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!

Create a New CREW Tradition This Year

By Nan Mattingly, CREW Trust volunteer

Every family has its own holiday traditions. Traditions are sometimes inherited and sometimes created. However you acquire them, your family traditions are always meaningful, and they often lead to treasured family experiences.

When I was young, my father encouraged me and my siblings to enjoy the outdoors. He taught us to ice skate, to play baseball and other sports, and to explore nature. My mother loved to create feasts on special days using favorite family recipes. (She almost incited an insurrection the year she put oysters in the turkey dressing.)

Somehow, we managed to unite these two family traditions, gorging ourselves on mother’s many dishes and then, instead of lounging around and digesting, following up the big meal with a family hike. When my parents retired and moved to Delaware, they bought a small house nestled in a mostly pine wood forest. You could smell and feel the salty air coming from the Atlantic Ocean mingling with the fresh pine scent.

Then our holiday hikes became even more special. The chilly winter temperatures, so close to the Atlantic, encouraged us to walk briskly. It was a time not only to walk off all that food but also to catch up on family news. I can remember spotting various birds, plants and trees, especially gorgeous holly trees that obligingly produced red berries for us at the end of the year and added to the festivity of the occasion. By the time my parents moved to Delaware, all their children were adults and scattered across several states. The holidays at the end of the year provided us with the chance to gather and enjoy mom’s cooking as well as renew our relationships with each other.

These hikes became a sacred family tradition. No excuses – we all participated, except my mother. I guess she was too worn out from days of planning, shopping and cooking.

Now two of my siblings and I live in this area. We have continued the family tradition of hiking on holidays. It reminds me of so many years that we gathered and enjoyed the outdoors together. It’s a tradition that I recommend – and the CREW trails offer your family the perfect chance to establish your own outdoor traditions on the holidays.

Hiking in southwest Florida, in the temperate winter months is a joy. You can create your own family holiday hiking tradition on the CREW trails. We have four unique trail systems, one located in Lee County (CREW Flint Pen Strand) and three in Collier County (CREW Marsh Trails and CREW Cypress Dome, both located on Corkscrew Road, and CREW Bird Rookery Swamp on Immokalee Road).

At CREW Marsh Trails, you can hike to an observation tower that overlooks a 5,000-acre sawgrass marsh, a breathtaking sight, and you can see all the way to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary across the vast marsh. At Cypress Dome, you can enjoy the unique habitat of a cypress dome, wading in cool shallow water to the center of the shadowy forest of tall cypress trees. Flint Pen Strand offers multiple trails through pine forests as well as seasonal lakes on the east side that attract a myriad of wading birds at this time of year. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot a bald eagle that resides close to the lakes flying overhead. It’s a magnificent sight.

Bird Rookery Swamp offers yet another kind of experience. There’s a boardwalk that winds through the cypress trees, leading to a wide elevated trail that once accommodated narrow gauge trains to haul the mighty cypress trees out to sawmills. Logging at Bird Rookery Swamp ended in the 1950s, so the cypress trees you see now are second-growth trees that rapidly grew to restore the forest. Hurricane Irma in 2017 uprooted many of the red maples but you’ll see that they have returned in force. At this time of year, the cypress trees are dropping their needles, but the maples are showing off their beautiful red leaves, just in time for the holidays.

All four of the CREW trail systems are open from dawn to dusk. Trails are clearly marked, and a trail map is available at information kiosks at the trailheads. Bring the family dog (not recommended at Bird Rookery Swamp) – on a leash – and be sure to clean up after him or her. There’s no entrance fee, but donations are much appreciated and are put to good use maintaining the trails and supporting educational programs.

COVID-19 has stressed us all this year. The fresh air and vivid greenery all around you on our trails can help your family to de-stress. Please heed recommended practices on the trails, especially socially distancing. But don’t worry – there’s plenty of room for us all to enjoy the outdoors safely.

