The Waxwings of Shanghai

Japanese Waxwing
For many birders in Shanghai, Japanese Waxwing Bombycilla japonica is an unexpected and welcome tick. The species is recorded most frequently at Pudong’s Binjiang Forest Park, where I photographed this individual. Gain familiarity with waxwings by reading this post. (Craig Brelsford)

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Shanghai birders record Japanese Waxwing Bombycilla japonica and Bohemian Waxwing B. garrulus centralasiae irregularly in the urban parks, on the coast, and in suburban western Shanghai. Japanese Waxwing is reported nearly three times as often in Shanghai as Bohemian. Binjiang Forest Park in Pudong has both the most records and the largest recorded flocks, with counts as high as 40. Century Park is second to Binjiang in the number of records. Cape Nanhui has records of both species, all of individuals and small groups. Nearly all waxwing sightings in Shanghai occur between November and February. There are a handful of records from March, April, and May (eBird 2020).

I have noted Japanese Waxwing in November, December, and January at Binjiang and in January on Chongming Island. Bohemian Waxwing were mixed in with the flocks I saw of Japanese at Binjiang. I also have a record of a single Bohemian Waxwing on Lesser Yangshan Island in November.

Improve your chances of ticking waxwings in Shanghai by reading the species descriptions below and studying the photos.

JAPANESE WAXWING

Japanese Waxwing
Japanese Waxwing Bombycilla japonica devouring a berry, Binjiang Forest Park, December. In winter, waxwings subsist almost entirely on berries. The fruit is usually swallowed whole, but occasionally, as above, the waxwing fails to loosen the berry from the stem and must peck it. (Craig Brelsford)
Waxwing Tails
The color of the tail-tip is the readiest differentiator between Bohemian Waxwing (top) and Japanese Waxwing (bottom). Note also the black subterminal bands, narrower in Japanese. (Craig Brelsford)

Japanese Waxwing Bombycilla japonica is an irregular winter visitor and passage migrant in Shanghai. Breeds nearly exclusively in Russian Far East (E Yakutia, Amur, Khabarovsk, N Sakhalin). In China is irregular breeder in Lesser Khingan Mountains in Heilongjiang. Does not breed in Japan. Winters mainly eastern China, also Korea and Japan. More irregular south of Yangtze, but reported as far south as Fujian and Yunnan and as far west as Qinghai. BEHAVIOR In winter almost entirely frugivorous and almost always in flocks. Mixed flocks often contain Bohemian Waxwing. DESCRIPTION Thick neck and short tail give plump appearance. Has narrow black mask, from eye extending upward below crest, giving angry facial expression; eyeline meets on forehead and (unlike in Bohemian) connects at rear of crest. Black bib (clear-cut in male, more diffuse in female); white at lower base of bill and part of eye-ring (below rear part of eye). Forehead and malar cinnamon-brown, rest of head buff, turning greyish-brown on nape, mantle, and wing coverts; lower back, rump and uppertail coverts grey. Tail grey at base, with black subterminal band and red tip. Underparts pale greyish-brown, with varying amount of pale yellow on belly. White between and behind legs; vent and undertail coverts dull orange, but sometimes remarkably crimson. Has red band on greater coverts that in flight appears as small wing bar. Primary coverts blue-grey with broad black tips; secondaries grey with black subterminal band and red tips (but no red appendages, as on Bohemian). Primaries edged blue-grey on sides; the edging together with blue-grey on primary coverts and secondaries make wing look more blue-grey than black. Adult primaries tipped white (with red dots on a few outer webs), making “V” markings on closed wing (markings on outer web longer in Bohemian, making a connected line). Females have thinner V’s, and juveniles lack white on inner webs, having instead of “V” markings a white line along edge of folded wing. COMPARISON Easily distinguished from Bohemian by red terminal band on tail. Smaller and slimmer than Bohemian, and swept-back, pointed crest shorter than Bohemian. Wing pattern also different; Japanese lacks white and yellow in secondaries and wing coverts, instead having red band on median coverts, and broad black tips to grey greater coverts and primary coverts. Bohemian lacks yellow belly spot. BARE PARTS Bill short, black; strong feet black; iris brown. VOICE Pleasant trills, often delivered in flight, shorter, higher-pitched and less ringing than Bohemian. — Craig Brelsford

