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A local diary


Autumn 2013

November 30th 2013. Another visit to Catcott Lows - at this time of year, the newly-arrived duck hordes are so exciting that all else fades away. This time in the morning; a time I had not tried before because of the expected tricky lighting. But all was well. The sun shone and the wind was non-existent for a change; by sitting at one end of the hide, the glare was well under control. Amongst the duck, one caught the light and stood out, though it was rather smaller than many. A drake Goldeneye was feeding up and down the deper water channel to the north of the hide, its white neck and breast catching the light. Through the lens, the most obvious features were the bright golden eye whch gave the name and the white patch on the dark head, behind the bill. I have never seen one of these birds at this location, so it was an extra delight.

There were many more snipe around and they were restless and active, lifting out of their places of concealment to fly to another tempting patch. They are tricky to catch in flight but worth the extra vigilence and effort when the picture does work.

November 29th 2013. After walking Maddie along the drove to Catcott Fen during a short bright spell, I decided to go into the hide at Catcott Lows, even though we were almost into twilight. The waters were packed with ducks, mainly Wigeon, but with Shoveler and the odd Pintail among them. Better than that, was the fact that the ducks were close-in, near the edge of the shallows close to the hide, mostly asleep but some feeding. The large Lapwing population was extremely active at this time, bursting into the sky for no apparent reason and landing to sit among the duck, rather than seperately, as is their normal fashion. I thought there would be no point in photographing because of the poor light but wanted to try an 80-400mm lens I had brought. Iso was set at 1250 and, to my astonishment, the pictures were good, clear and with little grain. So, a remarkably succesful combination of camera and lens.

My luck continued. A snipe appeared from behind a clump of whispy grass - why are they so invisible when the screen is so flimsy? The bird waded breast-deep across my front and eventually joined another one tucked down in the shore herbage, to freeze into immediate near-invisibility.

November 25th 2013. Catcott Lows is well and truly back to its winter population of ducks, with Wigeon the most populous. Recent afternoons, this one included, have seen the most wonderful light on the reserve in the later hour, still and cold. The picture below shows only a fraction of the total numbers taking off when a predator, Peregrine, Falco peregrinus, or Sparrowhawk, Accipiter nisus, flies overhead. Sometimes the falcons appear to fly over in fun, just to see the ducks burst into the sky, without any apparent effort to stoop on them.

November 24th 2013. A juvenile Black-throated diver had been reported on Chew Valley Lake and Nigel took me down to Woodford Lodge for a hopefully close look. The day was rather grey and a dinghy race was taking the boats close in to where it had been for a day or so, so we thought we would be disappointed. Instead, we watched a Great-crested grebe, Podiceps cristatus, fishing nearby. The small Pike it had caught took some time to straighten up and go down its throat. Quite a sight.

But soon the diver swam back towards us and we were able to study and photograph it. I had only seen one of them once before, many years ago on a trip sailing round the west coast of Scotland, near Mull. Then it was in summer plumage. This bird was clearly a diver from its shape, but had lost its fantastical colouring, instead being largely dove-grey. Apparently the sure-fire identification point is the white patch showing near the back, below the wing.

November 23rd 2013. For some years, Nigel Milbourne and I have been attending the Worcestershire Entomology Day, or its near equivalent, the Wyre Forest Group Day. These are arranged by Rosemary Winnall with great efficiancy and this year it was held at Rock Village Hall, near Bewdley. We drove up in dry, cold sunshine with no problems until the final half mile along a lane covered in ice. The hall was packed with an enthusiastic and knowledgable crowd of people and the whole programme was to the highest standards - no dumbing down to the lowest level but to the highest scientific standards. The speakers were all excellent and would have served at any national conference level. The theme was on predatory insects and in spite of light-hearted titles the reported facts were very much to the scientific point. The programme and speakers were as follows:

John Walters: Potters, pirates and predators. Concerning a great deal of original field work on the Potter wasp and others.

Peter Shirley: Gall aboard the pirate ship. About the process of gall formation and the insects that inhabit oak and rose galls in particular.

Nigel Jones: Bee botherers and wasp worriers. Insects that parasitise or attack wasps and bees.

Joe Botting: 1Spot. How to use the Open University identification system.

Joe Botting: The hemipteran rostrum; how to commit murder with drinking straw. Predatory bugs.

