The Ultimate In Birding Tours

Europe & Surroundings

IRAN

A quest for some of Asia's least known specialities

Wednesday 28th April – Wednesday 12th May 2021

Leaders: Ali Alieslam and a second Birdquest leader

15 Days Group Size Limit 8

Birdquest’s Iran birding tours explore a country with a very rich avifauna that inhabits some diverse and remarkably scenic landscapes. Our Iran birding tour concentrates on such mega-specialities as the endemic Pleske’s Ground Jay and such highly restricted-range species as Sind Woodpecker, Basra Reed Warbler, Iraq and Afghan Babblers, Caspian Tit, Black-headed Penduline Tit, Mesopotamian Crow and Sistan (or Afghan) Scrub Sparrow. These are backed up by a fabulous supporting cast that includes no fewer than three monotypic bird families, Crab-plover, Grey Hypocolius and Streaked Scrub Warbler, as well as Caspian Snowcock, See-see Partridge, Macqueen’s Bustard, White-cheeked Tern, Pallid Scops Owl, Egyptian Nightjar, Radde’s Accentor, Hume’s, Red-tailed (or Persian), Finsch’s and Variable Wheatears, White-throated Robin, Upcher’s, Sykes’s, Asian Desert, Green and Plain Leaf Warblers, Hume’s Whitethroat, Semi-collared Flycatcher, Eastern Rock Nuthatch, Dead Sea Sparrow, Pale Rockfinch, Asian Crimson-winged and Desert Finches, and Grey-necked Bunting.

Whatever you think of Iran’s government, since the nuclear ‘detente’ this has become the very best time in decades to go birding in this big and little-known country with some very special birds. Unlike some of its neighbours, Iran is a safe country to visit, with surprisingly friendly people, an expert local bird guide and good travel facilities. Iran also has the richest avifauna of any country in western Asia (greater even than Turkey or Israel) and more regional specialities than any of its rivals.

Once most famous for its outstanding archaeological sites, magnificent mosques and fine carpets, the name Iran later became synonymous with Islamic revolution and the politics of oil. Almost completely closed to Western visitors between 1978 and 1990, Iran is now long past its tumultuous revolutionary period, that saw the autocratic government of the Shah replaced by a theocratic government, and has opened up its borders to those more adventurous and culturally-tolerant travellers who wish to explore this large country (almost the size of Italy, Spain, France and the British Isles combined!). The courtesy and friendliness of the Iranians, even officialdom, comes as a surprise to many visitors.

Although often thought of as a land of barren hills and deserts, Iran is in fact a land of great contrasts. Altitudes range from 26m (85ft) below sea-level at the Caspian Sea to 5760m (18,899ft) above sea-level in the Elburz Mountains, temperatures from under minus 30°C (minus 22°F) in winter in the northwest to over 45°C (113°F) in summer in the south, and annual rainfall from over 2000mm (78 inches) in parts of the Caspian watershed to almost zero in the central deserts! This wide diversity of climates is reflected in the diversity of habitats, which range from luxuriant deciduous forests near the Caspian through oak, pistachio and almond woodlands in the central highlands to acacia woodlands, fan-palms and mangrove swamps in the south.

Not surprisingly the avifauna is similarly diverse. Well over 500 species of birds have been recorded in Iran and well over 300 species are known to breed. Although much of this diversity can be attributed to the great range of habitats, it also springs from Iran’s position at a crossroads in Asia. Iran lies in the Palearctic faunal region, with the country straddling the divide between the Western and Eastern Palearctic sub-regions. Iran’s avifauna includes about 80 species of strictly Western Palearctic distribution which reach their southeastern limits in the Elburz and Zagros Mountains, while only a much smaller group of strictly Eastern Palearctic species extends into the northeastern highlands. Many of the birds of the desert interior belong to the so-called Saharo-Sindian desert fauna, characteristic of the great desert belt which stretches along the southern edge of the Palearctic region from North Africa to Mongolia. By contrast Iran’s southeasternmost province of Baluchistan lies on the borders of the Oriental faunal region and its birdlife has strong affinities with neighbouring southern Pakistan. This Oriental element extends, in increasingly diluted form, up the coastal plain of the Persian Gulf as far as the Iraq border.

