National Trails Day

June 5th, 2021

A Day of Service and Advocacy for Hometown Trails

Join the CREW Trust and take the #NationalTrailsDay Pledge. Millions of people have found physical, mental, and emotional restoration on trails during the pandemic.

Let’s return the favor.

Together we can care for our hometown trails and advocate for equitable access to quality green space.

Taking place on the first Saturday in June, National Trails Day® is a day of public events aimed at advocacy and trail service. 

Thousands of hikers, bikers, rowers, horseback riders, trail clubs, federal and local agencies, land trusts (including the CREW Trust), and businesses come together in partnership to advocate for, maintain, and clean up public lands and trails. 

So no matter where you are, celebrate National Trails Day and join trail lovers everywhere on June 5th! Here’s how you can get involved: 

While the CREW Trust doesn’t have a group event scheduled this year, you can get together with friends and family and make a difference on any trail. The CREW trail system with the most need is at CREW Flint Pen Strand. Bring some trash bags and a few extra hands to help pack out some of that unnatural garbage! Remember, trash collects trash, so the more we can pack out together, the longer lasting impact your work will have.

Not in southwest Florida? Check out these resources for events and needs in your area

Discing, shredding, prescribed fire and other disruptive yet helpful things at CREW

By Allison Vincent

Pine trees and understory growth after a prescribed burn at CREW Flint Pen Strand

Some recent guests on the CREW trails have inquired why they’re torn up? The long-range plans and efforts of the South Florida Water Management District (the District hereafter) can be a challenge on initial view, as “discing” and “shredding” projects can resemble hog damage or really knobby ATV tires wrecking havoc, both of which land managers set out to prevent. So why are they seemingly adding to the destruction? 

These tracks of discing and shredding are in fact intentional and well-planned measures designed to prepare for upcoming prescribed burns or chemical treatment, ultimately preventing vegetation from getting out of control. Vegetation can include non-native plants, shrubby understory, or native plants and trees that have grown out of balance with historical norms. Forestry science is behind the land management plans in place and its driving force is the long-range preservation goals of the CREW project. 

Even though the trails look less than ideal when torn up and the rough patches can make hiking and biking more difficult, just remember why CREW is here in the first place. It’s all about the water. These efforts benefit the watershed where we get our drinking water. Also, it’s good to think of the hierarchy of needs throughout the CREW lands like this: it begins with water and land management, then comes preserving habitat and then recreational opportunities for everyone.

Let’s discuss the management process we’re looking at on the trails. In order to perform a prescribed burn the District team must get approval from the state of Florida. Often this overlaps with an annual shredding plan, replete with maps and intensity, to clear the ground of any obtrusive vegetation before burns are scheduled. The burn prescription is based on several environmental factors, such as wind speed and direction, humidity and the burn history in the area. 

Assuming the burn prescription was approved the team, formed from several agencies including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC hereafter), must then coordinate their efforts and communicate their plans with the surrounding community. Working from a burn map (or planning map), the lead manager will direct the team to burn the fire line. In constant communication, the team stays on the fire from start to finish, following up the next several days for safety and reporting. 

Ultimately, the goal is to decrease the amount of understory vegetation in the CREW project, to prevent wildfires from getting out of hand, and encourage healthy native species growth. Many native fire-dependent species exist in the CREW lands, including the Slash Pine trees and Saw Palmetto which have evolved to withstand heat and benefit from fire. Prescribed burns also benefit the wildlife native to CREW, including the gopher tortoise, which prefers some open scrub to the encroachment of the long-living Saw Palmetto.

Hopefully, the next time you see the process or after-effects of the land management efforts to preserve these lands you will have a better understanding of their long range intentions. If you would like to learn more about this process, there are a few great resources found here. Always feel free to reach out to our office or that of the District with your questions.

Eagle Scout Project at CREW

by Allison Vincent, CREW Trust Communications Director

Eagle scout team assisting with the install of 10 benches in 2 days at CREW Flint Pen Strand!

What does it take to complete an Eagle Scout project with the CREW Trust? That was the first question posed by 17-year-old Eagle Scout candidate, Jake, when he reached out to the CREW Trust back in July of 2020. 

