it starts to be a familiar place for me. The days there fall into a predictable rhythm where the search for birds to photograph is only interrupted by certain regular events, those being breakfast in the Utö hotel, lunch in the Utö hotel, the inevitable onset of darkness and the occasional need to shelter from unpleasant weather.
On each of my visits to Utö there has been a noticeable population of other bird enthusiasts and photographers on the island at the same time and on this trip it was no different. Up to a certain point this small community of similarly focused people can be very helpful as news of any interesting sightings quickly spreads, but when the amount of people gets too large it can also become counter-productive. If you have carefully and stealthily positioned yourself, over a number of minutes, to a shadowy area within sight of rowan tree in the hope that a red-breasted flycatcher might show itself on the outer branches with the light at the best angle then it is slightly disappointing when a party of 15-20 approaches that tree from the other direction engaged in loud discussions... it might as well have been a herd of elephants or a brass band passing through, any small birds within 50 metres quickly exit the area.
With most bird photography efforts, pure luck and the lottery of circumstances play a huge part in what opportunities you do and do not get. There is also a major role for skill and technique in the activity, those determine how well you notice the opportunities that are there and how well you manage to capture those.
One pleasant surprise was the variety of birds of prey that we were able to see during our time in Utö. A population of at least 10 common kestrels were conducting merciless and continuous hunting operations against small insects such as Bush Crickets during the entirety of our stay. The kestrel is such a beautiful bird and has a very distinctive hunting style, hovering perfectly in place about ten metres above the ground before swooping down to grab it's prey. The kestrels were a constant presence around the island, including in the village, and it was possible to observe and photograph them every few minutes when out and about with the camera.
In addition to the ubiquitous kestrels, the small bird population was being regularly terrorised by a sparrowhawk (or by a number of sparrowhawks) which would periodically arrive (and depart again) at very high speed when you were least expecting it, creating opportunities and challenges in equal measure for the photographer. Many times this did not result in successful pictures, partly because the needed exposure and focus settings for photographing small birds against darker backgrounds are totally different to those needed to photograph flying hawks against the afternoon sky... the bird is not usually kind enough to wait around while you adjust the settings. Over time you can get extremely fast at making the needed modifications, but in many cases the optimal moment does not last long enough for even the most rapid of adjustments. For a couple of days I kept messing up any sparrowhawk opportunities but finally I got some rewards as the week went on.
Although the kestrel and sparrowhawk were the most regular bird of prey sightings, they were far from the only ones. On the first day we saw and photographed a marsh harrier patrolling the eastern meadow and also photographed a hobby and a distant merlin in the same area. As the week went on we could add further raptors to the list, a northern goshawk, a honey buzzard and a common buzzard were all photographed by the second afternoon. In the middle of the week we had some additional excitement as the wind direction changed and provided us with a predator rush hour on Wednesday afternoon. The ever present kestrels and sparrowhawks increased their activity level and were also joined by some new arrivals, at least two female hen harriers and perhaps most interestingly a male pallid harrier. During this period it was quite usual for another raptor to arrive while you were in the middle of photographing the first one... it was quite amazing to have such intensive activity when the practice of observing these animals frequently involves a great deal of waiting around for something to happen.
The final chapter in our raptor rapture was to come on Thursday afternoon as we walked around the rocky mounds at the eastern end of the island. Fortune smiled upon us for a few minutes as a white tailed eagle flew confidently overhead on it's way towards the neighbouring islands. The white tailed eagle is Finland's biggest bird with a wing span of well over 2 metres and it makes for an imposing sight whenever you are lucky enough to see one. This specimen was not yet old enough to have the pure white tail feathers of an elderly individual and I am not sure that I can say that it is very beautiful at this stage in its life... but it is certainly impressive.
Something a bit smaller
While the eagles and hawks are always very exciting to discover, there is also a lot to interest observers when paying attention to birds of a somewhat smaller size. While the white tailed eagle might weigh 6 kilos or more, the tiny goldcrest weighs in at 6 grams or less!
These cute little warblers, the smallest bird in Finland, were present in good numbers on Utö and their distinctive high pitched chirping could be heard all over the island. Just because you could hear the goldcrests doesn't mean you could easily find and photograph them, they were extremely cautious and secretive, staying hidden inside bushes and trees and always on the move, nervously relocating themselves every couple of seconds. This movement was the key to finally being able to see them... but also made it very difficult to keep them in the viewfinder long enough to get a good shot.
There were many other small birds present on the island, including chaffinches, siskins, spotted flycatchers, pied flycatchers, willow warblers, northern wheatears, whinchats, blue tits and red backed shrikes... but there were also three that I was particularly hoping to photograph - redstart, red breasted flycatcher and yellow browed warbler. I have photographed redstarts earlier this year but from some distance away and the quality was poor, they are a very cool looking bird and I wanted to have a suitable picture. The red breasted flycatcher and yellow browed warbler were both species that I had never photographed before... and unfortunately that remains the case after the trip. Maybe next time...
With redstarts however I had better luck, managing to photograph them on a number of occasions and certainly improving on the shots I had of these beautiful creatures earlier. A really good shot of the more special looking male redstart remains elusive... as does the even better looking black redstart... but still I am pleased to get pictures of female or juvenile redstarts.
Starry starry night
Finally on our last night in Utö, the skies were clear and we also had energy to go out once more after doing the usual 15-20 thousand steps during the day. This combination had not been in place on any of the previous 5 nights... so out we went for some night time shooting. The equipment and settings needed for such pursuits is rather different to that which is required for bird photography. The exposure times for single shots could be tens of seconds instead of less than a thousandth of a second and the focal length of the lens 12-14mm instead of 500-1000mm.
On Utö, away from the artificial light pollution of major habitations, the first thing that you notice is the night sky. Billions upon billions of points of light, clearly visible with the naked eye.. and beautiful beyond belief. Wow. At this time of year a decent amount of the milky way galaxy is also visible and potentially provides additional interest for photographs.
My third visit to Utö was just as memorable as my previous visits, with each visit having delivered a bit of a different experience. It was once again very comfortable to be on the island, the local residents were all most welcoming despite seeing their peaceful home invaded on a regular basis by "outsiders" and there is always a good sense of fellowship among the visiting bird enthusiasts. New species (within 2017) for the trip were Merlin, Honey Buzzard, Common Crossbill, Hen Harrier and Pallid Harrier, taking my 2017 total to 157.
I would like to extend special thanks to Jorma Tenovuo for his part in making me feel especially welcome as well as keeping Mika and I up to date with any emerging bird sightings during our visit and providing expert judgements on bird identification (e.g. whether or not the Pallid Harrier that we photographed was a Pallid Harrier, a Hen Harrier or a hybrid between the two - currently and possibly finally, it is a Pallid Harrier). Jorma keeps an excellent blog (written in Finnish) detailing the various species that have been sighted in Utö from week to week, for anyone that is interested it can be found here.
Final thanks go to Mika Grönroos for another good trip!
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