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Archive for November, 2017

Although they behave like diving ducks, Pied-billed Grebes (Podilymbus podiceps) are members of an entirely different family and have small, distinctive bills that make them easy to identify. They tend to hang out in deeper water, are in constant motion, and are pretty small, which makes it a challenge to get a good shot of one. I spotted this grebe this past weekend at the same little suburban pond where I observed the Hooded Mergansers and Wood Duck that have been featured recently in recent blog posts.

As I do research on my subjects, I often run across quirky little facts about them. I smiled when I read the following information about Pied-billed Grebes on the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

“The Latin genus name for “grebe” means “feet at the buttocks”—an apt descriptor for these birds, whose feet are indeed located near their rear ends. This body plan, a common feature of many diving birds, helps grebes propel themselves through water. Lobed (not webbed) toes further assist with swimming. Pied-billed Grebes pay for their aquatic prowess on land, where they walk awkwardly.”

I haven’t yet seen grebes out of the water, but I am really curious now to get a look at their feet.

Pied-billed Grebe

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Can ducks smile? I realize that a duck’s bill is pretty inflexible, but I couldn’t help but think that this American Black Duck (Anas rubripes) was giving me a coy little smile as it dipped its bill into the water this past Monday at a small suburban pond in Kingstowne, Virginia..

When I first spotted two ducks swimming around together, I thought they were simply two female mallards. When I looked more closely at them, it seemed that their bills were brighter and more yellow than that of a a female mallard. When I got home, I pulled out my birding guide and looked through the section on ducks. I concluded that the two ducks, one of which is shown in the photo, are American Black Ducks.

When I am really uncertain about a bird species, I will post it to a Facebook page on which more experienced birders provide help with identification. In this case, I decided to be bold and make this posting without confirmation of my identification. If I am incorrect, it won’t be the first time, and certainly not the last time—bird identification is not easy, with lots of variation caused by gender, season, age, and location.

American Black Duck

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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In the interests of gender equality, I decided to feature a handsome male Hooded Merganser duck (Lophodytes cucullatus) after spotlighting his beautiful female counterpart yesterday. I captured this image yesterday afternoon at a small suburban pond in Kingstowne, a community about a mile or so from where I live.

Hooded Merganser ducks are notoriously skittish and will usually fly away as soon as they sense my presence. The small group of “Hoodies” at this pond, however, react by swimming slowly away toward the center of the pond, where they are out of range of my long telephoto zoom lens. As a result, I have to react quickly whenever I am luck enough to catch one relatively close to the shore.

Hooded Merganser

Having captured this image, I was faced with choices of how to crop it. Conventional wisdom dictates that a bird swimming to the right should be placed in the left side of the image. In this case, though, I really liked the V-shaped wake that the duck was leaving behind it, so I put the “Hoodie” just to the right of center. I encourage you to double-click on the image to see some of the details of this shot, like the drop of water on the tip of the duck’s bill.

As I contemplate the image, I can’t help but think how much the water deserves equal billing as the primary subject. I love the wake in the rear, the ripples in the front, the ripples coming toward the viewer, and the beautiful reflections.

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) are among my favorite ducks, and I especially love the freaky hairstyle of the females, like this one that I spotted this past Friday at the a small pond in Kingstowne, a suburban community in Northern Virginia near where I live.

Hooded Merganser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Three Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) silently swam into view in the early morning light, their passage creating a trail of ripples in the still waters of the little creek. A sense of tranquility filled the air as another day slowly began.

wood ducks

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I really enjoy capturing action sequences of the interaction between creatures in the wild. It’s not easy sometimes to explain the behavior that I observe, but often it seems that many wild creatures have a sense of territoriality and will fiercely defend their space against all encroachers.

That seems to have been the case on Thanksgiving Day when I observed two Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) harassing a Merlin (Falco columbarius) at Huntley Meadows Park in Northern Virginia. I have seen blackbirds and crows in the past harassing eagles and hawks and have been shocked to see how much smaller the aggressors were than the birds they were chasing. In this case, however, the blue jays and the merlin appeared to be about the same size.

The blue jays appeared to be using a variety of techniques. The two shots below show one of the blue jays buzzing the merlin, flying surprising close to the little falcon.

blue jays and merlin

blue jays and merlin

The next three shots show a concerted effort to crow the merlin. Initially the blue jays positioned themselves on opposite sides of the merlin. Then one of the blue jays moved closer, to a position almost directly below the merlin. In the final shot, the merlin exploded into the air and one of the blue jays simultaneously took off to chase after the merlin.

