A Film About Nature Culture

In 2013, we set out on an expedition to seek people around the Salish Sea who were inspired by nature. We sought out examples of people who chose to live and work close to nature, and who might be the beginnings of a culture rooted in the natural world. Out of the journey came our latest film RETURNING. You can get a taste of the expedition and the film at the web site www.salishseafilm.com.

The Salish Sea is the body of water straddling the border where Canada and the USA meet on the Pacific Coast. Vancouver and Seattle are located along its shores. The Salish Sea is rich in wildlife made famous by its killer whales (or orcas), immense migration of birds, and large salmon runs in particular up the Fraser River. I thought that the Salish Sea was a good place to find the beginnings of a Nature Culture.

The film was masterly and artfully created by Mike McKinlay Productions. I chose to work with Mike because of his understanding of Nature Culture, his passion for nature, and his mastery of the craft of beautiful film making. We are especially appreciative of the people who gave their time to be interviewed in the film. We are pleased that Knowledge Network in British Columbia will air the film later in the year. We hope to have news about the soundtrack soon too. If you want to see the film and hear more about Nature Culture, watch the web site for times and places or you can contact me through my web site www.robbutler.ca


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Starting a Nature Culture


An essential ingredient of a Nature Culture is to sustain the natural sources of the culture. Here are five steps to get you started.

  1. Define Your Region

Your first step is to decide on how large a region you will consider as a source of your Nature Culture. As a general rule, include an area that has common ecological features such as a watershed, a valley or an island.

  1. Do an Inventory

Within the region you selected, identify the major natural elements such forests, lakes, seashore and marshes, the common animals, the sources of food, the places people can visit nature and so on. The inventory will help you decide which elements you want to become entry points for a Nature Culture. You might want to engage with local naturalists or scientists to help you to create a natural events calendar from which you can select elements to celebrate. For example, there might be time when fish return to reproduce, leaves turn colour in fall, when locally produced food is harvested, and birds arrive on migration. You want to ask naturalists and scientists to explain when and why these events occur and what must be sustained for the events to continue. What they find will form a part of your Nature Culture.

  1. Select Your Cultural Events

Looking at your inventory, choose some of the natural events that you might like to celebrate. Those elements that can inspire a cultural response will need to be sustained to be part of a Nature Culture.

  1. Experience Nature Collectively and Individually

The fun begins with getting people to experience nature. You might choose to experience nature on your own or you could organize events for people to join.  You might find businesses that might want to sponsor or join your event. Nature clubs might lead walks or events. Choose a time and place to return to nature. For example, if flowers bloom for a brief time each year, you might like to schedule a walk to see the bloom. Give the walk a name and make it an annual Nature Culture event.

  1. Building the Culture

Start small. The real fun is to see how individual experiences with nature give rise to new forms of expression. People come to nature in a variety of ways. Some come through science, some through music, others through poetry and art, and others through food. Welcome everyone to join the celebration. For example, you might hold a feast or a pot luck with your family, friends or the community with only food from the region. Get creative in developing new dishes, give them names and share the recipes as part of a cultural celebration of nature.

A Few Examples

Nature Culture Feast

Feasting is at the root of many cultures. A Nature Culture feast celebrates locally sourced food that is produced sustainably. If the food is not sustainable, then the culture will not be sustained. Show your appreciation when you locate the farms and farmers. You might consider a large banquet feast if you feel adventurous or you might just invite your family. Nature Culture feast is a fun the theme for a pot luck dinner among friends. Challenge each other to come up with unique dishes and give the food names. Who knows, maybe a Nature Culture cook book might arise?  Don’t become too rigid in what is included in your feast –  some ingredients are not available locally and the idea afterall, is to have fun.


Whether you live in an apartment or on a large parcel of land, you can bring nature closer to home by what you plant. For apartment dwellers, create a natural setting on your balcony by planting a garden pot with a selection of native plants. Those of you fortunate to live with some land around your dwelling can plant shrubs and trees that attract native species of insects and birds. Encouraging neighbours to join you will expand the Naturehood for all to enjoy. Learn the names of the plants and animals that share your space.

