Although we have operated a number of tours in China in the past, this was the first Birdwatching Breaks trip to the Tibetan plateau, covering the well-established itinerary in the Chinese province of Qinghai and finishing with a few days in Lhasa. The tour was a great success with a succession of very special, highly localised and often rare birds being seen. In the north we enjoyed nice views of Blue Eared Pheasants, a host of Phylloscopus warblers that included Gansu, Hume's, Chinese and Large-billed Leaf, plus Yellow-streaked and Greenish. We had some stunning views of Siberian Rubythroats and also found White-winged Grosbeaks, Slaty-backed Flycatcher and Chinese Grouse. At Rubber Mountain the highlight was the Przevalski's Finch (aka Pink-tailed Bunting), but the supporting cast also featured White-browed (Severtzov's) Tit-Warbler, Hume's Ground Tit and Rufous-breasted, Robin and Brown Accentors. The Chaka area provided us with Przevalski's (Ala Shan) Redstart, Przevalski's Partridge, Mongolian (Henderson's) Ground Jay and Pallas's Sandgrouse. The high mountain pass at Er La was perhaps the most demanding day of the tour but Roborovski's Rosefinch and a stunning performance by Tibetan Sandgrouse plus an excellent array of other high altitude species made it very much worthwhile. In SE Qinghai we enjoyed superb encounters with Ibisbills, White Eared Pheasant, Kozlov's (Tibetan) Babax and Kozlov's (Tibetan) Bunting. All these wonderful species had a supporting cast that involved all seven available species of lark, six species of snowfinch, eight species of rosefinch, Black-necked Cranes and a host of other memorable species. As if that wasn't enough, mammals included Wolf, Tibetan Fox, Tibetan Gazelle, Tibetan Antelope and Wild Ass and all of this was seen amongst a variety of jaw-dropping landscapes, typically with huge skies and stunning mountainous vistas.
With the exception of one particularly basic hotel, the accommodations are improving throughout this itinerary and the road network is also rapidly developing, so the deprivations traditionally associated with this part of the world are receding and it is becoming easier to enjoy what this wonderful region has to offer
Thanks to Tan Jung for all the ground arrangements and acting as local guide. Thanks also to our ever helpful and popular driver for most of the trip, Mr Zhen a man seemingly known by just about everyone in Qinghai province (including influential members of the local constabulary) and finally thanks also to driver and guide in Lhasa.
A gallery of images from this tour can be found on our Facebook Page .
12th/13th July: London Heathrow to Chengdu.
Weather: Fairly hot and sunny in Chengdu. 30 C.
Most of the group met up at Heathrow's Terminal 3 to begin our long journey to Qinghai. Our flight with Cathay Pacific into Hong Kong ran smoothly with an arrival there a little before 7am. During our 3 hour wait for our connecting flight to Chengdu we managed to see Crested Myna and House Swift at an otherwise fairly birdless airport. The flight to Chengdu left on time arriving a little ahead of schedule in the early afternoon, and passport and customs were quickly out of the way. We met quickly met up with Tang Jun and were soon heading into town and settling into our hotel. After a light lunch and some time to rest we headed for a gentle introductory birding session in a local park. Our first birds included Red-rumped Swallow, Little Egret, Chinese Bulbul, White-browed Laughingthrush, Blackbird, Black-throated Tit, Vinous-throated Parrotbill and Yellow-billed (Chinese) Grosbeak. After a nice meal in a local restaurant it was time to get some rest in preparation for the proper commencement of the trip the next day.
14th July: Flight to Xining. Xi Shan. Dongxia Forest. Bei Shan.
Weather: Pleasantly warm with increasing cloud during the afternoon. A little chilly at Bei Shan.
We began the day with a flight to Xining and a couple of hours later we were at last in Qinghai province. After meeting Mr Zhen, our driver, we headed to Xi Shan, an area of rather arid hills where we found Red-billed Choughs, Godlewski's Bunting, Oriental Greenfinch, Common Swifts of the form pekinenensis, Black Redstarts and Hill Pigeon. A male Pied Wheatear did not linger. Continuing to Dongxia we paused for lunch and then had a pleasant walk in the forest where highlights involved Yellow-streaked and Greenish Warblers, Gansu Leaf-warbler, Chinese White-browed Rosefinch, Chinese Nuthatch, Elliott's and Plain (Pere David's) Laughingthrush, a group of four very obliging Grey-headed Bullfinches, a couple of skulking White-bellied Redstarts and a Eurasian Hobby.
