By Martin Gray, reproduced from Birding Scotland magazine
Most peoples’ first impression of North Ronaldsay is a migrants-eye view from the ‘Islander’ aircraft on approach to the islands airstrip. From this vantage point the fertility of the island is obvious in the myriad of fields and enclosures laid out below. The stone dyke which encircles the island’s 13 mile perimeter, and keeps the native sheep on the beach, can be clearly seen. Dotted around the island are several small lochs, most with an extensive marshy hinterland. You may overfly long white sand beaches in the south and east. The two lighthouses in the north-east are also eye-catching, towering as they do above an otherwise very flat topography.
You land and eventually settle in at your digs. It’s time to get out there. Whether you’re a first-timer or an old friend there’s an irresistible and usually immediate draw to get out into the field. After all, this is a small island with a big reputation for some of the best birding in the country.
The first person to document the island’s migrant potential was Alan Briggs who visited in several years of the 1890s. His procurements included a male Two-barred Crossbill in June 1894 and Orkney’s only Squacco Heron in September 1896. The mounted specimens of these two still adorn Holland House, the Laird’s island seat. Perhaps strangely, North Ronaldsay missed out on the avid collectors in the early 20th century who turned their attentions instead on smaller, more remote outposts of Orkney such as Auskerry. From this time until quite recently, records of migrants or rarities were thin on the ground but did include such highlights as Ivory Gull (1916 & 1918), Sociable Plover (1924) and a dark-breasted Barn Owl (1944). In the mid-1960s the arrival of a lighthouse keeper who was also a keen birder, once again highlighted the island’s staggering potential for the unusual. His finds included Roller, White-winged Black Tern, Lesser Grey Shrike, Alpine Swift and, what remains to this day, Orkney’s only Jay. Locals too played their part, and as is often the case in islands blessed with more than their fair share of rarities, a number have a discerning eye for a stranger, as finds of Red-rumped Swallow and Marsh Sandpiper here will testify. Since then, visiting birders and ringers have been a regular part of the island scene and its growing reputation as a prime birding locality served to reinforce visitor interest and consequently, numbers. The concept of establishing a Bird Observatory here took root and NRBO was accredited in 1987. Its official opening in 1995 brings the story up to date.
Some general thoughts: the island is virtually barren of permanent cover, the major exception being the garden at Holland House, and this is described in more detail later. In fact anything which stands more than a foot tall will do for sheltering a tired migrant though there is much less vegetative cover in spring than in autumn. The most valued cover includes patches of Dock, Nettles, Thistle, ‘Neep and Tattie’ plots, crop fields, Iris beds, stands of Reed Canary Grass, drystone dykes and geos (narrow clefts in the low cliffs on the west side). Ditches and drains should also not be overlooked.
There is undoubtedly a ‘corner effect’ on passerine migrants and accumulations do occur at the island’s corners; around Dennis Ness, Westness, Nether Linnay, Twingness and Bridesness. Reasons for this phenomenon are not clear though it shouldn’t be taken to imply that the interior is a ‘dead zone'; you can’t argue with Yellow-browed Bunting, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler etc, etc.
- January and February; The doldrum months usually enlivened only by white-winged gulls and odd surprises like Great-crested Grebe, Bean Goose or even Gyr Falcon. Lark song can be heard in February and passage Oystercatchers build up.
- March; Pied Wagtails and Meadow Pipits return. Often a month with small finch and thrush passages, time for Stonechat and Hawfinch. First Wheatear at months end.
- April; Things well underway, a wider variety of passerines represented though still few warblers. Arctic Terns return in last few days.
- May; Full swing. Whole suite of migrants available especially in latter half. Wader build up. Raptor passage possible.
- June; First half of month is the time for surprises. Migrants low in quantity high in quality. The time for Common Rosefinch and Marsh Warbler.
- July and August; Breeding season, little passage underway though waders start in July. Mid-Aug onwards passerines start. Time for Barred Warbler and Rosefinch. Late Aug fall usually with large species range.
- September; probably the month for rarities, especially in second half. Highly exciting time!
- October; Can be less reliable than September if westerly throughout (though ‘yanks’ can and have brightened it up). Time for large thrush passage.
- November; First half like the first half of June, a good time for oddities. Still thrushes moving.