Over the years, the CREW Trust has partnered with quite a few successful Eagle Scout projects, which aim to benefit the community enjoying the CREW trails. 

Important to the planning phase and really the first hurdle to a partnership project involves the scout’s willingness to remain open to the needs of the organization. Initial proposals aren’t always a good fit and a good scout’s job, like any good partner, is to listen to the needs of an organization which they aim to help. Luckily, Jake was flexible and ready for the challenge and something the CREW trails needed desperately were benches at the newest trail system, CREW Flint Pen Strand. 

For this to be an appropriate Eagle Scout challenge, “the project needed to be attainable, but not easy” reflected Brenda Brooks, CREW Trust Executive Director, and ten benches covering five-miles of trails is no walk in the park. Brooks and CREW Trust volunteers personally worked with Jake and his Eagle coach to scout the trails for the best bench locations. Parameters were set based on distance, view and the undefinable need for a bench. 

Next came the design. Many zoom calls, phone conversations and emails led to the development of a great team-oriented action plan, with Jake at the helm. A major component of all Eagle Scout projects is the opportunity for the applicant to organize, lead and manage a project from start to completion. Imagine fundraising during this difficult time, we know how hard it is as a non-profit, yet Jake was able to creatively think outside the box to raise the funds needed. Jake demonstrated great leadership through a challenging pandemic pulling his team of fellow scouts and leaders together to see the project through. 

Jake’s team created the ten sturdy benches you can now enjoy on the Red, Yellow, and Orange trails at CREW Flint Pen Strand in Bonita Springs. “I hope the benches serve CREW well and help people enjoy the beauty of Flint Pen Strand” -Jake, Boy Scouts of America. Thank you Jake, from the CREW Trust, for your legacy project!

A Lesser-known Squirrel

The Big Cypress Fox Squirrel

By Allison Vincent

The Big Cypress fox squirrel (Sciurus niger avicennia) at CREW Flint Pen Strand

Most of us are familiar with the gregarious tree climber, the grey squirrel, but what do you know about its relative from southwest Florida, the big cypress fox squirrel (BCFS)?

Theirs is the classic story of the city mouse and country mouse, except of course, they’re squirrels. Grey’s a typical synanthrope, or a wild animal that lives near and benefits from human beings, whereas the BCFS is well, more of a hermit, except perhaps when you get them on the golf course.

One can easily tell a BCFS from a grey squirrel by color and size. BCFSs sport an array of colorful coats, commonly with a black jacket running from their head to back and tan sides extending over the belly. However, they can also show a rusty orange or more fully tan. Their most universal color feature tends to be their white ears and white around their nose. BCFSs also have a larger body size when compared to the grey squirrel, reaching up to 26 inches compared to the grey squirrel’s average of 19 inches and under.

CREW visitors are often lucky enough to see BCFSs throughout the CREW trails because these squirrels prefer a habitat mosaic, like the one preserved within the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed, including pine flatwoods, cypress swamps, and hardwood hammocks. Prescribed burns greatly benefit the BCFS as they have greater foraging success with broad transitions between ecotones, or the area of transition between two plant communities. Their limited range extends from southwest of Lake Okeechobee and south of the Caloosahatchee River to south Big Cypress Basin.

Mating is thought to occur year-round but mostly around November – February and April – July. The best way to determine if a nest is active is to look for freshly stripped cypress bark on the trunk. BCFSs often build nests starting with a stand of Tillandsia air-plant gathering nesting material near the trunk. Another way to locate BCFSs is to keep an eye out for the remains of the following food items near cypress trees: fruit from pond apple, cabbage palm, cocoplum, wax myrtle, saw palmetto, hog plum and fungi; seed cones from south Florida slash pine and pond cypress.

The future of BCFSs is uncertain, as they face considerable threats to their population as development continues to increase in Southwest Florida. The suppression of fire due to land use changes, such as agriculture and development, causes the understory to grow and make habitat unsuitable. Additionally, changes in hydrological conditions, hunting, poaching, wildlife diseases (like the deadly squirrel poxvirus), predation, road mortality, and hurricanes also affect the species survival. However, projected human population growth in Southwest Florida ensures that habitat degradation, fragmentation, and loss will remain the biggest threat to the BCFS.

