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Posts Tagged ‘fieldwork’

Saturday 3 June 2017, week 3: Buldir Island, 22:52

The most geographically isolated island in the Aleutians. The most diverse seabird colony in the northern hemisphere. The westernmost home of bald eagles. The westernmost volcano in the Aleutians. All of these extremes are descriptors of Buldir, making it my most decorated summer home. From learning of its existence in 2010 until last year, working out here had been a dream of mine.

Being so far west, Buldir’s draw for many is the potential to see vagrant birds riding western winds from Asia. In that sense, it really is a shame that I’ve deprived birders of the chance to work on Buldir last summer and this year. If asked, I’d probably consider myself a birder for about a day or two of each year. Contrary to what one would think, many people in my field don’t consider themselves birders. Fellow field technicians have referred to our seasonal cohort as “bird professionals,” meaning we study and enjoy birds but aren’t necessarily going to grab our binoculars and jump in the car if a weather system is predicted to bring an unusual mixture of species to a nearby area.

This week I did change my tune and act like a birder for the sake of our bird list and Kevin and McKenzie, who are birders. On Wednesday I volunteered to wake up early for our third beach transect, which is where we walk along the wrack line and survey down to the water and about 50m inland for songbirds. Gray-crowned rosy finches, song sparrows, pacific wrens, and lapland longspurs are the typical birds whose visual or auditory presence we note as we navigate the boulder field and tall grass inland of North Bight Beach.

As I approached our creek crossing near a small inland marsh, I spotted a shorebird standing in plain view on a log. Since shorebirds are small and rather difficult to identify because of their slight differences in appearance, I wished I had the birders along. (My ornithology lab quizzes on species ID were more than a handful of years ago.) It didn’t look like the dunlin, least sandpipers, western sandpipers, or plover species that I’d come to recognize from counting birds in California, so I was at a loss.

Knowing there was a good chance it was a vagrant, I dedicated myself to trying to note the details of its appearance. Naturally I’d not pocketed my point and shoot camera for my little half hour walk. White breast, red below the eye, black legs, reddish hue, very thin white eye ring, black on the edges of the primaries. I even voiced these observations in the hopes they’d stick with me and enhance my mental picture.

Back in camp I pulled out our Sibley Guide to Birds and Nat Geo’s Birds of North America. As I paged through the shorebirds sections, nothing stood out as being close to my description. When Kevin and McKenzie entered our main cabin, I didn’t say anything for a little while, knowing my attempt to vocalize the description would sound vague and unhelpful. Birds of East Asia didn’t seem to have the right fit, and I was starting to give up hope that I’d find a close match. By this point I’d shared my birding news and given a few details, but nothing came to mind to the birders.

“Check out Rare Birds of North America. It has pretty good pictures,” suggested McKenzie.

Bingo. Upon searching through its shorebird section, I came across the little stint. Out of all the pictures I’d looked at, it seemed like the closest fit. Unfortunately the book also said “On w. and cen. Aleutians and Bering Sea islands, rare or very rare in fall, exceptional in spring.” Had I managed to notice and identify an exceptional sighting? It seemed unlikely to me.

Having piqued the interest of Kevin and McKenzie, I walked them to the area where I’d seen the mystery bird. Somehow I was the first to spot it on logs in that same marshy area, and Kevin took multiple shots of it with his DSLR camera. As we looked at it, McKenzie made comments that seemed to agree with my educated guess of little stint. Knowing that the birders couldn’t ID it at first glance made me feel better.

That evening we opened all the bird guides to compare Kevin’s photos to various sketches. Before the evening was through, we all agreed that a little stint had decided to visit us that day. Little stint are quite the world travelers; they breed on tundra from Scandinavia across Eurasia to northeast Russia and then winter in sub-Saharan Africa, tropical India, and southeast Asia. A visit to Buldir wasn’t out of the question, either, as sightings were reported by FWS techs in 1998, 2006, 2008, and 2009.

Being able to add a little stint to our rare bird list was exciting, but that wasn’t the bird of the week for me. On Tuesday McKenzie had radioed me to let me know there was a long-tailed duck hanging out with some harlequin ducks off Crested Point. Long-tailed ducks are my favorite!! Not only are they adorable, but their call is also cute and the one bird sound I’m happy to mimic. Sadly I did not see my duck when I searched the area that day.