Mick Blythe: Flies versus snails. All about snail-killing flies.

Roger Umbleby: A modern dilemma - pesticides or predators. An excellent summary of the current use of pesticides and biological controls.

November 22nd 2013. Spent an hour or so in the Lake hide at Westhay Moor NNR. There were certainly more ducks than previously, but they were far-off and inactive - with few flying overhead. However, I was delighted to see one of my favourite birds fishing in front of the hide. Cormorants do not seem to favour these waters since the eastern fringe of trees was cut down a couple of years ago. The Wildlife Trust seems to wage war on trees in a number of its reserves - presumably feeling that ducks, in particular, like open spaces round them. For whatever reason, the water birds appear much less happy with the resultant open water in this location.

November 21st 2013. A rather surprising development has been the arrival on the moors of Little egrets. Surprising, because they do not normally arrive back here inland until early Spring, ready for the breeding season. Each time I have driven across the moor in the last few days there have been several egrets close to one of the ditches. One day there were five, but usually there are two or three. They are very welcome, cheering up the duller day and still looking tropically exotic - a few years ago they were unknown here.

More to be expected, is seeing a buzzard virtually each time I drive past one part of the moor. Most years this happens. I believe it is a first-year bird settling into its own territory and yet still not too wary of people or vehicles. This one sits on a gatepost, but generally lifts off when a car goes by - but not always. Occasionally, you are lucky and the bird sits, gazing sideways or even looking directly at you. It is incredibly moving to have such a wild and powerful bird gazie right at you, its eyes drilling right through to the very heart of the soul.

November 19th 2013. Another afternoon visit to Westhay Moor brought much greater success. Perhaps the most striking of which was the wonderful autumn colouring, not just in the trees but in unexpected places, as in the picture below.

This time, there were much greater numbers of Wigeon, bringing intense periods of excitement to the watcher and the birds themselves, as they tore across the sky before whiffling down, then deciding it was not to their liking and up again once more. It made for a splendid hour or so, finishing as the light closed in.

November 16th 2013. Out on one of the narrow droves on Mark Moor, large flocks of Fieldfares were everywhere; the first time this year that I have noticed them in bulk, so to speak, though small numbers have been around for some while. It is good to see the familiar waves of birds moving off ahead of you and to hear the characterisit 'check, check, check' of their calls. It is truly a sign that winter is at last well on its way.

November 12th 2013. It is so good to see Grey herons reappearing on the moors. Last winter, and this strange summer, have had a definite effect on their local population. There are not the numbers of youngsters, while sightings of adults have been short too. This individual was by a drainage ditch on Tealham Moor.

I spent an hour or so in the afternoon in the Lake Hide at Westhay Moor. The numbers of duck have increased considerably in the last few days. Wigeon, Anas penelope, were present in small numbers, while the occasional Shoveler, Anas clypeata, showed up periodically. The main numbers were of Teal, Anas crecca, and Gadwall, Anas strepera, with Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos, present in good numbers. Why is this latter notable? A year or so ago, reports were coming in that Malard had declined in numbers very considerably. All signs are that this is no longer a problem - locally at least.

Walking back I spotted this scene through the trees, a line of reeds with the blue of an overcast evening reflecting in the shadows, on one of the larger ponds.

November 12th 2013. Romey spends a greta deal of time watching the birds she feeds just outside the window. Here are some notes she gave me today.

'Here we are almost in the middle of November, but there has been no sign of the usual birds coming to raid the feeding area. Seeds have remained untouched and nuts barely eaten, except occasionally by the squirrels.

Suddenly, all this has changed. On looking out of the kitchen window this morning I have been dazzled to see Goldfinches tucking into the niger seed, and various members of the tit family on the nuts and sunflower seeds, together with some Greenfinches. Chaffinches and a couple of Robins are foraging around on the ground.

A very handsome spotted woodpecker has come flying in at least twice today, with a Green woodpecker searching round nearby. Several Fieldfares were heading for the fallen apples, which is a sign of winter approaching, but it is good to have all this activity back again. It has seemed so dull without the bustle that is usually part of life out there.'

