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Archive for February, 2016

Recently, while exploring the streams in the remote back areas of Huntley Meadows Park, I have heard the unmistakable call of a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) several times. Yesterday, on a warm spring-like day, I finally got a clear view of this beautiful female.

As I have mentioned before in some earlier postings, Belted Kingfishers are unusual in the bird world—the females are more colorful than the males. Females have a blue and a chestnut band across their white breasts and the males have only a blue band.

Belted Kingfisher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was walking through the woods on Friday at Huntley Meadows Park, I noticed something white among the leaves on the ground. At first I thought it was just a mushroom, but upon closer examination it turned out to be the upper portion of the skull of what I am pretty sure is a raccoon (Procyon lotor). There were no other bones in the area, nor was the lower jaw anywhere to be seen.

I don’t know much about animal anatomy, but I was fascinated by the shapes and contours of the skull, a kind of natural and organic sculpture. It was intriguing as well to examine the sizes and shapes of all of the different teeth.

Raccoon skull

Raccoon skull

raccoon skull

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is really nice when I am petsitting to have new subjects to photograph. Katie, a beautiful young German Shepherd, stayed with me last night and I took this shot as she was sitting on my couch, keeping a close eye on P.R., my rabbit.

Katie seemed utterly fascinated by the rabbit and intently watched him as he moved about his cage. P.R. (which is short for “Prime Rib”was more or less oblivious to Katie, even when they were only inches apart. I suspect that P.R. does not view dogs as predators, probably because she grew up with with a dog in the household.

The challenges of photographing a pet indoors are different from photographing wildlife outdoors, but so many of the basic principles carry over. This image looks a bit like a studio shot, because I was able to direct the light of a desk lamp so that it fell on one side of Katie’s face (and amazingly she sat still for a moment).

German Shepherd

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was wandering about Huntley Meadows Park this morning, I came upon the remains of an Eastern Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) that quite obviously did not survive the winter. It looks to have been in place for quite some time not far from the water’s edge of a stream in a remote area of the park.

I don’t know if a predator consumed its flesh, but it looks like a lot of the bones were scattered around the skull of the turtle, as you can see in the first photo. I move the shell to nearby location to get shots of the the top and underside and also took a close-up shot of the skull.

Snapping Turtle

Snapping Turtle remains in situ

Snapping Turtle

Detailed view of the top of the shell

Snapping Turtle

Detailed view of the underside of the shell

Snapping Turtle

Detailed view of the skull

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last Saturday, the final day of the 5+ month deer hunting season at Huntley Meadows Park, I was startled to see the unmistakable shape of deer antlers on the ground a short distance away from where I was standing. As I moved closer, I saw that it was only some kind of decoy used by the hunters.

deer decoy

Looking up, I realized I was at the base of an unoccupied tree stand. I felt a little safer knowing that there were no archers in the stand at that moment.

tree stand

I understand the problems caused in our area by an overpopulation of White-tailed Deer and the reason for the extended hunting season. Still, I am somewhat amused by the lengths to which the county goes to avoid using words like “hunting” or “killing.” Instead, they refer to the “archery program” and “deer management.” Deer management? I have visions of a deer CEO.

deer3_20Feb_blog

On Monday the 22nd, I returned to the park and was surprised to see that least some of the tree stands were still present. I am sure that someone will eventually come to retrieve the stands, but I am going remain alert, just in case one of the stands happens to be occupied despite the stated end of the deer hunting season.

deer stand

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Some days it seems like the birds are conspiring against me. They are so skittish that they fly away long before I am within range or they hide behind a wall of branches, where I can hear them but cannot see them clearly.

In moments like that, a male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) often comes to rescue me from my despair. These birds are so bold and defiant that they refuse to hide. Instead, they find the most prominent perch and sing out as loudly as possible, showing off for rivals and potential mates.