However, I did see it on Thursday, and thoughts of long-tailed duck cuteness distracted me so much that I nearly fell over as I continued my walk down our treacherous boulder beach. Birds are pretty okay!

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Thursday 18 May 2017, week 1: at sea in Unimak Pass, 9:05   (through 20 May 2017 as we enter Dutch Harbor in the evening)

Riding a ship down the Aleutian chain is not for those who don’t know how to sit still. This year’s cruise west features only a few stops on random islands compared to last year, so in our first 4 full days at sea we’ve only stopped on Chowiet and Chirikof. The rest of the time we’ve been in transit, and all that travel has only carried us an hour shy of Aiktak in the eastern Aleutians.

Still, there have been entertaining moments.

For instance, if anyone was wondering how to transport ATVs from ship to shore, this is how. Of course that means first using a crane to move it from the hilo deck into the skiff waiting below. Yee haw!

There was also the time when Andy brought the skiff in to pick up Aiktakians and Buldirians from a beach walk on Chirikof. The tide had gone out enough that he couldn’t boat all the way in; a sandbar left him about 20 yards shy of where we stood. He motioned for us to wade out to him. Since Sarah, Dan, Kevin, McKenzie, and I were wearing neoprene chest waders and orange float coats, he wasn’t worried about us getting wet.

What he didn’t know was that the ocean floor wasn’t level for our walk out to him. The water level started at our ankles, then progressed to our shins and knees. As it rose to thigh level around the halfway mark, we began wondering how much deeper it would get. We stretched our arms above our heads as the water reached hip and then belly button depth. Kevin even carried the old drybag backpack over his head. Being the shortest of the bunch, I was in the greatest danger of flooding my waders. Andy could only stand and watch our humorous approach; not to sound insensitive, but we looked like a group of refugees approaching a rescue boat.

Chest waders cover up to a couple inches shy of armpit height, and the water was approaching the danger zone in the last 5 yards. “Just go quickly!” McKenzie suggested. So we did, and soon we were relieved to feel the ocean floor rising beneath our feet. All of us made it without flooding our waders, ending our nervous laughter.

water line on waders

Check out that water line!

When we’re just cruising along in open ocean or fog and clouds are obscuring our view, there’s not much to do beyond read, sleep, eat, watch movies, or hang out in the wheelhouse for bird or whale watching. Or – since Morgan feeds us too well – we can go biking or skiing! I’ll take a real bike over an exercise bike every single day of my life, but a band told me I can’t always get what I want but sometimes I get what I need. Yesterday I biked 15 hilly miles while listening to Beautiful/Anonymous, and tonight I’ll probably continue reading Snow Falling on Cedars while I ride. The elliptical is more fun – particularly in rougher water – because it’s in the forward hold and not as sturdy. Skiing on a ship is not for those susceptible to motion sickness!

Update for 20 May: Watching Fellowship of the Ring while biking makes it so much more interesting! I biked 31 miles and skied 7 miles today. I even picked up the pace while Arwen was being chased by Ringwraiths.

The most intriguing source of entertainment is a new one from last year: Bogoslof volcano is active! It erupted again on Tuesday the 16th, sending ash to 34,000 feet. The best part of this news is that tomorrow we’re heading “to it” – I’m not sure how close yet – to drop a data collecting buoy for the Alaska Volcano Observatory. We really, really, really, really want the blue skies we’ve been cruising through to stick around so that we can see Bogoslof.

And finally, our last source of entertainment – if I’d call it that – is the lone rabbit on Poa Island, a tiny island just east of Akun and Akutan. The goal is to eradicate rabbits from Poa; the chance to kill the wascally wabbit presented itself last summer, but the chance wasn’t successfully taken. It’s figured this rabbit is at least 6 years old. The trappers found signs of it when they went hunting for it again on 2 different days; it seems to hang out in a 20 yard area between 2 eagle nests. Who knew eagles and rabbits were such good friends? Regardless, it’s probably escaped death from humans until next summer. Maybe Elmer Fudd would have better luck than our trappers.