I took these shots from quite a distance away and still had to crop them a lot, but I think the images still manage to show some pretty fascinating behavior that I was privileged to observe and document.

blue jays and merlin

blue jays and merlin

blue jays and merlin

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What was on your menu for Thanksgiving? No, I did not dine on muskrat for Thanksgiving dinner, but early in the morning yesterday this little muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) at Huntley Meadows Park decided to celebrate the holiday with some fresh greens. That was almost certainly a healthier meal than most of us consumed later in the day.

muskrat

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I saw this bird in the distance being harassed by two blue jays on Thanksgiving Day at Huntley Meadows Park, I wasn’t sure what it was, but folks at What’s This Bird Facebook group identified it for me as a Merlin (Falco columbarius), a type of small falcon. I shot quite a few photos attempting to pbotograph the two blue jays flying by the merlin and perching close to it, but I am not sure how well I was able to capture the action. If I get a few that are reasonably clear, I may do another posting with the merlin, a bird that I believe that I had previously seen only once before.

Merlin

Merlin

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Early on Thanksgiving morning, some Northern Pintail ducks (Anas acuta) at Huntley Meadows Park in Northern Virginia decided to celebrate the holiday by sleeping in a bit. Their decision may have been prompted in part by the weather—it was just below freezing and a thin layer of ice covered some of the water at the park. Unlike the ducks, I did not sleep in and ventured out into the frosty morning to see what I could discover.

Happy Thanksgiving to all those who are celebrating this special day. Even if you are not, it’s always a good idea to pause for a minute to remember all of the blessings in our lives that so often we take for granted.

Northern Pintail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have always admired the fierce determination and intense focus of little Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) as they hammer away at the trees in search of something to eat, like this beauty that I spotted this past Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Downy Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Seeing one Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is pretty exciting, but seeing two together is even more awesome. I spotted these two eagles on Monday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

At a certain location within the refuge there is a tall pole, which resembles a telephone pole, with a wooden platform. I am not sure of its purpose, but several times in the past I have seen a bald eagle perching on it. I have tried several times to get shots of the eagle, but have generally been unsuccessful, because of the height of the pole and the fact that I cannot get close to it.

When I spotted an eagle there yesterday morning, I decided to give it another shot, hoping that my monopod would help me to get a sharp enough shot to survive a severe crop. As my eye was pressed to the viewfinder taking some shots, imagine my surprise when another bald eagle entered the frame and landed next to the first one. They perched together for a little while and then the larger of the two, which I later learned is the female, began to embrace the other, eventually using her beak to give what looked like a kind of massage. What was going on?

Thanks to some experienced birders in a Facebook group, I learned that the breeding season for eagles in our area begins in early December and that this is likely a bonded pair. I also discovered that the pecking that I observed, as seen in the second photo below, is almost certainly a kind of courting behavior.

I think that there may be several pairs of bald eagles at this wildlife refuge, so I will keep my eyes open for more of this kind of behavior and for more photographic opportunities.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I spotted this very blue Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialislast Friday morning at Huntley Meadows Park. The brightness of its color suggests to me that it is probably a male—the females tend to have duller plumage.

When I posted this photo on Facebook, I got lots of “Likes,” which is not all that surprising to me. Over time I have come to realize that many of my best-like photos have been the ones with the simplest of compositions and often have featured relatively common subjects. In this case, I managed to capture the bluebird pretty well, but the branch on which it is perched has some nice texture and perhaps most important of all, the background is pretty cool, with the faint shapes of the tree trunks and autumn foliage rendered in a pleasing blur of shapes and colors.

Beauty is often very subjective, but in rare cases like this one an image seems to have an almost universal appeal.


Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It’s almost impossible to sneak up on a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), but that didn’t stop me from attempting to do so this past Friday afternoon at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I was walking along a trail that runs to parallel to the water when I spotted the unmistakable white head of a Bald Eagle. The eagle was partially hidden in a mass of branches and was facing away from me, so I moved forward with as much stealth as I could manage.

When I reached a point where I was shooting up at a rather steep angle, I stopped and waited, hoping the eagle would turn its head to the side and offer me a glimpse of its eyes. Eventually that happened and I shifted from side to side in a desperate attempt to capture an unobstructed view of its eye. Clearly this is not the best shot of a Bald Eagle that I have ever captured, but I do like the pose and the details in its feathers. Besides, it’s a Bald Eagle, a subject that never fails to excite me.

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I spotted some cute little American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) early on Friday morning as they foraged in the vegetation adjacent to the observation tower at Huntley Meadows Park. The lighting was somewhat limited, but it was soft and beautiful and gives the photos an overall sense of peace and serenity, the start of a new day.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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A group of five or so photographers stood on the boardwalk on Friday morning at Huntley Meadows Park watching a Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) in a tree above us. We waited and waited for the hawk to take off and when it finally did so, I almost managed to keep the hawk within the frame. I can’t really complain too much, though, because as far as I know, none of the others managed to get a shot off when the hawk took to the air.