November 10th 2013. I spent an hour or so on the Catcott reserves this afternoon, enjoying some earlier sunshine, though it clouded over eventually. The tree-cutting had finished, so also the disturbance, while it was possible to drive up to the carpark once again. Catcott Lows was at last flooded and goodly numbers of duck were enjoying the shallow waters. These included many Wigeon, Anas penelope, and Teal, Anas crecca. A few Pintails, Anas acuta, were spottted and more arrived during the afternoon. Aside from the ducks, one of the most important features was the return of the Lapwings, Vanellus vanellus. Numbers have definitely been down this summer but good-sized flocks were dashing up and down here, even showing signs of displaying - a splendid sight.

From there, I walked our dog Maddie down the drove to the newly modified reserve, Catcott Great Fen (how this was named, I cannot believe. Fens are in East Anglia, not Somerset, where the term used is heath or moor). We turned right at the edge of the reserve and walked down a splendid wide grass drove, running alongside the drainage ditch which circumscribes the area. To our left is now a sea of reeds along which hunted a Marsh harrier, dipping and searching for its prey. It was so intent that it flew towards me, showing the bright pale head contrasting with chocolate plumage so typical of an adult female - a fine ending to the day.

November 5th 2013. It must have rained heavily overnight and the first real signs of winter weather showed down on the moors. The deeper runnels gleamed silver, while one particularly low field was a shallow sheet of water with swans swimming in the middle - always the first signs of a rising water-table. A colder high wind showed what is to come. Surely the great flights of winter ducks must follow soon?

November 4th 2013. Quite unexpectedly, I found myself at Slimbridge on my own. Romey had been coming but ricked her back, and was unable to make it, while it was too late to contact anyone else. It was a most beautiful day, but with a stong wind, although the many trees at Slimbridge avoided this being a problem. Once again, I had chosen to go too early, the wild ducks have not yet arrived in numbers, which was disappointing. But it was a lovely day out in the fresh air. Wild Grey geese provided the most appealing spectacle, their calls in flight bringing back memories of other occasions out in the wilds.

One unexpected bird did make up for a great deal, though far distant. A harsh distant sound drew attention to a large, pale bird with black-tipped wings high in the air. The Crane looked as though it was going to come on right past where I sat, but suddenly dropped down and landed by some Greylage geese. It had various large and ugly rings above its knees which showed it was one of numbers reared here at Slimbridge from imported eggs and transferred to a an area on Sedgemoor, where they were released. A dozen or so have been recorded recently, flying back in this direction, always high in the sky.

November 3rd 2013. Continuing the theme of local mammals, two small Grey squirrels have appeared at our bird feeders, while all signs of the mother have vanished. Generally, these are known as  unpleasant predators, of catholic tastes, but we have never suffered from too many of them, usually a maximum of three, and they are greatly entertaining. One or two of the adults have spent a long time hanging onto the peanut feeder but have not had a great deal of success in terms of time spent. Mostly they search on the ground for seeds and nuts that fall out of the feeders.

In the afternoon I went down to the Lake hide at Westhay Moor NNR, partly for the walk and also to see whether the winter ducks had yet arrived. It was quite beautiful, looking out across the reeds to autumnal trees and the sunlight on the water, but there was little to see other than this. At one stage a Great white egret, Egretta alba, flew across the far end, but the most entertaining bird was a Great-crested grebe. This particular bird was already in winter plumage and swam all round in front, fishing as it went - always a joy to watch.

November 1st 2013. The revival in fortunes of the deer population on the moors appears to be a reality. I was walking along the eastern arm of Jack's Drove when a couple of does trotted out from the shelter of a willow and continued off towards the Brue. They were both in full winter clothing, dark beige, a change from the last time I saw some deer on the moors, still with their summer red of their coat prevalent.

October 31st 2013. Last thing at night, I went into the kitchin without switching on the light, just as the automatic outside light came on, no doubt triggered by what I saw feeding under the window. I was delighted to see this young badger and fetched the camera and a torch. The built in flash worked perfectly, as is seen below. Badgers had visited in the summer at dusk, feeding on spilt seeds from the bird feeders but there had been no sign of them since. The current visit may have been caused by a squirrel knocking down a peanut feeder. Whatever; they are welcome. Twin paths up and down the garden have existed ever since we bought the house many years ago and probably for many decades previously.