The long-term survival of the BCFS is dependent upon the public awareness and support of habitat management projects on private and public lands (like the CREW lands), where the use of prescribed fire, the control of invasive non-native plants/animals, and the maintenance of natural hydrologic conditions are necessary to retain habitat characteristics that benefit the BCFS.

The Big Cypress fox squirrel is protected as a state-threatened species by Florida’s Endangered and Threatened Species Rule.

Where Can I See a Big Cypress Fox Squirrel? Although BCFS are rare in natural habitats, you may catch a glimpse of one at any of the four CREW trail systems, although they are most often photographed at CREW Flint Pen Strand. Big Cypress fox squirrels are typically found in their nests within approximately 1 hour of sunset and begin their daily activity approximately 1–2 hours after sunrise. Therefore, the best time to see one is typically between 9:00 am–4:00 pm.

A perfect BCFS nesting perch, however no nest is present in this photo

Fine Feathered Friends Found at CREW

By Nan Mattingly, CREW Trust volunteer

You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy the birds at all four CREW trail systems, and you don’t need fancy equipment. Just an inexpensive pair of binoculars and the will to get outside and use them.

We consulted with some birding experts to identify birds you’re likely to see throughout CREW. Their best tip for seeing most of the birds named below is to start early in the morning, just after sunrise.

CREW Marsh Trails

Blue jay: A medium size bird with a blue body, black bars on the wings and a crest on the top of the head. Present year-round in Florida. At CREW Marsh Trails, look for them in the large live oaks just north of the tower overlooking the marsh. You may hear them before you see them; they have a variety of loud calls and unique songs.

Red-shouldered hawk: Medium to large size raptor with rust-red bars on its breast and where the wing meets the body. Tends to use the same territory for years, even the same nests. Screeching, repetitive call. This hawk stalks prey from a perch, so look up when you hear that loud call. Found throughout CREW; at the Marsh Trails, you may see them in the pine flatwoods and oak hammocks.

CREW Cypress Dome Trails and Caracara Prairie Preserve

Swallow-tailed kite: All black and white with a sharply forked tail and a four-foot wingspan. Nests in the tops of pine trees in early spring in southwest Florida, migrating from South America. It’s a breathtaking sight to see a group of kites circling and swooping, dropping briefly to skim the surface of lakes to drink or bathe. Listen carefully for their sweet, shrill cries or soft whistles.

Turkey vulture: Red head, white-tipped beak, dark body feathers that resemble those of a turkey. Soars above tree tops alert for freshly killed prey, using both sight and smell to find food. They are a consummate scavenger, cleaning up the countryside one bite at a time. This bird has no song, but it hisses, grunts and growls when eating.

Carolina wren: Medium size bird with a brown crown, white throat, buff-colored or white underparts, rufous-colored back and wings and a distinctive white stripe above the eye. Once paired, they define and maintain a territory and stay together for several years. They raise multiple broods during the summer breeding season. These birds like to hang out in undergrowth and sometimes you have to identify them by their loud, distinctive song which sounds like “teakettle, teakettle, teakettle” or “cherry, cherry, cherry.”

CREW Bird Rookery Swamp

Snowy egret: A small white heron with black legs and a long black bill with a yellow patch at its base; yellow feet (think of them as yellow snow boots to remember their name). At one time the plumes of the snowy egret were in demand to decorate women’s hats and plume hunters decimated their numbers, but now protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and their population has rebounded. Snowy egrets wade in shallow water to spear fish and other small aquatic animals.     

Northern parula: Small, compact warbler with blue-gray upper parts and bronze-green back patch. Throat and breast are yellow and belly is white. Winters in southwest Florida. The northern parula feeds on insects and invertebrates; occasionally hovers or hangs upside down on foliage to catch insects in the air. Its song is an ascending “zeeeee-yip”. Fairly common in Bird Rookery Swamp, less common in other parts of CREW, because it prefers the swampy, forested habitat.  

Green heron: Small heron with a glossy, greenish cap and back. Its wings are gray-black grading into green or blue, and it has a chestnut-colored neck with a white stripe. Active during the day, it walks slowly or stands motionless in water to wait for prey, and then it strikes quickly with its daggerlike bill. This heron has been seen to place food in the water to attract fish. Sometimes you’ll see them perched in trees and shrubs. 

