Searching for Life

by Carl Strang

This spring I have been pressing a search for coral-winged grasshoppers, and it has been disappointing. This singing insect historically was found in a few locations in my 22-county survey area, almost always in May, but none of those locations proved to have the species. Other places that match the habitat descriptions in the literature likewise have been lacking in coral-wings.

Though depression as a response to this experience has been tempting, an antidote has been thoughts about SETI. Many people, years of time, and much expensive technology have been devoted to the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Furthermore, despite much thought and searching, life of any sort beyond the Earth thus far has been elusive. Balanced against all that, my frustrated search for a species that globally is in no danger seems a trivial matter.

In compensation, I have been getting into some beautiful areas and seeing wondrous sights.

For example, I found hairy puccoons and common blue-eyed grass at Illinois Beach State Park on May 13.

Wood betony also was in peak bloom on the 13th.

From above, wood betony has a delightful pinwheel shape.

Near the edge of the savanna at Illinois Beach State Park, this dung beetle busily rolled a deer fecal pellet.

An Indiana site added Indian paintbrush to the wildflower mix.

 

The Miller Woods Trail of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was flanked by banks of wild lupines on May 16.

Scattered hairy puccoons provided delightful contrast with the lupines.

With such wonderful life all around, it’s hard to be too disappointed by the failure to find a single species.

 

Singing Insects Wrap-Up

by Carl Strang

October’s cold gradually is silencing another year’s array of singing insects. In recent weeks I have made some final trips to squeeze just a little more data out of the season.

In early September I succeeded in catching an Autumn yellow-winged grasshopper with actual yellow wings (most of them in the region have had red-orange hind wings).

In early September I succeeded in catching an Autumn yellow-winged grasshopper with actual yellow wings (most of them in the region have had red-orange hind wings).

On October 5 I made a final trip up to Illinois Beach State Park, and found some stripe-faced meadow katydids still singing.

On October 5 I made a final trip up to Illinois Beach State Park, and found some stripe-faced meadow katydids still singing.

By then, of course, they had developed their full color.

By then, of course, they had developed their full color.

I was able to complete a photo series on the species with some cerci shots.

I was able to complete a photo series on the species with some cerci shots.

On October 11 I returned to Gar Creek Forest Preserve in Kankakee County and made more recordings. I did not find any more Cuban ground crickets crossing the trail, but was surprised by several variegated ground crickets doing so.

I had never before seen a variegated ground cricket, like this male, wandering in the open.

I had never before seen a variegated ground cricket, like this male, wandering in the open.

This female has an interesting pattern of pale dashes on her wings.

This female has an interesting pattern of pale dashes on her wings.

It’s reasonable to assume that they walk about at night for most of the season, but like many singing insects extend their usual nighttime activity into the day as temperatures cool. I was glad to get the visual confirmation that this species is at the site along with the (probable) Cubans.

Probably my last singing insect photo series for 2016 was of this spotted ground cricket at St. James Farm on October 18.

Probably my last singing insect photo series for 2016 was of this spotted ground cricket at St. James Farm on October 18.

 

Making a Case 2: Prairie Meadow Katydid

by Carl Strang

After more than ten years of study, I still have not found several species of singing insects that historically were known in the Chicago region. One of these was the prairie meadow katydid, one of the smaller members of its group. On August 16, Wendy Partridge and I were checking out the bike trail near the nature center at Illinois Beach State Park. Through the SongFinder, which allows me to hear high pitches, I heard faint rapid ticking sounds which, when heard from a closer position, resolved into brief buzzes. They were mechanical and katydid-like rather than cricket-like in quality, and didn’t match anything I had heard before. Wendy, with her unusually good hearing, barely could pick them up. Later, checking reference recordings, I decided they fit the song of the prairie meadow katydid. They were not in the habitat I would expect, however, being in dense vegetation where grasses were mixed with woody plants and forbs, generally shaded. That katydid species has been known to occur in that park, however.

Then on September 27 I caught and photographed a small female meadow katydid in a relatively dry portion of the Gensburg Prairie in Cook County.

Posterior portion of the Gensburg Prairie female.

Posterior portion of the Gensburg Prairie female.

