Monday, May 21, 2018

Battle in the sky: Bald eagle and fox

Bald Eagle and Red Fox Tussling Over Rabbit, San Juan Island National Historical Park, Washington

There is no question that bald eagles are skilled hunters. They can spot a fish from a mile away and fly to it in under a minute.

But they’re also masters of something scientists call kleptoparasitism: the art of stealing food from others. In my book The Year of the Eagle, I documented bald eagles stealing food from crows, great blue herons and even other eagles.

A couple of days ago, however, I captured an especially dramatic act of thievery. I saw a bald eagle steal a rabbit from a young red fox. Even more impressive: at times, this battle played out more than 20 feet in the air.

It happened as I was photographing the foxes in the San Juan Island National Historical Park on San Juan Island in Washington state. The foxes aren’t native. They were introduced by settlers in the 1900s to try to thin the numbers of European rabbits that were introduced to the island in the 1890s.

The rabbits aren’t the foxes' first choice for supper. They actually prefer insects, berries and voles. But the berries and voles have been displaced by the rabbits, which have clearcut the prairie with their vast burrows. While patches of flowers and red grasses make the prairie attractive at certain times of year, it’s actually an area of tremendous devastation.

I spent the day watching several young foxes, called kits, rest and play on the prairie. I counted at least eight kits. There are probably more. Shortly before sunset, they started hunting. One fox managed to snag a rabbit’s foot. Several kits gave chase, but it made it to its den to feed.

About 15 minutes later, a red fox caught a rabbit and was carrying it across the meadow. I panned my camera with it to capture the action. Then behind me, I heard the cry of a bald eagle. I turned around and saw it approaching fast. I knew it wanted the rabbit. I intently trained my camera on the fox bracing for a split second of action.

To my surprise, the scene was even more dramatic than I expected. I thought the fox would drop the rabbit, giving the eagle an easy dinner.

Instead, the fox, with its jaw still clenched on the rabbit, inadvertently got snagged by the bald eagle. The eagle lifted the young fox and rabbit into the sky triggering an even more dramatic struggle.

There have been stories of bald eagles taking off with animals as large as young deer, but while they’re strong, they’re not that strong. They can comfortably lift about half their body weight — so about five or six pounds. The young fox and rabbit were likely just beyond that weight.

As you can see from the image sequence below, the kit put up quite a fight, swinging back and forth. The eagle transferred the rabbit to its right talon and eventually let the fox go. The fox fell from enough height to trigger a small dust cloud when it hit the ground. (I've also turned the image sequence into a short video.)

The whole battle was over in less than 8 seconds.

Don’t worry: the fox was fine. It shook off the encounter and resumed playing with its fellow kits. I took several pictures of it after the ordeal and couldn’t find a single scratch.

From what I’ve been able to research, this was a rare encounter. The managers of San Juan Island National Historical Park are eager to get rid of the rabbits because of their destructive ways and have studied potential predators. While the foxes will go after the rabbits if they can’t find something better, for the park’s eagles, 97 percent of their diet is fish and other birds.

The latest edition of my Year of the Eagle book includes a section devoted to this encounter. It's available in softcover and as an e-book. Fine-art prints are also available.

Bald Eagle and Red Fox Tussling Over Rabbit, San Juan Island National Historical Park, Washington
Bald Eagle and Red Fox Tussling Over Rabbit, San Juan Island National Historical Park, Washington
Bald Eagle and Red Fox Tussling Over Rabbit, San Juan Island National Historical Park, Washington
Bald Eagle and Red Fox Tussling Over Rabbit, San Juan Island National Historical Park, Washington
Bald Eagle and Red Fox Tussling Over Rabbit, San Juan Island National Historical Park, Washington
Bald Eagle and Red Fox Tussling Over Rabbit, San Juan Island National Historical Park, Washington
Bald Eagle and Red Fox Tussling Over Rabbit, San Juan Island National Historical Park, Washington
Bald Eagle and Red Fox Tussling Over Rabbit, San Juan Island National Historical Park, Washington
Bald Eagle and Red Fox Tussling Over Rabbit, San Juan Island National Historical Park, Washington
Bald Eagle and Red Fox Tussling Over Rabbit, San Juan Island National Historical Park, Washington
Bald Eagle and Red Fox Tussling Over Rabbit, San Juan Island National Historical Park, Washington
Bald Eagle and Red Fox Tussling Over Rabbit, San Juan Island National Historical Park, Washington

(The second edition of Kevin Ebi's book Year of the Eagle includes a new section devoted to the bald eagle, fox and rabbit encounter. It's available in softcover and as an e-book. Follow his photography on Facebook or Instagram.)