October 28th 2013. We woke up this morning, after an undisturbed night, to find everything round us looking quite normal. We have been unbelievably lucky, appearing to be in an oasis of comparative calm, where much of the rest of the south and south-west have suffered very considerable damage from winds of up to 100 mph. In those areas, and in London, many trees were blown down; train services were halted and four people have been killed. Original predictions were that the whole of the west country would be the worst affected area. Devon has been badly hit and Yeovil, only twenty miles away, reported violent winds and considerable rain, but we have suffered no damage in the garden or surrounds. This time, luck was on our side. High winds, predicted at hurricane force, are quite terrifying out in the country, surrounded by tall trees.

October 24th 2013. Decided to go and have a look at Greylake reserve this morning, passing the entrance to Catcott Lows where a notice at the entrance showed it was still closed to vehicles while workers were pruning and cutting down trees. It seems an odd time to do this, when this reserve has few visitors during the summer months. People are starting to visit the 'winter' reserves hoping that the heavy recent rain has brought in ducks and other visitors. At Greylake, much the same was happening. A large digger was parked right in front of the hide, with a mechanic working on it. Martin Sage, who was also in the hide, told me that times allowed for maintenance and construction work were very restricted, to avoid the breeding season and main duck numbers in the winter. This would explain this apparent anomaly. Almost certainly, it was a little early for this reserve to come into its own, even if a Marsh harrier, Circus aeroginosus, had been seen earlier in the morning. The reserve looked marvellous in the sunlight, particularly highlighting the reeds in front.

What was interesting was to see a board walk leading from the existing hide to a viewing platform still under construction. This will be very welcome, as the existing hide often becames far too crowded at peak times. Much of the old board walk to the hide has been replaced with fine stone, making a very pleasant surface.

October 22nd 2013. Today is notable for an unexpected event. Some years back, Roe deer were really common on the local moors and their surrounds. On occasion, up to 14 deer were seen together strung out along the wood edge or in a field. This is very different to the reported behaviour in the north where they tend to be solitary animals, keeping their distance from each other. Sadly, in the last few years sightings have become very unusual - poaching has taken its toll in our locality. This last few months there have been a few brief sightings and today I watched a couple jump over a ditch and disappear across a field, ending up in the edge of an open stretch of woodland where they looked back at me. Let's hope these sightings indicate we may see more of them in the future, they add so much to the pleasures of a walk. Whether this is a permanent situation is unknown. We tend to judge events in periods of a few years, whereas nature often works to very much longer cycles.

I drove on for a look at the Lake Hide on Westhay Moor NNR, but there was little to be seen - a little early for the winter water birds. I stayed for a hour, enjoying the peace and beauty of the view, before making my way home. Total sightings were Mute swans, Coots, Grey heron, Gadwall and Crows. I was delighted to spend time chatting to a fellow-photographer, Jim Gibbs, who has a fine portfolio of local and foreign bird photographs, and was in the hide when I arrived.

October 18th 2013. Late in the afternoon, already grey and getting dark, Romey called me to come and look at a dead Wood pigeon in the garden, its head missing. It seems she came round the corner and saw a hawk mantling over the pigeon before flying off. I fetched the camera and eventually found a corner of the house where I could see the pigeon, while being able to steady the camera on the wall. Almost immediately, the bird returned, a fine female Sparrowhawk, and I took loads of pictures, most of which were useless because of the worsening light. We have never had such views of one of these birds and its feeding methods. The picture is not the greatest, but perhaps excused by being taken at f7.1 and 1/50th second, handheld with a 300mm lens. For me, an unforgettable moment captured with some success.

October 17th 2013. Having said that little happens in this period of the year, I had something unusual occur today as I drove across Tealham Moor. Slowing for a hump in the road and a slight corner, a Grey heron dropped down just in front, on the edge of a rhyne (ditch). It was completely unfazed by the car even when I started it again and drove forward a short distance. Then, to my astonishment, it flew up and landed on a gate, even closer. It is very unusual to see one of these birds perching like this, always looking slightly uncomfortable, as if a litle off-balance. Herons had an awaful time last winter, so it is good to see one out fishing again.