- December; If any energy left – there’s gulls!
Habitats for birders
Inshore waters around North Ronaldsay support a small wintering population of Great Northern Divers. These increase in late April/early May as more birds gravitate northwards. Several White-billed Divers have been found at this time of year also. Red-throated Divers are common on passage or lingering near inshore whilst Black-throated Diver are annual but scarce. All grebes are noteworthy here. Of seafowl, there are Long-tailed Duck and plenty of Common Eider. Common Scoter are irregular and Velvet Scoter uncommon. There are a few records of King Eider and singles of Steller’s Eider and Surf Scoter.
For seawatching, the prime spots are anywhere between the old and new lighthouses though traditionally the Old Light was always regarded as the best spot. Yes, the birds here are usually closest as they ‘cut the corner’ before heading out into the Atlantic. However, you are only 2-3m above sea level so in any swell, and that is rarely absent, the birds are frustratingly hard to stay with. About 500m north-west is the ‘Drive-in seawatch’ beside a small mountain of builders rubble. This spot has the advantage of being a little higher but the main lines of passage are a little further out. The base of the new lighthouse is higher still, but 150m inland for a start. Finally, some notable watches have been made from Torriness, Westness, Bridesness or near the pier. In terms of conditions, strong south-easterlies can be among the best as a following wind sets birds powering out of the North Sea; but understandably, birders are often otherwise engaged at times like this. More usually it is westerlies or north-westerlies which draw scope-laden birders to the far corners of the island. A strong breeze from these airts with falling pressure can produce nationally impressive seabird passages. Day totals of 500+ Sooty Shearwaters are not unheard of as are tallies of 50+ Long-tailed Skuas. Sabine’s Gulls are almost annual; sometimes in small numbers and almost invariably tagging along as part of a Kittiwake movement. Large shearwaters zip by from time to time (more Cory’s than Greats), usually as part of a large passage but with no more predictable pattern than that. Balearic Shearwater is very scarce, usually in late summer and there have been a couple of decent shouts for Little Shearwater in recent years, but Orkney awaits its first acceptable record. In terms of timing late-August through to early-October tends to be the most productive part of the year. Early morning watches at Dennis Ness can be frustrated by the position of the sun, so the alternatives are to try another spot or wait a while until the sun has moved further west – a fine excuse for a couple of extra hours kip. An evening watch, with the light behind, in August can reveal up to 1,000 Storm Petrels per hour but only if the sea is glassy calm. These are the conditions to pick up cetaceans with White-beaked Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin and Minke Whale being the best bets. Harbour Porpoise are often numerous. White-sided Dolphin and Killer Whale can ‘bomb’ past. Grey Phalaropes are scarce on passage though a flock of 11 flitted past on 9th September 1992. Of course, you just never know what’s next – witness Orkney’s first and horrendously overdue Ross’s Gull which flew past the ‘Drive-in’ in October 1997.
Over 60% of the North Ronaldsay coast is rocky shoreline which tends not to be particularly attractive to migrants, though it can harbour the odd Green Sandpiper or two. The remaining coastline is mostly sandy and really comes into its own in late April/May when hordes of north-bound waders stop by in internationally important numbers to fuel up before the long hop to Arctic regions. Especially important (and impressive) are the hundreds of Sanderling, Turnstone, Dunlin, Purple Sandpiper and Ringed Plover; many in stunning summer plumage.
Links and Maritime Heath/Grassland
The first of these areas, known here as the North Links, forms much of the landward boundary of Linklet Bay. It is truly grassy links and indeed is the islands nine-hole golf course. Waders forage on the links at high water and the flocks of calidrids are well worth checking – White-rumped and Baird’s Sandpiper have both been found here. However, the main habitat focus in this area is the small seasonal lochan known as Sandsheen (HY768544). In spring and autumn, low water levels here attract many waders though despite recent records of Little Ringed and American Golden Plover along with Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Sandsheen still hasn’t quite lived up to our expectations. The whole site can be watched from the concealment of the sheep dyke 100m west.
