West & central Bhutan birding trip report with Incredible birding
Ema Datshi – what will get me to go back to Bhutan….
Let me start being very controversial by saying Bhutan is over promoted by everyone. There is a reason why I say this, because the more I had talked to people about the Bhutan experience, the more un-relatable answers I got.
Even though we are on a birdwatching and wildlife photography trip, with so much in Bhutan it’s pardonable if one’s mind is veering off in all directions making a check list of answers to be had. From all the research I did on Bhutan experience there was so much I had to tick off in two weeks, the student in me was at work to find answers for
- Buddhism and its resultant contentment in people
- Balancing materialism & modernity with tradition
- Monarchy and people’s welfare
Imagine how difficult it is for your co-travellers, with such a confused man in their midst rattling off his questions when all that’s required is to enjoy birding. All these heavy questions however disappeared in my mind after the first meal in Paro. How did an innocuous meal answer all those complicated queries?
Ema Datshi, the Bhutanese national dish explains what Bhutan stands for – “simple, matter of fact, un-complicated and true”. It may seem absurd that so much is revealed in just a dish, just google it, you will get where I am coming from. After this meal all that I focused on for the next fortnight was birds and food, not essentially in the same order all the time.
Day 1 – Eureka moment and a solid start
Native intelligence or that’s how we believe it, sees us through the check-in without being charged for the over-weight camera gear. In all this excitement we bungle up the mandatory seat requirement for flights to Paro. Only one in our group of seven manages to get himself a window seat on the left side of the aircraft and all through his journey, he is shooting the mighty Himalayas in brilliant morning light. With the Covid scare in the air we were welcomed with sanitisers and thermal scanners and I was firmly told by Uma not to cough, better still not even talk. No fevers or sore throats and we swiftly get out of the airport into the welcoming gestures of our crew in their Bhutanese national dress.
We were told that our session starts at 2pm, prior to which our lunch would be at the riverbank. You are not to be blamed if you are thinking of a fancy lunch setting overlooking the river, actually it was a lot more than that. What you get in Bhutan is a crew which travels with you all along and pitches a tent wherever they feel right and serve you freshly cooked food. That’s the best, you are birdwatching wherever, whenever, and your food follows.
With the food portion of the trip covered, we turn attention to the other need, Birding. Solitary snipe, Ibisbill and Black tailed crake were our targets. We set out by the river and quite effortlessly saw an Ibisbill flying into the riverbank. But that’s not what we jumped out for, because almost at the same time our birding champ Tshulthrim tells us that there is a Long-Billed plover in there. The next hour went behind trying to get closer to it and we had to give up the chase because the bird never even gave us a chance for a record shot. It was a great start nevertheless, and we moved on consoled by Tshulthrim (Bhutan birding expert) that there is another chance that we have with this Plover, little did we know then that it was just to get us moving. The disappointment of not seeing the Plover didn’t last long since we sighted the next target almost immediately. We ironically spotted a pair of ‘Solitary’ Snipes but as we moved closer to it, in more than knee deep water only one of them chose to stay. After playing hide and seek with us for an hour the Solitary Snipe finally gave in for a few seconds, that allowed us to make our first decent wildlife photo of the trip.
We had another hour at best to go before the light settles for the day, so off we went from the river to the other side of Paro for the Crake. We stopped briefly when we spotted another Ibisbill, we were told firmly to move on since the Crake is waiting. Just off the road, right outside a human settlement we see Black tailed Crake, but it refused to come out till the ISO moved up. It was a brief but good sighting and before we headed back to the hotel Red crested Pochard also showed up. A great start for the trip, but has Tshulthrim over delivered right at the start?
Day 2 – Zaow & nothing much at Chela la pass
Early morning leaving, driving up to the highest pass in this part of Bhutan, freezing cold and vehicle stuck in snow. Pretty much sums up the day, but the breakfast on the edge of the mountain overlooking the valley made up for the missed bird sightings. For the first time we had a go with Zaow – crunchy bhutanese puffed rice, an absolutely un-assuming delight. Our poor crew was made to serve this everyday from here-on. Heavy snow on the road splutters our movement and with that goes our first tryst with the Blood pheasant. We were told by our Bhutan birding expert that Blood Pheasant seen in Chela la pass is different looking to the ones seen in other parts of Bhutan, so there is no other chance for this particular species this trip. The learning out of the day is nothing new “in the wild take things as they come, celebrate if you get it, if you don’t get on with it.”