In the late afternoon our journey continued and we passed through an area of cultivated fields with Oilseed Rape a significant feature and an increasingly rugged landscape with mountains. Along the way we added Crested Lark, Common Pheasant and Collared Dove. A stop at Bei Shan was excellent with the sought-after Blue Eared Pheasant found fairly readily and some nice scope views were secured. It was now getting fairly late and we headed to our hotel with White-capped Redstart and Amur Wagtail among the roadside birds en-route.
15th July: Huzu Bei Shan.
Weather: Chilly start but pleasantly warm by mid-morning. Some mid-late afternoon showers.
We spent the morning in a lovely forested valley where there was plenty of bird activity. We consumed a picnic breakfast at the start of the trail with Hodgson's Redstart, Siberian Rubythroat and Olive-backed Pipit amongst the birds to keep us company. Our walk up the valley produced a steady flow of great birds with Chestnut Thrush, Spotted Bush-warbler, stunning White-throated Redstarts and a nice selection of Phylloscopus warblers that included Hume's, Chinese Leaf and Large-billed Leaf amongst the commoner Yellow-streaked, Greenish and Gansu. A Przevalski's Nuthatch was seen briefly, but Rufous-vented Tit, Songar Tit, Chinese Song Thrush and Salim Ali's Swift were better behaved. Lunch was taken in a local restaurant and it was not without some local 'colour'!
The afternoon walk was in another valley where inevitably things were quieter but we still added White-winged Grosbeak and Himalayan Buzzard. A return to the valley we had visited in the morning added Rufous-breasted Accentor, but the hoped for Chinese Grouse continued to elude us.
16th July: Huzu Bei Shan. Koko Nor. Travel to Hemeihe.
Weather: Chilly start, but sunny with clear skies. Warm in Xining.
We began the day with further attempts to catch up with Chestnut-throated Partridge and Chinese Grouse. Visiting the site for the former was another disappointment although we did find some droppings! Returning to the bus we had opportunities have wonderful views of Siberian Rubythroat perched in the open. Two members of the group had elected not to hike up the valley again and they were rewarded with two Wallcreepers, one of which was seen later by other group members, and Eurasian Jay. The hike back up the 'grouse valley' was more successful with Tang Jun and Graham finding a female with two chicks. Suzanne and I had lingered for a smart singing male Slaty-backed Flycatcher, which later showed for Graham as well. We had further views of other species seen the previous day plus a White-bellied Redstart sat in the open.
By mid-morning it was time to leave and we headed back to Xining where we had a good lunch of dumplings followed by some fresh strawberries. We then hit the road again and by mid-afternoon were approaching Koko Nor. The landscape had changed radically as we passed through steppe like habitats with virtually no trees and some distant mountains. Our first short walk added a flurry of additions to the list with Hume's Ground Tit, Rufous-necked, Pere David's (Small) and White-rumped Snowfinches all present plus Horned Lark, Oriental Skylark, Hoopoe and Rock Sparrow. Continuing on to the shores of Koko Nor we spent an hour or so at a marsh where five distant Black-necked Cranes were the main prize, but we also saw our first Hume's Short-toed Larks and Isabelline Wheatears, whilst a range of wetland species included Wood Sandpiper, Temminck's Stint, Common Tern, Black-necked and Great Crested Grebes, Red Crested Pochard, Pochard, Gadwall and Grey Heron. From here we headed directly to our hotel for the night, arriving around 7.30pm.
17th July: Rubber Mountain. Chaka.
Weather: Chilly start, but soon warming up to become a warm and sunny day. Breezy in the late afternoon at Chaka.