Her color didn’t seem quite right for a short-winged meadow katydid, which is a common species at that site especially in the wetter portions. Studying the photos, and looking back at references, I have decided that she was a prairie meadow katydid. Along the way I looked back at all my photos of short-winged meadow katydids, and found two other individuals that met at least some of the criteria for prairie meadow katydid, one in 2011 at Mayslake Forest Preserve, and one in 2014 in the savanna woodland at Illinois Beach State Park.

The Mayslake female

The Mayslake female

The Illinois Beach State Park female

The Illinois Beach State Park female

All three have curved ovipositors that are slenderer in proportion than in a typical short-winged meadow katydid.

Typical female short-winged meadow katydid

Typical female short-winged meadow katydid

All three also have femoral patterns in which there is a lengthwise pair of lines, as in the short-winged, but have ladders of narrow crossbars rather than being clear between them as in typical short-winged. There is enough overlap in body length, according to references, that it is not a consideration in comparing those two species. The ovipositors are too short, and the femur patterns wrong, for straight-lanced meadow katydid to be a consideration. The Mayslake female is different from the other two individuals in three possibly significant ways: the femoral ground color is green rather than brown or tan, the wings are much longer, and the front of the head does not appear to rise so much (this last being a difference mentioned by W.S. Blatchley in his classic Orthoptera of Northeastern North America, which gives unusually detailed descriptions of species).

Anterior portion of the Gensburg Prairie female. Note the abrupt rise of the tip of the head when viewed from the side.

Anterior portion of the Gensburg Prairie female. Note the abrupt rise of the tip of the head when viewed from the side.

Dorsal view of the Gensburg Prairie female. Blatchley describes the wings of prairie females as covering only one-fourth of the abdomen, two-thirds in short-winged females. Furthermore, the tip of the head, when viewed from above, is relatively wide after an inward bending of its sides, expected from Blatchley’s description.

Dorsal view of the Gensburg Prairie female. Blatchley describes the wings of prairie females as covering only one-fourth of the abdomen, two-thirds in short-winged females. Furthermore, the tip of the head, when viewed from above, is relatively wide after an inward bending of its sides, expected from Blatchley’s description.

Compare this common meadow katydid, with its relatively narrow and straight-sided tip of the head, to the previous.

Compare this short-winged meadow katydid, with its relatively narrow and straight-sided tip of the head, to the previous.

 

Side view of the same male as in the previous photo. Again, note the lack of a rise in the top of the head profile.

Side view of the same male as in the previous photo. Again, note the lack of a rise in the top of the head profile.

Blatchley also believed that prairie meadow katydids occur only in “raw prairie,” a description which applies to Gensburg and Illinois Beach but not to Mayslake. I am inclined to regard the Mayslake individual as an anomalous short-winged meadow katydid, but pending study of museum specimens, am naming the other two prairie meadow katydids.

Beyond the Dead River

by Carl Strang

The Dead River, in Illinois Beach State Park, is so named because most of the time it appears not to be flowing. It ends just shy of the edge of Lake Michigan, a sand bar between the two. Reportedly there are times when enough water comes into it that it breaks through this narrow barrier. The area south of that river is highly protected, and to enter it I needed a permit from the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

The Dead River and its extensions are free of invasive wetlands plants, though there are some unconnected wetlands in the area for which that is not the case.

The Dead River and its extensions are free of invasive wetlands plants, though there are some unconnected wetlands in the area for which that is not the case.

Sand savanna and prairie occupy the areas between the wetlands.

Sand savanna and prairie occupy the spaces between the wetlands.

My main goal was to survey the area for wetland singing insects. This was one of my last hopes for finding slender coneheads, but sadly there were none. I am beginning to think they have gone extinct in Illinois. On a much brighter note, I found that the area harbors a huge population of stripe-faced meadow katydids.

This male had developed his full facial color, but an intervening grass blade marred the portrait.

This male had developed his full facial color, but an intervening grass blade marred the portrait.

Profile view of a female.

Profile view of a female.

Illinois Beach remains the only place where I have found this wetland katydid, which even historically was never widely distributed.

I also heard a little chorus of nimble meadow katydids, out in the middle of a river offshoot in a patch of deeper-water arrowheads. There probably are other such groups elsewhere in the area. I plan to get a better idea of their numbers next year. This is the second place I have found them in the region, and the first for Illinois. I spent several days in my kayak this season searching for nimble meadow katydids in places in Illinois and Indiana where they were known in earlier decades.