Nature Culture Evening

Encourage individuals to visit a natural area to get inspired to create music, poetry, dance, artwork, or other forms of expression and showcase them at a Nature Culture Evening. You can keep the group small and intimate or grow it to as large as you care to go. At the Vancouver International Bird Festival in 2018, we organized a series of bird workshops where people learned about how various birds behaved from which they made their own costumes, learned to walk on stilts and joined a community parade seen around the  world.  

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The 150 Bird and Birthday Challenge

On July 1, 1867, Canada enacted its Constitution Act to unite its three colonies into a Dominion called Canada. The Canadian government asked Canadians how to celebrate the event and I chose to find 150 species of birds in Vancouver by July 1. I thought it wise to ask a few friends for their opinion. “That should be easy” they all said. “On a good day in winter you might see over 100 species”. I pointed out that I was considering within the city limits only, and not the fields, delta, mountains, marshes and other great places to find birds around the Vancouver. “Oh, that is quite different”, they all said. I pointed out that the forested University Endowment Lands were outside the city. “That’s right,” they said. “That would be quite a challenge, but might be possible”.

The Greater Vancouver Area Bird Checklist said that there were 267 annually occurring species with another 139 rarities seen from time to time. I only needed to see 150 of them. A tally indicated that seeing 130 species should be quite easy to find, 140 might be difficult, and 150 might be a distant possibility if some rarities were included. On top of that challenge, I live 20 minutes outside of Vancouver. Those seemed like good odds.

So, on January 1, 2017 I arose to one of our coldest and iciest mornings the city has experienced in a long time. Snow lined the streets and few people braved the conditions in their cars. To make things worse, a rare Harris’s sparrow – a Canadian endemic species for heaven’s sake!- was in our backyard outside the city. Birds were flitting about everywhere in our garden but none of them counted in my 150 challenge.

Six days would pass before I broke out of the cold and ventured into the city. Ice prevailed, snow lay around the ground, and birds were largely absent. From the Skytrain I finally saw a northwestern crow perched on a rooftop. One down, 149 to go. A glaucous-winged gull became number 2, and rock pigeon number 3. I had a meeting planned for downtown far from good birding locations so I was surprised when I heard a black-capped chickadee in a copse of conifers near a busy street. A European starling outside McDonalds was no surprise. Five down.

The weather continued cold and there was a report of white-throated sparrow near the Teahouse Restaurant in Stanley Park. In the winter sun, the sparrow emerged with song sparrows and towhees to peck at a handful of seeds left by the footpath. This would be a good record of an unusual species not often seen in the city. Black oystercatchers on an offshore rock, and a merlin dashing out of the forest added two more species to my list.

By the end of January, I had birdwatched a few times in Stanley Park, Queen Elizabeth Park, Everett Crawley Park and John Hendry Park. The icy weather was not conducive to great birding but my list had grown to 50 species. I found many common species there but one special species would elude me.

A California scrub jay had been seen in October along South Grandview Highway near John Hendry Park. The jay was seen repeatedly by many birders, except me. Ice and snow made walking in the alleys treacherous and several visits had not turned up the jay. I asked a resident if he had seen the jay. He told me a beautiful blue bird was in the alley a few minutes before I arrived. That was not what I wanted to hear. I had given up ever seeing the mystery jay when one day while cycling home from Stanley Park, I heard its distinctive call from a nearby tree. Finally, when I did not suspect it, the California scrub jay had joined the 150 tally. Birding is often full of these kinds of surprises. It is this uncertainty that makes the hunt for species all the more appealing.

Not so for a tufted duck normally seen in Asia. New Brighton Park was the place to see it but repeated visits did not end in success. I saw a birder in New Brighton and asked after the duck. He said it had been there the previous day and was willing to show me his photos. I thanked him but told him I needed to see it, not a photo. We laughed and I left never seeing the duck.

As the weather armed, I spent increasing amounts of time on my bike riding around the city. Vancouver has nearly 300 parks, not all of which are great for birds, but each has the opportunity to attract species. By adding a few shrubs, trees and water, a sterile park can become a magnet for birds. Trout Lake in John Hendry Park on the east side of the Vancouver is about 80 hectares in area and surrounded by trees and shrubs on the north and south shore. The rest of the park is open grass with mature trees. The park is very popular for dog walkers but birds can find quiet places to rest and find food.