Day 3 – pleasure of long drives & a “heronic” feat
Clean roads, scenic all long, good food for company: It looked like birding took a back seat until about sunset.
From Paro we get past Thimpu on the way to our first stop, Dochula pass, nothing much at this pass other than Stupas. Little did we know then that this spot would eventually impact this trip in ways that was least expected. More on this later, from this pass we get to our first birding point for the day – Royal Botanical Garden. The moment we entered the park we were greeted by Blue fronted redstart and a steady drizzle. To save our gear from the drizzle we move to a shed only to be teased by Scimmitar Babbler’s for the next two hours. Both Slender billed and Streaked Scimmitar Babbler were seen and heard but they refused to come out in the open. With drizzles turning to showers we needed to run. There is nothing better than having hot food in rains. The crew today got us into the covered tent and had dutifully made Momo’s that we had requested. Bhutan = Momo’s, is a common train of thought, hence the request. It was just another Momo, nothing special I should say, hot Momo’s in rains did work fine. However, with the Momo experience, we decided against using our non-existent knowledge of actual Bhutanese food and decided not to request the crew to make these stereotypical food items.
“Ward’s Trogan”, Bhutan is where one has a fair chance of seeing it”, these words got us out from the cozy tent. Three hours and two different spots, no Trogan and we thought we are settling in for an un-eventful birdwatching day heading towards Punakha. After a long drive to Punakha town and an another 30min drive along the river lead us to see one of the most threatened species, The White bellied Heron. As luck would have it, the Heron flew in and showed up at the edge of river stream and this presented us with an un-believable opportunity to get closer to the bird. By then the light had pretty much faded and the bird was in the hunting mode looking for fishes. While we did go in search of this critically endangered White Bellied Heron, we never expected it to present itself close enough for us to make clean wildlife photos of the rarest of rare species. We get back to our vehicles after it got dark and almost exactly at that moment, clouds opened up to celebrate along with us.
Day 4 – Ezay brings back the zing…
Excess of spice, sour & salty, but the amalgam is tasteful. That’s Ezay. Absolutely fiery stuff in the breakfast menu and I personally over did it using it like a jam in the bread and this is the kind of thing that lifts you up from slumber and gets you to move.
It was an action-packed day with a worthy number of lifers, however Ward’s Trogan stayed elusive. The day started with a Eurasian tree sparrow, very common for our birding experts from Bhutan but a rarity for us. After hour an hour with the Sparrow, Hodgson’s redstart teased us for quite some time never really getting close. So, we move on only to be greeted by another Hodgson’s redstart but this time on a busy narrow lane near a school crossing. While some of us were with the Redstart the others in the group were fascinated by the school children doing the cleaners job at their own school. “You, dirt less when you know, you are one to clean it”, learnings that can put to use for huge societal impact.
The next pit stop is on a highway close to Bajo town where the valley has just got their coral flowers blooming. Here we see all the regulars – Fire breasted flowerpecker, three species of barbets – Blue throated Barbet, Golden throated Barbet and Great Barbet, Black bulbul and Rufous Sibia. Because they were pecking on the just bloomed corals, we got the opportunity to keep company with them for long. Complain we did, in spite of the time spent because the light was harsh and the angles we got weren’t to our liking. “these wildlife photographers” is an understandable fuming of the birding guides. The birding guides can only show you birds, can’t get them to dance to your tunes. So, after having done their work and with still not so happy photographers the loud sound from the driver “keep pushing” got us to rush to our vehicles. The next stop was to see the Yellow Rumped Honeyguide, a Himalayan specialty which we were told by Rahul shows up here with much less effort. As we were driving towards the spot, Tshulthrim, made the vehicle come to a screeching halt. In the thick canopy he had spotted Ashy wood pigeon, while it didn’t really come out of the canopy, it still lets us all have a clear view and allowed us to make satisfactory wildlife photos.