A Brief History of Bird Rookery Swamp

by Nan Mattingly

Hike the Loop with CREW. Photo by Bill Zaino

As you set out to enjoy the riches of Bird Rookery Swamp (BRS for short) think of the people who have used this land before you.  Some highlights:

From approximately 500 BC to 1600 AD, the fierce Calusa tribe traversed this huge swamp from their home base on the southwest Florida coast (in the vicinity of what is now Ft. Myers Beach) to their hunting and fishing camps at Lake Trafford in Immokalee. Waterways (rivers, streams, even sheet flow) were so plentiful that the Calusa traveled in canoes hollowed out from giant bald cypress trees harvested in Bird Rookery Swamp. They made use of what they found at Bird Rookery Swamp for their daily living needs; they ate the hearts of sabal palms and used the fronds to weave floor mats and to roof their dwellings. They harvested the fruit of cocoplums and pond apple trees, they fished the waters, and they used plants for medicinal purposes.  

Dugout Canoe found at Lake Trafford. Photo by Andrew West

The bird plume trade drew feather hunters to Bird Rookery Swamp from the late 1800s to the early 1900s at which time state and federal laws were enacted to protect the birds. At the height of the trade, a pound of bird plumes was more valuable than a pound of gold, and the white ibis (known as the Chokoloskee Chicken) was considered a delicacy. Today Bird Rookery Swamp provides sanctuary for at least 45 kinds of birds, including some protected and threatened species.

Rosette Spoonbill

The timber trade brought the next economic exploitation of Bird Rookery Swamp. In 1934, cypress wood sold for $60 to $100 per 1,000 board feet. Over 40 miles of elevated trails (called trams) were constructed to run a narrow-gauge train to extract harvested trees, which were sent to a mill in central Florida. Those trees, generally around 130 feet tall and 25 feet in girth, were 500 to 600 years old. Cypress was a hard, durable wood resistant to water and bugs. Cypress trees harvested at Bird Rookery Swamp were used to build PT boats during World War II, to rebuild war-torn Europe and to provide wood for homes sold through the Sears catalog. The last surviving steam engine used on the Bird Rookery Swamp trams is on display at the Collier County Museum. A court order in 1957 ended logging at Bird Rookery Swamp.

Farmers and ranchers have used Bird Rookery Swamp lands since the late 1800s to grow orange trees and to plant field crops such as tomatoes, melons and potatoes. If you look carefully into the Bird Rookery Swamp forest, you’ll see a few derelict barbed wire fences, relics of the cattle ranching that ended in the mid-1970s.

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:  https://birdcast.info/migration-tools/, 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 Allison@CREWTrust.org.     

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. 

CREW Trust Programs & COVID-19

*Wearing a face covering and social distancing is required while participating in CREW Trust Programs.*

If a participant chooses not to wear a face covering while on a CREW Trust program, they will be asked to leave the group and hike the trails on their own. 

As requirements change we will update you all on our website, social media, and E-blast subscription. 

To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, follow these guidelines from the CDC:

  • Stay home if you don’t feel well, have been diagnosed with COVID-19, if you are waiting for COVID-19 test results, or may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 (within 14 days).
  • Maintain a distance of at least 6 feet or more from people who don’t live in your household.
  • Covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue or the inside of the elbow.
  • Soap and water are not available on the CREW trails, instead bring hand sanitizer to use that contains at least 60% alcohol and rub hands together until dry.
  • Avoiding touching eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

Masks should not be placed on:

  • Anyone who has trouble breathing
  • Children under age 2
  • Anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the cloth face covering without assistance

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

At Home with the Florida Duck

Volunteer Perspective Series

Written by Nan Mattingly

How Florida mottled ducklings helped this CREW Trust volunteer survive quarantine.

Before the governor of Florida imposed a safer-at-home order, I had been experiencing flu symptoms and decided to self-quarantine. So I’ve been pretty isolated since early March.

Fortunately my house is situated on the edge of a fairly large lake, so I’ve long been in the habit of watching activity on the lake. Herons of all types come here to work the banks for small fish; anhingas dive for fish, which are plentiful, and then alight on the banks to dry out their feathers; occasionally I see an osprey snatch up a fish and run; and from time to time I watch long-time resident Wally Gator make his stately way up and down the lake. And of course we have the requisite Muscovy duck population, begging at doors for bread and showing off their unique brand of ugliness. 