We haven’t done the exploring of last year’s voyage west, but there’s been ample reading time, exercise, and nice weather. Of course, I’d take more rocking, but it seems like the weather is waiting to give us a difficult offload on Buldir. If all goes according to plan, we’ll arrive there Thursday.

*For the final note of entertainment, know I’m finalizing this post from the Norwegian Rat Bar in Dutch Harbor. That’s dedication to trying to post with some pictures!

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Apologies for the delayed posting! We spent 2 nights at Spike Camp rather than 1, and then I allowed reading to be greater than sleeping, which is more important than journaling, which is less time consuming than writing blog posts.

Thursday 23 June 2016, week 5: Buldir Island, 21:00

Situated on the northwest end of Buldir Island lies a camp that’s been home to dozens of field biologists for summers dating back to the late 1980s. Sitting about 60 yards inland at the base of a steep ridge, the camp looks out upon North Marsh and the Bering Sea beyond.

As you walk up from the beach toward camp on the freshly mown** trail, the first piece of camp you’ll meet is our propane and kerosene cache. You’ll probably also notice the radio antenna set-up (a line strung between 2 poles) near the main camp. By this point you will have also encountered the first well worn planks of our trail.

Another 20 yards or so beyond there you’ll hit the outskirts of our compound as your feet venture upon our fine boardwalk. To the right is a narrower trail that leads to a camp fixture: the outhouse. It’s a pretty standard long-drop but a little fancier since it’s outfitted with an emergency plunger and rusty can of beach trash Japanese air freshener.

Upon climbing the 5 steps of our deck, you’ll find yourself facing the green main cabin, home of the kitchen, dining room, living room, drying area, office, library, lab, workshop, and gear storage. Of course, these are all the same room of the rather spacious one room cabin, which is very well equipped with a range and full oven, real countertops (as opposed to plywood), 2 dish racks, a dining table and benches, many shelves, a kerosene heater with ample clothespins/line/hangers above, a work laptop, a MF/HF marine radio, and solar panel data center + inverter. 6 windows provide plenty of light in Alaska’s summer, but the solar panel is connected to a couple of small fluorescent light fixtures.

Situated outside, against the east wall of this cabin, stands the produce bin. Inside this shelter you’ll find cabbage, various types of squash, sweet potatoes, potatoes, onions, carrots, apples, oranges, lemons, and limes hanging in nets. Since this produce journeyed from who-knows-where to Alaska, sat on a shelf in a store, and then traveled 12 days on the deck of the Tiglax before reaching Buldir, it’s not necessarily the most perfect produce, but it’s the freshest we have available.

Next to the produce bin you’ll find a large (50 gal?) water tank connected to a funnel and hose that supply our drinking water, the source of which is rainwater from the roof. Along the north wall of the main cabin you’ll find a second water catchment tank, our 10L Katadyn water filter, and our line of coolers containing cheese, tortillas, bread, bagels, yogurt, and butter.

Across the boardwalk from this selection you’ll find yourself facing a white weatherport, a thick canvas-walled structure bolted to a plywood floor and built around a frame. Inside it lies our pantry: boxes and boxes of nonperishable foods sitting on driftwood shelving units. We keep the staple kitchen supplies in the cabin and supplement by grabbing whatever we need for certain meals. I hid all the chocolate at the far end in a box labeled “past and present danger” in the hopes of keeping temptation out of sight.

The last large structure in the compound is the bunkhouse, our sleeping quarters. Inside it stand 3 sets of bunks built into 3 corners of the cabin; the 4th holds shelves and a rack for hanging raingear, float coats, and waders. A kerosene heater sometimes gets turned on before bed to warm up the cool cabin. Each bunk comes outfitted with a small reading light, shelves, and hooks. It’s like a summer camp cabin with clothes and personal items visible all around. The kiwi Christmas ornament that travels in my backpack decorates my little nook.

The newest addition to camp is our absolutely beautiful shower shed. Made of plywood walls standing around a wooden pallet floor, our shower has 2 windows looking south and east + a sunroof. Yes, it is a thing to behold thanks to Kevin’s vision and hard work. Inside the shower we have small shelves for toiletries, netting to hold a towel and clothes, a buoy bench, and a solar shower bag.