Apparently the American lotus, shown here, and the yellow pond lily, which filled most of those sites, are too coarse for nimble meadow katydids.

Apparently the American lotus, shown here, and the yellow pond lily, which filled most of those sites, are too coarse for nimble meadow katydids.

I have found them among pickerel weeds and arrowheads, and historically they were known in patches of water knotweeds.

Water knotweed, like those others, is of intermediate coarseness.

Water knotweed, like those others, is of intermediate coarseness.

I suspect that the turbulence created by power boats favors the heavier plants that the insect apparently abhors. I wonder if Illinois Beach State Park also may harbor the last Illinois population of nimble meadow katydids. I have a few more places to check next year.

 

Small Wonders at Illinois Beach

by Carl Strang

Two targets for my friends from Ohio and West Virginia were stripe-faced meadow katydids and gray ground crickets, both of which can be found at Illinois Beach State Park. The stripe-faceds proved to be in their early-stage colors.

Even this nymph has the facial stripe, but it is brown and relatively fuzzy-edged compared to what it ultimately will become. New adults have the same brown colors, even though they are mature enough to sing and to mate.

Even this nymph has the facial stripe, but it is brown and relatively fuzzy-edged compared to what it ultimately will become. New adults have the same brown colors, even though they are mature enough to sing and to mate.

The nymphs and new adults were all in shades of tan and brown. We saw one or two adults which were beginning to develop their green body colors, and the more distinct facial features.

The nymphs and new adults were all in shades of tan and brown. We saw one or two adults which were beginning to develop their green body colors, and the more distinct facial features.

Gray ground crickets have been a challenge, and prior to this year I had gotten only a couple brief glimpses of them. This time I caught one, allowing us to take photos before releasing our subject back into the dunes.

The cricket was a female, probably made vulnerable by her moving about seeking a singing male.

The cricket was a female, probably made vulnerable by her moving about seeking a singing male.

Gray ground crickets are well named. I especially like the head stripes and the little dark rectangular markings on the wings.

Gray ground crickets are well named. I especially like the head stripes and the little dark rectangular markings on the wings.

We found other critters of interest along the way, of course.

Kiowa rangeland grasshoppers occupy the same ecological zone as the gray ground cricket.

Kiowa rangeland grasshoppers occupy the same ecological zone as the gray ground cricket.

Scattered cottonwood trees among the dunes were hosts for this striking beetle, a cottonwood borer.

Scattered cottonwood trees among the dunes were hosts for this striking beetle, a cottonwood borer.

The loudest nighttime insect singer was the robust conehead. We saw both brown and green males.

The loudest nighttime insect singer was the robust conehead. We saw both brown and green males.

 

Recent Travels: Singing Insects

by Carl Strang

Though my main research focus is singing insects, I don’t end up photographing them much, as I am listening for them rather than looking for them. Sulfur-winged grasshoppers continued to be an early-season focus.

Though I added several more county records for the species, there was not additional range in their color variation. This female was at Cook County’s Bluff Spring Fen.

Though I added several more county records for the species, there was not additional range in their color variation. This female was at Cook County’s Bluff Spring Fen.

Here is a typical dark male, Illinois Beach State Park.

Here is a typical dark male, Illinois Beach State Park.

Not much different, this male was around the corner of Lake Michigan at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Not much different, this male was around the corner of Lake Michigan at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Only 8 species of singing insects could be found at Goose Pond. There will be many more there later in the season.

Green-striped grasshoppers still were displaying, but their days are numbered.

Green-striped grasshoppers still were displaying, but their days are numbered.

Spring field crickets seldom come into view. This female was a challenge to photograph as she crawled among the grasses.

Spring field crickets seldom come into view. This female was a challenge to photograph as she crawled among the grasses.

This katydid nymph climbed up onto the sheet illuminated by the UV light. I am reluctant to say which conehead species she might be.

This katydid nymph climbed up onto the sheet illuminated by the UV light. I am reluctant to say which conehead species she might be.

The season seems barely begun, but already I am closing the book on two species.