BOHEMIAN WAXWING

Bohemian Waxwing
Bohemian Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus, Binjiang Forest Park, November. Bohemian Waxwing is the widest-ranging of the world’s three waxwing species, with a distribution encompassing northern Eurasia and North America. (Craig Brelsford)
waxwing heads
The black masks of Japanese Waxwing (top) and Bohemian Waxwing (bottom) lend both species an ‘angry’ expression. Bohemian has a longer crest and a shorter eyeline that does not extend to the hindcrown. (Craig Brelsford)

Bohemian Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus centralasiae is an unpredictable and irruptive winter visitor to most of China north of the Yangtze and as far west as Qinghai and Xinjiang; sporadically to southern China and Taiwan. In Shanghai, reported about a third as often as Japanese Waxwing. BEHAVIOR In winter among most frugivorous of birds. Mostly insectivorous in summer, catching insects in aerial flights. Non-breeding usually in flocks, flying quickly and in tight formation, like starlings. DESCRIPTION Starling-sized, mainly buffy and greyish-brown, with long, swept-back, pointed crest and distinctive markings on wing. Thick neck and short tail give plump appearance. Has narrow black mask, from eye extending upwards below crest, giving angry facial expression; black meets on forehead but, unlike in Japanese, not on hindcrown. Black bib (clear cut in male, slightly more diffuse in female); white at lower base of bill and part of eye-ring. Forehead and malar cinnamon-brown, rest of head buff, turning greyish-brown on nape, mantle, and wing coverts; lower back, rump and uppertail coverts grey; tail grey at base, then black with broad yellow terminal band (narrower and paler in first-winter female). Underparts pale buffish-grey (palest on belly); deep rusty vent and undertail coverts. Primaries, primary coverts, and secondaries black with broad white tips to primary coverts and secondaries forming two bars; inner secondaries tipped with wax-like red appendages, most extensive in adult males and faint in first-winter females. Adult primaries tipped white on inner webs and yellow on outer webs (whiter towards wing tip), making “V” markings on closed wing; females have thinner V’s; juveniles lack white on inner webs and have less yellow, so instead of “V” markings have a mostly white line along edge of folded wing. COMPARISON Easily distinguished from smaller and more slender Japanese by yellow terminal band on tail (red on Japanese). Bohemian has longer crest and deeper chestnut vent and undertail coverts and lacks yellow spot on belly. BARE PARTS Bill short, black; strong feet black; iris brown. VOICE In winter, soft, ringing trills, often given in flight. — Craig Brelsford