McCleery Golf Course along the Fraser River and among hobby farms is known among birders as a place to look for birds. I went in search of birds on a cool day in late winter hoping to see early arriving swallows along the Fraser River. From the parking lot of the golf course I thought I could see a tree swallow so I went in search of the greens keeper to see if I could gain entry. He told me I was in luck. The cold weather had closed the course and I could wander freely along the paths. I saw the swallow and thought I heard distant flocks of snow geese. Their calls were very faint but distinct. A few minutes later a phalanx flew overhead.

Birding is not always about watching birds. Sometimes you meet some interesting people. I had bumped into a young couple who had just started birding and had been afflicted by ornithophilia – the love of birds. They were keen to talk birds and I told them about 2018 being the year that Vancouver would host the International Ornithological Congress and Vancouver International Bird Festival. They were intrigued by Bird Week that was less than a month away.

Not much later I dropped by Trout Lake in hopes of finding some early migrants where I saw a man picking up garbage. I was commending him on his civic service when I noticed he had a pair of binoculars around his neck. Before long Pete and I were talking about birds and my quest to tally 150 species. He told me that a mountain bluebird had been seen at Mountainview cemetery. By the time we arrived, a cold northern wind was blowing across the headstones. We made our way south, searching in vain until about the time we were going to give up, I saw a male bluebird in bright plumage huddling out of the wind on the top of a gravestone. It all seemed a little macabre to find such a brightly coloured creature among the dead.

There comes a time in everyone’s life when you think you might have made a big mistake. I had coaxed several friends to join me in the 150 challenge. Simon Fraser University Department of Environment asked me to give the Dean’s 150 lecture on the subject as well as how Vancouver adopted birds into their plans. Newspaper articles had mentioned my quest as part of Bird Week. My Twitter account cheered me on. I had assumed that spring migration would fill up my list quite quickly. Half a dozen shorebird species should be easy to find. Or so I thought. I discovered that there was not a lot of mudflat habitat used by shorebirds in the city. So scarce was the mud that the very abundant western sandpiper would not be one of my 150. I had imagined scouring the beaches on June 30 for an early returning western sandpiper. “What have I gotten myself into”, I wondered. I had to make do with long-billed dowitchers on the edge of pond in Vanier Park, of all places.

Queen Elizabeth Park overlooks Vancouver where the high treed ground draws many birds and birders. Some species are elusive and required patience. I stood silently for nearly 15 minutes awaiting a Lincoln’s sparrow to show itself in a patch of brambles. Ed stopped by to say hello and alert me to a Nashville warbler in the cherry trees. An Anna’s hummingbird surprised me when it alighted on its nest in a birch in January. A few weeks later, the Anna’s hummingbird would be elected as the official city bird of Vancouver.

My tally reached 128 species by May 1 but pied-billed grebe was not one of them. Grebes like shallow marshy lakes but Trout Lake had not turned up a grebe so I rode my bike to Beaver Lake in Stanley Park. I found a grebe there and was feeling quite happy about it when I saw a young man walking toward me with a rubber chicken. For a moment, I thought that this sighting might end up having to do for 150 if I ran out of time so I stopped him to ask why he was walking with a rubber chicken. It turned out that Hamish the chicken was being taken on tour (of course) of sights across Canada during the 150th year. A proud and unique Canadian after my own heart, I thought to myself. The young man’s father smiled and we all had a good laugh. Turned out that they were from Ontario and keen canoeists. I had canoed Algonquin Park in 2016 and our conversation soon was about where and when to go canoeing in Ontario. I asked to photograph Hamish, which was obliged and we parted company. I had my back up bird ready to reveal.

Spring arrived late and by early May I was wondering what had happened to the birds. The forests were quiet. The dreaded Silent Spring was upon us, I imagined. Not much later, a fallout of migrant warblers descended on Vancouver and my fears dissipated. The bright yellow bodied, and black capped Wilson’s warblers where everywhere. They flitted among shrubs, among tree branches and even among isolated trees in parking lots. After a while, I ached to see something new despite the Wilson’s warbler being a perennial favourite.