The Vermont Cemetery Prairie Preserve in Will County reportedly is one of the few places in the Chicago region which still harbors prairie cicadas. They were done, however, by the time I got there on June 26.

The Vermont Cemetery Prairie Preserve in Will County reportedly is one of the few places in the Chicago region which still harbors prairie cicadas. They were done, however, by the time I got there on June 26.

I have just 3 sites to check next year as good candidates for persisting prairie cicada populations. Protean shieldbacks also apparently are done. I added only 3 county records for them in their brief 2016 season. This was a wakeup call, and I will need to get on my horse right away when they start next year.

 

Recent Travels: Places

by Carl Strang

I have fallen behind on blog posts. The season is heating up, and I have kept busy doing various surveys in various places. Today’s start on catching up will focus on some scenes and miscellaneous photos taken along the way.

The Marquette Trail at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore passes beautiful marsh and sand savanna habitats.

The Marquette Trail at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore passes beautiful marsh and sand savanna habitats.

I found northern wood crickets singing along the trail. They bury themselves in leaf litter like this.

I found northern wood crickets singing along the trail. They bury themselves in leaf litter like this.

Another example of a wood cricket song site. I tried to get a look at one, but they choose deeply stacked litter areas with plenty of hidey holes and escape routes.

Another example of a wood cricket song site. I tried to get a look at one, but they choose deeply stacked litter areas with plenty of hidey holes and escape routes.

Painted turtles wandered the savanna seeking good places to lay their eggs.

Painted turtles wandered the savanna seeking good places to lay their eggs.

Another good sand area is Illinois Beach State Park. Here a trail goes through the zone behind the fore dunes.

Another good sand area is Illinois Beach State Park. Here a trail goes through the zone behind the fore dunes.

Farther back from the edge of Lake Michigan, black oak savanna lines the trail.

Farther back from the edge of Lake Michigan, black oak savanna lines the trail.

Though my main interest was singing insects, there were many four-spotted skimmers to enjoy at IBSP.

Though my main interest was singing insects, there were many four-spotted skimmers to enjoy at IBSP.

I also have spent some time in Kendall County. This plains clubtail was at Hoover Forest Preserve.

I also have spent some time in Kendall County. This plains clubtail was at Hoover Forest Preserve.

This year’s Indiana Academy of Sciences bioblitz was at Goose Pond in southern Indiana. I stopped on the way down for a walk at Turkey Run State Park. Ravines there provide many scenes like this.

This year’s Indiana Academy of Sciences bioblitz was at Goose Pond in southern Indiana. I stopped on the way down for a walk at Turkey Run State Park. Ravines there provide many scenes like this.

I didn’t end up taking any scenery shots at Goose Pond. As I was setting up the UV light, I found this mama spider crossing the road, her back covered with babies. All their eyes glittered like jewels in the headlamp.

I didn’t end up taking any scenery shots at Goose Pond. As I was setting up the UV light, I found this mama spider crossing the road, her back covered with babies. All their eyes glittered like jewels in the headlamp.

Sound Ideas: Variegated and Cuban Ground Crickets

by Carl Strang

One of the highlights of the field season just past was finding variegated ground crickets, a long sought species, right under my nose, as described earlier.

Variegated ground cricket

Variegated ground cricket

Here is a recording I made in 2011 in the lawn at Mayslake Forest Preserve. I have trimmed out all but the critical end portion, which includes the abrupt end of one trill and the crescendo beginning of another:

I had made the incorrect assumption that these crickets, living in cracks and holes in the lawn, were Say’s trigs. Here is a recording of one of the trigs from nearby Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve. The ending likewise is abrupt, but the next trill has a “chuwee” beginning.

In both cases the trills are extended, longer in the trig as a rule. A third species worth comparing here is the Cuban ground cricket. I have not encountered this species in the Chicago region, yet, but I need to be alert for it. Previously known only as a southern species, Lisa Rainsong has found it to be common in the Cleveland area. Ecologically it seems to resemble the variegated ground cricket in liking wet areas near lakes, rivers, and marshes, but is active on the surface rather than remaining out of sight in gravel or in soil crevices. Here is a partial recording of a Cuban ground cricket living in a terrarium in Lisa’s home:

The repeated brief scratches or chirps are from a striped ground cricket in another terrarium. The Cuban ground cricket, a member of the same genus as the variegated, likewise has a crescendo beginning, an extended high-pitched trill, and an abrupt ending. The pitch is just a little lower than that of the variegated, but otherwise they are much the same.

