So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

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Kent VanSooy
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So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by Kent VanSooy » September 9th, 2014, 8:03 am

We began 2014 with our traditional New Year’s Day herping trip. In years past, Jan 1st weather has ranged from warm and sunny to cool and cloudy, but the hillsides have always been green. Not this year. Some of the chapparal appeared not just dry, but dead. No herps were encountered.

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Several weeks later it was still terribly dry, and a long day produced a single Red Diamond in what is normally a productive area.

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When we finally got a little rain, we started to find some animals, with an unusually high number tucked away under rocks or staying in cracks, presumably trying to preserve their precious moisture.

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A little more rain resulted in more activity…

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We of course didn’t forget to “hydrate” ourselves.

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As the spring continued to wear on, flowers struggled to make an appearance, as we struggled to find herps.

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Our coastal boardlines showed some life….

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….although many of the snakes were quick to dive down when exposed.

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We call wild kings with this appearance “blue-eyed blondes”, although that term has a different meaning in herpetoculture circles.

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We enjoy exploring and finding new areas to herp, but such adventures are often unproductive. Since it was a lousy year anyway, we stepped up the exploring a notch, figuring we could at least find some spots for 2015. Hmmm, I think there might be snakes here…

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Turns out we didn’t have to wait until 2015 after all.

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Southern Pacific rattlesnakes have a nasty habit of lying in partial shade on the perimeter of rock outcrops, and even large ones can be difficult to see.

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Fire season in SoCal typically coincides with the dryness and Santa Ana winds of the fall, but we encountered this fire in the spring. We were able to drive by right before the road was closed, but were kicked out of our destination a little later by the Forest Service.

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Back to the coast…

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Here’s Jeff and his eldest son Matty admiring a unicolor rosy boa.

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That’s the gaze of a future boa nut.

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You looking at me, punk??

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A foul taste for a foul creature

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I’ve got a little group of Western Fence lizards in my backyard, and one has developed the curious habit of surveying the world by looking through my glass wall.

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Boys will be boys…

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One of the highlights of 2014 for me was getting the chance to photograph both our local taxa of patchnose snakes (the coast form is darker than the desert). Typically I find them DOR, or only get a glimpse as they speed away.

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Southern Pacific rattlesnakes ain’t my favorite, but I’ve got to admit the neonates can be attractive.

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After I finished photographing this large gopher snake, I scooted it back into the brush away from the road. As I watched it crawl away, it went right by another large individual that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise (presumably a male that had been following the female).

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Hmmm…I think there might be snakes here too.

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Here’s a lighter desert-phase Red Diamond.

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In April we took a family camping trip to the high desert. Shortly after our arrival, we had just started a quick nature loop near camp when my wife said “uh, there’s a snake over there…”

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This beautiful speckled rattlesnake was definitely on a mission, and didn’t seem annoyed as we followed with camera in-hand.

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I would have liked to continue to follow it (perhaps it was a male that would lead us to a female), but it was too early in the trip to test my wife’s patience, so we bid this marvelous creature farewell.

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The next morning we began what turned into a magical hike. It was warm, but high clouds obscured the sun and kept the humidity levels high. The animals loved it.

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I’ve seen one or two of these over the years, but this is among the most handsome.

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As I stepped around a corner on the trail, I startled a speckled rattlesnake.

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We saw a large impressive male chuckwalla on a rock, and I as slowly approached with my camera, my wife ran up the trail to use an old trick to catch a lizard’s attention.

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And here’s the result:

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Soon after I heard my brother hollering behind me - he had just seen a rattlesnake, and when he jumped back, yet another rattled at him! I ran back and photographed the first one. We could still hear the other, but it was too deep in the rocks to see.

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The Great Basin collared lizards in the area are just incredibly beautiful.

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I got sorta close to this zebra-tail…

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…but got my typical shot with this whiptail as it paddled away. I see some fantastic pictures of whiptails on this forum - I don’t know how you folks do it.

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We also saw a coachwhip, many other chuckwallas, and even some CA treefrogs before the hike was over.

As we drove back from the hike, I was really surprised to find this DOR, as I didn’t think Mojaves occurred in the area.

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The next day we tried a hike in an area where I hoped to see desert tortoises, but settled for splendid scenery instead.

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Alright, away from the high desert, and on to the low desert…

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I saw this lovely lyresnake crawling along a bank, so followed it for a bit, camera in hand.

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Suddenly a black object arose from nowhere, and the lyresnake jumped back. It’s safe to say that all three creatures involved were surprised by the encounter.

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Those eyes are saying, Get Me Out of Here!

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Glossy snakes can show lots of variation, even within a few miles of each other. The darker one is from a more rocky area, the lighter, more sandy.

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And the shovelnose snakes show even more variation.

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As leafnosed snakes go, I thought this one was fairly attractive.