Iran’s position as an ornithological crossroads is also evident in the diversity of migrants which pass through the country. We will be visiting Iran at the peak of the spring migration and, while concentrating on the country’s breeding specialities, will encounter many migrant species on their way from winter quarters in Africa to breeding areas in Central and Northern Asia, as well as others on their way from the Indian subcontinent to Western Asia and Europe.

We will begin our Iranian journey in the southeast, in Persian Baluchistan, ornithologically one of the least well-known parts of the country.

First we will visit the northern region of Persian Baluchistan in the Zahedan region, where our prime targets will be the near-endemic Sistan (or Afghan) Scrub Sparrow (now sometimes split from Dead Sea Sparrow) and the eastern form of the Mourning Wheatear (now sometimes split as Eastern or Persian Mourning Wheatear).

Next we will head south and explore the Makran (or Mekran) coast from the Minab and Bandar Abbas region southwards towards Jask in search of two near-endemics, Sind Woodpecker and Afghan Babbler, as well as the striking Crab-plover (another monotypic family), Saunders’s Tern and Sykes’s Warbler. We also have chances for White-cheeked Tern and even Sooty Gull, two more species of restricted distribution.

In the mountains behind Bandar Abbas, a city situated on the shores of the Strait of Hormuz, we will be looking for such special, restricted-range birds as See-see Partridge, Hume’s and Variable Wheatears, Upcher’s Warbler and Eastern Rock Nuthatch, as well as Streaked Scrub Warbler (now a monotypic bird family), and Striolated Bunting.

From Baluchistan we will move to Khuzestan Province in southwestern Iran where we will explore riverine marshes and thickets in search of Marbled Duck, White-tailed Lapwing, Egyptian Nightjar, Grey Hypocolius (the third monotypic bird family on this remarkable tour), Ménétries’s Warbler, Iraq Babbler, Mesopotamian Crow, Dead Sea Sparrow and Basra Reed Warbler, a species that has only recently found to be breeding in Iran.

From the hot, dusty plains of Khuzestan, we will travel north to the cool, humid Caspian forest on the northern slopes of the Elburz Mountains, where our primary target will be the near-endemic Caspian (or Hyrcanian) Tit. We will also explore drier habitats in the high Elburz in search of Caspian Snowcock, Radde’s Accentor and Red-fronted Serin.

En route to the northeastern Iran we will pass along the Caspian coast, Caspian Sea, where we will enjoy seeing Black-headed Penduline Tits at a reed-fringed lake. Further to the east, in the Elburz Mountains once more, we will be looking for Pied and Finsch’s Wheatears, the beautiful White-throated Robin, the diminutive Plain Leaf Warbler, Hume’s Whitethroat and Asian Crimson-winged Finch.

Finally, for the endemic Pleske’s Ground Jay, we will have to travel to the northeastern side of this large country, to Touran Wildlife Refuge – a huge reserve on the northern edge of Iran’s great central desert basin. The Touran reserve has been well protected for many years and still supports good populations of Pleske’s Ground Jays and the endangered Asiatic Wild Ass (or Onager), along with many other desert species including Macqueen’s Bustard, Crowned and Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Pallid Scops Owl, Asian Desert Warbler, Red-tailed (or Persian) Wheatear, Steppe Grey Shrike, Pale Rockfinch, Desert Finch and Grey-necked Bunting.

Birdquest has operated Iran birding tours since 1998.

Iran Cultural Options: It is straightforward for us to arrange a cultural extension with local guide services to anywhere in Iran, including Isfahan and Persepolis, either before or after the tour. This is a far less expensive option for participants than offering a cultural extension as part of our tour. Please contact the Birdquest office.

Important: Please note that alcohol is illegal in Iran. It is necessary for women visitors to follow the local dress code when in public places, which basically means wearing a head scarf (showing a fair amount of hair is nowadays acceptable), trousers and a long-sleeved garment, with nothing tight or revealing. Male visitors need to avoid shorts.

Accommodation & Road Transport: The hotels are of good or medium standard throughout. At Touran we will stay for two nights in simple but very hospitable and charismatic village ‘homestay’ accommodation. Road transport is by minibus or 4×4 cars and roads are mostly very good.