73 comments:

  1. Amazing encounter. Great job. That was one determined fox.

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  2. Awesome interaction, beautifully photo'd. Question: I'm curious about your statement that eagles eat mostly fish and birds - do you have a link to a study about that? Thanks!

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    1. While I cannot link any specific studies that I can think of, anyone who has observed eagle behavior long enough knows that it’s pretty well established that eagles mainly eat fish, and that’s one of the reasons why they congregate around rivers, lakes, and other water sources. They also do eat other birds, and will eat other animals as well. They also like to eat roadkill, or other dead animals they find, which can include pets like cats and dogs. Ive been fortunate to observe eagles my entire life, including having an eagle’s nest across the lake from us where we can watch them raise their young from a spotting scope. They are fascinating birds!

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    2. The Wikipedia article on bald eagles, including diet, is informative and has further links. If I remember right, bald eagles are pretty opportunistic and depending on what's available will tend to take half it's diet in fish.

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    3. In Alaska they mostly hang around landfills and are basically somewhat more attractive but far less elegant than Turkey Vultures.

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  3. What a great capture! I appreciate your composure; mentally and photographically. Congratulations!!!

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  4. Wonderful photography and gives new meaning to the term flying fox.

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  5. What a great shot! I would imagine there was a happy dance involved! Congrats!

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  6. Thanks everyone for the comments! It was an incredible sight to see and I'm so very happy the fox is OK.

    JDRLopez - The 97 percent figure came from San Juan Island National Historical Park. It's an odd statistic — I've never seen anyone else combine fish with birds — but their interest was identifying potential predators for the rabbits.

    I actually wrote a book on bald eagles a few years ago and in my research, I found that in the Pacific Northwest, about 70-90 percent of a bald eagle's diet is fish. That's a bit higher than it is for the North American bald eagle population as a whole where the figure is more than half the diet consists of fish.

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  7. I truly hope that fox kit came out okay. I saw another photo from another photographer that made me think it would certainly have sustained an eye injury at the very least. I admit, I’m rather attached to these fox kits since I have gone out to watch them on numerous occasions. I should be more objective, but I am definitely rooting for the fox kits.

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  8. I assume the eagle did in fact get the rabbit?

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  9. Hi Pete -- Yes, the eagle got the rabbit. All the fox got was a story.

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  10. Not asking to reveal any professional secrets, but what mode was your camera in? Incredible pics that are all variable in a short amount of time.

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  11. Hi Swamp Buggy Guy --

    I don't have any professional secrets, so I'm happy to share. My wildlife camera is almost always in aperture-priority mode, as it was for this. Some of the variation results from the shutter speed that was around 1/250th of a second. I like that speed because it gives a little wing blur although had I had more time to prepare, I would have boosted the ISO and shot faster. I had to throw away about a third of the images from the sequence because there was too much blur. However, when all the animals were moving in the same direction at the same rate (and I did a good job panning with them), the combination gives a nice mix of sharpness and blur, which expresses action.

    More variation resulted from some cropping. Images were cropped between 5 and 20 percent.

    Kevin

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    1. What camera and lens do you like for that kind of shooting.

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  12. Wow, these are truly amazing shots, talk about being in the right place at the right time! And that was one tenacious little fox, he was not about to give up his catch that easy! I've always had a fondness for foxes, maybe because in my country of origin, Iceland, the fox is the only naturally occurring predatory mammal and was in fact the only mammal on the island when the first settlers came to Iceland in the 9th century.

    Thank you for sharing!

    /Halldór

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  13. Hi Claudia -- I was using the Canon 1Dx Mark II, a 600 f/4 IS (the original version, not the Mark II) and a 1.4x teleconverter. -- Kevin

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  14. Thanks, so it's you not the equipment, I know lots of people that use that.

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  15. Wow! Incredible. I love your pics and story. Thank you!

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  16. Thank you very much. I never seen such battle

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  17. Kevin, the park has been encountering a pro-longed and incredibly difficult situation related to people engaging in wildlife-harassing behavior with the foxes.

    In great numbers people continue to crowd around fox dens, bait the kits with sounds and food, and engage in disruptive actions that are impeding the foxes' ability to act naturally in their natural habitat. Furthermore, professional photographers are conducting commercial operations inside the park without permits, which is illegal.

    While your article titled "Epic battle between eagle, fox and rabbit on San Juan Island" posted yesterday by Jennifer King is pretty remarkable; we (the National Park Service) would like an opportunity to share our perspective about wildlife protection.

    Elexis J. Fredy
    Superintendent

    San Juan Island National Historical Park
    650 Mullis Street - P.O. Box 429
    Friday Harbor, WA 98250

    elexis_fredy@nps.gov (email)
    (360) 378 - 2240 ext. 2223 (phone)
    (360) 298 - 5877 (cell)

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  18. That was amazing photography! Thank-you for sharing

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  19. This is an amazing sequence of photos. Excellent!!