PHOTOS

Waxwing Bellies
Japanese Waxwing (L) has a yellow spot on the central belly. In Bohemian (R) the belly is a more uniform buffish-grey. (Craig Brelsford)
Waxwing Wings
The secondaries of Bohemian Waxwing (R) have elongated and flattened red tips. These appendages resemble hardened droplets of wax and give the family its English name. In Japanese Waxwing (L) the secondaries are tipped bright red or pink. (Craig Brelsford)
Waxwing Flight
On fast-flying waxwings, note the yellow-and-white pattern on the wing of Bohemian (L) and the red scapular line and red-tipped secondaries of Japanese (R). (Craig Brelsford)
bohemian and japanese waxwing
Here is a scene typical of waxwings in Shanghai. A lone Bohemian Waxwing (C) is treated as one of the gang by the more numerous Japanese Waxwing. Smart birders in Shanghai scan closely each member of a flock of Japanese Waxwing, knowing that often a Bohemian will be mixed in. (Craig Brelsford)
Japanese Waxwing
Waxwings nearly always swallow berries whole, as here (Japanese) …
Bohemian Waxwing
… and here (Bohemian). (Craig Brelsford)
Waxwing Eating Berries
Waxwings go to great lengths to remove a berry from the stem. A Bohemian Waxwing twists its head powerfully to wrest the berry away (top). The unwanted parts fall (bottom L), and the berry is ready to eat (bottom R). (Craig Brelsford)
Japanese Waxwing
In winter waxwings alternate between feeding on berries, as here on Shanghai’s Chongming Island in January …
Japanese Waxwing
… and roosting on a nearby tree to digest their meal. (Craig Brelsford)
Japanese Waxwing
Of the world’s three species of waxwing, Japanese Waxwing has the most compact breeding range. The species breeds almost exclusively in the Russian Far East north of the 50th parallel and south of the tree line. The main wintering range of Japanese Waxwing is eastern China north of the Yangtze. In Shanghai, Japanese Waxwing is reported nearly three times as often as Bohemian (eBird 2020). (Craig Brelsford)
Bohemian Waxwing
This Bohemian Waxwing, photographed in November at Binjiang Forest Park, likely spent the summer in a boreal forest in Russia somewhere between the Ural Mountains and Kamchatka. The species is not known to breed in China. (Craig Brelsford)

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Daniel Bengtsson served as chief ornithological consultant for my Photographic Field Guide to the Birds of China, which I am publishing in bits and pieces on this website, and from which the species descriptions above are drawn.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brazil, Mark (2009). Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

Brazil, Mark (2018). Birds of Japan. Helm Field Guides, London.

eBird (2020). eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Waxwings in Shanghai (Japanese: https://ebird.org/species/japwax1/CN-31; Bohemian: https://ebird.org/species/bohwax/CN-31). Waxwings in China (Japanese: https://ebird.org/species/japwax1/CN; Bohemian: https://ebird.org/species/bohwax/CN). Accessed: 31 Mar 2020.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps (2000). A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press.

Mountjoy, D.J. (2005). Family Bombycillidae (Waxwings). Pp. 316-7 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 10. Cuckooshrikes to Thrushes. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Svensson, Lars, Killian Mullarney, & Dan Zetterström (2009). Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. 2nd ed. HarperCollins, London.

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Mysterious Yellow Wagtail at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Found at Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui on 1 May 2019: possible White-headed Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala. The discovery by Haiming Zhao provoked excitement and uncertainty among Shanghai birders. Certain aspects of the wagtail, notably the pale mottling on its mantle, cast doubt on an identification of White-headed. “Those pale/odd-looking feathers are unusual for leucocephala,” said Gomboo Sundev, a bird-tour leader in Mongolia, where leucocephala breeds. “I have never seen such an individual of the subspecies in Mongolia” (in litt., 2019).

Beijing-based British birder Paul Holt also noted the anomaly: “I was surprised … by the Shanghai bird’s mottled mantle” (in litt., 2019). Per Alström, co-author of Pipits and Wagtails, called the pale feathers on the mantle and scapulars “puzzling” (in litt., 2 May 2019). Both experts noted the pale base to the lower mandible of the Shanghai wagtail, also unexpected in leucocephala.

Students of Yellow Wagtail will not be surprised by the uncertainty. The Yellow Wagtail complex is a “systematic conundrum”; the various subspecies of the complex often “defy separation under the biological species concept” (Tyler 2004, 689). Interbreeding of the various subspecies occurs “freely at overlap zones, producing fertile hybrids” (689), often making it the case that “the direct parentage of Yellow Wagtails cannot be deciphered” (725). There is furthermore the prospect of partial albinism, a phenomenon that can make other subspecies of Yellow Wagtail appear white-headed (Alström & Mild 2003, 80, 269, 282).