Dennis Ness is slightly more ‘heathy’ and contains the lochs of Trollavatn, Sjaevar and Bewan. All are worth a thorough check. Prime finds here include Buff-breasted, White-rumped and Pectoral Sandpipers plus Red-necked Phalarope and Dotterel. Bewan Loch in autumn looks brilliant yet for some reason doesn’t excel. Local feeling is that it’s passed over on the way to the seawatch point at the Old Light and doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Dennis Ness can also be good for passerines especially when a fall is in progress. The lighthouse complexes and the numerous ‘planticrus’ (small stone built enclosures above the north and north-east shores) are best. A Pine Bunting was found here in October 1992 and a Citrine Wagtail was around the Loch of Sjaevar for several days in September, 1997.
The other areas of maritime heath and grassland are very good for waders and their record of a dominica each says a lot about their potential in autumn. The coastal fringes of these areas are underwatched though they can shelter migrants.
Rough Grazing and Derelict Croftland
This habitat is characterised by long tussocky grass often interspersed with stands of Iris, Dock, Nettles or Reed Canary Grass. These areas are a symptom of the decline in the human population of North Ronaldsay. In the past they were grazed or worked by the many more active crofts of that era. Typical examples include the Bridesness parks (HY768523 and HY773523) the Laird’s Park (HY767547) and Westness/Sandar (HY766554). Always good for pipits, large and small, these hard to work areas continually produce surprises such as Corncrake, Quail or especially, Great Snipe. One such area proved attractive to a male Little Bustard in May 1989.
Worked Agricultural Land
This habitat encompasses most of the islands land usage and is too vast an area to go into in detail. For the migrant hunter, standing oat crops can be worthwhile early in the autumn, though when cut it is probably more productive and less frustrating to work the remaining stubble. In autumn, ‘tattie and neep’ patches provide outstanding cover for migrants no matter where they are on the island. In spring, ploughed or rolled land is attractive to species like Dotterel or Short-toed Lark.
These are the ‘hedgerows’ of North Ronaldsay. They provide food and shelter for migrants and are a class micro-habitat on their own. An entire day can be spent fruitfully walking the dykes if there are migrants around. This is best done by two people. It can be incredibly frustrating solo when migrants flit over and through dykes with infuriating repetition.
There are two oligotrophic (nutrient poor) lochs on the island, Bewan and Gretchen. The former has been dealt with previously, but Gretchen (HY748528) deserves special mention as being a fabulous place for wildfowl. Over the years Smew, Ruddy Duck, American Wigeon and Blue-winged Teal (three) have all been found here. In early autumn the sandy/muddy fringe to Gretchen is very good for waders. There are excellent viewing opportunities from behind the sheep dyke.
The eutrophic (nutrient rich) lochs of Bridesness, Hooking, Ancum and Garso have a different character. Each possesses an extensive marshy fringe and present a real challenge. This densely vegetated zone absorbs migrants like a sponge. Migrants can be easy enough to find but sometimes nearly impossible to stay on. This can be painfully disappointing for the field birder and as a result, this habitat is very underwatched. Mist nets are the only real answer (or perhaps concrete or napalm!).
Having said all that, the loch areas and adjacent cover really does deserve more than a cursory look as each have had their own ‘stars’ in the past. Ancum Loch (HY763545) stands out with a well established record of good finds including Roseate, White-winged Black and Gull-billed Terns, Mediterranean Gull, Blue-winged Teal and Long-billed Dowitcher. In winter/early spring 1995, a white Gyr Falcon frequented Ancum Loch, which seemed like bad news for Orkney’s only nucleus of breeding Gadwall. Thankfully the population today remains stable at around six pairs.
There is, especially in early spring and early summer, a small raptor passage through the island. This nearly always occurs during warm, settled high pressure weather; the associated thermals presumably encouraging large raptors to ‘island hop’. This is one of my favourite parts of birding here. Suddenly everything goes up around you; Oystercatchers fleeing, Common Gulls yelping, Starlings chinking. They’ve all seen it but you haven’t! It could be a Goshawk or a White-tailed Eagle, a Honey Buzzard or a Black Kite – you’ve got to find it first. All have been seen here recently and the usual pattern is that they are mobbed up the island, chicken out of the sea crossing to Shetland and drift south again. The occasional Snowy Owl takes part in this fascinating drama.