October 16th 2013. At this time of year, it is neccessary to grab onto any unusual event. It is very much the time between; when little is happening. But this morning was good, as we watched the first autumnal/winter visits of our favourite Goldfinches. During the summer, really scruffy youngsters appeared and fed avidly at the niger seed but during the dull period of August onwards, vanished. It was great to see them coming in in relays once more. They are so lively and attractive.

October 15th 2013. A wonderful, balmy day with almost no wind. A walk across Tealham Moor revealed no insects at all until deep into its heart. Two large umbels were virtually the only flowers to be seen and they were covered in Yellow dungflies, insects not seen in the past few weeks. It just shows how these oases of nectar draw in life from apparently empty surrounds.

Prior to that, I saw a couple of Common darters settled on a nearby vantage point and wondered how they managed to survive at this apparently bleak period. Perhaps the dung-flies are the answer? The extraordinary fact is that the largest numbers of this particular darter are found at this end of the year. It seems a bad choice biologically? Yet they are among the most prolific of Odonata, at times present in huge numbers,

October 6th 2013. Another warm, almost hot, day. The summer warmth seems to go on and on, albeit usually with heavy overcast, but even that has vanished, bringing out many Common darters, Sympetrum striolatum. Today was also the last of the fortnight of Somerset Arts Weeks, during which we have tried to visit as many sites as possible. This project has been going for over twenty years and is very popular with the public. This year, artists have grouped together, exhibiting their wares in village halls and other similar venues. They cover every possible form of art from paintings, photographs, pottery, weaving and print-making to glassware, It is a great chance to see everything from amateur to professional work, and most of it for sale. I was particularly fascinated by various pictures showing willows and water, so much a feature of our countryside. Though I was surprised that there was not much work covering wildlife, as there has been in previous years. One or two photographers showed some lovely close-up pictures of Otters. I asked where one had taken these, as they have been in short supply in Somerset recently, and it turned out they were photographed near Blandford, in Dorset. A few years ago, Otters were seen regularly at most local reserves, but now they are rarely spotted. There has been disease, but I suspect that the large increase in visitors to the reserves may well have a great deal more to do with it. Whatever, it is sad we do not glimpse them as we used to - they are so beautiful and always unexpected.

September 29th 2013. I visited Blagdon Lake briefly this morning with Nigel, who produces his excellent website on the area, blagdonlakebirds. I was lucky, as a Glossy ibis was visiting the lake. Sadly, it was a long way off and the light was far from good, as the reservoir has lost so much water over the summer, leaving extensive areas of mud. Nevertheless, I did manage a picture which even shows the faint purple tints to the plumage. Nearby, we watched a Great white egret, Egretta garzetta, as well as numbers of waders including a Little stint, Calidris minuta, which I have never knowlingly seen before and lived up to its name in terms of size.

September 22nd 2013. I visited Ham Wall NNR this afternoon, not expecting much as it is one of those in-between times, when summer birds have gone and winter ones not yet arrived, but I needed the walk and wanted to see what the true state was. It was faintly sunny at times, but the light was reasonable, so I enjoyed sitting in one of the lean-to hides, taking in the views and the fresh air. The only really interesting event, was watching a Dabchick (Little grebe) and her chick. The first intimation of their presence was a frantic peeping from some reeds which got louder as a well-grown chick shot into the centre of the water where its mother was fishing. Mother became really active and I watched the transfer of tiny fish after each dive until, eventually, the youngster was replete and fell asleep. Sadly, they were rather far away, but I trust my pictures give a hint of the flavour.

I have just added a new section, Local landscapes, to help people understand the terrain and background when visiting places reported in this diary. It covers my favourite reserves as well as some other places particularly worth visiting.

 September 16th 2013. I had a surprising encounter in the garden today, as I was sitting out having a cup of coffee. There was a movement caught out of the side of my eye and I found myself looking at a tiny warbler a couple of feet away. The bird was so tame it fed all round a bush a few feet away, scuffling in the dirt and apparently showing no fear about my presence. This might have been expected with young birds earlier in the, but not in mid-September. A very late brood perhaps, although it did not appear to be a juvenile?

 September 12th 2013. Woodpeckers have been scarce this year but the gradual introduction of parcels of rain, usually overnight, has brought a steady increase in the sightings of Green woodpeckers feeding on the lawn, which has huge populations of black ants under the surface. While they may hammer away relentlessly, it is noticeable how often they peer up into the sky, clearly wary of hawks looking down on them.