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We participated in the herp portion of San Diego’s Zoo bioblitz in Escondido. They picked what should have been a good date for the survey, but it was cold and rainy (of all things) as the event began.

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Despite the weather, the group did manage to find a respectable amount of herps.

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The helleri above was found close to the staging area, so Bill ran back and asked if any of the buggers, birders, or botanists would like to see a rattlesnake. That’s our motto – build respect for reptiles and amphibians, one new herper at a time (or several in this case!).

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Ah, springtime has arrived in the mountains!

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You never know what you’ll see next.

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We experienced strong Santa Ana winds in May, several months ahead of schedule. One morning I looked out my office window to see this:

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The flames looked to be heading our way, so we closed up shop and went home while we still could. When I arrived, there was a new plume of smoke, but in the other direction. This fire (the Cocos fire) burned for several days and destroyed many structures.

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The Marines from Camp Pendleton joined in the fight against the fires, and waited for their turn to fill their water buckets in an open area behind my house.

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Here’s one of the choppers, bucket now filled, heading off to the Cocos fire. Note the feet dangling out the open door. These guys did an incredible job.

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Alright, back to herping and exploring – late last year we had found a new road to cruise, and it was time to give it a try.

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Hmmmm….I think there are snakes here!

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We spent a weekend with Bill’s family in Arizona, and my wife got a chance to feed the chickens….

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….and collect eggs for breakfast.

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What she didn’t count on was finding this in the henhouse!

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You don’t have to ask me twice.

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Back to good ‘ol CA, where there’s still some time left in the season for cruising.

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We met with a group of students from Florida who had come all this way to find….Southern Pacific rattlesnakes (among other species). We were happy to help!

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It had been dry all year, and by now it was hot too, but I thought I could squeeze in another mountain trip. I started with a bit of fishing, and then planned to hike several miles and explore some montane habitat.

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I was a fair distance from my truck when I saw what at first looked like a puffy white cloud. I quickly hiked over a ridge to get a better look.

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This is the first time I’ve ever feel threatened by a fire on a hike, and it was a very intimidating thing. I high-tailed it back down, and took a shot of the ridge where I was a few minutes earlier.

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As I drove away, I watched the fire explode behind me. And it’s STILL not fire season here.

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For all the dryness earlier in the year, this summer we’ve had an unusual amount of tropical moisture, and I recently enjoyed some CA monsoon herping, finding several Western toads, and a large adult Arroyo toad.

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In my never-ending quest to find happy cows (read: please my wife), we found this one in Arizona. I saw the big horns and thought, it’s going to charge us! But then Bill pointed out my udder failure at gender identification.

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So I found these CA cows instead. They just LOVED me, and started to head over and say hello. I have no idea what they wanted – I grew up on the beach, not the farm!

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Alright dear reader, you’ve made it to the sunset! Here’s to a wetter, and less smoky, 2015.

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LouB747
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Re: So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by LouB747 » September 9th, 2014, 8:23 am

Wow. Some great experiences for an off year. Great post.

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monklet
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Re: So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by monklet » September 9th, 2014, 11:48 am

Always LOVE your posts Kent!!! ...they have such a natural, play it as it lays feel :thumb: :thumb: :thumb:

btw, this pic almost suggests that controversial speck hybrid.
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If you agree then maybe you should post to that one.

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Fieldnotes
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Re: So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by Fieldnotes » September 9th, 2014, 11:51 am

I noticed that the forum has slowed down with report and posts about people's field adventures. So its great to see one now, maybe things with pick up again with reports. That huge Coachwhip with the black head and red body is awesome!! The Chuck picture with your wife distracting him is great too. I have to admit, I haven’t tried a trick like that before, but I'm going be keeping it in mind. The Mojave Rattler could be a new range, but I suspect you found it in JTNP in Riverside County near the San Bernardino County line.
:beer:

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Re: So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by RobertH » September 9th, 2014, 7:28 pm

Yes, Kent, fantastic report and, as usual, great photography with lots of natural in situ shots. Having done some longer posts myself, I know how long it takes to put something like that together. Hours and hours. Thanks for making the effort and sharing what I would say has so far been an excellent year for you, especially given the drought conditions.

Robert

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Re: So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by Got Snake? » September 9th, 2014, 9:53 pm

Excellent post! Great to see people having a productive year despite the conditions. Nothing like putting in the time and miles and being presented with a new herp spot! Congrats on that!

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Fundad
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Re: So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by Fundad » September 10th, 2014, 5:24 am

Nice Kent.. I love those coastal coachwhips.. :thumb:

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MarcLinsalata
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Re: So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by MarcLinsalata » September 10th, 2014, 10:48 am

Good stuff, Kent! I love finding a new spot and saying, "I think there are snakes here" and being proven right!! :thumb:

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Kent VanSooy
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Re: So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by Kent VanSooy » September 10th, 2014, 1:44 pm

Thanks guys!