This past Monday was one of those days when I was having trouble finding subjects to photograph. Suddenly a blackbird appeared and flew to the highest branch of a nearby small tree. Undeterred by my presence, he looked in my direction and seemed to smile. After a moment, he burst forth in singing while continuing to look at me, as though he were saying, “This one’s for you.”

Red-winged Blackbird

bb2_22feb_blog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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We visit our local parks and wildlife refuges for a short while and return home, forgetting sometimes that many of the creatures we observed live and die within the confines of these small (or not so small) areas. As I wander through Huntley Meadows Park, I see signs of this entire circle of life. Lives have ended and, as we move into spring, new lives are beginning.

Whenever I come across skeletal remains, a clump of feathers, or other evidence of the death of a bird or an animal, I cannot help but wonder how the creature met its demise. Was it a predator, old age, sickness, or starvation? Life can be harsh in the wild, especially in the winter.

As far as I can tell, the animal in the first photo is a raccoon (Procyon lotor). Several months ago a fellow photographer mentioned that he had seen the dead body of a raccoon inside a hollow in the trunk of a fallen tree. I thought that predators would have dismembered the body by now, but instead it seems to be slowly decomposing in its sheltered position.

The skull is the second photo is that of a White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Other body parts of the deer were scattered about in the same area where I spotted the skull. There are concerns that the deer population is too high for the park to support, so there is a chance this deer died from starvation.

I know that these photos, especially the first one, are pretty graphic and apologize in advance to those who may have found them to be excessively disturbing.

raccoon

White-tailed Deer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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My long weekend of catsitting is coming to an end today, so I decided I needed to do a posting on Queso, the youngest member of the cat trio. Queso is still a kitten and is full of energy and curiosity. He loves to antagonize his two older “brothers” and will sometimes pounce on them when they least expect it.

Cindy Dyer and her husband Michael rescued Queso when they found him abandoned in the bushes outside of a Mexican restaurant. That initial experience and his orange-yellow fur caused them to name him Queso.

Tomorrow (or possibly later today), I’ll be back to my more typical wildlife and nature photos. It’s been a fun challenge this past weekend to shoot “wild” animals in an indoor setting with available light.

Queso

Queso

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Lobo is another one of the cats that I am watching this weekend. He and Pixel, the cat that I featured previously, were adopted at the same time. According to my friend Cindy Dyer, she wanted to name him “JPEG,” but her husband protested, so they settled on the name “Lobo.”

Lobo has always seemed exotic and mysterious to me, with piercing eyes that look like they could hypnotize me if I stare into them too long.

Lobo

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am catsitting for the weekend, which means that I have three new subjects to photograph. The cats all have distinctive personalities, so I decided to post photos of them separately.

Only a photographer and graphic designer like my dear friend and mentor Cindy Dyer would name a cat “Pixel.” Of the three cats, Pixel is generally the most sedentary. He loves to sprawl out on the carpet when he is not eating. He loves to ear and was starting to turn into a Mega-Pixel before he was put on a diet.

Here are a few shots of Pixel from yesterday that capture some of his different moods. I took them indoors using available light with my Canon 24-105mm lens, a lens that I rarely use when photographing wildlife.

Pixel

Pixel

Pixel

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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How do you generate volume when you sing? I remember being told to breathe from the diaphragm, but this male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) seemed to think that spreading his wings helped him to be heard yesterday morning at Huntley Meadows Park.

Red-winged Blackbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I don’t know if this male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) qualifies as an “angry bird,” but he sure did not seem happy to see me this morning at Huntley Meadows Park.

Maybe he was cold and hungry or got off on the wrong side of the bed this morning. In any case, I couldn’t coax a smile out of him.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Sometimes a Great Blue Heron’s catch is big enough for a main course, but sometimes it’s only an appetizer. The good news is that appetizers are really easy for a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) to swallow.

I included the second photo, which sequentially was taken before the first one, because I like the expression on the heron’s face. The heron seems to be both amused and embarrassed at the small size of the fish.

