What Modern Research Says About Learning Birds – Part 2

Last week I wrote about my search for a better way to learn birds. I will now conclude the story. (link to last week’s blog)

What the Researchers Discovered

The researchers found out that the most effective way of learning and more importantly, retaining, is to learn a small amount of material and test yourself on it. Repeatedly.  Using things like flashcards or small written tests. Once you have learned a small amount of material do the same thing with the next group of material.  BUT MAKE SURE TO GO BACK AND TEST YOURSELF ON THE PREVIOUS MATERIAL ON A REGULAR BASIS.

Here is a link to research by a group of professors and another article on the topic.

On to Southern California and Costa Rica

So how did I implement the research?  For next to nothing I purchased a second copy of Stiles and Skutch’s Birds of Costa Rica from Amazon. I already had a copy of Sibley’s Western Birds that I decided to sacrifice for the cause.  After reviewing status and distribution charts for both areas, I came up with a list of birds to study.

Using an Exacto knife I proceeded to cut out the selected birds and tape them to the back of 3×5 note cards.  Then I wrote the key field marks and for Costa Rica birds the area’s they might be seen. I started with the birds listed as common and moved to uncommon.  This was not a fast process.  I had the common birds done in a couple of weeks.  However I was still cutting out the uncommon species the week before we left for Costa Rica.


Gray-headed Chachalaca


And now the real thing. In a light rain a Gray-headed Chachalaca which was easy to ID after studying the cards. La Fortuna area, Costa Rica 12/16/14



Yellow-throated Euphonia


Yellow-throated Euphonia giving some Tanagers a hard time. La Fortuna area 12/16/14

055I ended up with well over 200 cards, which can be seen by the size of the stack.

056I settled in a routine of quizzing myself while I was on the treadmill (i.e. dreadmill – I hate being indoors).  Let me say that sure helped pass the time.  I worked in groups of 15-20 cards and would quiz myself on the picture, asking what field marks made this different from similar species.  I usually never did get them all right, like confusing the Scarlet-thighed Dacnis and Red-legged Honeycreeper.

My Results

Here is the key point, the birds whose names I couldn’t remember immediately in the field, I recognized enough that I could describe them in my voice recorder and easily ID them back at the lodge.

In both Southern California and Costa Rica I had no problems with any of the birds I studied. The problem I did have were birds that were so low on the status and distribution lists that I hadn’t bothered to learn them.  Carrying the voice recorder and describing the birds in detail made ID’ing them relatively easy though.

I finished both trips without any lingering doubts like I had on previous trips.

The Future

Going forward I will now use this method before migration or before traveling to new areas. I have already made cards for the winter finches and hawks I might encounter in the Midwest.  Soon I will be making cards for what I hope will be an early spring migration.


So how do you learn new birds? Please leave an answer in the comment section.





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Geese, Geese, Geese – and a Few Swans. Universal Mines Saturday

In the attempt to add a few more birds to my Indiana Life list, Mike and I (and probably a large percentage of Central Indiana birders) headed to Universal Mines NW of Terre Haute Saturday morning to view the numerous swans and geese that had been reported.  This would be my first visit to the area.

The high temperature for the day was supposed to reach 50F with winds gusting to 45 MPH in the afternoon. So it was either leave early, fight the cold, and avoid the winds.  Or go later, be warm, and fight the wind. We choose the former.

We left early so we could arrive a little before sunrise to watch the morning flight. When we arrived there were still thousands of geese and hundreds of swans still on the only open water in the area – an old strip mine known as the “Grand Canyon”.


The south end of the “Grand Canyon” at sunrise. 10,000 Geese?? 01/17/15



A closer view showing more individual geese. 01/17/15

Now here is the rub for Indiana Birders.  The water is on the Illinois side of the border with Indiana.

Map of Grand Canyon Area

A satellite view showing the distance from the “Grand Canyon” to the Illinois-Indiana border.