Some of the best sites
This is a crofted area with some rough grazing, a few ditches and pools. Gretchen Loch is a ten minute walk to the north, best approached outside the sheep dyke. At the centre of this area are the NRBO premises. The fact that, year round, birders live in and travel through this area, undoubtedly contributes to the good numbers of migrants found there. However the few pilgrims left who remember birding here in the late 1970s/early 1980s will know that this area was always good. Indeed this was an important influence in the siting of NRBO. Nowadays the Observatory lands are managed with migrants in mind and the whole croft can be rewarding. Some of the best recent finds here include Paddyfield Warbler, Black-headed Bunting (two), Alpine Swift, Arctic and Greenish Warbler. A stunning male Pine Bunting was found near the cattle grid in June 1995 and the Little Bustard was near Lurand in May 1989. If your day starts at NRBO, you could do worse than working this area thoroughly before moving on elsewhere. But, be warned, this can be a tough area to break away from!
West Banks Dyke
Turning west and north from the pier, the sheep dyke follows the coastline as far as the airfield before turning east separating the agricultural land from the sheep grazed maritime heath/grassland of Dew Park, West Banks and Torriness Hill. Migrants accumulate along the lee side of the dyke when the wind is fresh easterly or south-easterly. It seems that many migrants arrive on the island and continue to move downwind until they can go no further. On occasion migrants have been seen making landfall here from the west, presumably having overshot the island. One great advantage of linear birding like this is that you tend to push birds ahead. Should they fly back, they almost invariably return to the dyke so staying with anything is a near certainty. Prime finds here include Olive-backed Pipit, Greenish and Bonelli’s Warbler, Little and Rustic Bunting. The whole area can be especially good for Bluethroat in May.
The maritime grazing areas are frequented by large numbers of waders, mostly Golden Plover, from late summer through autumn. These flocks have attracted several American Golden Plover in recent years, though each of the three Pacifics found here have all been in grass fields. Dotterel regularly turn up here and some of the small pools have attracted White-rumped Sandpiper.
This is an area of rough grazing and arable land criss-crossed with low drystone dykes around the croft of Nether Linnay. There are several small beds of Iris, Nettle, Dock and Thistle and these in particular, attract and hold a wide variety of migrants. The low lying iris bed 250m north of the croft (HY759555), the one bisected by a low dyke, is especially good and is one of the best places on the island for Reed Warbler – mostly in autumn. This is certainly one of the best spots on the island and very obviously benefits from the ‘corner effect’. An hour or two here is highly recommended. Recent records include several each of Richard’s Pipit, Short-toed Lark and Little Bunting. More glamorous finds include Arctic Warbler, Rustic Buntings and Isabelline Shrike.
Moving east from Nether Linnay you soon come to the rough grazing and derelict crofting land of Westness (HY767557). The maze of field dykes, ditches, thistle and iris beds both east and west of the house can provide the best birding on the island. During a fall, this whole area has an outstanding reputation for attracting migrants. It can be hard work and the iris beds are really most efficiently tackled by a team. Don’t ignore either the outside of the sheep dyke or the small sandy beach below the croft. This spot always looks good at low water and its only ‘score’ so far is a Baird’s Sandpiper in October 1993. The whole croft area has an uncanny knack of turning up Great Snipe among an impressive ‘roll of honour’ including Richard’s and Olive-backed Pipit, Rustic and Little Buntings, Radde’s and Marsh Warbler, as well as Ortolan Buntings, Siberian Stonechat and Hoopoe.
About 500m east of Westness, an arm of the island turns north-east and narrows to only 300m across. In the middle of this ‘isthmus’ is Garso Loch, a small body of water with a marshy border. There are some small cultivated areas and weedy overgrown corners around the various crofts. The variety of habitats and their concentration within the area of 1/2km2 makes this yet another compelling area. The occupied crofts of Garso, Lochend and Senness are all prime spots. This whole area is a bit of a ‘litmus test’ for the island. If there are a few bits and pieces around here, it’s usually well worth carrying on. The odd surprise is more common here than in most parts of the island and has included such diverse finds as Woodlark, Goshawk, Yellow-breasted Bunting and Greenish Warbler. On the evening of 25th May, 1996 a staggering spectacle was witnessed around Garso Loch where, within the space of a few hundred metres, males of Common Rosefinch and Rustic Bunting were in full song whilst a White-throated Sparrow hopped around the courtyard of Garso Farm, trying to elude a male Red-backed Shrike. Just across the road a flock of ten Grey-headed Wagtails fed in the margins of the loch and two Ortolan Buntings picked their way along the lochside road.