While the bus moved rapidly to the Honeyguide spot, Rahul and I made the SUV we were in to stop for a better picture of Golden throated barbet which was basking on a single stump. The bird photo had it got clicked would have become a hugely liked picture on FB, but that was not to be. Having wasted a good 30mins here we reached the Yellow Rumped Honeyguide spot only to see the other group members relaxing after their fill of Honeyguide in a dream perch. The screen images of the wildlife photo shown to us only made us envy and both me and Rahul were silently hoping the others would allow us time to try our luck with this bird. For us the Honeyguide did show up but never really came down in all our wait time and we reluctantly left for lunch. At lunch, which was served closer to the stream, the other group members let us have another go with the Honeyguide. Neither the lunch nor the Honeyguide disappointed and we finally got more than what we thought we will have of the bird.
Another failed attempt with Ward’s trogan, we moved to Nobding after spending some time with the Wallcreeper.
Day 5 – Birds & snow, it’s a good combination after all
The stay at Nobding, the previous night was at a fairly new place with their employees still settling down and they make a big mistake of asking us to choose the menu. As with all of us, we went ballistic forgetting to check if the person got what we meant. The mealtime was chaos, and it was part of the fun if anything.
Birding started with another shot at Ward’s Trogan, and after a few hours of attempting, and no sign of the Trogan we head towards Pelala Pass. We were welcomed to the pass by Spotted Laughing Thrush but after a warm welcome they go back into the bushes right under our nose never to come out. Pelala Pass is where you shop for Yak made clothing and the women in the group alter priorities for some time. White Browed Fulvetta and Rufous Breasted Accentor in brilliant breeding colours entertained us while our focus continued to be on the Laughing Thrush. Red billed Chough kept hovering above us and would settle in a hillock above, unfortunately too far for any picture.
Little ahead from the pass, the open ground was bursting with activity. The trek down proved to be the very productive with Beautiful Rosefinch, Himalayan White Browed Finch, Dark sided Finch and Brown Parrotbill jumping around. The Finches are tough customers to deal with, because they never perch for long and are always on the move. However, with lots of running around we did have our moments of success. After we make some good wildlife photos, sky opens up with snow fall stopping our birding, making us to go back to our vehicles, not before we made customary selfies in the snow for our FB profiles.
At lunch we were treated to another delicious dish, Semchu Datsi – spicy beans. Again, a simple dish but the spice from the red-hot chilies get to you even before it’s in your mouth. Spicy food in freezing cold is god send. At lunch we were told that the highway repairs meant, we got to be crossing the road repair point before 3pm. We were back on the road with no stoppages on the way. The lunch made sure we slept the distance only to be woken up well after the repair point. This time the stop was for the Bhutan Laughing Thrush, the bird shows up without even an attempt and entertains us for the next 20 minutes. The same spot produces two more beauties: The Fulvous Woodpecker and Chestnut Crowned Laughing Thrush.
Day 6 – Monk, Monal & Covid
We were flabbergasted witnessing this divine connect between Monks & Monal at Chhumey monastery. You see them coming down only when the monks are around otherwise choosing to stay on the higher plains, and they seem to feel secure as long as the monks are there. It’s not with all people in the monastery but just the few monks that Monal’s have this connection. So, I won’t blame you if you are thinking “with this divine connect all that one needs to do, is be with the monks and you get your Himalayan Monal”. Sorry folks it ain’t as easy as you thought because the monks don’t like to be used for your pleasure.
We were treated to amazing sightings of Himalayan Monal right at the start of the day in brilliant golden light and signed off with Monal in a dreamy setting of fading light and heavy snowfall. In between these two sessions of Monal we saw the White Winged Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, White Browed Rosefinch and Alipne Accentor along with quite a few regulars which we had learned to ignore by now. The Snow Pigeon was there all through the day but never came down from the hills. So, it’s some other day for the Snow Pigeons profile shot.
The dampener for the day is the news of the 1st Corona patient in Bhutan and our birding crew post this news was not the same. Incidentally, the first case was in Dochula pass, the infected person had visited the day after we had been there. Too much tension around, as usual all kinds of stories being peddled, the crew is engrossed in catching the next story. In the midst of this couple of our co-traveler’s were getting pushed by their families back in India to head back. While the lunch was as usual good, the situation got our minds off it and we went through the eating ritual without even giving it any thought. Of course, suddenly sanitizers were the most visible and talked about stuff.
While some of the fellow birders headed back to the hotel to prepare themselves for early departure, we continued to scale back to the monastery. On the way up, the Himalayan Buzzard in the valley put up a show for us and then we signed off from the Monastery with our signature wildlife photo from the trip.