I already knew the lake was in Illinois but assumed it was closer.  When reporting birds people usually report an Illinois count and then have an Indiana count for the birds that “fly” over the border.  The problem is that unless you actually park on the border, which is 400 meters away, it is hard to tell what birds actually fly over. But as I have previously stated my belief on listing, it is your bird list and unless it is a very rare bird, you can do what you want on your list. So Mike and I made our best guess on birds that flew towards the border.  Enough on that topic.

On the morning we saw great numbers, and I mean GREAT NUMBERS, of Canada Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, and Trumpeter Swans. Plus 5 Tundra Swans (my goal bird) that we didn’t see fly over the border. I don’t think I have ever seen that many geese at once though I have seen large numbers at Hennepin-Hopper Lake in Illinois.


Geese becoming air born at sunrise on the north side of the “Grand Canyon”. Another 10,000? 20,000? More? 01/17/15


Trumpeter Swans flying over the road. 01/17/15



A long distance shot of Greater White-fronted Geese. 01/17/15

And here is my first attempt at video.  Something (an eagle? gun shots?) put all the birds on the north side in the air at once. A sight to behold.

At this point I’m not going to estimate the number of geese.  I think I will take a closer look at the photos and see if I can come up with a guess.  I’ll post about that at a later date.

On the way home we stopped at Chinook Mines for a quick pass.  Nothing to report but I did get a nice photo of a calling Eastern Meadowlark and a Rough-legged Hawk in flight.


An Eastern Meadowlark that was calling at Chinook Mines. 01/17/15

RLHA Chinook Mines

And a Rough-legged Hawk flying over. (I lightened the photo) Chinook Mines 01/17/15


Now for the bird that I did add to my list today.  Carl Huffman has been reporting Black Vultures regularly on eBird at DePauw Nature Park in Greencastle. Since it wasn’t far out-of-the-way and since I needed the bird for the list, we stopped by. This is north of the usual range for Black Vultures (see map below) but there are other sites north of the range where they appear.  Hopefully this will be another consistent site.

BLVU Range Map
I put a red X on Greencastle to show how far north the Black Vultures are from their normal range.

After seeing 6 Turkey Vultures we ended seeing 2 Black Vultures at a distance which didn’t allow photos.  I did get one photo of a Turkey Vulture though.

TUVU Depauw Nature

A really lightened photo of a Turkey Vulture. DePauw Nature Park 01/17/15

Even if the Tundra Swans stayed on the Illinois side and couldn’t be added to the list, I got to add Black Vulture.

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What Modern Research Says About Learning Birds – Part 1

Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. You plan a big birding trip outside your local area.  You read and study your field guides. You listen to the songs and calls. When you get there you do OK identifying the birds. Yet you still have this nagging feeling you could have been better prepared.

The same nagging feeling hits every year when migration comes through.  You know most of the birds and songs, just not as well as you think you should.

So what is the best way to prepare for these situations?  Let me share what modern research has to say on the topic and how it worked for me this past fall. I will cover the visual side of identifying and at a later dater date cover the auditory side.

First though, the background story.

Texas – June 2014

Last June I had the opportunity to bird South Texas.  I thought I did a fair job prepping myself by studying the field guides and listening to calls on CD.  I ended up ID’ing most birds without too many problem.  Then after I got home I had that feeling I could have done better.  There were those lingering doubts a time or two when ID’ing some of the birds. It was the same doubting feeling I had previously birding other new areas.  Sometimes even during local migration. I just felt that I could have been better prepared. I needed to find a better way to prepare for my next trip.

Jump Forward to October 2014

In mid-October I found out I would be going to Southern California for work.  The trip would take place in mid-November.  Fortunately I would be able to stay and bird for a couple of days.  So I had 4 weeks to learn the 25 or so birds I didn’t already know.

Just a week later my sister-in-law and wife came up with a trip to Costa Rica in mid-December. So I had 5 weeks to learn a possible 200 new species in addition to the Southern California birds. Factor in losing the week traveling for business in mid-November and I was faced with a major task.

How would I learn that many birds that quickly? I had to come up with a new method of learning, and quickly.


A Radio Story

Often in life timing is everything.

