Monday 12 April 2010

Birding trip Israel 30 March - 7 April 2010

Israel 30 March-7 April 2010


Last year my brother and I birded Israel in early April together for the first time (see this blog and ) and this year’s return match was keenly anticipated. In the event, the species count was lower than last year because we only visited the south of the country and we spent time targeting certain desert species. We still saw a good array of birds including Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse, Pharaoh Eagle Owl, Nubian Nightjar, Thick-billed Lark, Bimaculated Lark, Citrine Wagtail, Pied Wheatear and Dead Sea Sparrow plus some of the most amazing scenery that Israel has to offer. We hope that our account of this year’s sightings is helpful to other birders planning trips to Israel and inspires others to make the pilgrimage.

Where useful we have added Google Maps coordinates (for example: 30.035811,34.981413) – you can paste these into the Search Maps field to see exactly where we saw certain birds, though please bear in mind that the images in Google Maps may no longer exactly match what is to be found on the ground.

Summary of Itinerary

Date Locations Visited
30 March Arad area
31 March Km77, Yotvata
1 April Holland Park, the ‘Ovda Road’, Yotvata, Km20, Km19
2 April Meishar Plateau, Mitzpe Ramon area
3 April Birdwatching Park, Eilat Mountains, the ‘Ovda Road’, Km19
4 April Km19, Eilat Mountains, southern Arava, undisclosed location
5 April Neot Smadar area, Route 40 Km30, Nizzana-Azzuz Road
6 April Nizzana-Azzuz Road, Yeroham Reservoir, Neve Zohar, Dead Sea marshes
7 April Drive from Arad to Ben Gurion Airport

Detailed Itinerary

Tuesday 30 March

Arriving at Arad (our base for the first and last nights) at about 10:00 from the airport after an overnight flight, we breakfasted and set out to renew our acquaintance with Israel’s avifauna by exploring the minor road from Arad to Massada. Birds of prey led the way, with three Griffon Vultures and one or two Egyptian Vultures giving good views along with fly-over Steppe, Bonnelli’s and Short-toed Eagles and a Long-legged Buzzard among the commoner raptors.

Egyptian vulture
We also saw Brown-necked raven and two Mourning Wheatears by the road as well as Crag Martin, Rock Sparrow, Orphean Warbler and Wryneck on the outskirts of Arad.

Brown necked raven

Wednesday 31 March

We started the first full day of our trip at dawn at Route 90 Km77, covering the plains east of the road. The best bird was a calling Bar-tailed Lark passing overhead (30.101605,35.151293) and small numbers of common migrants were present including Quail, Hoopoe, Red-Throated Pipit, Bluethroat, Nightingale, Eastern Bonnelli’s Warbler, Woodchat Shrike and Ortolan Bunting. We also saw our first Cretzschmar’s Bunting. Numerous White Storks were heading north, accompanied by 4 Black Storks. We also worked the adjoining date palm plantation (30.083949,35.147688) but found nothing of note.

Continuing further south down Route 90 to Yotvata we performed the customary circumnavigation of the southern circular field (29.892206,35.074797) and adjoining areas and found the only Hen Harrier of the trip, our first Booted Eagle, two Namaqua Doves, a Turtle Dove, a male Siberian Stonechat, three Whinchats and an Olivaceous Warbler.

Thursday 1 April

We were now to be based in Eilat for the next four days and this coincided with a period of strong northerly winds and a reduced passage of migrants. We therefore decided to spend less time at traditional hotspots such as Eilat North Beach and focus more on some of the species to be found in the southern Negev Desert, which was exceptionally green in parts due to heavy rain earlier in the spring.

The wisdom of this was proven by our dawn visit to Holland Park (29.572589,34.960674) on 1 April which yielded neither the Black Bush Robin which had been reported nor much else apart from our first Arabian Babblers of the trip. We therefore headed up to the southern Negev plateau, to the wadi which approaches close to the west of Route 12 (the ‘Ovda Road’) approximately 4 km south of Shizzafon Junction (where Route 12 meets Route 40). During our visit it was so verdant following the rains that it resembled a green river flowing through the desert.

It didn’t take us long to find at least five Thick-Billed Larks at approximately 30.035811,34.981413.