Day 7 – Blood thirsty gang
With the regular stream of Covid news being fed, we set out in pursuit of the species that left us in lurch at Chela La pass, and as a complete group this was our last chance to have him. Blood Pheasant is the species we were going for. Phrumsengla National Park is the place you get to see the exotics – Blood pheasant, Satyr Trogopan and Monal. Tshulthrim had already punctured our hopes on Satyr Trogopan saying it’s seen only in April and we need to forget about it, so its only Blood Pheasant for now.
After a brief scenic drive from Chhumey we start ascending the mountains and in less than an hour we were in fully covered snow terrain. The cold weather does make one to frequently relieve oneself and one such stop proved fortuitous to us, we had first sighting of White Throated Bluestart. We were told about this species the previous day in the monastery, but this was the time we got to see it close. A very restless species, it gives you only few seconds for taking pictures. We did get our few seconds to experiment with high key pictures in nature photography and moved on in search of the Pheasant.
Breakfast time was fast approaching and before we could decide on when and where to stop, dead trees closer to the roads had come alive with Tits. Rufous Vented Tit, Grey Tit and Coal Tit, all three of them moved in and kept us occupied for the next 45 minutes. Only post this session with the Tits did we realise we were terribly hungry and decided to have our breakfast then and there. Never before than now, the huge advantage of a food truck coming along was felt. In no time we are treated to hot cooked food in snow drenched terrain. Fiery Ezay is blissful in the freezing weather and so is our good old hot chai.
As it happens in all wildlife drives, we continuously hear stories of various Blood Pheasant sightings along the way, that makes you feel desperate. So, we for now have to contend with only stories and no action. By now we have moved up quite a bit and there is more snow and less roads now. While our vehicle didn’t get stuck in snow, better sense prevailed on us that we abort the attempt to move up any further. With that decision goes the chance of seeing Parrotbills in an open ground which was another 10kms from where we were.
Blood Pheasant is still a possibility as we were in their habitat and the discussion now moved on to “in which weather does the pheasant show up”. There was hope because both Rahul and the Bhutanese birding experts kept saying it’s the fog that brings out the pheasant. Another hour went by, our mind wanted nothing but the Pheasant, and our stomach was saying lunch. As the vehicle was lazily getting downhill, we heard a shriek from inside the vehicle, the smile was back in Tshulthrim’s face and he triumphantly proclaimed Blood Pheasants and before he could finish, we were at the door all set for action. Yes, they were (2 of them) in the thickets moving around showing signs of getting downhill to where we were. After an hour wait all that we had to be contented with is a fleeting appearance of the Pheasant.
Lunch beckons and we were also having steady trickles of snowfall. A confused state of lunch in which none of us spoke much because all of us were worried, whether even just the few hours left will be marred by persistent snowfall. With lunch done in a hurry and not paying much attention to the food, we get back to the vehicle to get the maximum of what’s left. Almost immediately we get another chance with the Pheasant this time at eye level but well inside the thick growth, much closer than the pre-lunch one but still way too far. After deliberating on whether to trek to get closer to the Pheasants, we dropped the idea because the terrain to which the flock moved had been covered fully with snow and it would have been a risky attempt. Another miss…
Finally, it happens – At a bend the van’s driver caught the glimpse of Blood Pheasant jumping on to the cliff and moving up swiftly. That’s it, without any major deliberation four of us in the group of seven with the help of the birding crew decided to trek up. By now, snowfall had become quite heavy and it didn’t really matter to us. The thick growths helped us to hide ourselves from the bird’s sight, but it also meant very few openings for all the four of us to shoot from. So, we dispersed with each of us taking positions in different directions with pin hole openings through the bushes. The Blood Pheasants, numbering 10 were in front of us, some moving laterally and most of them climbing up. As the birds got in sight each of us were firing like there is no tomorrow and there were more misses than hits. All of us were sure we will have some good hits but didn’t even care to check anything then. The point where we had positioned ourselves had a water stream just ahead of us, the bushes at the edge of the stream separated us from the other side where the Pheasants were foraging. Considering the weather and the terrain ahead, that point would have been the maximum we could have gone to and we got lucky. With our cameras loaded with whatever we could manage we come back down in heavy snowfall and were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by others like warriors. We huddle around our respective cameras and start checking out the screenshots. As we start sharing our pictures with one another we realized every one of us had a distinct frame. For the next half an hour we celebrated like kids with high fives and thanking one another for the moment. An absolutely wonderful finale for the complete group, cause from the next day it’s only to be just 4 out of the 7.