Vancouver is located on the Pacific Ocean and the city limits reach out into Burrard Inlet. The Pacific WildLife Foundation where I serve as President, had been conducting surveys of birds in the inlet and nearby Fraser River delta using a boat for several months. The surveys were my opportunity to tally some seabirds such as marbled murrelet, Bonaparte’s gull and Brandt’s cormorant. On a return survey, we came within a few meters of the most unusual bird on my 150 list. A pomarine jaeger lifted off the water showing us its distinctive tail. This species is a rarity in Vancouver and was not a species I ever thought I would see. It might also have been my first sighting ever!

By mid-May I had reached 140 species and by months end I was at 147. I felt relieved that the chances were good I would reach 150 species before July 1. I rode my bike into town, circled Stanley Park, pedalled to Jericho Beach, tracked along the edge of the Endowment Lands all in search of a band-tailed pigeon. I headed off along Southwest Marine Drive and coasted down the hill into Southlands to peer over the Fraser River. Surely a purple martin or cliff swallow would come into sight. Maybe a Brewers blackbird would be hanging out with the horses. No such luck. Off along the North Trail I went watching overhead for swifts. At Fraserview Golf Course I scanned treetops for band-tailed pigeons. A scary hair-in-the-wind ride down Kerr Street hill brought me to Riverfront Park. No cliff swallow flew along the river. I was skunked. The cliff swallow would evade me and never make the list. There would be several days just like that.

On June 4, I cycled to Jericho Beach Park. There had been reports of Vaux’s swifts around the University of British Columbia. I thought they might wander down toward Jericho Beach. The distance was only a few kilometers by bike and nothing for an aerial master like the swift.

I scanned the seashore wishfully thinking there might be a shorebird on the beach before turning my attention to the ponds. I gazed at the birds in the trees and the ponds. On a whim, I lifted my binoculars to stare high overhead where out of sight to the naked eye were half a dozen Vaux’s swifts and number 148 on my list. I noticed a birder nearby searching for birds. His binoculars were a dead give-away but the slow walk-stop-listen movement had all the field marks I needed to know his past-time. I asked him if he had seen the swifts. He had not and before long we were chatting about birds. Turned out his father, now in his nineties, was an ornithologist I knew from my younger years.

I was beginning to feel impatient about finding the last species. Many hours of searching were required to add one species- if I was lucky. On a warm sunny morning, I set out on the bike for Southlands where I stepped on the foreshore near Deering Island. Across the water was Iona Island renowned for its birds. Purple martins nested there and I thought if I waited long enough one would show up. Fifteen minutes passed when I finally saw a large swallow shape swoop along the river. It was June 9 and finally purple martin was bird 149. One more bird was all I needed. Hopefully it would not have to be Hamish the rubber chicken. With over three weeks to go, I could surely find my last species.

On June 10, Sharon and I set off by car for Stanley Park. I was set on finding a band-tailed pigeon along the western shore where about a decade earlier a high wind had brought down the rainforest hemlocks opening the forest to new deciduous growth favoured by this west coast endemic bird. The band-tailed pigeon is a western forest species that avoids cities and is noticeably shy around people. Its closest living relative is the extinct passenger pigeon.

We set off through the conifer forest where a party of crows were shouting insults at a pair of ravens. Across the main road in the park ran a trail that entered the regenerating forest and where I suspected band tails could be found. We were serenaded by Swainsons thrushes, Wilsons warblers, song sparrows, spotted towhees, American robins and pacific slope flycatchers. I said to Sharon that the location looked perfect for pigeons and even if none showed up, we could enjoy the morning song of birds.

We checked the time. I thought that we should soon turn back but we pressed on down the trail where Sharon caught movement from the corner of her eye. “Look, there” she said, pointing into the foliage. I raised my binoculars to see two band-tailed pigeons about four meters away. My heart skipped a beat. They looked sleek in their breeding plumage, pale banded tail, and yellow bills. After 162 days, I had finally seen the 150th species on my 150 list. We let the pigeons move to a nearby tree before shouting out our good fortune.  I had spent over 100 hours in 30 days searching for birds. It was time to celebrate.