It’s obvious, though, that the heron does not have a catch-and-release policy if the fish is not of a certain minimum size.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love to wander through remote areas of Huntley Meadows Park, often following meandering streams. Each time is different, as the level of the water, the varying light, and the changing vegetation alter my perceptions of the landscape.

The park is a freshwater wetland of over 1500 acres with meadows, ponds, streams, and woods that provide a habitat for the wide range of insects, birds, and animals that I often feature on this blog. I am always conscious of the beauty of my surroundings, but generally have either a telephoto zoom or a macro lens on my camera, so photographing the landscape is not something that I do very often.

I was drawn to the twists and turns of this section of one of my favorite streams after a significant rainfall earlier this month. It was relatively early in the morning and there were still shadows in some areas. I captured some images of the scene with the “short” end of my 150-600mm lens and this is my favorite of the group. I definitely need to work more on visualizing landscape shots, but am happy with this initial effort.

Barnyard Run

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Like a tightrope walker, this American Robin (Turdus migratorius) inched its way along a narrow vine at Huntley Meadows Park, its eyes focused on the prize that awaited it at the other end. Periodically the robin used its wings for balance and moved forward until it reached a steady position almost within reach of the berries.

With a quick thrust forward of its head, the robin was able to snatch one of the low-hanging fruits. When I left it, the robin seemed to be enjoying its prize with a smile on its face.

American Robin

American Robin

American Robin

American Robin

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Not a goose

As I was watching some Canada Geese foraging in open water at Huntley Meadows Park on Saturday, I noticed a smaller, darker bird in the middle of the group. Clearly it was not a goose, but it too was wading in the shallow water and periodically pulling out tasty pieces of vegetation.

It looks to me like it is a Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus), a cool-looking species that I don’t see very often. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the “Rusty Blackbird is one of America’s most rapidly declining species. The population has plunged an estimated 85-99 percent over the past forty years and scientists are completely puzzled over what is the cause.”

Rusty Blackbirds often gather in small flocks, but I observed only this single individual. I kept an eye on the blackbird and was fortunate to get some shots as it moved in and out of the light on a frigid day at the marsh.

Rusty Blackbird

Rusty Blackbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Although the temperature was 20 degrees (minus 7 degrees C) and the wind was blowing yesterday afternoon, I got fooled into thinking the bright sunshine would warm me up a bit. Most of the creatures at the marsh were absent from view, probably trying to keep warm in sheltered locations.

I was excited, therefore, when I head the unmistakable sound of a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) at work nearby as I was walking along a path. No other woodpeckers in our area can match the volume of a Pileated Woodpecker when it is burying its bill into a tree.

I managed to locate the woodpecker and was a little disappointed that it was high in a tree in a location where it was obscured by lots of branches. Eventually the woodpecker climbed higher in the tree and I was able to get a few relatively unobstructed shots, although I had to take them at a pretty sharp angle.

My favorite shot is the one in which the woodpecker looks like it is stalking a prey at the top of the tree. Its eyes are fixed on the target and it seems to be trying to sneak up on it. In reality, I have no idea what the woodpecker was doing, but it made for an unusual pose.

pil1_13Feb_blog

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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My good friend and photography mentor, Cindy Dyer, is spreading the news about the two-page photo spread of some of my recent photos that ran in a local community newspaper. What she doesn’t note is that she is a source of constant support, encouragement, and inspiration for my photography as well as for my blog. Thanks, Cindy.

Cindy Dyer's Blog

Congratulations to my dear friend Michael Powell for getting his photos published in a spread in the local Mt. Vernon Voice newspaper. He was out shooting at Huntley Meadows one cold morning and the co-editor of the publication happened to be there. He asked him if he would like his work to be featured in the newspaper. He had a two page spread available to fill and Michael had to get him photos pronto. Nice showcase for your work, grasshopper! You can see more of Michael’s work on his blog at https://michaelqpowell.wordpress.com/.