Walking: The walking effort during our Iran birding tour is mostly easy, occasionally moderate. There may be one optional more demanding walk in the highest part of the Elburz Mountains.

Climate: Mostly warm or hot, dry and sunny. It can be cool or cold at higher altitudes in the north, where some rain is likely. It will be rather humid in the Bandar Abbas/Mekran coast area.

Bird Photography: Opportunities during our Iran birding tour are good.


PRICE INFORMATION

Birdquest Inclusions: Our tour prices include surface transportation, accommodations, meals and entrance fees.

We also include all tipping for local guides, drivers and accommodation/restaurant staff.

We also include these flights: Tehran-Zahedan, Bandar Abbas-Ahvaz and Ahvaz-Tehran.

Deposit: £510, $660, €570.

TO BOOK THIS TOUR: Click here (you will need the tour dates and deposit amount)


2021: provisional £4610, $5990, €5330. Tehran/Tehran.

Single Supplement: 2021: £410, $540, €480.

The single supplement will not apply if you indicate on booking that you prefer to share a room and there is a room-mate of the same sex available.

Single accommodation is limited at Touran. There is no extra charge for singles there when available.

This tour is priced in US Dollars. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.

IRAN BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY

Iran: Day 1  Our Iran birding tour begins at Tehran with a morning flight to Zahedan in the northern part of Persian Baluchistan, from where we will head northwards to the remote town of Zabol for an overnight stay. Our main purpose in coming to this remote corner of Iran is to observe the poorly-known Sistan (or Afghan) Scrub Sparrow, which is nowadays sometimes split from Dead Sea Sparrow and which is endemic to eastern Iran and southwestern Afghanistan.

As well as the sparrow, there are also Mourning Wheatears of the eastern form (sometimes treated as a distinct species under the name Eastern or Persian Mourning Wheatear). We will also encounter a number of more widespread species that will also feature during the rest of the tour.

Iran: Day 2  We will have time for some more birding around Zabol before we head for Bam for an overnight stay, enjoying the wild scenery of Baluchistan as we travel towards the southwest.

Iran: Day 3  This morning we continue our journey to Minab in southern Baluchistan, where we will stay for two nights. The journey will take us through a stark desert landscape, punctuated by patches of irrigated agriculture, date gardens and tree-lined wadis. This afternoon we shall have our first chance for birding in the Minab region.

Iran: Day 4  From our base in Minab, we will explore southwards along the Mekran (or Makran) coast of Persian Baluchistan. This is an extremely inhospitable region of barren ‘moonscape’ deserts, saline flats and coastal sand dunes, with temperatures regularly soaring to the high 40s Centigrade (well over 100 Fahrenheit) in July and August. There are, however, some patches of acacia and tamarisk woodland in the dry river beds, and it is here that we will focus much of our attention.

We are now in an area where the Palearctic Region and the Oriental Region meet. The star attractions are Sind Woodpecker, a species endemic to Iran and Pakistan, and the near-endemic Afghan Babbler (split from Common and shared only with adjacent Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Pakistan).

Primarily Oriental species that extend into the Palearctic in this area include Grey Francolin, Red-wattled Lapwing, Spotted Owlet, Indian Roller, Sand Lark, White-eared Bulbul, Pied Bushchat, Bay-backed Shrike, House Crow, Common Myna, Purple Sunbird, Oriental White-eye, Chestnut-shouldered (or Yellow-throated) Sparrow and Indian Silverbill.

Additional species we are likely to encounter include Oriental Honey Buzzard (a winter visitor to the groves in the coastal plain), Black Kite, Shikra, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Eurasian Collared Dove, Laughing Dove, Pallid Swift, Green Bee-eater, Crested Lark, Barn Swallow, Graceful Prinia, Sykes’s Warbler (split from Booted), and Southern Grey and Rufous-tailed Shrikes. With luck we will also find Brown-necked Raven.