CREW Flint Pen Strand

Bald eagle: The bald eagle is the star of the show at Flint Pen Strand, larger and more impressive than other raptors found there. Most of us are familiar with its distinctive look – white head, neck and tail, big yellow bill and dark brown body. Swooping over water, it hunts its favorite prey – fish – and its strong hind talon pierces the fish while the front talons hold the fish securely. Its wing span is six to seven feet. A pair of bald eagles has been nesting around the eastern side of Flint Pen Strand for some years, and lucky hikers are occasionally treated to the sight of a bald eagle soaring overhead.     

Eastern bluebird: Brilliant blue back and wings, with a rusty breast and white underparts. Often seen in open woodlands and clearings; look for them in the northeast corner of the lakes area. It makes its loose nest of grass or plant stems in natural tree cavities, even in abandoned woodpecker holes. Its population declined by 90% in the last century, partly because as trees are felled, it loses its favorite nesting sites. Bird boxes have helped restore the population. 

Woodpeckers: Woodpeckers of all kinds are year-round residents, including red-bellied, downy, pileated and sapsucker woodpeckers. Most remarkable is a sizable population of red-headed woodpeckers, with their solid red heads, black wings and white wing bars. You’ll see them near the southern portion of the red trail, usually hunting insects on dead trees.

Some hints for beginning birders:

Invest in a pair of binoculars and learn how to use them; take along a good field guide like Sibley’s Bird Basics, which will teach you how to identify birds by characteristics; download a good bird identification app like the Audubon Bird Guide and eBird; wear dull, neutral colors to blend into the natural background; and respect nature – don’t step off the trail to get a good picture, and don’t harass birds. If you can, tag along with an experienced birder and don’t be afraid to ask for advice. If you want to start and keep a list of birds you’ve observed, there are many apps that provide guidance and allow you to keep your list on your phone.

More resources on birds:

Cornell Ornithology Lab maintains a web site called “All About Birds” which covers just about everything you need to know to get started and develop your skills. A particularly useful book for this region is Birds of Florida by Fred J. Alsop III. And here’s a cool website:, where you can follow bird migration in real time all over the U.S.

Please share your best bird photos with the CREW community, on our CREW Land & Water Trust Facebook page or send them directly to     

Many thanks to knowledgeable birders who contributed to this piece: Jayne Johnston, former education coordinator, CREW Land & Water Trust; Dick Brewer, volunteer naturalist and brilliant citizen scientist; Barbara Centola, CREW Trust volunteer and birder extraordinaire; and Kathleen Smith and Lauren Plussa, biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 

Consider a “Wet Walk”

By Allison Vincent, CREW Trust Communications Director

Hiking out on the CREW trails can have a transformative effect, especially during the rainy season. Traversing wet trails evokes something deep within us, an urge to take the road less travelled, to walk quietly in the woods hearing the twigs snap underfoot.

Perhaps it’s some childhood nostalgia that transfixes us. Given the chance to have uninterrupted time in a wild place filled with trees, pools of water, and hidden places can fine tune the ear to the sound of animal footsteps or the wings of a bird.

Even still, some hikers avoid the trails during the rainy season, but why? Let go of having dry shoes and enjoy the cool clear puddles after a rain storm or wade into the tannin-rich tea-colored water on a hot day! Once you make your first satisfying splash there is no turning back!

Another highlight of the rainy season is finding animal tracks in the mud. Our game camera footage and years of wildlife monitoring have shown that many crepuscular creatures are most active in the early dawn and twilight hours before dusk.

Many of the wildlife that call CREW home are elusive but like us all, leave footprints behind. So remember next time you’re on the trail, there is a chance you are walking the same path a wild creature strolled a few hours earlier. Check in the mud, you may catch the outline of a print!