September 9th 2013. SIG met for the final field meeting of the year at Street Heath, ending up, after a walk down a drove through old peat diggings, at the Street Heath reserve of the Somerset Wildlife Trust. Sadly, we were not accompanied by an old friend of ours, Graham Rix the manager of the reserve, who has just come out after a spell in hospital. For all that, we had a most successful and interesting time. The forecast rain turned out to be only a few drops and the sun then accompanied our afternoon. Walking down the drove, across the peat workings, Bill spotted a Marsh harrier, Circus aeruginosus, in the distance, while a fine Great white egret, Egretta alba, flew right overhead - a goodly start to the day.

On the way down the drove, there was a small patch of umbels which was alive with the activity of numerous tiny hoverflies. The predominent species, Melanostoma scalare, had very obvious, large bright red eyes and deep yellow antennae, and was particularly active. The majority were male but my picture below shows a pregnant female, full of eggs. The rest were principally Platycheirus clypeatus, with much duller eyes and different markings. Pictures of both of these in flight, together with further Bombus pascuorum pictures, have been posted in the Insects in flight gallery.

We reached the reserve well before lunch and had a good chance to explore the site in a general way, before our more detailed look afterwards. It has been a reserve for many years, inspired originally by large numbers of rectangular pits dug down into the mean water-table, though it appears noone is quite certain as to why these were needed. However, they had been found to have a large population of the insect-eating sundews, Drosera intermedia and D. rotundifolia. We saw no sign of these however and are not certain as to whether they still grow here, or not. The wetter pits provide excellent habitat for many variably-coloured Raft spiders, Dolomedes fimbriata, as well as the Bog bush-cricket, which some of our people had never seen before. Long-winged coneheads were also present in some numbers, while there were Meadow grasshoppers, Chorthippus parallelus, in the rough clumps of rushes and grasses. 

One unexpected bonus was to find many large and colourful hoverflies, Sericomyis silentis, in one area. Generally they are found in ones and twos, but not so this day. Do they migrate? Devilsbit scabious, Succisa pratensis, was frequent in one part - such an important plant for so many species. On this were many Helophilus pendulus and the less usual H. hybridus, together with a few beautifully coloured and fresh Eristalis intricarius, such a variable hoverfly.

September 8th 2013. At last the birds are coming back to the garden and, more importantly, to the bird-table, after their long disappearance during the moult. Greenfinches and Goldfinches have been followed by the still-scruffy young Blue and Great tits. It is particularly pleasing to see the Greenfinches after those recent episodes where disease nearly wiped them out.

The bird bath is a particular attraction to many, in spite of the abundance of water in the ditches out on the moors. It has been good to see Great-spotted and Green woodpeckers, both of which breed in or near the garden each year. The Green never comes to the nuts but feeds busily on the lawn on the many resident ants. When we dug round our pond lining, we found continuous ants nests all round, extending far out; so food sources for the woodpecker are virtually infinite. The Great-spotted, and its young, are regulars to the nuts we put out throughout the year.

September 6th 2013. Walking the dog down on the moors, it was noticeable how most of the ditch-side flowers are now extremely sparse and the wildlife in a similar state. But I was surprised and delighted to photograph a rather nice hoverfly this afternoon, basking in the surprisingly warm sunshine.

September 2nd 2013. The year has flown by and it is rather dreadful to think that in my division into artificial categories we have now moved to autumn. But, the summer keeps on and there are forecasts that we have more to come, which is so good after the dreadful summer of 2012. Insects have had a very mixed time, though still keeping going. The commoner bumblebees have had a good summer on the whole and there are still many Bombus pascuorum around. Out on the moors, some of their more popular pollen and nectar plants have suffered. It is only now that Comfrey, Symphytum officinale, is starting to appear along the ditch edges of Tealham and Tadham Moors; too late for their usual visitors. Normally, Comfrey emerges in June at the height of bee activity. Hoverflies have also had a mixed season; the commoner species have done well but there is a distinct lack of the less usual ones, which has taken some of the spice out of the season, although  some have appeared recently.

Butterflies appear to have flourished but, when you pause to think, the great majority are of one species, Green-veined white, Artogageia napi; with fair numbers of Small tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae. The usual varieties of species seem to be lacking.

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