We will also explore the adjacent coast, where the long sandy beaches, mudflats, tidal inlets and patches of mangrove support such interesting breeding species as Striated (or Green-backed) Heron, Indian Pond Heron, Western Reef Heron, the strange Crab-plover (this sole member of a monotypic bird family is a winter visitor to the area, but some should still be present), Great Thick-knee and Indian Reed Warbler (split from Clamorous). We also have chances for Great Knot and two more specialities, Sooty Gull and White-cheeked Tern, although all are uncommon and often tricky to find.

Other species we may well find in the coastal habitats of the area include Little Egret, Grey Heron, Eurasian Spoonbill, Greater Flamingo, Dalmatian Pelican, Western Osprey, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Common Ringed, Little Ringed, Kentish, Lesser Sand, Greater Sand and Grey (or Black-bellied) Plovers, Sanderling, Dunlin, Little Stint, Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, Whimbrel, Eurasian Curlew, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Terek, Common, Curlew and Broad-billed Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstone, Parasitic Jaeger (or Arctic Skua), Black-headed, Slender-billed, Caspian and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and Caspian, Gull-billed, Greater Crested, Lesser Crested, Sandwich, Common, Little and Saunders’s Terns.

Iran: Day 5  After some final birding in the Minab region, we will drive to Bandar Abbas for an overnight stay. Bandar Abbas is a major port on the shores of the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. We will spend time this afternoon checking out the numerous shorebirds and terns that frequent the coastline and mudflats adjacent to the city.

Iran: Day 6  This morning we will visit Kuh-e-Genu, an isolated mountain rising to 2370m, only 25km north of Bandar Abbas. The spectacular winding road up the mountain takes us through a variety of vegetation zones until we end up in scattered junipers.

Special birds we will be looking for here include See-see Partridge, Pale Crag Martin, Desert Lark, Long-billed Pipit, the restricted-range Hume’s Wheatear, Variable Wheatear, Streaked Scrub (or Scrub) Warbler (now considered a monotypic bird family in its own right), Upcher’s and Eastern Orphean Warblers, Eastern Rock Nuthatch and Striolated Bunting. We should also come across Red-rumped Swallow and Blue Rock Thrush.

Later in the day we will catch a flight to Ahvaz in the province of Khuzestan in southwest Iran for a three nights stay.

Iran: Days 7-8  The city of Ahvaz lies on the vast alluvial plain of the Karkheh, Dez and Karun rivers which rise amidst the snow-capped peaks of the Zagros Mountains far to the north. Much of the plain is now a treeless desert with scattered patches of irrigated agriculture, but along the Karkheh and Dez rivers there are narrow strips of dense riverine woodland, dominated by tamarisks, poplars and Salvadora persica. These woodlands have been protected since the 1960s as the last remaining natural habitat of the critically endangered Mesopotamian Fallow Deer.

We will spend some time exploring these woodlands, and while we will have very little chance of seeing the deer, we will have no difficulty in finding Grey Hypocolius, a common breeding bird in this area. Somewhat like a cross between a grey shrike and a waxwing, this curious Middle Eastern endemic is now widely recognized as belonging to its own monotypic family. We should also find Dead Sea Sparrows breeding in the thickets, along with many European Turtle Doves. Other notable breeding birds of the area include Egyptian Nightjar (this must surely be the easiest place to see this sought-after species!), Ménétries’s Warbler and the distinctive Mesopotamian Crow – a very black and white form of the Carrion/Hooded Crow complex that is now sometimes considered to be a separate species.

More widespread breeding species include Black-winged Kite, Black Francolin, Eurasian Stone-curlew, Common Wood Pigeon, White-throated Kingfisher, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Common Nightingale and Eastern Olivaceous Warbler.

There are many small wetlands along the rivers, as well as some large lagoons, and here we may find Pygmy Cormorant, Western Cattle Egrets, Black-crowned Night Heron, Squacco and Purple Herons, the threatened Marbled Duck, Grey-headed Swamphen (split from Western or Purple), Collared Pratincole, White-tailed Lapwing, an assortment of migrant waders including Wood and Marsh Sandpipers, Pied Kingfisher, Sand Martin (or Bank Swallow), Zitting Cisticola and both Clamorous and European Reed Warblers.