Michael Mt Vernon Voice

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As the early morning sunlight hit the cattails yesterday at Huntley Meadows Park, this male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) seemed to be contemplating the start of the new day.

Red-winged Blackbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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No matter how slowly and silently I move, a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) seems to sense my presence very quickly and immediately takes to the air. It’s really not that surprising, given the eagle’s amazingly keen eyesight that lets it spot prey from a long distance away.

Last weekend I spotted this Bald Eagle when it was perched atop a broken-off tree. Most of the previous times the stationary eagles that I have seen have been sitting on branches. When they took off, they seemed to push off of the branch a bit to gain some forward momentum.

In this case, the eagle appeared to initially push in an upward direction to gain a little height before flapping its powerful wings. Here are a few shots that show some of the stages of the takeoff process.

 

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Some of my favorite photos are ones with a common subject and a simple composition, like these shots I took this past weekend of a male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) at Huntley Meadows Park. The blackbird was perched in a field of cattails and the morning light was beautiful.

Sometimes photography seems so uncomplicated—it just works.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Do robins have tongues? I never thought much about this question until I looked at the shots I took this past weekend of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) at Huntley Meadows Park in Northern Virginia.

As a child, I was told that robins were a harbinger of spring and that may have been the case in Massachusetts. Clearly that is not the case where I live now, for an entire flock of robins was present in the park in what I would still consider the middle of winter.

Some of the robins were pecking about on the ground, but many of them were drawn to some kind of vegetation that had bluish-colored berries. I usually think of robins eating worms, so it was fascinating to watch them pick and swallow berries, acting much like Cedar Waxwings.

When reviewing my photos, I saw what appeared to be a tongue in some of my images, so I did a little research. It turns out that robins do have tongues that they use to help them swallow fruit. In fact, different birds use their tongues for a wide variety of purposes, as Laura Erickson illustrates wonderfully in a  blog posting entitled “More about Bird Tongues than a Normal Person Would Want to Know.”

In the first image below, the robin has just grabbed the berry and is starting to pull it in. In the second image, the tongue is more clearly visible and the process has moved along a bit. I hoped to get a shot of the final step in swallowing the berry, but the robin turned its head to the side at that moment.

American Robin

American Robin

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I awoke this morning thinking I would see snow on the ground again, but it seems to have turned into rain. This photo of a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) and its modest catch reminds me of how snowy it was a mere two weeks ago in our area.

It’s interesting to me to see how the unusual angle of view and the low perspective make the heron’s bill seem unusually elongated and its long neck appears to be really short. The distorted perspective of the image may cause some viewers to look a second time at the photo to mentally reconfirm that this indeed is a Great Blue Heron.

I think that most photographers would agree that it is a good thing when viewers take a second look at their images or examine them more closely.

Great Blue Heron

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I usually miss the takeoff sequence of a Bald Eagle, because the eagle spots me before I see it, but this weekend I managed to capture a series of shots of one such takeoff.

My first indication of an eagle’s presence is often when I see it flying away. Several times this past weekend, however, I spotted a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) perched in the trees at Huntley Meadows Park and I was able to observe the eagle for at least a few minutes at a time.

In the case of these images, I was looking across a beaver pond at the eagle as it perched in the trees. In the first couple of shots, the eagle seemed to getting a little agitated and is lifting its feet and flexing its wings. Then he assumed a position that reminds me of the start of a speed skating race or a sprint, with a flexed wing ready to propel the eagle forward. Finally the eagle pushed off from the tree and descended a little with talons extended before leveling off and flying away.

Some of the time it seems an eagle just springs into motion and ignores most of the items on its pre-flight checklist as it prepares for takeoff. Other times, like this one, it follows the established procedures and waited for flight clearance from the tower.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday was a great day for me photographing Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) at Huntley Meadows Park. I took this photo later in the day than the more close-up shots that I posted earlier. I can’t tell if it is the same eagle, but it too appears to have a band on its right foot.