This is the name of all the island east of Garso Loch and it gets my vote as the best and most varied birding in Orkney. The whole township is a hot spot but some parts are just ‘super-heated’! Being furthest east and with one million candlepower of lighthouse blasting out at night, the Easting cannot fail to attract migrants. On the debit side, I have noticed that ‘stuff’ tends to move down the island quite quickly, but when a fall is under way it’s breathtaking. Recent finds are headed by Radde’s and Pallas’s Warbler; Black-headed, Pine, Yellow-breasted, Rustic and several Little Buntings, Short-toed Lark, Siberian Stonechat, Red-throated and Richard’s Pipit (including a flock of seven) and Pallid Swift. All these within the past few years! Cover is scarce in the Easting and, in a sense, that aids the migrant hunter. There are a few beds of Iris, Thistle and Dock and in autumn, the few ‘tattie’ patches are at their best. Standing oat crop also attracts migrants but viewing from the field edge can be frustrating. When cut and stooked things become much easier, the stubble being good for larks and buntings.
Is the south-east corner of the island, combining worked agricultural land with derelict common grazing. Cover is provided by extensive beds of iris, fringed locally with reed canary grass. There are several annual patches of dock and thistle. In the early 1980s, Brideness was the place to go birding, fuelled by results such as Yellow-breasted Bunting (two), Arctic Warbler and Pechora Pipit. However in the early 1990s, Bridesness ‘went-off’ despite considerable on-going attention. At the same time the north and north-west of the island came into vogue, reinforced by as good finds there. Bridesness remains a good, though, these days, underwatched area.
Holland House Gardens
Is the epicentre of rarity location on the island. The list of finds here is just frightening! The gardens are the derelict remains of the island ‘Lairds’, the Traill family, attempt to plant up and create a small ‘Victorian garden’ against vast climatic odds. There remains today a dense 1/2 acre of wind-pruned trees and bushes; mostly Sycamore and Fuchsia. This is the only substantial area of arboreal cover on the island, and its magnetism for passerines has to be seen to be believed. The density of cover can be frustrating for the field birder and furthermore, this is the principal ringing site for the NRBO. It would be advisable and at least courteous to check with the ringer in charge (there is a small ringing hut occupied when the nets are open) before risking disturbance of the netting area. It is in these very nets that most (but not all) of the rarities here are first found, including Blyth’s Reed (2), Great Reed, Melodious, Arctic (two), Greenish (two), Subalpine (several), Yellow and Bonelli’s Warbler; Rustic, Little, Pine Bunting, Isabelline and Steppe Shrike; Thrush Nightingale, Black-throated and Siberian Thrush, Olive-backed Pipit, Spanish Sparrow amongst many others. Recorded there without the aid of in-hand inspection include Booted and Yellow-rumped Warbler and Citrine Wagtail.
The spectacle of a fall in progress, with passerines pouring into the gardens is a ‘must see’. Even if you are not inclined towards ringing, the environs of Holland House benefit from its proximity and the whole area can be great field birding. In any case, should anything good appear, the ringers make every effort to round everyone up in good time before the birds release.
A few other spots deserve a brief mention.
- Manse Garden (HY758538). Small patch of bushes in front of doctors surgery.
- Cavan (HY762527). Unoccupied croft with overgrown garden. Please do not enter.
- Longar (HY762550). Isolated iris and reed canary grass beds with ditch. Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler site.
- Holmy drain (HY762533 to HY762537). Deep water filled ditch draining into NW corner of Hooking Loch.
- Howar drain (HY760520). Deep drain with iris and reed canary grass.
- Nether Breck (HY766552). Derelict croft with weedy ‘garden’. River Warbler site.
- Scottigar Loch (HY782555). Small lochan with iris beds and high dyke.
Birding on North Ronaldsay
There are issues of access to and travel through various habitats on North Ronaldsay. Almost all of the island is free to move through. There is plenty of open ground to attempt without concern but, I would suggest that if a field is ‘seriously fenced’ it’s probably better not to enter. Should that ‘funny pipit’ for example, hug such an area try to ask around for access first. The hundreds of miles of drystone dykes on the island offer great cover for migrants but can be a ‘sod’ to cross. Even us locals knock a few stones off occasionally and the rule is always replace what you dislodge.