Day 8 – Maximizing it.
Since the day earlier was spent pre-dominantly on the Blood pheasant, we had decided to go back to Phrumsengla National Park for everything else including another shot at Blood Pheasant. Our first stop was in an open ground we had stopped by briefly the previous evening and we were welcomed by the teaser. Beautiful Rosefinch, it seems to take its name a little too seriously because it will fly in, invite you and when you get there it will take flight. It does this repeatedly and we kept falling for it for a very long time rather shamelessly. After many failed attempts getting the Rosefinch, finally managing one decent frame was very satisfying. Getting the Eurasian Magpie with its glittering coloured tail in the same place was an added bonus.
Few more stops for the regulars and we move up the mountain. A solitary Monal makes a brief appearance and we actually get cheeky, ignore it and move on. After a brief drive up we get to see a large flock of Blood Pheasants on the roadside and they swiftly jump down seeing us. But they continued to forage closer to the road which enabled us to make few wildlife photos in good light. An action-packed morning till then and it was time for breakfast. Shamu Datshi makes its first appearance and it turns out to be another blockbuster hit. Large mushrooms cooked in cheese, spiced with chilies, that’s Shamu Datshi.
Rest of the day was spent in bettering pictures made earlier. The day ends with another shot at the White Throated Bluestart, Spotted Nutcracker up and close, Black Faced Laughing Thrush with berries and Red Billed Chough on the ground. We retire back to our resort at Bhumtang, not before we see some stunning landscapes and rock formations. Icicles, moss ridden stones, river cutting through the rocks, these mountains have so much to offer for a nature photographer.
Day 9 – Take it as it comes
The day didn’t start off well, the hotel we were to stay in the night refused to take us in for another night on account of Covid and the flight back to Delhi was cancelled. First things first, we had to get our flight back re-organised and we chose the option of flying out a day earlier in place of 3 days later. This meant we need to be heading back towards Paro and luckily being dumped off the hotel in Trongsa was a blessing in dis-guise. The hotel in Bhumtang, where we had stayed the night post the White Bellied Heron sighting was willing to take us in. So off we left in the direction to Bhumtang covering mostly the same places we had done earlier.
With no specific target species in mind we were actually relaxed and decided to enjoy and live the moment. Since we had to cross the bridge, which was being repaired before 10, had no option but to drive fast and skip birding that morning. But as luck would have it quite close to the bridge, Tshulthrim spotted a Crested serpent eagle very close to the road basking in the sun. Suddenly the time limit was forgotten, and we get down to make full frames of the Eagle. Even in that hurry our eyes didn’t miss the Blue Checked Bee-eater in bright colours.
We crossed the bridge at 9.45 and were quite relieved, but almost immediately were concerned if our food van had crossed. Luckily, they weren’t too far from us and did cross in time, we were relieved that our lunch wasn’t in trouble. Are we to be blamed for being so obsessed with food even in times like these? Not at all, after all this is the only binding force and so critical for our sanity. Back to birding, we were told by the birding crew of a place where Nepal House Martin had built its nest, and this would have been the only way we could get to see these otherwise active birds. We did see the nest and the bird leaving them, but they never came back to it for the next 45 minutes, flying all around us but not landing on the rocks. Keeping them long from the nest wasn’t right and we decided to move on.
Pela La pass was our next hop and the open ground where we had seen all the finches and Parrotbill few days back is where we headed to. It was mid-day by then and unlike our earlier experience this place had absolutely no birding activity. Quite surprising considering just a few days back, around the same time the place was alive with so many birds. It drives the point home that the beauty of nature is its unpredictability.
Having not learnt well from our earlier experience of trying to influence the menu, we get the rice noodles for lunch which turns out to be quite ordinary. Bhutanese rice, their Datsi’s and Ezay is what we should be having, but we went around ordering things with no understanding on the Bhutanese version of it. So, our lunch turns out to be more like Hakka noodles in Saravana Bhavan and we need to be squarely taking the blame for it. Birding post lunch is near Bajo town, trying to catch birds on the freshly bloomed coral trees. Another encounter with Wall Creeper and Nutcracker ensues on the way to Bajo. The bright red coloured corals in evening light was a great setting and we hoped the birds don’t disappoint.