We began with the usual packed breakfast close to our first birding site of the day. On another beautiful sunny morning we walked up another picturesque valley in search of, for some at least, perhaps THE most important bird of the trip - Przevalski's Finch (aka Pink-tailed Bunting) a bird in a family all of its own. As we walked into the valley we saw our first Pale Martins and enjoyed some close views of Oriental Skylark and Rufous-necked Snowfinch, whilst high up in the crags were Himalayan Griffons and Saker Falcon. The low scrub was frequented by Twite and our first Brown Accentors and Robin Accentors of the trip. We lingered in a particular side valley where a Tibetan Partridge showed nicely and Alpine Warblers fizzed around the undergrowth. No sign of our primary target though. So, a stiff walk up the side valley and we added Smoky Warbler, a family of Blue-fronted Redstarts and a brief female Red-fronted Rosefinch. Spreading out a little I checked an area of scrub over a ridge where I briefly saw a male Streaked Rosefinch, but nothing else new and leader only sightings aren’t the point anyway! So I returned to the group who had been treated to an excellent performance by White-browed Tit-warblers. With the time now heading for 11am, it has to be said I was starting to get a little concerned, but as we were heading through some more low scrub there it was, a stunning male Przevalski's Finch. We all enjoyed nice scope views and eventually we located a female and discovered their nest site and observed the female make several visits to the nest with food. Phew!
Returning to the van we headed into town for lunch before returning to another slope with low scrub where we added White-browed Tit and located two more Przevalski's Finches. Nice views of Rosy Pipit and a displaying male Siberian Stonechat were also new. Very content, although a little tired from our exertions we returned to the van and continued the journey to Chaka. We paused to search for Mongolian (Henderson’s) Ground Jay in some semi-desert near the town, but failed on this and a leader-only Pallas's Sandgrouse just wouldn't do! Nevertheless we had enjoyed an excellent day and were pleasantly surprised to find that our rooms in the basic hotel had very recently been refurbished and our home for the next three nights was rather better than perhaps we had feared.
18th July: Chaka area.
Weather: Mild with a light breeze in the morning, warmer later.
The day began with a drive to an area of mountains about 90 minutes from Chaka. We had breakfast at the base of the mountains and then headed up to a valley with scattered trees and a little scrubby undergrowth. At our first proper stop we found our main target bird - Przevalski's (Ala Shan) Redstart, a gorgeous bird that showed at very close range. We then spent a leisurely couple of hours or so exploring the area finding about 4 or 5 pairs of this wonderful species and also including some young recently out of the nest and still being fed by the adults. Other species here included White-winged Grosbeak, White-browed Tit, Rufous-breasted and Brown Accentors, a smart male Pine Bunting that was accompanied by a female and a few uncooperative Pink-rumped Rosefinches.
Heading back to the bus we found our first Golden Eagle and then headed back to the semi-desert close to Chaka town. Here we stopped to search for Mongolian Ground Jay, but despite finding a very distant individual it gave us the slip before all could secure acceptable views. A smart male calcarata Citrine Wagtail was well received, but it was disappointing not to have secured the Ground Jay. However it was to prove a short wait to see this much wanted species as our ever enthusiastic driver, Mr Zhen spotted one at the roadside and we all got nice views, with an Isabelline Shrike as well. Very pleased with this success we headed for lunch and enjoyed a short rest during the mid-afternoon.
Our late afternoon session initially focused on trying to find Pallas's Sandgrouse. We had no luck with this, but did enjoy good views of Blanford's Snowfinch, and then a change of location turned up trumps for Mongolian Finch and Mongolian Lark, both of which performed nicely.
19th July: Chaka area.
Weather: Overcast with some morning drizzle. Mild.
Our destination this morning was an area of steep mountainous slopes not too far from Chaka. Here we walked through an area of grassy fields before ascending a steep trail as we went in search of Himalayan Snowcock and Przevalski's Partridge. Before too long we had found the latter and enjoyed some good views, with perhaps 25-30 birds seen during the morning. However the snowcocks were not calling and despite much scanning, nowhere to be seen. With sizeable sheep flocks and their attendant shepherds and dogs recently arrived on these slopes it was perhaps not too surprising that we failed to find this tricky species on this occasion. Other birds in the area included White-throated and Black Redstarts, Godlewski's and Pine Buntings, some Pink-rumped Rosefinches and as we returned to the vehicle, a smart Tibetan Grey Shrike.
In the afternoon we resumed our search for the last of our target birds in the Chaka area as we tried to upgrade Pallas's Sandgrouse from a leader only sighting. Our first stop produced a Desert Wheatear, an adult and juvenile Isabelline Shrike, a Cuckoo and a Common Tern. We then returned to the area where I had seen the sandgrouse on our first try for it. Walking out across the semi-desert we turned up a Mongolian Ground Jay and then had a nice close fly past by two Pallas's Sandgrouse. Excellent! We made a stop for further views of Mongolian Larks, but the Mongolian Finches were not present, so we headed back to base.