Somewhere around the time I learned that I would be going to Southern California I was listening to my local NPR station.   I caught the story maybe a minute into it.  That was fine since the reason I listen to NPR is that the stories are usually 10-15 minutes long, not 30 second bits.  (OK, my rant about news coverage is done)

What I gathered was the story involved a student who was having problems learning. He was a bright guy who had enrolled in pre-med and had done well on his entrance exams. But he didn’t do well in his first semester.  He studied like everyone else – read and reread his material and highlighted and underlined as necessary, but he was still doing badly. He figured there had to be a better way.

So he researched learning methods.  He contacted as many of the researchers as he could.  He became obsessed with the topic.  The short version is that he discovered the methods he was using were the least efficient methods  – rereading and highlighting.  There were “better” methods.

Next Week – Part 2

Check in next week when I discuss the “better” methods and how I used them on fall birding trips. And hopefully you will comment on how you learn birds when going to a new area.

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Two More: Rough-legged Hawk and Short-eared Owls – Sullivan County Saturday

In pursuit of adding species that should already be on my Indiana Life list, Mike Clay and I headed to Sullivan and Greene Counties on Saturday. Our main objectives were Northern Shrike, Rough-legged Hawk, and Short-eared Owl. And if time permitted a quick side trip to Turtle Creek for the Little Gull, if still present.

The day’s plan was to drive around searching for our objectives.  Which meant my least favorite type of birding – car birding.  But there isn’t any other way to find the target species. With the temperature in the high teens and a south wind around 12 MPH, the short bouts outside of the car were cold. Jumping back into the car was a relief, so I will stop whining about car birding. At least for now.

We started by checking for Northern Shrike and Rough-legged Hawk in NE Sullivan County. We hadn’t been at it long when a large dark bird put up the Canada Geese and Mallards. At first we thought it was a Rough-legged Hawk, but pretty quickly we figured out it was a young Bald Eagle.

BAEA Sullivan 01101 MC

A good picture that Mike took as the eagle flew past us. Sullivan County 01/10/15

Within a couple of minutes we spotted a Rough-legged Hawk, one of six we would see on the day. I enjoy watching Red-tailed Hawks soar but it was nice to see something different.

After an hour and half we decided the shrike was a no-show and moved on.  We headed to the Dugger Unit where there were more Bald Eagles and a good variety of waterfowl on the only open water we saw.

Mixed Waterfowl Dugger Unit 011014A

American Coot, Redhead, Lesser Scaup. Not sure what else is in the photo with the Canada Geese and Mallards. Dugger Unit, Sullivan County 01/10/15

Mixed Waterfowl dugger Unit 011014

Maybe some Ring-necked Ducks in this one? Dugger Unit, Sullivan County 01/10/15

Now getting later in the day a decision had to be made, go to Turtle Creek or not? We decided to pass after checking IN-Bird and reading that the Little Gull hadn’t been seen.

So off to Goose Pond for a quick drive around.  We had numerous Northern Harriers and even a couple of Eastern Meadowlarks.  Also more Rough-legged Hawks.

RLHA Goose Pond 011015A

I have always been amazed how a bird as big as a Rough-legged Hawk can sit on a twig on the top of a tree. Goose Pond 01/10/15

RLHA Goose Pond 011015

A closer shot showing the feathered legs. Goose Pond 01/10/15

Not seeing anything unusual we headed back to Sullivan County for Short-eared Owls.  After watching Northern Harriers fly the area for 15 minutes the first Short-eared Owl appeared at 5:31, fourteen minutes before sundown.

SEOW Sullivan County 011015

I included this photo to show the stub face and broad wings at a distance. Short-eared Owl – Sullivan County 01/10/15

SEOW Sullivan County 011015A

One posed for us nicely. Anytime another owl would come close it would turn and “bark” at it, something I have never witnessed. Short-eared Owl – Sullivan County 01/10/15

It wasn’t long before other Short-eared Owls appeared.  Over the next 25 minutes we watched them fly, chase, and even “bark” at one another.  It was one of those things I had never encountered before but will always remember. With daylight gone and a 2 hour drive home, we called it a day, adding 2 more species to my Indiana Life list.