Thick billed larks

Thick billed lark

We watched these wonderful birds for some time with their supporting cast of Desert and Short-toed Larks and a Blue Rock Thrush. The Hill Sparrows that were reported by others at this site did not show themselves.

Short toed lark

Next back to the Arava Valley and another visit to Yotvata during the heat of the day, where we sky-watched from the shade of a tree and observed a Steppe Eagle, another Black Stork and two Cream-coloured Coursers heading north amongst the more abundant species.

Steppe eagle

On the way out we spotted two Stone Curlews also sheltering from the sun in the shade of two acacia bushes by the road (29.890123,35.065548).

Stone curlew

Thence to the Elifaz dung heaps (29.781457,35.020005), which contained good numbers of several races of Yellow Wagtails, and further south to the salt pans at Route 90 Km20 via the desert track (vehicles can no longer turn left when heading south along the stretch of Route 90 that passes Km20 due to dualing of the road).

Black headed wagtail

We saw gazelles but no desert birds, although our only Osprey of the trip heading northwards was a bonus.

Dorcas gazelle

The salt pans contained the usual collection of waders, Greater flamingos and Slender-billed Gulls, Little ringed plovers, Kentish plovers plus our first flock of Bee-eaters flying overhead.

Little ringed plover

Kentish plover

Our final stop of the day was the adjacent pool at Route 90 Km19, which has become famous as the most reliable place for Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse. To get there we drove south from the southernmost salt pan along a dirt track until we reached the south-eastern corner of the cow sheds (not shown on Google Maps), where we parked and climbed over the fence at 29.60945,34.992743 to gain access to the bank around the pool. We took up our positions at 29.60904,34.990897 so that we could scope the northern edge. The conventional wisdom is that you have to be in place before sunset as the birds only come to drink when it is almost dark. On this occasion we did not see the sandgrouse but an adult Barbary Falcon flying close past in the gathering dusk plus a Bluethroat were some compensation. (Note: this pool and the cow sheds are plagued by biting flies – it is best to wear long sleeves and trousers and/or insect repellent if you are waiting for sandgrouse here!)

Friday 2 April

We continued our quest for larks by starting at the Meishar Plateau, a vast plain in the southern Negev Desert (centre approx 30.436834,34.939957). Searching the green sward west of the road yielded hundreds of Short-toed Larks accompanied by two fine Bimaculated Larks. Two male Desert Wheatears and a male Pallid Harrier were also seen. Earlier we had seen eight Spotted Sandgrouse en route by Route 40 (at 30.117216,35.012741) and we also heard the species at the Meishar.

We then continued north along Route 40, notching up two Steppe Eagles on the way, and had lunch at Mitzpe Ramon. After lunch we visited the town sewage pools at 30.632853,34.818807 and the Officers School sewage pool at 30.659031,34.796405. Both had clearly seen recent changes. The former is currently undergoing massive reconstruction and time will tell what value it holds for birds in the future. The latter appears to have recently been rebuilt and the leaking overflow pipe mended so the future of the small wood and associated grassland nearby appears uncertain. However, both were still clearly attractive to migrants at the time of our visit and good numbers of Green Sandpipers, Hoopoes, Tree Pipits and Nightingales were seen, along with our first Night and Squacco Herons, a purring Turtle Dove and our only Masked Shrike of the trip.

Masked shrike

Our reason for heading this far north was to try to see Hill Sparrows in Nahal Lotz (30.659031,34.796405 and surrounding area) but when we got there we were confronted by an endless succession of four-wheel drive vehicles thundering along the tracks giving access to the area generating considerable noise and vast clouds of dust. Since access to this area is limited to the tracks, we abandoned this plan in favour of driving slowly back along the very scenic Route 171 stopping at any points of interest.

We quickly encountered a black and white wheatear which flew up from the roadside. It required some effort to pin down and identify, partly because we were distracted by a pair of Onager (or Wild Asian Ass, there is a population of approximately 60 in the Southern Negev) which appeared at the same moment. After a short exchange which culminated in ‘F*** the donkey, I’m on the wheatear!’, we obtained diagnostic views of the tail in flight and were able to confirm a male Pied Wheatear.

Continuing back towards Mitzpe Ramon, we decide to explore a particularly green plain bordering Route 171 (centre approx 30.643007,34.77911), and close to the road found a male Lesser Kestrel sitting in a tree.