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  20. Leopoldo VizcaínoMay 22, 2018 at 7:55 PM

    Pobre Zorrito se quedó con su CULO ESCUPIDO.

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  21. My daughter found a headless Robin in my driveway recently beheaded. Couldn't figure out where it came from. My daughter correctly surmised an eagle had dropped it. We argued over who was going to remove but I lost, got a garbage bag and covered my hands with a garbage bag and disposed of it in the garbage. Poor little Robin, but that's nature. Just wish he hadn't dropped in my driveway.

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  22. It's a great job I really appreciate that.were u waiting for it or it happened by a sudden?

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  23. Kristina GravetteMay 22, 2018 at 10:05 PM

    This is fantastic! My daughter and I were there with you at midday on Saturday watching the kits - wish we had been able to come back closer to sunset! Will you be posting more of your fox photos from that day - would love to see the litter of mixed colors, or the beautiful silver-black adult!

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  24. Great Work...Awesome shots. Keep up the AMAZING WORK. You have a wonderful gift of using and managing cameras to catch Incredible pics.

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  25. sarath abayagunawardanaMay 23, 2018 at 1:16 AM

    Stunning ,great photography, well timed .Keepup the skills best rgds.

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  26. A few years back in Northern Ontario,my wife Shirley and I were travelling home from our cottage near Kapuskasing when a Bald Eagle swooped over our truck very low in same direction we were travelling at,35 mph, about 2 minites later,same Bald Eagle swooped over our truck again,but this time had an Adult red fox,the neck in 1 talon and other talon was just before hind legs. The Eagle was climbing up high into the sky with the red fox in its talons.I told my wife that the Bald Eagle would drop this red fox in a clearing to KILL and eat it,my nephew who came out later that day over same road (bush road) I told story to,his reply was that another friend coming out had spotted a Bald Eagle eating a Red fox in a clearing not far from where this all happened !!! Thomas Stanbury Kapuskasing ontario

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  27. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  28. Wow, what a stunning set of images!!!!

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  29. Lovely photos. If I had not seen it on the news here in Devonport. Tasmania. Australia. I would have not believed it. That is why I had to look it up.

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  30. The photographer did a great job catching the moment between the fox, eagle and rabbit. But I would like to correct the photographer on one item he said. One of the primary food sources for fox are rabbits. If a fox had a choice between berries, as stated by the photographer as a primary food source, or a rabbit, the fox is going to kill and eat the rabbit about 99% of the time. Spend some time at my property in Northern California and you'll see for yourself.

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  31. Amazing capture and I've had the privilege of photographing these foxes for a few years. Along with the great publicity this video has garnered, so has the specified location. This year has seen a huge increase in photographers and people coming to watch them. Unfortunately, photographers have been seen feeding the kits to get closer photographs. I personally witnessed a photographer get within 1 foot of 3 kits while people left because of rain. This behaviour is very detrimental to the foxes as they lose their fear of humans. A fed wild animal is a dead wild animal. So while the video is amazing, I can't help feel sad for this remarkable place and the loss of freedom and safety for these foxes. I hope that the Park can get their message about wildlife protection out there.


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  32. That is the most magnificent series of nature photography I've ever seen! Even the background is just beautiful. I love the shot of the fox kit standing on hind legs on the ground at the moment he lost the rabbit to the eagle. Looks like he's shouting at "Damn Eagle"! Congratulations and thank you for sharing. Amazing!

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  33. Thank you for sharing these wonderful pictures. I hope you don't mind I translate it into Chinese and share with our readers (link to your article). If you object, please let me know, and I'll take it down:

    https://www.onesiteworld.com/culture/interest/%E8%80%81%E9%B9%B0-%E7%8B%90%E7%8B%B8-%E6%8B%94%E6%B2%B314799.html

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  34. We have an eagle family living in some big firs on our beach; also, families of crows, who hate the eagles because they ravage nests; it's also a heron rookery up there.
    Two summers ago we saw a heron flying out over the bay, which is about a mile wide, and shortly after it flew off - the way they do, slow and steady, with no aerobatics, just traveling in a straight line - a pair of eagles flew out after it and quickly caught up. They began dive-bombing it and forced it into the water. A heron can't dodge; all it could do was try to reach the other shore, but that was too far away. The eagle couple repeatedly forced it downwards until it went under the surface of the bay. One eagle flew back to the nest. The other eagle grabbed the drowned adult heron with its talons, underwater, and proceeded to swim the half-mile home to the shore using its wings as "arms", till it was under the tree where everyone lives. It deposited its catch in a tangle of roots and dead branches. Dinner for many days.

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  35. OMG... The foxes face lol. Great job on this!