From camp one small boardwalk leads down to the creek flowing through North Marsh, another trail leads through the marsh as an alternative walkway to the cobble beach, and the main trail becomes a narrow thing that continues south toward the island’s interior.

For McKenzie, Kevin and me, the compound is quite the expansive home. 2016 is the first year in awhile that Buldir is hosting only FWS employees; for years, various graduate students have had their own crews of 3+ conducting research and sharing our camp facilities. While having other folks around would have its pros and cons, the 3 of us are content to have the whole island just to ourselves.

Alaska Maritime’s own Jeff Williams says it well when he provides entertainment after evening radio check-ins:
“Welcome to “News of the Weird,” those strange but true stories that make you glad that you’re in a remote cabin away from everyone and all that maddening crowd… by yourself here.”

Here on Buldir is a pretty good place to be.

** “Mown” should be taken to mean I trimmed all the vegetation in a 3 foot swath using garden shears over the course of 2 mornings and an evening.

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Monday 13 June 2016, week 4: Buldir Island, 8:05

For all the talk I’ve heard over the years about how how Buldir breaks people, being here to experience it is something else. I’d been joking that I needed to make it here while I was still young, but now I’m thinking that perhaps being young is no certain key to comfort, either.

Living – not just working on Buldir – is a series of slips, trips, and falls. When approaching any of the Aleutian Islands by boat, it’s easy to think, “Look at those nice green hillsides. The hiking can’t be difficult there!” Hahaha, that’s rich! The hills are indeed alive – with tall grass, putchki (cow parsnip), seabird burrows, and squishy tundra.

When attempting to land the skiff on the camp beach, first it must be determined whether a landing, which is dependent upon both the water conditions and beach substrate, is possible. Last year the crew’s arrival on-island was delayed by 3+ days due to northwesterly wind and waves. Ultimately they were dropped off on the western side and had to carry all of their food, gear, and personal items about 40 minutes (1-way, partially uphill) to reach camp. Buldir did not greet them with open arms.

This year we were fortunate to have reasonable conditions when we arrived 2 days ahead of schedule – early because we’d heard a storm with northwestern winds would be arriving at the same time as us and so we pushed ahead. The only downside of our landing was finding a rather steep cobble beach in place of last year’s sandy beach.

Hiking area #1: the beach. It’s home to all sizes of rocks, ranging from golf ball to whiffleball-sized cobble that constantly test balancing skills, to variably sized rocks that usually don’t shift underfoot, to huge boulders that shouldn’t shift underfoot but sometimes do so anyway. Hiking here requires either slow, steady walking with very deliberate foot placement or the development of a cadence for rock hopping. Either way, shifting rocks and potentially rolling an ankle are part of the deal.

If that doesn’t strike your fancy, then you can’t get to Northwest Ridge or Main Talus, our two main work sites for auklets and puffins. Instead, how about trying some storm petrel work?

Hiking area #2: the steep slopes and burrows. The hillside right behind camp is home to thousands of little burrows that house two species of storm petrel. Accessing our work plots involves walking up a straight trail through tall grass and then emerging in burrow heaven. The trail becomes a narrow mud chute, so walking involves grabbing onto dead grass to prevent slips. When in burrow country, there is no safe place to step; the danger of crushing a burrow is ever-present, no matter how cautiously you tread. We could write a song called “Highway Through the Danger Zone.”

Northwest Ridge is also a seriously steep no-go. OSHA has never visited that site, home of tall grass, putchki, crevices, rockslides, and unstable footing. A bad fall could lead to a tumble down to the beach.

If you don’t want those hazards, then you should stay off most hillsides below tundra level. Why not take a trip to Spike Camp?

Hiking area #3: the trail to Spike. The middle section of the trail is a real delight offering fairly firm tundra and nice views. Unfortunately, I’ve heard the views are not always visible, and the wind is always opposing you at the pass. Right now the start of the trail is beautiful as it follows a creek through a green canyon that gradually leads up to the pass. As the season progresses, the beginning and end of the trail will run through grass and putchki tall enough that we use machetes to shed light on where we’re actually supposed to be walking. The trail descends toward Spike Camp with another series of muddy chutes.