History of Flint Pen Strand: Part Three

Restoration of the Wetlands

By Nan Mattingly, CREW Trust Volunteer

Dwarf Cypress trees on the Yellow Trail North

So how do you restore a wetland? First, you study the proposed land to see if it is still functioning as a wetland. If it’s not, you remove structures (houses, roads, bridges, berms) built on the land that interfere with the natural flow of water. You also must remove a lot of debris like fences, toilets, tires, appliances, and boats just to name a few. The South Florida Water Management District, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the CREW Trust have put thousands of hours into cleaning up CREW Flint Pen Strand (FPS).

photo taken during SFWMD work in 2000

To prepare and carry out an effective restoration, you need to know the history of the land. Are there any irreversible changes in the wetlands? You must figure out how to go around them or work with them to achieve your goal of a functioning wetland. You should also consider the causes of the degradation of a wetland and address those. There is no use restoring the wetland if it’s going to revert to its malfunctioning state.

Evidence of homestead sites still remain

You also must think ahead. Are there any plans by local, state, or federal government or private landowners that would affect your wetland? Not only do you have to study the wetland itself to figure out how to repair it, but you also must consider the surrounding area and what impact the restoration may have on neighboring property.

Pine forests intermix with wetlands throughout Flint Pen Strand

Then decide what your objectives are for the newly restored wetland. At FPS, the goals were to restore some of the original pathways for flowing water; restore the ecosystem because native trees and plants naturally help slow the water, giving it more time to soak into the aquifer; provide natural flood protection; and identify and protect habitat that is crucial for the wildlife that live there. Florida panthers and have been spotted at FPS and because they need thousands of acres to roam, I’m sure they appreciate the forests and saw palmetto habitats that support their primary food source, white-tailed deer, at FPS.

White-tailed deer roaming the marshes of south Flint Pen Strand

Finally, you monitor the success of your restoration project and maintain for the long term.

Restoring a wetland is a complex process and the SFWMD continues to work hard at FPS. Part of the process at FPS has been the removal of non-native and invasive species. If you hike the red trail and come across a forest of spooky-looking trees, many of them lying on the ground, you’ll see the results of killing hundreds of invasive melaleuca trees. With their papery white bark, the dead melaleucas look like a forest of ghosts. In addition, CREW volunteers have assisted with the removal of invasive plants such as caesar weed and earleaf acacia (a never-ending job). Consistent stewardship can only succeed with collaboration and community support. The ongoing long-term success of the CREW project is a result of many hands-on deck, especially from people like you. The support you give through membership and donations secures the future of this project and others for generations to come.

CREW Trust and FGCU Service Learning partnership in action

History of Flint Pen Strand: Part Two

Restoration of the Wetlands

By Nan Mattingly, CREW Trust volunteer

Hydrologic restoration within the CREW Project in April 2000

Have you ever considered what your life would be like if you didn’t have easy access to water or if you had too much around you?

Restoration of the wetlands of the CREW Flint Pen Strand (FPS) has addressed both issues. Efforts to develop FPS lands for residences since the 1950s reduced the ability of FPS wetlands to function. If water has no place to linger, which is what you need to recharge the aquifer where your drinking water comes from, it must go somewhere. 

Without a functioning wetland, water will traverse the FPS lands without stopping and seek lower levels, ending up in the yards and homes of the lower-lying areas of Bonita Springs. Many residents recall a particularly bad year, 1995, when Tropical Storm Jerry flooded east Bonita Springs in August. Just when residents were beginning to return to their homes in October, Hurricane Opal inundated the same area and did more damage. Flooding continues to hamper east Bonita Springs residents even today with the most recent being Hurricane Irma in 2017.

The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) took on the responsibility of restoring about 5,400 acres of the wetlands of FPS. In some flood-prone areas, a variety of structural changes designed to improve the flow of water and thus reduce flooding have been tried, including ditches, canals, and channels. SFWMD decided that removing roads and culverts as well as treating invasive vegetation would be most effective and less costly to restore the wetlands and let the wetlands do what they do so well – collect water, filter it and let it soak into the aquifer. 

The FPS hydrologic restoration project is a slow and labor-intensive effort. The project is ongoing but we are seeing results today thanks to the continued efforts of the SFWMD. Sheet flow (inland water that flows toward lower coastal areas) that once crossed FPS land is now invited to stick around and help recharge the watershed that the 60,000-acre CREW Project exists to protect.  

The hydrologic restoration at FPS helps to assure that you’ll have access to water. It also helps to protect the residents of Bonita Springs from flooding. So, the next time you hike one of the FPS trails, take a moment to consider all that the CREW lands do when it comes to water and the flood protection that it provides.