Lesser kestrel (record shot)

Searching the plain yielded only several hundred Short-toed Larks and another Steppe Eagle overhead but it is clearly a promising site for larks and other plain-dwellers.

Saturday 3 April

For a change (and slightly more sleep) we decided to start at the Birdwatching Park on the outskirts of Eilat (centred approximately on 29.572561,34.971564). Three Red-necked Phalaropes bobbed on the main pool and our first Purple Herons lurked in the trees, but the most notable bird was the Little Stint, of which there were many hundreds present.

Red-necked phalaropes

Next we went to the raptor watching point in the Eilat Mountains (on the right of Route 12 at about the highest point – Google Maps location not recorded). There was still a good passage of Steppe Buzzards passing northeast accompanied by five Steppe Eagles and one poorly seen Imperial Eagle.

When movement dried up, we carried on north along Route 12 to visit the spring at Ein Netafim. This can be reached by parking at 29.572561,34.971564 at a sign pointing east of the road to ‘Ein Netafim’ and following the track for 15 minutes down to the spring. The last portion consists of a steep descent through a rock crevice aided by steel footrests set into the stone. Needless to say, immediately upon our arrival a family appeared in a four-wheel drive and all chances of seeing birds vanished. (Note: it really is worth checking the dates of public holidays and avoiding them and Saturdays when planning access to remote areas with four wheel drive tracks.)

We then continued north along Route 12 through the southern Negev plateau initially skirting the Egyptian border. This is a very little used road and there is clearly a mass of excellent habitat here suitable for many of the species of interest and it would undoubtedly reward further exploration. We contented ourselves with another visit to the green wadi (30.035811,34.981413) that we first explored two days before, still in search of Hill Sparrows, this time seeing just three Thick-billed Larks and a Quail.

As the afternoon wore on we decided to brave the biting flies of the Km19 pool again. This time there were more birds around generally, including a huge flock of Spanish sparrows, Glossy Ibis, six more Night Herons and three Garganey.

Spanish sparrow flock

Glossy ibis

Finally at 7.25 we heard the diagnostic call and through scopes found the originators sitting on the northern bank of the pool – two Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse (or rather their silhouettes!). After a few minutes they flew off but we felt that patience had been rewarded.

Sunday 4 April

Since passage appeared to be picking up we decided to start at the Km19 freshwater pools. These stretch from behind the cowsheds at 29.611428,34.994438 almost to the Km20 pools at 29.617472,34.997656. Our hunch was right, for amongst the hundreds of Yellow Wagtails and Red-throated Pipits were both male and female Citrine Wagtails, a fitting coda to last year’s search for the species.

We then found a small flock of Indian Silverbills in the North Date Palms (29.570807,34.976048) on our way up to the Eilat Mountains, where raptor movement was in full swing. Among the Steppe Buzzards and Black Kites we picked out a Sparrowhawk, three Steppe Eagles, one male Pallid Harrier, one female Montagu’s Harrier and a Short-toed Eagle. In a curious turn of events, given our success the evening before, we also heard a Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse calling close to the raptor watch point. An Ibex sunning itself on the slopes above also proved an interesting diversion.


Working our way back up the Arava we dropped in at a number of locations: the North Date Palms (another Whinchat), Birdwatching Park (our first Pied Kingfisher and Pochard) and Km19 (our first Little Green Bee-eater).

Little green bee-eater

The salt pans held a wider variety of species than before and we easily identified a Red-necked Phalarope, a male Greater Sand Plover and nine Gull-billed Terns, but two Collared Pratincoles resting on the central bank required a long stake-out before they finally raised their wings.

Greater sand plover

The day ended with close views of both male and female Pharaoh Eagle Owls, the birds of the trip for us. Given the sensitivity of the species and the location we cannot say where they were. Those wishing to see this species are advised to make arrangements with one of the bird guides working in Israel, such as Barak Granit (

Monday 5 April

Our task for the day was to get to Nizzana by nightfall and we stopped off at a number of sites on the way. Neot Smadar (30.047848,35.027418) was quiet with just a couple of Quail and our first Whitethroat of the trip being of note. We then stopped at the ‘Crowned Sandgrouse’ sewage pools 6km north of Neot Smadar (30.105559,35.012827) and although we saw 12 Spotted Sandgrouse it was evident that our presence was distracting to the birds. It is clear that at this site it is important to watch for sandgrouse using your car as a hide.