To start with we only got the usual suspects: The Black Bulbul, Rufous Sibia and Barbets. As the light muted, a pair of Orange Bellied Leafbirds moved in and for the rest of the evening kept us involved with them. We were jumping around this time more than the birds, trying to get the right angles. Other than Whiskered Yuhina there must have been more species coming to the corals and our focus on Orange Bellied Leafbird must have missed the others.
Day 10 – Expect the un-expected
Cut short by a day we wanted to give ourselves another chance to get Ward’s Trogan and Woodcock. We set out in the morning, birding in Bhumtang looking for the Slender Billed Oriole. Driving toward Oriole spot, we saw a Lesser Coucal camouflaged in dry branches shimmering in golden light, but at a distance. This is no normal bird since it has a reputation for being a skulker, a very tough one to get. We set out in pursuit of the Coucal, however considering its reputation our confidence of getting him close was low. As luck would have, not only did we manage to get close to Lesser Coucal but also did get few good bird photos with almost clear view of the bird. As we turned back to return, Tshulthrim directed us towards Crested Buntings which was hopping around. We spent fair amount of time to get good frames of the Buntings but failed miserably.
With no signs of the Oriole we decided to move to Trogan’s habitat. We had two spots to try and hoped that we get lucky this time, after all it was our fifth attempt. Our Ward’s Trogan story ended normally and in no Bollywood style of hard work pays. We failed getting the Trogan this time too, as with other days the food alleviated the mood. A proper Bhutanese meal made with home grown cheese, flavoured with just plain chilies and whole lot of beans thrown in. Semchu Datshi, goes best with plain rice.
The evening session was to be in Thimpu with the target being Woodcock. Thimpu, is not like any urban place, since in almost 10 minutes from the main town we hit the woods and from hereon it’s more like a thick green forest offering so much for nature photographers. The city seems to have grown around the forest and not at the cost of it, something we urban guys don’t get. We tend to think in binaries, “city and forests and not city in forests”.
The Bhutan birding expert crew reserved the best for the last and kept us on our toes for the last couple of hours. We ran around like headless chickens, first in pursuit of Woodcock which however never allowed us to pin it down. Next in line, was a very co-operative White Collared Black bird almost immediately followed up by the dainty Rufous Fronted Bush Tit. Having encountered its counterpart Black Throated Bush Tit, we were expecting a gruelling session. But it was not to be, the Rufous Fronted Bush Tit, gave in quite easily and we captured some interesting gestures which uniquely belongs to only this family of tits. Done with the Tit, we were asked to position ourselves for the Darjeeling Woodpecker. It flew in, the moment we were ready and didn’t waste too much of our time since we had to rush for our next appointment. The Long-Billed Thrush was the next on our look, but it was evasive and instead we saw the Kalij Pheasant (lathami). Lathami is a distinct sub-species of Kalij Phesant distinguished by a blue crest in place of whitish crest of the same species in Western Himalayas. The slog overs ended well, we returned to the pavilion pleased with the score.
Another one of our memorable Birding & Food travels draws to an end. Food has been the most important component of our birding journeys and its yet again proven that to a very large extent, stomach leads the mind.
Your skill and luck don’t matter. It’s the local birding experts who create the moments which test your skills. We thank our capable crew Tshulthrim, Lekhi, Shrab and Sonam for it. They had to not only get the birds but also put up with our idiosyncrasies and they did that with a smile. A final count of 45 lifers in our bird list and it’s pictures wouldn’t have been possible but for this wonderful team. Looking forward to going back and troubling them more.
Planning a trip like this is no mean feat and getting it to work without hiccups is even harder. Our sincere thanks to Rahul & Khushboo (Incredible birding) for getting this organised and being fleet footed in making those quick workarounds when Covid panic set-in. Love you guys
Finally, our wonderful group Anil Kumar, Renu, Ruta and the smart one Kaustabh who was silently making pictures of our stupidity. In spite of knowing one another for such a short while, camaraderie in the group was more like lifelong friends. Looking forward to our next trip Team.
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