Right about the time I decided to voluntarily quarantine and cope with what felt like murderous viral symptoms, a miracle occurred: a pair of Florida mottled ducks emerged on my lake with a brood of ten tiny ducklings, just little balls of downy feathers. Though their nest wasn’t very near my house, the whole group took to hanging around my neighbor’s house and mine. Before they showed up, I had only a casual interest in ducks (and a decided dislike for Muscovys). Virus fatigue and a lack of other distractions, I guess, allowed me to become fascinated with the mottled family. Now, about two months after their debut, the ducklings are still a mob of ten and the parents are nowhere to be seen. How they evaded predators is a mystery. Over time I’ve had the privilege of watching them grow, develop their voices, and learn to fly. At the end of May, they’re still there, and behaving like adolescents – chasing each other around, pecking each other on the head and occasionally making test flights across the lake.

Once the little ducklings had attracted my feeble attention, I developed the habit of looking out at the lake first thing every morning to check on them. They tended to arrive in my backyard around 6:30 a.m. Until a few weeks ago, they made tiny little peeping noises, which were charming, but unfortunately they are now developing that distinctive duck voice. On Memorial Day I was awakened early by a chorus of quacking before they did a very patriotic flyover of my lanai.   

Anticipating the sad day that my ducklings depart for bigger things, I checked the FWC website to learn when I can expect to become an empty-nester. It was mostly good news. First, I learned that we in south Florida have the pleasure of hosting these ducks year-round; they tend to live south of Tampa and are non-migratory. They are a member of what is called “the mallard complex” which includes about 20 species of ducks, all alike in body shape but distinguished by their feather characteristics and colors. FWC noted that the Florida mottled duck is also known as the “Florida duck” or the “Florida mallard” because they are found only in Florida.  

Some people might find a mottled duck’s grey and brown coloring a little boring compared to the mallard, which I now consider to be the designer version of mottled ducks. The mallard has that showy display of teal bordered with white on their wings. Mottled ducks, male and female, have a more subtle version of that coloring on the wings with almost no white showing.  

There’s little difference in coloring between male and female mottled ducks, so you have to look at the bills to distinguish them. The male has an olive green-to-yellow bill while the female has an orange-to-brown bill. 

Watching the ducklings peck in the grass and dip their bills into the water, I tried to figure out what they were eating. FWC supplied the answer: about 40 percent of their diet comprises insects, snails, mollusks, crayfish and small fish. For the other 60 percent, they eat grass seeds, stems and roots, the seeds of other marsh plants, and bayberries.

I knew that my particular ducklings were special not only for their  survival skills and playful personalities, but according to FWC, a female produces only one brood a year and typically lays eight to ten eggs. The mother of my ducklings must have produced a pretty big clutch of eggs, and she must have protected them well. For the first two months or so, the parents hovered over the ducklings and shepherded them around the lake, giving them a good start in life.

It’s not all good news for the Florida mottled duck, however. Go to the FWC website and read about the challenges to the long-term survival of our unique south Florida duck. Loss of wetland habitat, of course, is a big threat. And what FWC calls “feral mallards” have been mating with mottled ducks and producing hybrid offspring. 

Having relied on my mottled ducklings to keep me distracted and happy during a tedious quarantine, I’m sorry to contemplate the threats to this special south Florida dabbling duck. We’re still looking for a cure for Covid-19. Watching ducks grow up won’t cure anyone, but it’s a great distraction. Today I’m as healthy as those ten beautiful mottled ducks, and I thank them. 

Sprucing Up the CREW Trails

Before the trail closure on April 4th, CREW Trust staff, volunteers, and Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) students were out in full force finishing up some big projects during the final cool months. 

Several projects include the Wild Coffee Trail/White Trail revitalization at the CREW Cypress Dome Trails, the installation of new green and yellow post trail markers at the CREW Cypress Dome Trails, widening the Popash Trail at the CREW Marsh Trails, and an Adopt-A-Road cleanup along Corkscrew Rd. 

Our CREW trails consistently undergo huge improvements thanks to our dedicated volunteers and students that know how to complete a project from start to finish. 

Currently, trails are closed to the public and CREW Trust volunteers, but this does not mean that the volunteers have lost their enthusiasm. They have found many creative ways to help throughout the Florida #stayathome order!

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