At least most work at Spike Camp involves sitting in one place on clifftops to watch kittiwakes and murres. The 8×8 cabin, while extremely tight for seating 3 people, does heat up really quickly, so that’s a bonus at the end of a chilly day of sitting in the cold.

Doesn’t Buldir seem like a walk in the park? For the next few months, each day of work means picking a different poison. While these poisons may not sound particularly healthy, they are very memorable and worth the risk. As the most isolated island in the Aleutians, Buldir is the lonely bully that’s mean to everyone, but befriending it is part of its draw. I’ll be tired at the end of summer and very ready to ride a rocking boat, yet I’ll be sad to say bye to the risks of Buldir.

Clearly one does not simply hike around on Buldir. My trusty knees that have never complained about my hiking are actually fairly upset with me after just 2 weeks of work. Reaching the base of Main Talus at the end of a day of clambering in kneepads around boulders on “Upper Main” and “Super Upper” already results in my knees sighing a word of thanks. There are no hills between the base and home… just 20 minutes of bouldery beach.

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Sunday, 29 May 2016, morning

It’s 6:45 in the morning, and the sky is only a shade above inky dark as I gaze out the galley window of the R/V Tiglax. Surely we can’t be in Alaska, Land of the Midnight Sun. That’s where – in my typical Alaska – the sun starts rising by 3:30, providing full daylight well before this time. Where are we?

52º 19′ 750” N 176º 36′ 830” E

That’s right. We’ve sailed off the northwestern edge of the world into the twilight zone. Some may call this the eastern hemisphere, but I’m not convinced this place is on the map. Since 3:30 Saturday morning we’ve continued our journey into the west, going so far that west became east. Adak, the last real area of civilization, is about 30 hours east of us.

The world is one of slate blue-gray water and foggy gray skies. By roughly 10:30 we’re supposed to arrive at this mythical speck called Buldir, the most isolated island in the Aleutians and home to millions of seabirds. As of now, I’m not sure any of us actually exist; life’s surreal.

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I’m on my way to a summer on Buldir, where I’ll only have a satellite phone with e-mail. I’m going to try posting by e-mail once a week, and I won’t know if it worked until the end of summer. Due to my capabilities, I won’t be able to share pictures. Sorry! If it works, I’ll share various things about camp life weekly.  If not, there may be a post dump when I return to internet. Enjoy summer!

Monday 23 May 2016, week 2: at sea north of Akutan, 21:30    (week 1 of work was in Homer)

The sounds of the engine, the slosh of the water just feet away from me, the sway of the boat as I fall asleep. These are a few of my favorite things at sea, which is where we’ve been for just shy of a week. Other than a brief period outside King Cove when we had cell reception just long enough for me to almost cancel my health insurance, my social world has consisted of some Fish & Wildlife Service fox trappers, University of Alaska Anchorage mammalogists, the ship’s crew, and my fellow Bio techs (biological science technicians).

Last Tuesday morning we made our way out of Kachemak Bay, headed southwest toward the Barren Islands and then down Shelikof Strait on the north side of Kodiak Island.

Crew: 6               Passengers: 14

Our first stop was Chirikof Island, home of the first animal that comes to mind when I think of islands: cattle. Okay, that sentence was partly a lie. Years ago a ranch was in operation, and I guess the cows just got left behind when the operation was shut down. Like I said, it’s bizarre to have over 2,000 cows (as of 2014 count) hanging out on an island in the North Pacific.

We helped set up two 2-man camps on the E and W sides of the island, where fox trappers will spend a couple months trying to continue fox population control efforts. Those guys have it easy with ATVs and skiffs at their disposal. While they won’t have the luxury of cabins when the winds and rain come, they did have the luxury of having about 14 people help shuttle gear from the skiff to the beach and set up parts of camp.

Dropping off crews for a final time does have a strange feel, since we’re essentially leaving them stranded on a beach with no visible human contact for months. Sometimes I miss my chance to say goodbye to people, leaving me thinking, “And I never saw them again…” (It’s true! The trapping crews get picked up earlier in summer, so I won’t know if they survived.)