A final note on this topic is that my analysis allowed me to identify a recording from Illinois Beach State Park as belonging to a variegated ground cricket.

The singer was located beneath this vegetation, a few steps from the Dead River. I could not find it, and now realize that it must have been beneath the surface.

The singer was located beneath this vegetation, a few steps from the Dead River. I could not find it, and now realize that it must have been beneath the surface.

Here is an excerpt from the recording (you may need to turn up the volume):

All of this has me primed to document variegated ground crickets elsewhere in the coming season, and to be alert for Cuban ground crickets.

 

Return to Illinois Beach

by Carl Strang

Recent success in finding new species of sand-dwelling grasshoppers brought me back to Illinois Beach State Park in hope of continuing the run. On the beach I confirmed the presence of seaside grasshoppers, but was startled at the color contrast between them and the members of their species at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Here is one of the Illinois Beach State Park hoppers.

Here is one of the Illinois Beach State Park hoppers.

And here is one from Indiana Dunes. Same species, different substrate, a nice study in natural selection.

And here is one from Indiana Dunes. Same species, different substrate, a nice study in natural selection.

Behind the foredune is a flat in which I found three species of singing grasshoppers, all in the band-winged grasshopper subfamily. The pattern continued of a larger species, a smaller one, with a couple Carolina grasshoppers thrown in for good measure.

The larger grasshopper was the by now familiar mottled sand grasshopper. These, like the seaside grasshoppers, were browner than their conspecifics in Indiana.

The larger grasshopper was the by now familiar mottled sand grasshopper. These, like the seaside grasshoppers, were browner than their conspecifics in Indiana.

The small band-winged grasshopper at first made me think of the longhorn band-winged grasshopper.

The head protrudes above the pronotum, the size is the same, and the antennae look long.

The head protrudes above the pronotum, the size is the same, and the antennae look long.

However, in place of the bright red patch at the base of the hind wing, here it is transparent. The hind tibia pattern also is different. Both areas are hidden in the resting insect, and so not subject to selection pressure by predators.

This was a new species for me, the Kiowa rangeland grasshopper.

This was a new species for me, the Kiowa rangeland grasshopper.

A little farther back from the shore, where the first trees appear, other insects may be found.

This is Dawson’s grasshopper, not a singing species (as you might guess from the dinky wings).

This is Dawson’s grasshopper, not a singing species (as you might guess from the dinky wings).

So far the meadow tree crickets I have found at Illinois Beach all have been four-spotteds. This one, too, as evidenced by the shapes of spots on the basal antenna segments.

So far the meadow tree crickets I have found at Illinois Beach all have been four-spotteds. This one, too, as evidenced by the shapes of spots on the basal antenna segments.

Finally, in the savanna zone, the dominant singing grasshopper is Boll’s grasshopper.

Boll’s is in the same genus, Spharagemon, as the mottled sand grasshopper.

Boll’s is in the same genus, Spharagemon, as the mottled sand grasshopper.

Like the mottled sand grasshopper, Boll’s grasshopper has bright yellow in the hind wings.

Like the mottled sand grasshopper, Boll’s grasshopper has bright yellow in the hind wings.

 

The easiest way to tell the two apart is to look at the angle of the back top edge of the pronotum (thorax shield). In Boll’s, here, the angle is more than 90 degrees. In the collared sand grasshopper it is acute.

The easiest way to tell the two apart is to look at the angle of the back top edge of the pronotum (thorax shield). In Boll’s, here, the angle is more than 90 degrees. In the mottled sand grasshopper it is acute.

A final treat from that portion of my exploration was a big, beautiful female bird grasshopper laying eggs in the sand of the trail.

The non-singing grasshoppers of genus Schistocerca can be difficult to tell apart. I decided this one was S. alutacea, the leather-colored bird grasshopper.

The non-singing grasshoppers of genus Schistocerca can be difficult to tell apart. I decided this one was S. alutacea, the leather-colored bird grasshopper.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Dossier

by Carl Strang

Our two species of kinglets are early season migrants. Today’s featured species usually shows up a little later than the golden-crowned kinglet.