In the case of leucocephala, another reason for the uncertainty is the sheer lack of knowledge about the race, even among elite ornithologists. Holt describes White-headed Yellow Wagtail as a “poorly known subspecies” (2019); Alström says his experience with the race is limited to “a few specimens and only one live bird” (in litt., 7 May 2019); Sundev told me he has seen the subspecies only about a dozen times (2019). The lack of information forces even great birders such as Holt to speculate: “The million-dollar question is whether [the mottled mantle and pale basal half of the lower mandible of the Shanghai bird] fit within the range of variation in leucocephala, or are they suggestive or even indicative of less than thoroughbred genes?” (2019)

Why is so little known about leucocephala? The biggest reason is the remoteness of its breeding range. White-headed Yellow Wagtail breeds in sparsely populated northwestern Mongolia, at places such as Khar-Us Lake (48.083328, 92.541368) and Durgun Lake (47.673106, 93.451188) (Sundev 2019). Alström and Mild say the race breeds also in areas adjacent to northwestern Mongolia, such as the Tuva Republic of Russia and “probably … northernmost Xinjiang” (2003, 281). Even the wintering range is uncertain; Alström and Mild say leucocephala “probably winters mainly in India but the exact wintering grounds are not known” (281).

The verdict on the Shanghai wagtail? “I would say it is leucocephala,” Sundev said. Holt agreed: “I would think that these [a White-headed Yellow Wagtail found in Hong Kong in April and the Shanghai wagtail] are the first two records of leucocephala for the whole of eastern China.” Alström, however, was less than fully convinced: “I’m not aware of a leucocephala with such a pale-mottled mantle as the Shanghai bird—although I can’t say they don’t occur” (7 May 2019).

PHOTOS

wagtail
L: The unusual Yellow Wagtail seen at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai on 1 May 2019. Note the pale mottling on the mantle. R: White-headed Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala, Mongolia. (L: Haiming Zhao; R: Gombobaatar Sundev)
wagtail
‘The encounter with the Western Yellow Wagtail was totally unexpected,’ said Shanghai birder Haiming Zhao, who discovered and photographed the bird. ‘The location where I found the bird is in a big area in Nanhui which has many trees newly planted. I came across this Western Yellow Wagtail when I went by this area searching for buntings. I was in my car looking at the ground 10-15 meters away to the left when I saw this special bird. Its bright gray head and yellow lower body were so eye-catching and had made it easily distinguished out there from a flock of eastern yellow wagtails on the ground’ (Zhao in litt., 2019). (Haiming Zhao)
wagtail
White-headed Yellow Wagtail on the breeding grounds in northwestern Mongolia. (Gombobaatar Sundev)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alström, P. (2019). Email to author, 2 May.

Alström, P. (2019). Email to author, 7 May.

Alström, P., Mild, K., & Zetterström, B. (2003). Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton University Press.

Holt, P. (2019). Messages to WeChat group Shanghai Birding, 1 May.

Sundev, G. (2019). Emails to author, 3 May.

Tyler, S.J. (2004). Family Motacillidae (Pipits and Wagtails). Pp. 689, 725 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2004). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 9. Cotingas to Pipits and Wagtails. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Zhao, H. (2019). Text messages to author, 2 May.

Featured image: Mysterious Yellow Wagtail, possibly White-headed Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 1 May 2019. (Haiming Zhao)
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Season of the Stubtail

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

’Tis the season of the stubtail in Shanghai. Every year in April and May, and again in September and October, birders in Earth’s Greatest City record Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps. Migrant stubtails are no strangers to the inner city; the photo above was taken at Changfeng Park, deep in Shanghai’s urban jungle.