Passengers: 10

Chowiet, part of the Semidi Islands, was John and Emily’s stop. With clear skies we had nice views of rocky cliffs on many of the islands as we approached. Fortunately the green cabin and shed at the base of a prominent hill were still standing, but the same couldn’t be said for their outhouse or produce bin, whose pieces we gathered from all over the surrounding area. Over the course of an evening and the next morning we got their radio communications up and running, as well as all their gear lugged from the skiff to the beach and up the short, steep hill to the flat in front of their cabin. God bless the human chain method of moving packages from place to place.

Passengers: 8

From Chowiet we headed north toward the western end of the Alaska Peninsula before starting our journey west. Our next stop was a roughly ½ x 3 mile island called Outer Iliasik. There we all meandered around as much territory as we could cover to check for signs of mammals’ presence. Foxes and rats were introduced to the Aleutians years ago and prey on seabird eggs, so Fish & Wildlife has worked on eradicating these mammals for decades. Mostly we stumbled our way through tall (knee-high) grass and over spongy tundra that sinks in a half a foot with each step. Undoubtedly we all earned the rhubarb raspberry danishes that awaited us back on the ship.

Today we spent the day at Aiktak, home of the highest density of puffins in the eastern Aleutians. Dan and Sarah’s cabin needed a new roof and new door, so the captain even made it to shore for carpentry work and banter. Watching thousands of tufted puffins circle through the air and raft on the channel separating Aiktak from Ugamak was awesome.

By the end of dinner, Sarah and Dan were shipped back to their home on shore.

Passengers: 6

Update for 25 May: Since we’re running ahead of schedule and needed to get some parts, we diverted to Dutch Harbor. Here the Fish & Wildlife mammalogist/trapper + 2 UAA mammalogists are jumping ship since we’re done exploring islands.

Crew: 6               Passengers: 3 Buldirians

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Now that my TB test came back negative and I’m at the end of a whirlwind 3 day stay in Fairbanks, it’s time to share.

I’m going on a boat!! I know, I know. Here we go again. However, this time I’ve earned my spot as more than labor.

To recap: birds across all of the field sites in Alaska Maritime NWR had a pretty disappointing year. Either they didn’t lay eggs, or those eggs didn’t hatch, or the chicks died. Right now we’re not quite sure why the year was such a failure, but the hypotheses seem to involve ocean temperature and how that affected food sources.

While the thick-billed and common murres of St. George had a less-than-ideal year, they also chose to breed later than usual. In our monitoring we hope to record the final nest status (egg, chick, or fledgling gone from nest site) of as many monitored nests as possible, and our scheduled departure date left more young murre chicks on the cliffs than is ideal. Because of this, I stayed on St. George a week later than the other 2/3 of my crew because (a) my schedule allowed the most flexibility and (b) I didn’t want to leave in the first place.

murre family

Fledging age chick + parents

On the first weekday of having the entire bunkhouse to myself, I got a message from my crew leader back in Homer that just said, “Call Marc (the boss) right now, asap.” Wondering what I’d managed to screw up, I hesitantly called. My nerves were immediately proven frivolous, as I was being called about an opportunity.

The NOAA vessel Oscar Dyson would be heading out for a cruise from Dutch Harbor to Kodiak from roughly 20 September through 6 October. USFWS would have a trained seabird observer aboard, and they were hoping to send out a paid trainee. If I was interested, Marc would pass on my name.

Of course I jumped at the opportunity. Getting back on a ship in the Bering/North Pacific has been on my mind since I had to leave the last time, and this time I had the chance to go on a research vessel! Being a fantastic boss, Marc got my name in for first dibs, which left us to play the waiting game since NOAA didn’t know for sure if they had a spare berth.

After a week of not knowing on St. George and a week in Homer, I finally got word on Monday when I was in Anchorage. All of the sudden it became ‘go time’ to take care of the proper TB test, required medical form, travel plans, etc. A couple weeks in Fairbanks became just a couple days full of unpacking and repacking, convincing myself to buy a camera, a tiny bit of visiting, plenty of walks and bus rides, and emailing.

Now I’m at that very important final stop: Pubdrinking a raspberry wheat at the Pub. Just a couple of days is nowhere near enough time to feel at home again in Fairbanks, but I guess I’ll take what I can get.

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