20th July: Chaka to Wenquan with stops at Gonghe for breakfast and birding at Er La.
Weather: Overcast with rain in the morning, clearing to become warm by late morning. Heavy showers of rain and hail at Er La.
Today was primarily a travel day although there were a few birding stops. We departed around 6am and headed for Gonghe where we had a breakfast of rice porridge and dumplings just over a couple of hours later. On the edge of Gonghe we birded an area of scrub and trees near some pools. Here we found a trio of woodpeckers in the form of Grey-headed, Great Spotted and Wryneck. A couple of Common Sandpipers were feeding around the pools and in a small plantation we found a Meadow Bunting, plus nearby a Godlewski's Bunting. Continuing our journey a further stop yielded a few Daurian Partridges plus a couple of Grey-backed Shrikes. Further along the road we enjoyed further views of Mongolian Larks.
Lunch was taken in the town of Hueka. After lunch we continued to Er La where just below the pass we located Tibetan, Prince Henri's and Rufous-necked Snowfinches plus our first Tibetan Lark. At the pass itself a male Guldenstadt's Redstart was seen briefly before the heavens opened curtailing our planned initial exploration of the pass. After waiting for the rain to subside a little we had a short walk which produced both Brandt's and Plain Mountain Finches, Rufous-necked and White-rumped Snowfinches and some Hume's Ground Tits. We then headed down to Wenquan where we checked into our very basic guesthouse for the night.
21st July: Er La. Travel to Maduo with stop in Wenquan for lunch.
Weather: Early morning rain clearing. Sunny intervals and some afternoon showers.
Today was the most strenuous day of the trip with the climb up from the road at the Er La Pass (4499 m) to search for some highly sought-after species up on a high plateau situated at around 4800 m. As we left the road to head up the slope we soon encountered the first of those species in the form of a superb male Roborovski's Rosefinch. We enjoyed excellent views if this restricted species and also found a female nearby. Later Graham and Mary were to find three males and a female. Other birds here included White-rumped, Tibetan and Prince Henri's Snowfinches and Guldenstadt's Redstart.
Continuing up the slope it was pretty hard going in the thin air and we had to make frequent stops to catch our breath. However about two hours after leaving the vehicle we had reached the plateau and started the search for Tibetan Sandgrouse. It took a while but after an hour or so we located our quarry and were then treated to the most amazing prolonged views as a pair actually walked towards us allowing excellent views and photographic opportunities. A truly amazing experience.
After lunch in Wenquan we hit the road and headed for Maduo. Birding stops along the way yielded a smart adult and two delightful juvenile Lesser Sandplovers, Raven, Robin Accentor, four Himalayan Griffon Vultures, Saker and several Upland Buzzards. At a wetland area near Maduo we found our first Pallas's Gulls of the trip with Brown-headed also present plus Redshank, Wood Sandpiper, Bar-headed Goose, Ruddy Shelduck and Pale Martin and Barn Swallow also there.
22nd July: Maduo to Yushu with lunch at Qing Shui Hee and stops at Bayan Kala and Yan Ko Shan.
Weather: Overcast with often heavy rain for much of the morning. Clearing later with some sunny intervals. Chilly for most of the day with a cool wind at times.
The day dawned wet n 'orrible! We left Maduo a little before 7am and had a picnic breakfast inside the bus near a lake which held good numbers of Great Crested Grebes, a few Brown-headed Gulls, a Lesser Sandplover and not a lot else. We pushed on through the rain making stops at various wetlands that are dotted across the plateau in this region. These stops produced two stately Black-necked Cranes, Eastern Cattle Egrets, our first Tibetan Gazelle and best of all a Wolf which gave nice views through the scope.
A stop at Bayan Kala yielded Lammergeier, a couple of Himalayan Griffons, several Ravens, a few Brandt's Mountain Finches and a female Roborovski's Rosefinch. After lunch we headed to Yan Ko Shan where we tried for Himalayan Rubythroat. Disappointingly no males were responsive to the recordings so we had to make do with a juvenile. A White-browed Tit-warbler was a catch up for me, whilst Alpine Leaf Warblers and three Cuckoos were also present. Our final stop of the day delivered up another wonderful bird in the form of a smart Ibisbill with a male Citrine Wagtail (form calcarata) was feeding young. Nearby we added Kessler's Thrush to the list before continuing onto our nice hotel in Yushu.