In Shanghai, most of my records of Asian Stubtail have come from the microforests that dot the sea wall at Cape Nanhui. Migrating stubtails can, however, turn up in any wooded area. In his apartment complex recently, in a wood of about 25 square meters, Shanghai birder Komatsu Yasuhiko found Asian Stubtail. Hiko’s find bears out Kennerley and Pearson: Migrating Asian Stubtail, they write, is “opportunistic and likely to utilise any area of coastal or inland woodland or scrub offering shade and undisturbed areas for feeding” (2010, 557).

If Asian Stubtail is seen clearly or photographed well, then one can readily appreciate its distinctiveness. No other warbler in our region has its large-headed, bull-necked, stubby-tailed structure. The long, creamy supercilium is prominent, as is the contrastingly dark eye-line. The bill is fine and pointed, the legs are long and conspicuously pale, and the crown shows faint scaling.

Once on Lesser Yangshan, the island hotspot off the coast of Shanghai, I mistook Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi for a stubtail. A closer look at my photos revealed the longer tail and spikier bill of the Radde’s. Dusky Warbler P. fuscatus shares the dull, uniform plumage of Asian Stubtail and like the stubtail has a long supercilium, but it has a longer tail and shorter bill. Observers of Asian Stubtail in its winter range must separate it from shortwings and wren-babblers, while viewers of the species in its breeding range need to distinguish it from Eurasian Wren Troglodytes troglodytes (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 556).

A common passage migrant in Shanghai, Asian Stubtail breeds in Beijing, Hebei, and Northeast China and adjacent Ussuriland as well as southern Sakhalin Island, the four main islands of Japan, and the Korean Peninsula. The winter range includes Guangdong, Hainan, and Guangxi and much of Southeast Asia (Holt in litt., 2019; Brazil 2009, 340; Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 557).

I have noted breeding Asian Stubtail in Heilongjiang and Hebei (10 June), migrating Asian Stubtail in Jiangsu and Shanghai, and a possibly wintering Asian Stubtail on 15 Nov. 2014 at Wuyuan, Jiangxi. Regarding the Jiangxi record, the presence of the species in mid-November at that latitude (29.2142, 117.5626) is surprising but not inconceivable; Brazil (2018, 290) reports that some Asian Stubtail winter in southern Kyushu, which is farther north than Jiangxi. The Wuyuan stubtail was singing intermittently; the best explanation may be that it was a first-winter bird.

Asian Stubtail, “sit” call and short song, Wuyuan, Jiangxi, 15 Nov. 2014 (16 MB; 01:37)