My adventure showed me that Vancouver city has a lot of species and that even in the downtown area, scattered trees will attract species. I watched a family of bushtits feeding in cherry trees at the Burrard Skytrain Station while scores of commuters came and went, and a party of migrating warblers in a parking lot near the Museum of Vancouver seemed unconcerned about cars moving around the lot. Small patches of forest with small ponds such as in Charleson Park on False Creek drew migrating warblers by the dozens in late April. City dwellers are not always aware of birds around them but when they do notice, birding can become their gateway to nature. I travelled hundreds of kilometers by bike, public transit, boat and by car. I met wonderful people and saw new places in a city I know well. But most of all, I learned that birds are everywhere and they can bring pleasure to our lives in ways we are only beginning to understand. And that is something all Canadians can celebrate.

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Salish Sea Diet

A few years ago Penelakut elder Florence James kindly arranged to have an original Cowichan sweater knitted for me. I cherish that sweater because it is an original First Nations garment unique to the Salish Sea but sadly, the art of sweater knitting on Penelakut is disappearing and with it, a cultural connection to the Salish Sea. The loss of sweater making is part of a wider concern of the loss of nature in our lives.

The disconnect with nature has not gone unnoticed and some people have decided to do something about it. Two years ago, Mayne and Galiano Islands launched an annual Active Pass Festival to showcase the natural world that surrounds them. I was honoured to be the keynote speaker at the first festival on both islands where I presented the concept of Nature Culture. Daniel Kirkpatrick and Andrew Simon from Galiano wanted to develop the concept and so together we planned an evening event of food and discussion at a community level. Daniel and Andrew invited Florence and me to speak.

Florence spoke about her early life on Galiano Island, food, stories and the uses of the sea and land to First Nations culture. I addressed the importance of reconnecting to nature using food and architecture as examples of establishing a sustainable culture rooted in nature.

The importance of food in culture is well known. One popular example is the Mediterranean Diet that recently received World Heritage Designation. The Designation identified the sustainability of food products, livelihoods and the land, which incidentally is also an element of Nature Culture. The central ingredients of a Mediterranean Diet are olive oil, legumes, fruits, vegetables and whole grain cereals, along with small portions of dairy products, wine and meats. During my presentation, I challenged the crowd to help me define a Salish Sea Diet.

First up was food from the sea itself.  Seafood, especially salmon, was an obvious key ingredient. The Pacific Coast of Canada has several species of salmon and they are an important element of First Nations culture. Shellfish was also discussed since their is a history of clams in the diet of First Nations people that is millennia-old and there is a modern shellfish industry along the coast. The revival of clam gardening by First Nations in collaboration with others offers a chance to support rejuvenation of an ancient harvesting method. Among vegetables, root crops such as potatoes, parsnips and carrots, and leafy vegetables grown in the soils surrounding the Salish Sea, could be included in the Salish Sea Diet. Berries such as cranberries, blueberries, and salal berries might be added as fresh ingredients, as preserves, and in wine and juices. Seaweed might be used to infuse the food or as a garnish. Other foods and cooking methods could enhance and innovate this basic diet as long as they promoted the Nature Culture principles of sustainable of foods, livelihoods and the land and sea origins.

An important aspect in establishing a Salish Sea Diet is to popularize it.  A cook book would be a start where names such as Comox Clam Chowder or Salish Sea Salmon could be described. A celebrity chef might like to take the lead to explore the new cuisine and cooking methods. A feast of the new cuisine could become a summer event to showcase the sustainable products of the Salish Sea. I have a sense that this might just be the start of a something new and vibrant.

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150 Madness

Birders can carry out some pretty outlandish quests when they put their minds to it. In 2015, Noah Stryker set off on a Big Year to see how many birds he could see before year’s end.  Forty-one countries later he had seen 6,042 of the slightly more than 10,000 species in the world. Years earlier and as a graduate student, my thesis advisor the late Jamie Smith told me how the list of birds heard while on the loo in his field camp on tiny Mandarte Island in British Columbia began to level off. The solution? Cut a window in the side of the outhouse thereby boosting the bird count.

There might seem no justifiable reason to spend my time trying to see 150 species of birds in Vancouver by Canada’s 150th birthday on July 1. And I would have agreed at the outset when on a frozen, ice filled bleak January 1, 2017 I started my quest. Except I had a secret mission.