Kinglet, Ruby-crowned

Ruby-crowned kinglet

Ruby-crowned kinglet

I have seen this little northern-breeding bird in migrations, in northern IL and IN. Usually they travel in flocks. In 1986 they moved north later than golden-crowned kinglets, in mid-late April, mainly, in DuPage County.

26OC86. Single seen in brush at Willowbrook.

18AP87. First of year seen at Dunes State Park, IN. Has louder, harsher voice than golden-crowned. More chatter. Resembles goldfinch with a burr.

24AP87. Pratts Wayne Woods (Prairie Path). Moving from bush to bush. No vocalizations. Also, little or no probing; foraging by sight only.

21AP89. First migrants of year seen in the little park across from the Newberry Library, Chicago.

22AP89. Both kinglets at Willowbrook, using a mix of hover-gleaning and even more pursuit. Also, this is the kinglet with the song, high and thin, that has one section of accelerating notes flowing into a “chee-chee-per-chi-bee” section.

24AP89. Still at Willowbrook.

25AP89. Lots of them at Willowbrook today. First warm early morning of the year.

26AP89. A few present at Willowbrook.

3MY89. Still a few.

21OC89. Present in West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve.

17AP90. Observed at Willowbrook.

22AP90. Winfield Mounds. Has song “tsee-tsee-…(accelerating)…tsee-tsurd-tserber-tsee-tsurd-tserber-tsee.”

15OC90. Ruby-crowned kinglets at Willowbrook.

23SE91. IL Beach State Park. Kinglet in black oak, reaching, lunging, and very short-flight hover gleaning. 3-12″ per move, less than 0.5 second per perch.

12AP99. Willowbrook. Golden-crowned kinglets nearly gone (saw only 1), but ruby-crowneds have arrived.

20AP99. Ruby-crowneds are showing their red crests today (first time since they started arriving), defending little feeding areas along the stream at Willowbrook. Flycatching and flush-pursuit foraging.

21AP99. Today they still are foraging with much aerial pursuit, but are moving together in groups. No crests showing.

7MY99. A second major wave of ruby-crowned kinglets, probably females, at Willowbrook. None seen after this date that spring.

1&11OC99. Migrants at Willowbrook.

12AP00. Migrants at Willowbrook, singing occasionally.

16AP00. Willowbrook. Several ruby‑crowned kinglets on the preserve, some singing. Two observed showed much more flycatching than golden‑crowneds showed this spring, and some hover‑gleaning. Longer pauses on each perch while searching for an insect to pursue.

22AP00. Morton Arboretum. Both kinglets still present.

14OC00. The past week at Willowbrook, and today at Fermilab, ruby-crowneds foraging mainly in prairie areas with scattered shrubs, concentrating on the shrubs but occasionally visiting goldenrods as well. This open area foraging contrasts with their usual spring woodland preference. Golden-crowneds this fall have been sticking to the woodlands.

7AP01. A couple ruby-crowns seen among numerous golden-crowns at Greene Valley Forest Preserve. One of them occasionally sang.

20OC01. A kinglet foraging alone in a tall herbaceous patch (mainly goldenrods that have gone to seed) at McKee Marsh. I have seen several others behaving similarly the past couple of weeks. It flies from stalk to stalk, perching just below the seed/flower heads and looking all around, apparently for insects. Occasionally makes a hover-gleaning move, often against a seed head.

13OC02. An individual giving a quick, 2-noted call similar to chattering of house wren or perhaps yellowthroat.

9OC05. West DuPage Woods. Golden-crowned kinglets foraging in crowns of trees while ruby-crowneds are mainly within 4 feet of the ground in herbs and shrubs beneath, only occasionally and briefly venturing into the lower canopies. Ruby-crowneds have a quick, chattering-quality “checkit” call. Hover-gleaning their most common foraging method today.

5-11NO05. During my southern vacation, I found golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets all the way to the Gulf of Mexico

23OC07. Fullersburg. A ruby-crowned flashed red in a brief squabble with another.

9AP13. Mayslake. A ruby-crowned kinglet was perched in place and chattering much like an irritated house wren.

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