End of Day - SEOW - Sullivan County 011015

Short-eared Owl silhouetted against the evening sky. The start of their day, the end of ours. Sullivan County 01/10/15




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Ivory Gull – Quincy, IL – Jan. 3

Last Saturday, Jan. 3, Mike Clay made the journey to Quincy, IL to view the Ivory Gull found the day before by Jason Mullins. Mike asked me to go but having traveled extensively for the last 2 months getting in a car for 10 hours didn’t sound appealing.

Here is a report by Mike and a few pictures:

I waited until the following day (Saturday) to make sure it was still there, and drove the 5 hr (325 mi) to Quincy, arriving at 1:30 local time.  Found it immediately and got great looks.  It seemed to have a pattern of flying N on the river to feed (we saw it take a fish from about 150 feet away near shore) and then resting on ice carried downstream. Then returning upstream to feed.  It did not hang out with the RBGU, the only gull I saw present (~few hundred).  It was the same size as RBGU.  I took some pictures, but the lighting wasn’t great nor was the photographer.  But they show ID anyway.  There were maybe  20 birders there during the 2 hours I stayed. I chased the Point Pelee/Wheatley harbor Ivory Gull in Jan 2006 but it was a no-show, so this made up for that. Plus it was a LOT warmer (37 with no rain).

IVGU 010315A

IVGU 010315B

IVGU 010315

Thanks for the report and pictures Mike.

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Birding 2015 – Up 4 Already

If you have been following this blog, you know I would be content to bird my local area. But by having a birding goal or plan it gives me the push to explore different areas and habitats. Something I, and everyone else, needs to do on occasion to expand their birding knowledge.

So with that being said I have been thinking for a few weeks about what my birding plans should be for 2015.  I was thinking about maybe a Marion versus Johnson County total or some variant. But I just wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to do with the time I have.

With the price of gas down and not quite certain what my new job will bring, I ‘ve decided to work on my Indiana Life List.  I know this isn’t my usual “birding the local area,” but I’m not sure how often I will be around the local area.

This doesn’t entail “chasing” but birding the right areas at the right times to add birds to my state life list. This is birding a way a lot of birders go about it. Like visiting Lake Michigan in winter for gulls and waterfowl. Or going to Goose Pond in winter for hawks or owls. Those type of outings.

Checking my state life list I figure there are a possible 42 species I could see by doing “normal”, non-chasing, birding around the state.  And another 18 if I get lucky.  So hopefully I can get 75% of the possible species, 25% of the lucky ones, plus 5 I hadn’t figured on. Like a Snowy Owl. So I hope to add 40 species to my Indiana Life List.

And I will probably have the opportunity to bird several different areas in the U.S. which means working on my ABA list. Plus hopefully get back to the tropics this year.  But that hasn’t been worked out yet.

I Have Already Added 4 Species to My Indiana Life List This Year

OK, technically 3. I went ahead and added Whooping Crane since the ABA changed the rule on Whooping Crane countability.  I saw them in 2013 at Goose Pond.

Mike Clay asked I go along and participate in this year’s Muscatatuck CBC on January 1, a count he has been helping with for 10 years..  The birding was slow but we did see 2 Trumpeter Swans, though they weren’t in our count area.

TRUS Picture by Dave Carr from dBird

This photo was taken by third person in our group, Dave Carr. He took the photo in the afternoon after we had headed out to count on the roads. You can read his analysis here, which I totally agree.

On the way back we checked out the Snowy Owl that has been in the Jonesville area.  As with most Snowy Owls I encountered in Illinois it was using something as a wind break.

SNOW Jackson County IN

I bet over 80% of the Snowy Owls I have seen were up against something – railroad tracks, silos, fence rows. Very rarely out in the open.

And Saturday I birded Eagle Creek in the rain and saw the easiest bird on my Indiana List – Pine Siskin. I watched them at the Ornithology Center’s feeders. Seeing birds not in a natural habitat isn’t something I like, but I have never seen Pine Siskin anywhere but feeders in the Midwest.  So I will count them and move on.

PISI Eagle Creek 010314

I just wish I could have taken better pictures to show the pointed bills, stripped undersides, and yellow in the lower wing bar. But the rain was coming down pretty hard.