We were in a really good position and the lighting was beautiful, but it is hard to remain alert and ready as you wait for a bird to spring into action. I was using a monopod again and I think it may be the reason why I was able to capture the hawk taking off. My camera was already at eye level and pointed in the direction of the hawk during the entire fifteen minutes or so that we watched the hawk. The other photographers had to raise their cameras and were not able to do so quickly enough.

It might be my imagination, but I also think that some of my shots with the monopod are sharper than they might otherwise be. I have balked a bit at carrying a big tripod, but think that the monopod will now be with me most of the time—it collapses to a pretty small size and, because it it carbon fiber, is both sturdy and light.
Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Half-hidden by the vegetation, this shy little White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) gently gazed at me for several moments and then slowly turned and disappeared from sight last Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Sometimes wildlife sightings set my heart racing in excitement, but this one left me feeling peaceful and mellow and a bit contemplative.

white-tailed deer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Sometimes the most ordinary birds are the most beautiful, like this American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) that I spotted earlier this month at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The colors of this goldfinch are certainly more subdued than during breeding season, but I like the way that the yellow serves as an accent color rather than covering the bird’s entire body.

For contrast, I am including a photo from early autumn of another goldfinch at another location. Some may prefer the bright colors of the breeding plumage, while other may find it to be too gaudy and prefer the more subdued non-breeding plumage. Is one more beautiful than the other? For me, they are both beautiful, albeit in different ways. There is an inherent contradiction in beauty—sometimes it seems almost universal, but most often it is deeply subjective, i.e. “in the eyes of the beholder.”

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Even at a distance I could tell that the ducks that I spotted on Monday at Huntley Meadows Park were Northern Shovelers (Anas clypeata)—the shape of their bills is pretty distinctive. It’s duck season now and I can hardly wait for more species to arrive at the park.

Northern Shoveler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) are so large and loud that it is hard to miss them when they are around. I often hear them from a distance, pecking away at a tree with a volume that seems to match that of a jackhammer, or I catch a glimpse of their bright red heads, but generally they are high in the trees, partially hidden from view behind a tangle of branches.

I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker in flight last Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and was able to follow it to the tree where it landed. Moving as slowly and stealthily as I could, I tried to find a visual tunnel that would provide an unobstructed view of the the woodpecker. I was mostly successful in doing so and was able a couple of images of the woodpecker at work. I never realized how to determine the gender of these birds, but one of my friends pointed out to me that the red whisker stripes on this bird’s face indicates that this is a male.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Without fail I will try to get a shot of a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) every time that I see one, assuming that I am able to react quickly enough. This past Friday as I wandered about at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I was excited to see Bald Eagles multiple times and to get some shots.

Here are a few favorites from that day. In one case, the eagle was perched on an exposed branch and I was able to get photograph from below it was it taking off. In the second case, the eagle seemed almost buried inside the branches of a tree. It’s difficult to be camouflaged, however, when you have a bright white head. I was able to photograph this one too as it was taking off. Initially I was hesitant about posting the third shot, but I really like the detail in the tail and talons that I captured as the eagle was pushing off, so I decided to include the image.

As I have said multiple times, any day that I see a Bald Eagle is a good day and the response in the past from viewers has reassured me that I am not oversaturating my blog with shots of eagles.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Until I had a conversation with a birder last week, I never realized that Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) spend their winters in my area. Somehow I thought that they were merely passing through, migrating to some more distant southern location,

This past Friday, I spent quite a bit of time trying to get shots of some Yellow-rumped Warblers. Like the Golden-crowned Kinglet that I featured yesterday, these little birds seemed to spend most of their time hidden from me in the branches, periodically exposing a body part as if to tease me.

Here are a couple of my favorite shots of the day. I never did manage to get very close, but I like the way that the fall foliage helps to establish an environmental backdrop to the images.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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It is exciting to photograph big birds, but it many ways it is even more of a challenge to get decent shots of the tiny frenetic ones, like this Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) that I photographed yesterday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Golden-crowned Kinglets are really small, about 2 to 4 inches in length (8 to 11 cm), which is smaller than a chickadee and larger than a hummingbird. They seem to like to forage deep within the branches of the vegetation, so it was really tough to get an unobstructed shot of one.

I decided yesterday to try shooting with a monopod, which helped me to stay focused on this particular bird as it moved about and be ready when it perched for a split second in the open. My Tamron 150-600mm lens is a little heavy and I think that it helped my steadiness to have the additional support of the monopod, though it did feel a little constraining. I think that I will start using the monopod regularly now and see if my images tend to get sharper.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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A Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was being harassed relentlessly this past Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge by a flock of crows and was eventually forced out of what I assumed was its nest. Fortunately I was able to capture a couple of shots before the eagle left the nest.