I really like the way that the dynamic position of the eagle’s wings conveys a sense of the power of this majestic creature. There is a kind of dramatic tension in the pose that captivates me.

Bald Eagle

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday, for the second day in a row a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) flew close to me at Huntley Meadows Park. Unlike the previous day, when the eagle simply soared by overhead, this one looked like he thought I might be a potential prey.

With the snow almost totally gone, I decided yesterday to hike out to some of the more remote regions of the park. I was following a familiar stream when I noticed a dark shape near the top of a tall tree on the opposite bank of the stream. I extended my lens to its full length and was surprised to see that it was a bald eagle.

I had time to shoot shoot only a couple of images when suddenly the eagle took off, initially heading right toward me. I kept firing as the eagle grew larger and larger in my viewfinder. I think I might have startled the eagle when I moved to bring the camera up to my eye and his instinctive reaction was to check out the movement.

Eventually the eagle veered off and flew in the opposite direction and my heart rate started to return to normal.  I don’t think that I was actually at risk, but through a 600mm lens, it sure looked like the eagle was speeding toward me with talons extended.

I couldn’t help but notice that the eagle has a band on its right foot. Whenever I capture a shot of an eagle, I will have to check to see if I can see a band. I don’t know how many eagles hang out at our park, but eagle sightings have become much more common this last year than previously.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Another eagle? I know that I posted some eagle photos a few days ago, but normally when I see a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), it is flying in the distance. Yesterday at Huntley Meadows Park, however, one flew almost directly over me while I was on the boardwalk.

This different perspective allowed me to get some shots that are much more detailed than usual, showing, among other things, the eagle’s tail feathers and fully-extended wings. The wingspan of this magnificent bird is amazing.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald EagleMichael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I walked slowly toward a fellow photographer pointing her camera deep into the woods, I suspected that she was looking at an owl. In a quiet voice, she explained to me where the Barred Owl (Strix varia) was perched. There were a lot of branches and vegetation between us and the owl, but eventually I was able to spot the owl.

Initially the owl was facing directly in our direction, but then shifted its body to the side, all the time watching us from behind the branches. I stretched and bent as I searched for a visual tunnel that would give me an unobstructed shot of the owl, but couldn’t find one. These are the best shots I could manage before the owl flew deeper into the woods. I think they help to give you an idea of the beauty and mystery of this elusive creature.

 

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Winter fishing

Last week, when we still had lots of snow on the ground, I watched a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) at Huntley Meadows Park catch a relatively big fish. Most times a heron simply tilts back its head and swallows a fish immediately, but this heron walked out of the water with the fish in its mouth, probably to make sure that his prized catch did not have a chance to escape.

The heron placed the fish in the snow and adjusted its position multiple times. After several abortive attempts to get the fish into the optimal position, the heron lifted the fish up one final time and swallowed it in one big gulp.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This past weekend at Huntley Meadows Park, I accidentally spooked a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) perched on a distant tree. As the eagle flew away, I was able to capture a few images that highlight some of its beautiful details.

These images were shot from a long way off and I had to do a lot of cropping. I am really happy, though, with the performance of my lens, even when zoomed out all the way, especially when the light is nice.

I continue to hold fast to the view that any day that I spot one of these majestic creatures is a wonderful day. I hope that today is wonderful for you, however you choose to define “wonderful.”

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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The White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) is one of the few sparrows that I can reliably identify, thanks to its distinctive markings. I love the little white “goatee” and the touch of bright yellow near its eyes.

Like most sparrows, White-throated Sparrows seem to spend a lot of time poking about in the underbrush, where they are hard to see. During this past week, when the ground has been covered with snow, I’ve managed to get some close-up shots of them in relatively exposed positions.

I really like the way that the green vine provides an organic framing element in the first image. The sparrow in the second image was awash with bright light as it perched on a rotten stump at Huntley Meadows Park. The details of the stump were blown away, but the bird itself seems to have been properly exposed (and the background is wonderful).

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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