Lou, you're the one with some great experiences in Singapore, those blue corals are incredible! Thanks.

Brad, I really appreciate that comment, as I make an effort to take the reader along vicariously with me. To me, that little snake in my post is pure ruber (and there's not many specks where I saw it).

Will, thanks - I'm not sure where I learned that old trick, but I've been using it for years. The best part was I didn't say a word to my wife, she just ran up and starting wiggling her fingers.

Robert, I've tried to get more efficient over the years at putting these "epic" posts together. I've learned to rename the pictures (001-, 002-, etc) to set the order I want and give them a somewhat descriptive name, then it's fairly easy to provide the narrative. Thanks!

Got snake, we did put in the miles, for sure! One of the hardest parts of exploring is not getting distracted by what's close, and getting way back into the hills.

Brian, that Coachwhip was found just a few miles from the beach. I've only ever seen one other in the area, so it was a surprise and a treat.

Thanks Marc, I enjoyed your tales of exploration (and your success with atrox, congrats! - I still haven't seen on in CA yet).

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monklet
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Re: So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by monklet » September 11th, 2014, 7:48 am

Thanks for the response Kent. I wasn't suggesting your's was a hybrid, just that it helped me see more how that other snake might have some ruber in it. ...the way I phrased my comment was definitely misleading.

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Steve Bledsoe
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Re: So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by Steve Bledsoe » September 11th, 2014, 9:50 am

Another in a long line of excellent VanSooy posts.

Nice work, Kent. :beer:

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Re: So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by hellihooks » September 11th, 2014, 10:21 am

If Will is right about where you saw the scute, then that may be more significant than we all realize, as per Dr Hayes:
Harold DeLisle presented a paper on Joshua Tree N.P. rattlesnakes at our rattlesnake symposium in 2005, and described specimens from the rocky areas within the Pinyon-Juniper communities in the west end of the park. He showed a map of the Keys Ranch area with dots indicating at least 6 locations within a 5-mile radius. (of Helleri) The map also indicated locations for four other Crotalus species (ruber, mitchellii, cerastes, and scutulatus; he believed scuts are now extirpated from the park) (emphasis mine)
Great post, as usual... :thumb:

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Kent VanSooy
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Re: So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by Kent VanSooy » September 11th, 2014, 11:58 am

Thanks Steve and Jim! Will wasn't quite right about the scute....but close! He's good,LOL. We PM'd back and forth, and he found an old reference that showed they had been found in the general vicinity where I found mine (which was just outside of the Park).

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Re: So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by gopher » September 12th, 2014, 1:05 am

Lovely title and jokes, I liked the cow pun.
Thanks for taking the time to make this post. You did a great job! Those photos are great, I especially enjoyed the mountain king eating the skink.

Cheers,
Greg

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Re: So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by JAMAUGHN » September 12th, 2014, 11:00 am

Amazing post. Thank you!

JimM

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Re: So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by Speckled Rosy » September 13th, 2014, 9:11 am

Thanks for putting this together Kent.. didn't have a chance to really look through it, till this morning. I agree the drought has been a dominating factor this year, and you have still managed to get some great herping in.. I always enjoy your photo's, and this year was no exception. I really like the tarantula-lyre snake encounter, high yellow cal-kings, and habitat/landscapes.. Awesome Job! :beer:

to a wet 2015,

-Dan

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Re: So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by todd battey » September 13th, 2014, 9:02 pm

Kent,

Great post as usual. Thanks for putting the time into this epic SoCal post.

Todd

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Kent VanSooy
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Re: So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by Kent VanSooy » September 15th, 2014, 11:41 am

Greg, I was beginning to wonder if anyone noticed that old joke, thanks for paying attention!

Thank you too Jim, I've enjoyed your posts and photography over the years - this is my chance for a little pay-back.

Dan, it seemed to me rosys were one of the more drought-impacted species. We normally don't struggle too hard to find them, but this year we were lucky if we got one on an outing.

Todd, thanks for your help in finding the animals to photograph! One of my favorite shots of this year was of the ringneck we found - I'm trying to pay more attention to the entire color palette of a photograph (something Will W. and Brad A. excel at). Let's do it again next year.

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Jason Hull
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Re: So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by Jason Hull » September 16th, 2014, 5:49 pm

Man, I love your posts Kent but they always make me feel like I missed out on some fun.
Great stuff as always!

Hopefully it is looking a little greener down there than the last time I saw it.

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ramblon
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Re: So far in SoCal 2014 - a tale of drought and fire

Post by ramblon » September 19th, 2014, 1:31 pm

Very cool series Kent! Always a pleasure to bump into you in the field in some obscure place.

Take care bud.

:beer: to a handful of ensuing wet seasons!

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