We then explored the plains to the south-west of Route 40 at 30.202077,35.00905 (approximately Km30). In a very enjoyable couple of hours we turned up a very impressive Egyptian mastigure sunning itself outside its burrow, another Thick-billed Lark, two Cream-coloured Coursers, a Quail, a Black Stork, a dark Booted Eagle, three Hoopoes and a Nightingale. As we proceeded further north-west along Route 40 we also found another Mourning Wheatear.

Egyptian mastigure

When we got to Nizzana we decided to check out the Nizzana-Ezuz road (from 30.873351,34.435444 to 30.799506,34.470978) before nightfall and found three more Cream-coloured Coursers, a Southern Grey Shrike, the first of a constant stream of Bee-eater flocks weaving over the Nizzana-Ezuz plain and the ‘Desert’ Little Owl which seems to be a fixture on the blocks to the west of the road just before Ezuz.

Southern grey shrike

‘Desert’ little owl

Tuesday 6 April

Our final day dawned cloudy and cool: excellent conditions because it delayed the onset of heat haze and enabled us to scope both directions from the road. As with last year the two or three hours after sunrise give us some of the best birding of the trip, with as many as nine Cream-coloured Coursers, three displaying McQueen’s Bustards, five Spotted Sandgrouse, ten Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, male Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers, Hobby, two singing Bar-tailed Larks, Scrub Warbler and four Spectacled Warblers. The best area was the southern third of the road and all these birds were seen from within a few metres of the road. Observers should not go more than a small distance from the road in order to avoid disturbance to the McQueen’s Bustards.

Cream coloured courser


The very best was yet to come however at the southern end of the Dead Sea. On our way there, as last year, we dropped in at Yeroham Reservoir (30.988389,34.895883) which, as last year, held two Ferruginous Duck plus huge numbers of Reed Warblers. There were lots of people present on the north side so we focused on the south side which can be reached by turning left immediately upon entering the reservoir site.

We then took the spectacular Route 227 (the old Roman road to Eilat) through the northern Negev to get down to Hazeva in the Arava valley. We saw Mourning and Desert Wheatears by the road, but the best part was the view from the top of the Akrabbim Ascent (30.910169,35.132346) as the road commences a series of hairpin bends as it drops to the valley floor. Apart from the stunning view, this looks as though it might be a good site for seeing migrating raptors – a Sparrowhawk powered over the summit as we passed by.

Unfortunately Hazeva Reservoir (30.785497,35.301647) had been cleared of vegetation and largely drained and its bird value was nil, so we decided to head up to the pools at Neve Zohar (31.14539,35.376749). A few minutes after our arrival, we spotted a small bird leaving one of the globular nests above the water and then obtained fantastic views of a male Dead Sea Sparrow as it chirped in the waterside vegetation and fed on the adjacent reservoir bank. A Clamorous Reed Warbler also provided excellent views in the reeds.

Our real reason for being there though was to meet Barak Granit and hunt for nightjars and owls. We met at the Neot Hakkikar junction with Route 90 (30.995103,35.341151) at dusk and within half an hour had obtained stunning views of several Nubian Nightjars. Our attempts to see Hume’s Tawny Owl were not successful (they had started breeding unexpectedly early) but the sight of a White Stork picked out in Barak’s torch beam as it circled low over our heads on the darkened mountainside was perhaps equally memorable. (Note: you will be attacked by mosquitoes in the Dead Sea marshes so long sleeves and trousers and/or insect repellent are advised for this trip.)

Wednesday 7 April

We notched up a few species on the way back to the airport but time constraints precluded any stops. A Glossy ibis gliding over the Departures drop off proved to be a final, pleasant surprise.