23rd July: Yushu to Nangqian with birding stops by road and including Kanda Gorge.
Weather: Overcast and rather cold with rain on and off throughout the day.
The day got off to a difficult start when it became clear that our bus had been blocked into the car park and the offending car owner couldn't be found. So, after consuming our breakfast in the lobby a taxi was rustled up and we hit the road with the bus to follow once it was able to. Our first stop was by some cliffs and on the nearby grassy areas close to a river we quickly found our prime target, Spotted Great Rosefinch. Nearby we found three Ibisbills and a number of other now familiar species. Before too long the bus arrived and we were heading on down the road where further stops produced another Spotted Great Rosefinch, two Snow Pigeons, Streaked Rosefinch, Dipper, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon Vultures, Golden Eagle and a couple of flocks of Cuckoos totalling eight birds and a single juvenile Cuckoo still apparently dependent upon an unknown host.
A lunch of noodles was taken in the nearby town and then as we continued our journey we stopped for Daurian Jackdaw, Tibetan Partridge, Black Drongo and good numbers of Kessler's Thrushes. We ended the day in the Kanda Gorge, where we quickly located the hoped for White Eared Pheasant and Tibetan Babax. Pink-rumped Rosefinch was a catch up for some and another Snow Pigeon was seen with the Hill Pigeon flock. Finally as we returned to the bus we were treated to a prolonged close range showing by a confiding Tibetan Partridge, a nice way in which to end a productive day.
24th July: Kanda Shan.
Weather: Fairly cold start, but pleasantly warm later with sunshine and partly cloudy skies.
Today our main target was to see Kozlov's (Tibetan) Bunting. We left the hotel in the dark and arrived up in the mountains soon after dawn. Here we had another packed breakfast with Mr Zhen now an expert barista making the coffees and we waited for things to happen. Alpine Accentors and Plain Mountan Finches were in evidence whilst a few Yellow-billed Choughs were with the Red-billeds.
We headed up the slope and found a smart male Red-fronted Rosefinch and then without much further delay a stunning male Kozlov's Bunting. It gave us superb views and was greatly appreciated by all. Further exploration of the immediate vicinity did not add a great deal, although some Salim Ali's Swifts and close Himalayan Griffon Vultures were seen. Moving down the mountain we enjoyed views of Blue-fronted, White-throated and Hodgson's Redstarts, an obliging White-browed Tit, Golden Eagle, three or four Lammergeiers and Alpine Leaf Warblers. Our 'pot noodle' lunch consumed we targeted Buff-throated Partridge in the afternoon, which after some effort we eventually all saw. With nothing else new for us in the area we opted for a bit of R&R in the late afternoon before taking dinner in a local restaurant.
25th July: Beizha Forest.
Weather: Cloudy for most of the day with showers and then more persistent rain in the late afternoon.
A somewhat disappointing day, with the weather perhaps making things quieter than we might have expected. Arriving at the Beizha Forest around dawn we had a short walk where we heard Buff-throated Partridge and saw several Kessler's Thrushes. Christine had brief views of a Blood Pheasant but no one else managed to see the bird. After breakfast we continued our search for Blood Pheasant but without success. Consolation came in the form of a smart male White Eared Pheasant and some Asian House Martins. Moving on we explored a piece of forest which was quiet, but we managed to add Buff-barred Warbler, Grey Crested Tit and Three-toed Woodpecker to the list. Giant Laughingthrushes were calling but remained hidden. Returning to the vehicle we found Chinese Fulvetta and Sichuan Leaf Warbler in the adjacent scrub.
After a lunch of pot noodle we continued birding along the track. We had nice encounters with Greenish Warblers, Sichuan Tit, Slaty-backed Flycatchers, Pink-rumped and Common Rosefinches, whilst overhead up to five Lammergeiers and a Golden Eagle were seen. With the rain getting worse the birding slowed and then became pretty much impossible, so it was inevitable that we would have to admit defeat and head back to the hotel.