When I posted a photo in Facebook, a more experience birder pointed out that the nest is probably an osprey nest, not an eagle nest. He added that eagles at the refuge often will perch on osprey nests when the ospreys leave the area for the winter.

The final photo, taken through the trees, shows the crows occupying the nest after forcing the eagle to leave the exposed position.

bald eagle

bald eagle

crows on nest

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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There were lots of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, including one that decided to take a bath in a puddle in the middle of the path. A couple of years ago  I probably would not have bothered to identify the bird as an “American Robin,” but now I know that there is a European Robin, which is a completely different bird.

The first shot of these three is the sharpest and I like the way that you can see the succession of puddles and the robin’s reflection. I am equally drawn, however, to the action shots with the water splashing into the air. The light was pretty limited at the time and only afterwards did I realize that my shutter speed had dropped to 1/125 of a second.  That is why you can see some motion blur in the second shot, an effect that I think helps to give a dynamic feel to the image. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to include the third shot, but decided that I liked the out of focus robin in the background, whose peaceful pose is in sharp contrast with that of the frenetic flailing of the bathing robin.

bathing robin

bathing robin

bathing robin

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Now that it is November, many Americans will start to think of turkeys, and in particular the ones that they will consume on Thanksgiving Day.  I have nothing against eating turkey, but I shudder to think of the conditions under which domesticated turkeys are raised—it is much more exciting to see Wild Turkeys in the wild.

As I wander the trails at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I have gotten used to encountering small flocks of Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) from time to time at several different locations. One of the volunteers with whom I talked estimated that there are over a hundred Wild Turkeys within the 642 acres (2.6 sq km) of the refuge.

When I see them, the turkeys are usually foraging along the paths and in open areas of the woods. Most often the turkeys move into the woods as soon as they sense my presence, but occasionally I can move close enough to them to get shots of individual turkeys. Lighting is often a challenge, because the sunlight filtering through the trees creates bands of intense light and shadows.

Here are a couple of my favorite shots from this past Monday—I really like the display of feathers in the first image and the regal upright pose in the second shot.

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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The red on the back of the head of this Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) seemed to be a perfect match for the colorful fall foliage this past Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Autumn is my favorite season of the year and the weather on the day that I took this shot was almost perfect—even the woodpecker seems to be smiling.

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Bluebirds make me happy. There is something about their beautiful colors and energetic personalities that never fails to put a smile on my face. I spotted these beautiful little Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) on 3 November at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Northern Virginia.

Bluebirds often perch in a tangle of branches or really high in the trees, so I was happy on this occasion to get some relatively unobstructed shots of them.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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As I drove through the gates at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge this past Friday, a thick fog (or mist) was hanging low over the fields. The sun was just beginning to rise and it was still pretty dark. Although my goal for the day was to photograph birds, I decided to make an attempt at capturing the feeling of the moment and quickly realized the difficulty of that task—it’s a real challenge to capture the delicate nuances of light and shadows and the subtle shades of the rising sun when there is so little available light.

I felt a bit uncomfortable as I was shooting these images, a clear indication that I was way outside of my comfort zone, but I think it is good to try new approaches and subjects in order for me to keep on growing and learning as a photographer.

 

misty morning

autumn mist

autumn path

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was facing almost directly east in the early morning hours at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and the colors of the rising sun filtering through the trees made it look like the woods were ablaze. Fortunately, they were not.

sunlight

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I scanned a field this morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I suddenly became aware of a pair of eyes staring back at me from the high vegetation. We shared a couple of moments of eye-to-eye contact before the handsome buck turned around and disappeared from sight.

There is an overabundance of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in our area and as part of an effort to maintain the deer herd at a healthy level compatible with planned habitat goals and objectives, the wildlife refuge will be closed for several days in December for deer hunting. I know that topic of deer hunting is controversial to some, but the unfortunate alternative would be deer starving to death or being hit by cars as they seek to forage elsewhere. Still, it’s a little hard for me emotionally to look at this beautiful animal with the knowledge that someone else might soon be shooting at him with a gun rather than with a camera.

White-tailed Deer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Ordinary birds like this American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) take on added beauty when surrounded by colorful fall foliage. (Photo taken 27 October at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.)

The sky was blue, the light was beautiful, and the leaves were colorful—I really couldn’t have asked for more. Well, actually I was hoping to see a bald eagle on that particular perch, but was more than happy with what I got.

autumn crow

autumn crow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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