Systematic list

Species count, name and comments

1 Mallard Small numbers on fresh water

2 Pintail  5 at Km20 Salt Pans 1 April

3 Shoveler Large numbers on fresh water

4 Gadwall Pair at Neve Zohar 6 April

5 Teal Small numbers on fresh water

6 Garganey 3 at Km19 pool 3 April

7 Pochard 1 at Birdwatching Park 4 April

8 Ferruginous Duck Pair at Yeroham Reservoir 6 April

9 Little Grebe Small numbers on fresh water

10 Chukar 1 at Nizzana 6 April, heard at Arad

11 Quail Small numbers in all suitable habitat

12 Cormorant Small numbers at Km19 pool

13 Grey Heron Widespread in small numbers

14 Purple Heron Widespread in small numbers

15 Night Heron Widespread in small numbers

16 Little Egret Widespread in small numbers

17 Cattle Egret Widespread in small numbers

18 Squacco Heron Widespread in small numbers

19 White Stork Abundant

20 Black Stork Widespread in small numbers

21 Glossy Ibis 1 at Km19 pool 3 April

22 Greater Flamingo Usual flock at Km20 Salt Pans

23 Osprey 1 north of Km20 Salt Pans 1 April

24 Griffon Vulture 3 near Arad 30 March

25 Egyptian Vulture 1 to 2 near Arad 30 March

26 Imperial Eagle 1 at Eilat Mountains 3 April

27 Steppe Eagle Seen in small numbers most days

28 Booted Eagle Seen in small numbers most days

29 Bonnelli’s Eagle 1 near Arad 30 March

30 Short-toed Eagle Seen in small numbers most days

31 Black Kite Common

32 Steppe Buzzard Abundant

33 Long-legged Buzzard 1 near Arad 30 March

34 Sparrowhawk Common

35 Kestrel Common

36 Lesser Kestrel 1 near Mitzpe Ramon 2 April

37 Hobby 1 near Azzuz 6 March

38 Barbary Falcon 1 at Km19 pool 1 April

39 Marsh Harrier Common

40 Hen Harrier 1 ringtail at Yotvata 31 March

41 Pallid Harrier 3 males seen (Meishar, Eilat Mountains, near Azzuz)

42 Montagu’s Harrier 1 male near Azzuz 6 March

43 Coot 2 at Birdwatching Park

44 Moorhen Small numbers on fresh water

45 McQueen's Bustard 3 near Azzuz 6 March

46 Black-winged Stilt Common on fresh and saline water bodies

47 Stone Curlew 2 at Yotvata 1 April

48 Collared Pratincole 2 at Km20 Salt Pans 4 April

49 Cream-coloured Courser Up to 9 near Azzuz on 6 April; 4 others elsewhere

50 Spur-Winged Plover Common near fresh and saline water bodies

51 Ringed Plover Numerous at Km20 Salt Pans

52 Little Ringed Plover Numerous at Km20 Salt Pans

53 Kentish Plover A few at Km20 Salt Pans

54 Greater Sand Plover 1 at Km20 Salt Pans 4 April

55 Grey Plover 1 at Km20 Salt Pans 31 March

56 Dunlin Small numbers by fresh and saline water bodies

57 Curlew Sandpiper 2 at Birdwatching Park 4 April

58 Little Stint Abundant by water bodies in southern Arava

59 Ruff Common by fresh water

60 Redshank Small numbers by fresh and saline water bodies

61 Greenshank Small numbers by fresh and saline water bodies

62 Spotted Redshank Small numbers by fresh and saline water bodies

63 Marsh Sandpiper Widespread by fresh water

64 Green Sandpiper Common by fresh water

65 Wood Sandpiper Widespread by fresh water

66 Common Sandpiper Widespread by fresh water

67 Snipe Widespread by fresh water

68 Red-Necked Phalarope 1 to 3 at the Birdwatching Park and the Km20 Salt Pans

69 Black-Headed Gull Common at Km20 Salt Pans

70 Slender-Billed Gull Common at Km20 Salt Pans

71 Lesser Black-backed Gull Small numbers flying north up southern Arava

72 Gull-billed Tern 9 at Km20 Salt Pans 4 April

73 Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse 2 at Km19 pool 3 April