26th July: Nangqian to Maduo with stops at Yan Ko Shan and Maduo wetlands.
Weather: Overcast with heavy rain clearing as we travelled north. Sunny with broken cloud and pleasantly warm in the afternoon, although a cool breeze at times.
Today was a travel day as we headed north to Maduo. The rain was initially heavy and we made no birding stops before Yushu where we had breakfast. Continuing north the weather improved and a stop at Yan Ko Shan produced the first Kestrel of the trip and a nice male Himalayan Rubythroat. As we passed through the open grasslands of the plateau we saw plenty of Upland Buzzards, a few Ravens and other now quite familiar species. At the wetlands south of Maduo we spent a bit of time checking for additions to the list with Black-winged Stilt and Mallard the only additions. More interesting were the Black-necked Cranes with young and good numbers of Ruddy Shelduck and Bar-headed Geese, plus a few Temminck's Stints. We arrived in Maduo in the early evening and had a meal in a rather noisy restaurant.
27th July: Maduo to Xining via Er La.
Weather: Overnight frost on car windows, then clear and sunny morning becoming cloudier with showers during the afternoon.
Another travel day began with a few stops at wetlands north of Maduo. We had some of our best encounters with Tibetan Gazelle and Wild Ass, whilst new birds for the list included a brief Black-tailed Godwit and a flock of Goosander. As we travelled towards Xining further stops yielded a Tibetan Fox (another excellent spot by Christine) and an obliging Mountain Weasel. At Er La we had a walk just above the road and enjoyed some nice views of Tibetan Lark and various snowfinches were feeding fledged young.
Lunch was in a nearby town before we headed directly to Xining, where an evening visit to Xi Shan once again failed to produce the hoped for Pale Rosefinch. A nice dinner in a Xining restaurant was followed by a trip to the railway station where we boarded the train to Lhasa.
28th July: Train to Lhasa.
Weather: Overnight frost on car windows, then clear and sunny morning becoming cloudier with showers during the afternoon.
The whole day was spent on the train passing through the dramatic landscapes of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau. Despite having been here for over two weeks, there were incredible mountain vistas to enjoy along with semi-deserts, many lakes and rolling steppes. We enjoyed a surprisingly amount of wildlife too, with several parties of Tibetan Antelope, plus Tibetan Fox, Wild Ass and Tibetan Gazelle. Birds included a couple of Sakers, Upland Buzzards, a few Pallas's Gulls and some flocks of Bar-headed Geese. Arrival in Lhasa was in the evening.
29th July: Xiongse Valley, Lhasa.
Weather: Mild becoming pleasantly warm. Sunny with broken cloud.
Our last early start of the tour found us in the Xiongse Valley at dawn. Here we had our final packed breakfast and found plenty of interest around the car park. Prince Henri's Laughinhthrush, Tibetan Blackbird, Oriental Turtle Dove, Streaked, Pink-rumped and Beautfiful Rosefinches were all seen before breakfast was finished. Then our first Giant Babaxes appeared and like most of the birds here, performed very well indeed. Tibetan Eared Pheasant was found on a nearby hillside, but those who later headed up the hill to the nunnery found this species to be in good numbers and also very tame. Tibetan Snowcocks initially proved more of a challenge as we couldn't find any on the high slopes. However near the nunnery itself I located one on a wall with Tibetan Eared Pheasants, which we headed off towards in order to get better views. We couldn't find it on arrival and were about to start checking other spots when five came running along the footpath towards us and proceeded to eat scraps at point blank range! An incredible experience to see such a normally shy bird at such close quarters.
In the afternoon there was a chance to see the Potola Palace and have some R&R before dinner.
30th/31st July: Lhasa. Flight to Chengdu. O/N Chendgu. Flight to London via Hong Kong.
Weather: Overcast with heavy rain.
The morning was free to explore Lhasa's old town or just relax. With heavy rain falling it was a blessing we were not trying to bird in it. At 1100 hrs we left the hotel, stopped for a quick meal near the airport and then caught the afternoon flight to Chengdu. In Chengdu we enjoyed a final meal, before rising early the next morning to find thunder, lightning and heavy rain. This delayed our flight to Hong Kong by an hour, but fortunately our connecting flight was held and were able to catch our flight to London.
For details of the full species list or to request further information about the next time we will be offering this trip. Contact us at email@example.com
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