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  36. Amazing! This is so viral right now. Well done, beautiful!

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  37. Captured beautifully! Interactions in nature never cease to amaze me. We just returned from San Juan Island and had an opportunity to see an Eagle in the wild. First one I have ever seen!

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  38. WOW!!! Soooo Cool - amazing!!! Awesome photography - thanks for sharing!!! God Bless!

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  39. Epic! How wonderful that you were there to witness that. A photographer's dream. Thanks for sharing.

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  40. Well spotted and well shot. Absolutely Awsome. So glad little fox was unhurt, but a shame he lost his trophy.

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  41. Beautiful! such a great job, congrats!

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  42. Wow, thats amazeballs!

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  43. With the exception of very small animals such as the rabbit or a rodent Eagles are at a terrible disadvantage once they are on the ground with anything larger

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  44. What's up with the disrespectful tone of Elexis J. Fredy's comment? Either they decided to use this blog as a platform for a non-related issue to these images or they are being accusatory of Kevin for doing something wrong. Pretty unprofessional of the NPS.

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  45. Thank you for sharing your photos. My children really enjoyed hearing your story. They love bald eagles!

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  46. But was the rabbit OK?

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    1. Copied from article...
      "Don’t worry: the fox was fine. It shook off the encounter and resumed playing with its fellow kits. I took several pictures of it after the ordeal and couldn’t find a single scratch."
      Also.. check out the last photo on the bottom of the little fellow. Adorable!!

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  47. Yes, very stunning event captured on video. Just how "Natural" could be debated. The prairie looks so natural and beautiful because the NP eradicated the rabbit population there causing a forced ecological shifting of species living there. (I won't divulge all the gory details of how this was accomplished here). Many Foxes starved, relocated, or resorted to begging for marshmallows at the picnic area. Eagles ranged further for prey base further pressuring other Eagle territories. This shifting of the predator-prey balances were altered over many many years.

    Very risky predator behavior portrayed in video. Is there an ecological balance now? At what cost due to the human intervention and manipulation. Do the ends justify the means? Guess it is up to the individual to decide.

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  48. What a great chance and great photo,thx for your sharing!

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  49. Fox came out ok or didn't come out ok...who gives a shit...it's pure nature. Animals need to survive. Capture the moment and let nature be. Great photo, keep them coming.

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  50. In response to the comment by jdrlopez: I just saw a photo, posted by the person who took it, of a Great Blue Heron eating an American Coot (which it killed by violently whipping it back and forth, which he also had photos of). So that is another example of a bird that eats both fish and birds.

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  51. 붉은 여우의 저 대단한 점프력에 한 번 놀라고, 독수리의 저 큰 날개와 몸체에 다시 한 번 놀라게 되네요. 여우의 토끼에 대한 끝없는 집착 잘 보고 갑니다. 이런 귀한 영상 올려주셔서 감사해요.^^

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  52. Amazing!!! Beatiful pictures in a great moment.

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  53. Awesome pics! Park needs a good mouser (city cats). Maybe they could round up a few strays.

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  54. Amazing. You were so lucky to see this!! Thank you for sharing.

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  55. I have seen a bald eagle steal a snow goose from a coyote. The coyote did not try to hold on to the goose but dropped it immediately when the eagle approached. I have also seen bald eagles snatch snow geese from the air (four occasions) and catch mallard ducks sleeping on a sand bar.

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  56. and the Winner is ... the Eagle!!! Great Job!!!

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  57. There is a video showing exactly this scene on Youtube. The source given is Zachary Hartje.
    So who really did the original shots?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=eFus_77LVQ0

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  58. What animals are in the background in the video? My eyes are trying to convince me I saw two deers and a brown bear lol.

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  59. Hi Kari - There is a robin in one of the images, but most of the other animals are rabbits who watched this unfold.

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  60. I am only a layman here, but my observations generally agree in the Midwest. Bald Eagles tend to nest along waterways. Fish is the easy and preferred meal, especially in shallower waters. Birds are a target of opportunity. Ground targets offer more challenge and risk. Poaching another predator's kill IS less effort. I have seen less of the roadkill thing in the suburbs, likely because of the obvious risk. But these birds are SMART. They don't willingly take a risk they can't see the win from.

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  61. Kai, your post ignores the likelihood of different photographers and angles. Your link clearly shows this was NOT by this same camera. Both are stunning, but the stills are VERY skilled VS running a camera.

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  62. Eagles do their best snow goose hunting during hunting season when the geese are often wounded. They fush the flock and go for the slow geese.

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  63. Holy freak - what an amazing story and series of photos - no idea how this is just an honorable mention! Thx for sharing it!

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  64. I like the expression on the fox thinking, "What the heck just happened?" or "Who are the judges of these photo contests?"

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