Flint Pen Strand 2019

History of Flint Pen Strand: Part One

photo by Michael Lund

Flint Pen Strand becomes part of the CREW Project

Volunteer Perspective Series

By Nan Mattingly

Have you hiked the trails of CREW Flint Pen Strand (FPS) yet? Seen a pair of ospreys fly overhead and heard their distinctive call? Enjoyed the serenity of walking alongside the Kehl Canal on the red trail? Watched the antics of shorebirds along the lakes on the eastern side? Identified any of the colorful wildflowers that grow throughout the 14,000-acre property?

If so, you and many hikers, equestrians, bicyclists, hunters, photographers, dog walkers and nature lovers owe a big thanks to the people, organizations and local and state governments who cooperated to acquire the land, restore its natural ability to collect and purify water to replenish the aquifers and develop the trails that we now enjoy.

To encourage you and your family to discover the beauty of FPS, we’ve written a series of blogs to tell you a little about the background of the establishment of FPS as part of the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed (CREW) Project, the historical use of the land and the restoration of its wetlands.

Dwarf Cypress trees on the Yellow Trail North at Flint Pen Strand

The area now known as CREW Flint Pen Strand was, in the late twentieth century, a flat and flood-prone area. At that time, the land was in the beginning stages of development for single-family homes on five- to ten-acre plots. A small part of the land was already inhabited and was being used for pasture, row crops and other agricultural activities, and a mobile home park was situated within its boundaries.

But local officials, environmentalists and residents recognized that development was affecting surface water storage and the natural flow of water from the Lake Trafford area through Lee and Collier County and into the Imperial and Cocohatchee Rivers. Bonita Springs was experiencing increased flooding and contamination of surface and ground waters. After a great deal of tangling with red tape, many community hearings and various assessments, it was decided that it was critical to halt development and restore the ecosystem of the land to improve water quality and supply, reduce the threat of flooding and improve habitat for protected species and other wildlife.

Flint Pen Strand during the rainy season

Water quality testing at that time had revealed the undesirable effects of agricultural and residential use of the land. These activities added pollutants to the water and decreased the time that water could linger on the land, reducing the amount of water that seeped into the aquifer. This finding made the restoration project more urgent. 

An environmental assessment performed, as a part of the larger project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1999, found that the restoration of FPS wetlands would reclaim habitat needed by several species, including wood storks, an endangered species at that time (now classified as threatened). Wood storks have extremely specific foraging requirements, and FPS promised to provide their essential needs for nesting and feeding. Consideration was also given to the Florida panther, its need for space to roam, and the numerous other species protected within their range, as well as the Florida black bear and the Big Cypress fox squirrel. The project also would aim to remove much of the exotic vegetation that had invaded the land, primarily melaleuca trees and Brazilian pepper bushes.   

Woodstorks and numerous other wading birds at Flint Pen Strand, November of 2019

In short, restoration of FPS promised considerable benefits for wildlife, vegetation and people.

If you look at a map of the CREW Project as it now exists, you’ll see that FPS is a key part of the project, adjoining CREW Bird Rookery Swamp and buffering Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. FPS comprises a large part of the 60,000-acre CREW Project. More importantly, FPS has become a key part of the protection of the 3-aquifers underlying the CREW Project – the aquifers that provide much of the drinking and general use water for southern Lee County and northern Collier County. The ongoing restoration of the wetlands and the landscape of FPS is now transforming this environmentally valuable property into a place that everyone can enjoy – a place that allows birds and many species to call it home and that will help keep us all supplied with drinking water.     

And if you want to see some evidence of whether or not this ambitious restoration project has achieved any of its goals, check out the weekly volunteer observation reports by a CREW Trust volunteer who records the type and number of species he encounters in his lengthy trail walks. Those observations are posted on the CREW Land & Water Trust Facebook page (@CREWTrust). Additionally, if you walk the Red Trail, you’ll find an area that some call the melaleuca graveyard. A lot of work by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) has gone into the effort to kill those invasive trees that threaten native species. That work continues.  Keep an eye out for the next post in this series – it may surprise you, to learn who the earliest users of FPS lands and resources were and how they traveled to get there.

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