74 Spotted Sandgrouse Widespread in small numbers on desert plains

75 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse 10 near Azzuz 6 April

76 Feral Pigeon Abundant

77 Collared Dove Abundant

78 Turtle Dove Widespread in small numbers

79 Laughing Dove Abundant

80 Namaqua Dove Small numbers at Yotvata and Km19 cow sheds

81 Ring-necked Parakeet At Eilat

82 Little Owl 1 near Azzuz 5 March

83 Pharaoh Eagle Owl Pair at undisclosed location 4 April - see text

84 Nubian Nightjar Several at Dead Sea marshes 6 April – see text

85 Common Swift Abundant

86 Pallid Swift Common

87 Pied Kingfisher 1 at Birdwatching Park 4 April

88 European Bee-eater Common

89 Little Green Bee-eater Small numbers

90 Hoopoe Common

91 Wryneck 1 at Arad 30 March

92 Crested Lark Abundant

93 Thick-billed Lark 6 in total - see text for details

94 Short-toed Lark Abundant

95 Bimaculated Lark 2 at Meishar Plateau 2 April

96 Desert Lark Abundant in suitable habitat

97 Bar-tailed Lark 1 at Km77 on 31 March; 2 near Azzuz 6 April

98 Barn Swallow Abundant

99 Red-rumped Swallow Common

100 House Martin Common

101 Sand Martin Common

102 Crag Martin I near Arad 30 March

103 Pale Crag Martin Common

104 Red-Throated Pipit Abundant in Arava at end of visit

105 Tawny Pipit Abundant in suitable habitat

106 Tree Pipit Common

107 Yellow Wagtail Abundant in Arava at end of visit

108 White Wagtail Common

109 Citrine Wagtail 2 at Km19 fresh water pools 4 April

110 Yellow-Vented Bulbul Abundant

111 Blackbird Singing at Sde Boker

112 Bluethroat Widespread in small numbers

113 Nightingale Common

114 Blackstart Widespread in deserts and mountains

115 Siberian Stonechat 1 at Yotvata 31 March

116 Whinchat Widespread in small numbers

117 Blue Rock Thrush 1 near the ‘Ovda Road’ 1 April

118 Rufous Bush Robin 1 at Km77 on 31 March

119 Northern Wheatear Abundant

120 Black-eared Wheatear Widespread in small numbers

121 Pied Wheatear 1 near Mitzpe Ramon 2 April

122 Mourning Wheatear Widespread in mountains in very small numbers

123 Isabelline Wheatear Widespread in small numbers

124 Desert Wheatear Widespread in small numbers

125 Graceful Prinia Common in suitable habitat

126 Scrub Warbler Widespread in small numbers in deserts

127 Reed Warbler Large numbers at Yeroham Reservoir on 6 April

128 Clamorous Reed Warbler 1 at Neve Zohar 6 April

129 Olivaceous Warbler 1 at Yotvata 31 March

130 Spectacled Warbler 4 near Azzuz 6 April

131 Whitethroat Very small numbers

132 Lesser Whitethroat Abundant

133 Blackcap Common

134 Orphean Warbler 1 at Arad 30 March

135 Bonnelli’s Warbler Small numbers

136 Chiffchaff Small numbers

137 Willow Warbler Very small numbers

138 Arabian Babbler Widespread in small numbers in deserts

139 Palestine Sunbird Widespread in small numbers

140 Southern Grey Shrike 1 near Azzuz 6 March

141 Woodchat Shrike Small numbers

142 Masked Shrike 1 at Mitzpe Ramon on 2 April

143 Tristram’s Grackle Widespread in small numbers in mountains

144 Mynah Bird 2 near Ben Gurion airport on 7 April

145 Jay 1 from car on way from Tel Aviv on 29 March

146 Jackdaw Common by motorway from Tel Aviv on 29 March

147 Brown-necked Raven Common in south

148 Fan-tailed Raven Common near Dead Sea

149 House Crow A few in Eilat

150 Hooded Crow Common in north

151 House Sparrow Abundant

152 Spanish Sparrow Abundant

153 Rock Sparrow 1 at Arad 30 March

154 Dead Sea Sparrow 1 at Neve Zohar 6 April

155 Greenfinch 2 at Yeroham Reservoir 6 April

156 Linnet 2 at Neot Smadar 5 April

157 Goldfinch 1 at Arad 30 March

158 Corn Bunting Singing near Azzuz 6 April

159 Ortolan Bunting Abundant in Arava at end of visit

160 Cretzschmar’s Bunting Widespread in very small numbers

161 Indian Silverbill Small flock at North Date Palms 4 April

Sunrise from the southern Negev plateau

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