Where there is a rich growth of marsh vegetation we shall concentrate on finding another great specialty of this region, the little-known Iraq Babbler. This very local and now globally threatened species is largely confined to the Mesopotamian marshes in neighbouring Iraq, but extends over the border into southwestern Iran.

Our prime target, however, will be the Basra Reed Warbler. Although first described as a distinct species by Ticehurst in 1920, the status of this distinctive form (intermediate in size between European Reed Warbler and Great Reed Warbler) remained controversial until the 1990s. Long known to breed in the Mesopotamian marshes on the Iraqi side of the border, it has more recently been found to breed in the Iranian portion of the marshlands.

As we explore this area we will stop briefly to admire the ziggurat of Chogha Zanbil, a very impressive step pyramid of great antiquity that dates back to the 13th century BC and the Elamite dynasty.

Iran: Day 9  This morning we will catch a flight to Tehran. Iran’s capital is a large, relatively modern city at the base of the Elburz Mountains, situated at about 1600m (5250ft) on the edge of the great central desert basin. Behind the city the snow-capped peaks of the Elburz rise to well over 4000m (13,100ft).

After our arrival we will drive up the dry and barren south-facing slopes of the Elburz almost to the snow-line and then down through the luxuriant forests and meadows on the northern slopes. En route we should encounter some of the commoner birds of northern Iran, such as Common Kestrel, Common Swift, European Bee-eater, European Roller, Eurasian Hoopoe, White Wagtail, Cetti’s Warbler, Eurasian Magpie, Rook and Hooded Crow. We will pause at a high pass where there is a good chance of finding White-winged Snowfinch and Water Pipit. Eventually we will arrive at Kelardasht in the Chalus region, where we will spend two nights. We will arrive in time for some initial exploration this afternoon.

Iran: Day 10  During our time in the Kelardasht area we will visit some beautiful areas of forest. The star attraction here is the Caspian (or Hyrcanian) Tit, a split from Sombre Tit, a species with which it was mistakenly lumped: it is in fact more closely related to Willow Tit. Caspian Tit is restricted to the Caspian forest zone stretching from eastern Azerbaijan to northeastern Iran. Other major specialities in this habitat are Green Warbler and Semi-collared Flycatcher, two restricted-range summer visitors to the area.

We are now very much back in the Western Palearctic avifaunal subregion, and indeed the majority of the birds of this area scarcely differ from those found in British woodlands and thickets, including such species as Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Common Cuckoo, European Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, European Robin, Common Redstart, Common Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, Common Whitethroat, Blackcap, Common Chiffchaff, Spotted Flycatcher, Coal, Great and Eurasian Blue Tits, Eurasian Jay and Common Chaffinch.

Other species that we are likely to encounter in this habitat, or in open areas of grassland with stones and shrubs, include Eurasian Hobby, Wood Lark, Tawny Pipit,

Red-backed Shrike, Siberian Stonechat, European Goldfinch, Common Linnet Common Rosefinch, and Corn, Ortolan and Black-headed Buntings.

We will also head up into the higher valleys in the Elburz Mountains in search of some high-altitude species. Prime targets in this spectacular habitat with a backdrop of snowy peaks include Caspian Snowcock, Radde’s Accentor and Red-fronted Serin.

In addition we may well come across Golden Eagle, ‘real’ Rock Doves, Alpine Swift, Horned Lark, Eurasian Crag Martin, Grey Wagtail, White-throated Dipper, Black Redstart, Northern Wheatear, Common (or Rufous-tailed) Rock Thrush, Western Rock Nuthatch, Alpine and Red-billed Choughs, Rock Sparrow and Rock Bunting. There are also good chances for Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeier) and Wallcreeper.

Iran: Day 11  After some final birding in the Kelardasht area we will descend to the intensive rice lands of the Caspian Sea coast and then head eastwards to Sari for an overnight stay. Along the way we will visit one an area of lowland forest where we should see the smart Red-breasted Flycatcher, as well as Long-tailed Tit and Eurasian Nuthatch. We will also visit a reed-fringed lake near the Caspian Sea (which has a surface 26m or 85ft below sea-level!). Here the restricted-range Black-headed Penduline Tit is easy top find. Other species we may well find in the area include Little and Great Crested Grebes, Great Cormorant, Little Bittern, Western Marsh Harrier, Common Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Black-winged Stilt, Common Kingfisher, Great Reed Warbler and perhaps Moustached Warbler. A number of migrant shorebirds should be present, along with Whiskered and White-winged Terns.