A few years ago, Vancouver City Council approved a bird strategy developed by the Vancouver Bird Advisory Committee that I chair. Among the aims of the strategy was the enhancement of the city’s native birds. The 150 challenge was an opportunity to see how many birds could be seen within the city limits – with some effort, I might add – and where we could make improvements. Not too surprising was that some species were present in very low numbers. I had to search a long time for a pied-billed grebe – finally located in Beaver Lake and later on Trout Lake. The two pairs might be the only nesting grebes in the city where lakes are few. Similarly, despite large numbers of species of shorebirds on the neighbouring Fraser River delta, the mudflats they prefer are just thin slivers along the Fraser River within the city limits. The city has many trees and there are large tracts of wild forest in Stanley Park and a few other parks. The need for understory is an important feature for birds. Few birds use isolated trees but add several trees, some understory shrubs and a pond, and the bird numbers soar.

Careful planting and siting of green space provides more opportunities for us to share some time with our birds. However, the city can only do so much. Vancouver is fortunate to be located near the Fraser River delta, the ocean, and forested. Birds freely move in and out of the city and we need to not lose sight of the fact that a bird strategy needs to become region wide to ensure continuity.

My tally by mid-April was 108 species. While writing this blog, I got a comment that someone in the Okanagan was at 139 species. The 150 challenge is within their reach. For me, another 50 species is possible, but 35-40 is most likely. I am restricting my count to within the city limits of Vancouver. Spring migration is just gaining steam when the numbers of species should grow. I am daily watching the Rare Bird Alert and eBird for unusual sightings. So far, the tufted duck alluded me (duck 4:me 0). So did the snow bunting and Say’s phoebe but I saw a California scrub jay on the third attempt.

From May 6 to 13 we will be running Bird Week with over 40 events for all levels of birding skills. The bigger event is coming in 2018 when Vancouver hosts the International Ornithological Congress and we launch the first Vancouver International Bird Festival. You can visit the web sites and I will be writing more about these events in subsequent posts, but mark your calendars and plan to visit Vancouver. Hopefully, I will have seen my 150 species by then.


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150 for 150

Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary on July 1, 2017. I enjoy watching birds so I thought I would have some fun by combining my interest in birds with Canada’s celebration.

I am attempting to identify 150 species of birds by July 1 within the city limits of Vancouver – hence the ‘150 for 150’. As of February 24 my tally was 80 species. There are a few wintering species I hope to add to the list before they depart in spring at which time the fun will begin as waves of migrant species pass through the city.

I have restricted my list to the city limits because I could see over 150 species in a few days in the surrounding area of Vancouver. After all, the Fraser River delta just south of the city is one of the country’s best birding locations.

Several friends have jumped in to see if they can tally 150 by 150 in their cities. I also read that Red Deer naturalists are trying to see 150 species in the year. There are no rules except to have fun and get to know our birds.

You can follow the fun on twitter @drrobbutler too.

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Over a Century Old Nature Celebration


If my recollection is correct, fifty years ago I participated in my first ever Christmas Bird Count in Vancouver. After a hiatus, I will join the fun again this year. My interest is partly nostalgic and partly joining a century old tradition of celebrating nature.

Birds were the gateway to nature for me as a teenage boy and the Christmas Bird Count was the start a career as an ornithologist. Watching birds also got me thinking about the plight of nature from which the concept of Nature Culture emerged.

My memories of the first count are of counting birds in Stanley Park in a cold easterly wind. We walked the seawall tallying flocks of scoters, goldeneye and gulls before searching for forest birds around Beaver Lake and tallying flocks of gulls going to roost in English Bay at day’s end.

This year, I will take on an area of ocean and upland that will require a boat and car. If the weather is fine, I will abandon the car for a bicycle. I will be posting my fun and frailties during the count on twitter @drrobbutler.

The Christmas Bird Count, now over a century old has stood the test of time and become part of North American culture. The count surpassed 70,000 people a few years ago which is no surprise given the growth in bird related activities in North America. Valued in the billions of dollars, birding is now an important and growing market and an economic reason to preserve nature.

To participate in the Vancouver count, contact Nature Vancouver.

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