PISI Eagle Creek 010314A

So what are your birding plans for 2015?

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The Photographer and The Hawk

(Note – I wrote this a few weeks before all the recent posts on IN-Bird about Snowy Owls and photographers. This is one of those reoccurring themes that has come up every year since I started birding and probably will until the day I stop.)

I have read on birding listserves and blogs about photographers who will do anything for a photo but I hadn’t ever seen it in person. With people being what they are, it wasn’t hard to imagining it happening. And let me state I believe that most photographers won’t go to extremes for a photo but as in any group, a few spoil it for all.

I was in San Diego birding Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on an early Saturday morning in November.   I was walking the roads looking for the resident birds of the area when I noticed a large pickup truck zoom in. I didn’t think anything about it and just kept moving.  I was walking along when the guy from the truck yelled over there was a hawk in a tree.  He said it flew in front of his truck so he pulled in for photos.  He was holding a camera with a huge telephoto lens on it. You know, the kind that looks like it belongs on Mt. Palomar.

TelescopeThe photographer said he thought it was an immature Broad-winged Hawk which would be uncommon for the area.  (And my mind is thinking very late for mid-November)  I said thanks for the info and took a few photos of the hawk myself from a distance, not saying I was pretty sure it was an immature Red-tailed Hawk.


I kept walking the looping roads and in little while circled back by the photographer.  He said he wished the bird would move so he could get a flight shot.  He said he had tried yelling, running around it, clapping, but to no avail.  Since I was far from home, I just said “Too bad”, turned, and walked away quickly before I said something else.

I really didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t figure out why he would need a picture of a bird so badly? Was it that important to him? Why?

I eventually saw the photographer leave and I don’t think the bird had moved.  But when I  finally left I saw a flock of crows harassing a bird a little farther down the road, I was sure it was the hawk.  I don’t really think the man’s actions would bother a hawk sitting 40-50′ up a tree. But maybe his actions had drawn the attention of the crows so they started to harass it? Since that is typical hawk/crow interaction it really wasn’t a problem. But just maybe it would lead to the hawk doing something like flying in front of a car to avoid the crows?

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Shelby County Snow Geese

I decided to take the long way home meandering through the agriculture landscape looking for white blobs (Snowy Owls) or maybe a hawk sitting on the smallest, top limb of a tree (Rough-legged Hawk).  I didn’t really expect to see any, and I didn’t, but I did come across a pair of Snow Geese at a retention pond on the north side of Shelbyville.

And as Landon Neumann states often on IN-Bird, birds like these are good to see in the “cornfield desert”. Or something similar to that. It conveys the idea well.

SNGO 122914

The pair of Snow Geese in a “natural setting” – factory grounds by a retention pond. Shelbyville, IN 12/29/14

SNGO 122914A

A better view of one of the two. I like to observe Snow Geese near Canada Geese to get a good feel for their size. The size contrast helps so on the few occasions I come across the smaller Ross’s Geese it is easier to make the ID.

SNGO 122914B

And here practicing it’s dance moves in preparation for a New Year’s Eve Party.



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My 5 Best Birds of the Year – 2014

As with the tradition of bird bloggers, one must pick out their best birds for the previous year.  Not sure I like the term best bird, since all birds are in some way the best bird. But I like going through the exercise because it makes me reflect on the previous year.

Since I birded outside the Midwest on 3 occasions this year- South Texas, Southern California, and Costa Rica – picking a Best Bird of the Year is a little more difficult this year. But keeping with societies hangup for lists, I now present my top 5 birds of 2014.

5. Rufous-crowned Sparrow

Seen at Mission Hills Regional Park in San Diego in November.  I had not expected to see it since it was low on the status and distribution list. A very nice surprise.


A completely unexpected bird that sat up for great looks. Mission Hills – San Diego, CA – Nov. 2014


4. Montezuma Oropendola

This was one of the birds I had definitely wanted to see in Costa Rica.  A large blackbird but with a chestnut back, yellow tipped tail, and white under eye.  What else to say.