Iran: Day 12  Today we will head eastwards to Bastam near Shahrud for an overnight stay. En route we will spend some time exploring the drier slopes of the eastern Elburz in search of such specialities as the lovely White-throated Robin (also known as Irania), Finsch’s Wheatear, the diminutive Plain Leaf Warbler (a bird little bigger than a Goldcrest), Hume’s Whitethroa and Asian Crimson-winged Finch. As we continue onto the northern rim of the Central Plateau, the landscape becomes increasingly arid. Other likely new birds today include Lesser Kestrel, Isabelline Wheatear

Iran: Day 13  This morning we will look for Bimaculated Lark and we even have a chance for Red-headed Bunting, here at the southwestern edge of its distribution. Other new species in this area are likely to include Long-legged Buzzard and Greater Short-toed Lark. Afterwards we will head eastwards to Touran National Park for a two nights stay. In a small village. This afternoon we will commence our exploration of Touran.

Iran: Day 14  Iran’s largest reserve, Touran National Park, lies at the northeastern edge of the great Dasht-e-Kavir desert, about 150km east of Shahrud. Established in 1973 and covering 18,000 square kilometres, this vast reserve protects a wide range of semi-desert and desert habitats from Artemisia steppe in the arid foothills of the Elburz in the north through bushy Zygophyllum steppe, sparsely vegetated sand dunes and bare stony plains to the immense salt wastes of the Dasht-e-Kavir proper in the south. We will have the best part of two days to explore this wonderful area.

Our primary target will be the highly localized Pleske’s Ground Jay, not only a member of a uniquely Central Asian group of aberrant corvids, but also a species endemic to the eastern deserts of Iran. The predominant vegetation in its favoured habitat is Zygophyllum, a desert shrub which can grow to two metres in height, and we will wait for a ground jay to pop up on top of a bush to give its ringing call, or try to keep up with this swift runner as it dashes between the bushes.

We will also be looking out for a number of other birds characteristic of much of Iran’s central plateau, a number of which are major specialities, including Egyptian Vulture, Cream-coloured Courser (usually hard to find), Black-bellied and Crowned Sandgrouse, Pallid Scops Owl, Bar-tailed and Lesser Short-toed Larks, Desert Wheatear, Asian Desert Warbler, Steppe Grey Shrike, the enigmatic Pale Rockfinch (or Pale Rock Sparrow), and Desert and Trumpeter Finches. We should also encounter the stately Macqueen’s Bustard (split from Houbara), which is still a fairly common breeding species in this area, but finding one or two may require persistence.

In the rugged mountains of Touran we will be wanting to see Red-tailed (or Rufous-tailed, or Persian) Wheatear and Grey-necked Bunting, both of which breed here in good numbers. Eurasian Tree Sparrows occur alongside House Sparrows in the attractive local villages, which comprise mud brick, flat-roofed houses arranged in a step formation so that the villages look like defensive citadels.

Vast numbers of migrants pass over the deserts of Iran in both spring and autumn, and while the great majority doubtless make the desert crossing in a single hop, the luxuriant vegetation at the many small oases always seems to attract stragglers, such as European Roller, European Nightjar, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Red-throated and Tree Pipits, Citrine and Yellow Wagtails, Green and Willow Warblers, Spotted and Red-breasted Flycatchers, and Rosy Starling whatever the weather. Larger migrants such as Pallid Harrier and Steppe Eagle also make a pause in the reserve.

Touran is one of the last strongholds of the Asiatic Wild Ass, or Onager, in Iran and, although numbers have been much depleted in recent years, we have a very good chance of seeing this endangered species. The critically endangered Asian form of the Cheetah still survives here, but sadly visitors to the reserve have virtually no chance of an encounter.

Iran: Day 15  After some final birding in Touran we will head westwards along the northern edge of the Dasht-e-Kavir to Tehran, where the tour ends this evening.

IRAN TOUR REPORT 2017

by Mark Beaman

View Report

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