PHOTOS

Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps, Yangkou (Rudong), Jiangsu, September. (Craig Brelsford)
Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps is a tiny, brown-backed, terrestrial warbler with a short, square tail, a prominent, creamy supercilium extending onto the nape, a proportionally large head giving a bull-necked appearance, a long, narrow bill, and conspicuously pink tarsi and toes (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 558-9). The species breeds in temperate northeast Asia and winters in southern China, Indochina, and Burma. It is a common migrant through the Chinese coastal provinces. This photo of a migrating stubtail was taken in September at Yangkou, Jiangsu (32.560387, 121.039821). (Craig Brelsford)
Asian Stubtail, Changfeng Park, Shanghai, May 2009. (Craig Brelsford)
Though secretive, Asian Stubtail ‘is not a particularly shy species and will approach a stationary observer closely’ (Kennerley and Pearson 2010, 557). In Heilongjiang, I once watched a stubtail emerge from the frenzy of a bird wave, perch on a branch higher than I was tall, and emit at full volume its insect-like song. (Craig Brelsford)
Urban wood providing habitat for migrating Asian Stubtail, Shanghai, April 2019. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
In April 2019 in this tiny wood in Pudong, surrounded by skyscrapers, alert birder Hiko found his Asian Stubtail. On migration, the ground-dwelling warbler needs only an approximation to the shady, secluded woodland in which it breeds. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Asian Stubtai , Shanghai, April 2019. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
This is the Asian Stubtail that was using Hiko’s tiny wood. ‘I have a habit of checking that place each time I bird,’ Hiko said. ‘And on that day I saw a buffy supercilium and was like, “Oh shoot, maybe stubtail.”’ Especially during migration season, experienced birders know that even marginal habitats can yield birding gold. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps, Heilongjiang, August. (Craig Brelsford)
Asian Stubtail in typical habitat, Xidaquan National Forest, Heilongjiang, August. Kennerley and Pearson describe Asian Stubtail as ‘skulking and elusive, frequenting the shady recesses of the forest floor. … It feeds almost exclusively on the ground, searching for small insects and spiders amongst fallen leaves and twigs.’ As here, however, ‘A bird will clamber higher into scrub or bushes occasionally’ (2010, 557). (Craig Brelsford)
Habitat of Asian Stubtail, Heilongjiang, August. (Craig Brelsford)
Lush undergrowth in deciduous forest predominated by Silver Birch Betula pendula, Xidaquan. This is the spot where I photographed the stubtail above. Breeding Asian Stubtail, write Kennerley and Pearson, requires ‘thick undergrowth with ample leaf litter and fallen logs, often along rock-strewn gullies and stream beds’ (2010, 557). Coordinates of this site: 45.706108, 130.303313. Elevation: 540 m (1,770 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Species similar to Asian Stubtail. Clockwise from top: Radde's Warbler, Lesser Shortwing Eyebrowed Wren-Babbler, Eurasian Wren. (Craig Brelsford)
If seen well, Asian Stubtail is easy to identify, but glimpses of the secretive bird often are fleeting, and confusion can arise. Like stubtail, Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi (top) passes through Shanghai on migration, breeds in Northeast China, and has a conspicuous supercilium. Note however the much longer tail and spikier bill of Radde’s. Dusky Warbler P. fuscatus (not pictured) also has a longer tail and like Radde’s spends much less time on the ground than Asian Stubtail. Eurasian Wren Troglodytes troglodytes (center L) is tiny like Asian Stubtail and has a long, fine bill, but it lacks a supercilium, is much more likely to forage in full view at eye level, and cocks its tail straight upward (Kennerley and Pearson 2010, 556). In Southern China, Lesser Shortwing Brachypteryx leucophris (center R) and Eyebrowed Wren-Babbler Napothera epilepidota (bottom) are secretive, ground-dwelling birds with nubby tails, but they lack the prominent supercilium of Asian Stubtail. (Craig Brelsford)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brazil, M. (2009). Birds of East Asia. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Brazil, M. (2018). Birds of Japan. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Brelsford, C. (2017). Gansu Bluetail, Wulingshan, Hebei (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/gansu-bluetail/). Post to shanghaibirding.com, published 17 June 2017 (accessed: 26 May 2020).

Brelsford, C. (2014). Wuyuan & Poyang Lake, November 2014 (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/explorations/wuyuan-2014/). Post to shanghaibirding.com, published 14 Sept. 2016 (accessed: 26 May 2020).

Brelsford, C. & Du, E. (2015). Inner Mongolia & Heilongjiang, 2015: Part 4: Second Trip to Elaine’s Hometown (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/explorations/inner-mongolia-heilongjiang/part4/). Report on shanghaibirding.com (accessed: 26 May 2020).

Brelsford, C. & Du, E. (2016). Boli, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016 (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/heilongjiang/). Report on shanghaibirding.com (accessed: 26 May 2020).

Clement, P. (2006). Family Sylviidae (Old World Warblers). P. 588 (Asian Stubtail) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2006). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 11. Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Holt, P. (2019). Series of text messages between Holt and author, 20 April.

Kennerley, P. & Pearson, D. (2010). Reed and Bush Warblers. London: Christopher Helm.

REVISIONS

1. On 22 April 2019, Beijing added to breeding range of Asian Stubtail, Paul Holt added to bibliography.

Featured image: Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps, Changfeng Park, Shanghai, May. (Craig Brelsford)
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