MORO Corrected

I lightened the photo to try to show the coloring a little better. Taken photos is tough during the rainy season since it is always dark and rainy. Hence the term “Rain Forest” – La Fortuna area – Costa Rica – Dec. 2014

3. Green Jay

As I have stated previously, why can’t the Midwest have a blue headed, green body jay?  I probably wouldn’t even travel much if I could see one of these in my neighborhood.


Not the clearest of pictures, but the best one I had to show the contrasting blue head, black face and throat, and green body. Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge – Texas – June 2014


2. Carolina Wren

Still my favorite Midwest bird.  If not my favorite bird. What’s not to like about an always chattering, feisty, brown above, buff below fireball?

Carolina Wren - Common in Indiana - Not so common in North-Central Illinois

Carolina Wren – Illinois

1. Golden-olive Woodpecker

Of all the new birds I saw this year this one probably made me gasp the loudest when I first saw it. It almost looked fake with the colors seeming to be painted on. I looked and looked and still couldn’t believe the coloring.


I still can’t believe that the colors aren’t painted on it’s body. La Fortuna area – Costa Rica – Dec. 2014

So there you have my top 5 for 2014.  Hopefully you have had as good of time reflecting  on the birds you saw in 2014.

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ABA #400 – Birding Southern California in November

Even though the migrants had moved on and I knew the number of species present wouldn’t be large, my new position at work gave me a chance to bird the San Diego area for two days in November.

I reached out to San Diego blogger Greg Gillson for the best spot to see some of the western birds I haven’t seen. Resident birds like Black and Say’s Phoebe’s, California Towhee, Cassin’s Kingbird, Nuttall’s and Acorn Woodpecker. Since I was sitting at 397 species on the ABA (American Birding Association) list, seeing just a few of these birds would put me over 400.  Greg replied that Mission Trails Regional Park would be a choice in November.  And he was correct.

I decided to go to Mission Trails the first day for traffic reasons and work the coast the second day.  I didn’t even get out of the motel parking lot when I heard and then saw a Black Phoebe calling.  ABA #398.


Really bad photo in early morning light. Black Phoebe – San Diego 11/21/14

I eventually got moving towards the park after seeing a Western Gull, and numerous Anna’s Hummingbirds and Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warblers.


The gull had been eating from a McDonald’s bag, but I decided not to take that photo. Western Gull – San Diego 11/21/14


Anna’s Hummingbirds were all around the motel parking lot. San Diego – 11/21/14



Odd seeing the yellow throat. The most numerous species on the day. Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warbler – San Diego 11/21/14

Once reaching Mission Trails I had the same problem as the motel, getting out of the parking lot. There were lots of birds flying and calling and I since I wasn’t sure if there would be more down the road, I stayed put in the parking lot.  Lesser Goldfinches were in good numbers.


I lightened the photo to show the distinctive dark cap. Lesser Goldfinch – Mission Trails 11/17/14

A Western Scrub-Jay flew in.  More Anna Hummingbirds.  Then two Nuttell’s Woodpeckers called and flew into a distant tree,  ABA #399. I watched them for some time but they never came closer.  Interesting on the barred back versus the stripped of the Downy Woodpecker.

Finally crossing over to the campground parking lot there was a Lark Sparrow that puzzled me for a minute.  Guess I had missed it when studying up on the status and distribution.


Lark Sparrow – Mission Hills, San Diego 11/17/14

Then a House Wrens flew in along with Bushtits.


Secretive House Sparrow popped out for a moment. Mission Hills, San Diego 11/17/14



I saw several flocks of Bushtits on the day. Wish we had them back east… Mission Hills, San Diego 11/17/14

Then a bird I initially thought from its flight was a Jay, flew by and out to an open field.  It perched on a distant pole but sat and gave a good, if distant view.  Cassin’s Kingbird – ABA #400. (For the record #300 was a Baird’s Sandpiper in Illinois on 8/21/10).


By the time I got done looking at the bird through my binocs, a second one flew in on another pole. Cassin’s Kingbird – Mission Hills – San Diego – 11/21/14

I will post about the rest of the trip at a later date.

So on to #500.  I am guessing the time gap between 400 and 500 will be a lot shorter than the gap between 300 and 400 and will come in Arizona.

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