Walking through fields which contain animals isn’t on. It wouldn’t be the first time that a nice pastoral scene with grazing cattle had turned into mayhem at the intrusion of a stranger. People can get hurt – and that’s before the farmer gets his hands on you.
Please respect the privacy of occupied dwelling houses. Access will almost always be granted on request but nobody wants their first sight of the day to be a battalion of anoraked strangers in the front yard.
If the need arises to phone out a sighting, most houses happily allow use of the phone. This probably a rare privilege these days and a token payment should be offered.
Most of the island is worked agricultural land which will include standing crop and vegetable patches. Please keep to the edges of these areas. No matter the exigencies of the moment, try to refrain from going in. Alternatively contact the owner, or one of the local birders who will best know how to pursue the request.
The above advice is given to help birders visiting the island. This is a warm, welcoming and friendly community and the above is in no way intended to paint a picture of ‘Fortress North Ronaldsay’. The bottom line is, if in doubt, just ask.
The Fair Isle anomaly
One of the things which historically attracted birders to North Ronaldsay is its near proximity to Fair Isle, only 25 miles up the road. The theory goes, why should it have exclusive rights to all those specialities when we are less than an hour’s flight away? Surely, for example, we should get the occasional Lanceolated Warbler. Popular feeling here is that we almost certainly do but that given the vast amount of cover, this half bird, half rodent will just vanish, probably into a loch edge, which are truly sponge-like in their capacity for absorbing migrants. Singles of Pechora Pipit and Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and four Yellow-breasted Buntings have proved that the monopoly can be cracked, but it is without reliability. Only ‘Lancey’ remains to fall, but it will … one day.
Getting there and staying there
The island isn’t difficult to get to, but at the risk of putting folk off, there is one important thing to bear in mind. It is that you pass over several potentially excellent birding localities on your way here. Stronsay, for example, has its own reputation as a good venue for migrants but, on either side, Shapinsay and Sanday are desperately underwatched at migration times. Both these islands are well supplied with ferries and accommodation. A migration week or two there could easily be extremely rewarding. In fairness, North Ronaldsay is undoubtedly excellent but it’s not the last word in migrant birding in Orkney. For the pioneers out there there’s a lot of unexplored territory in the county. Having said that, there’s ample capacity here for the ‘find your own’ birder. The island has been very neglected recently, being especially deserted during the last two peak autumn periods.
Travel to the island is easy. Loganair (01856 872494) operate a twice daily plane service (Mon – Sat inclusive) from Kirkwall for £28.00 return. There are two weekly sailing’s from Kirkwall by Orkney Ferries (01856 872044) taking approx. two and a half hours to reach the island and costing £9.00 return per passenger. Booking is essential for air travel and both of these services can be hindered by the weather.
There is a variety of accommodation on the island;
- Hostel & Guest House: NRBO, Miss A. Duncan (01857 633200 fax 633207)
- Self Catering: Dennishill, Mrs J. Smith (01856 874486)
- The Dolls House, Mrs S. Mawson (01857 633221) also B&B.
- Neven, Miss L. Forgan (0171 483 2391)
- Brigg, Mrs C. Muir (01857 633244) also B&B and Guest House.
Island services include shop (+ petrol), post-office, pub and restaurant/tea room, car hire and community centre. All the above services are detailed in the essential guide to travel and accommodation in Orkney published annually by Orkney Tourist Board (Tel: 01856 872856, Fax: 01856 875056).
Based on 25 years experience of birding North Ronaldsay, I have attempted to describe some of the best spots I’m lucky enough to have on my doorstep. It is not comprehensive and a visitor should not ignore places not mentioned. Everywhere has potential!
Birds apart, the island has thriving colonies of Grey and Common Seals and, of course, the unusual breed of seaweed-eating native sheep. Moth and butterfly migrants occur, often simultaneously with birds. Botanically the island is also interesting but, that Orkney speciality, Scottish Primrose, is now gone from our flora.
There remains many challenges and a great deal of fun to be had here. I will be happy to help direct anyone wishing to visit and share the thrills of birding North Ronaldsay.
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