The Other Altona Forest

I have wandered Altona Forest’s trails many times but while editing a couple of photos when I re-worked the site, I couldn’t imagine where in the forest they were taken. The photos seemed to be from a path in a field. Months later I realized that they had been taken in the hydro corridor just north of the north gate.

The hydro corridor abutting the forest’s north end is the other Altona Forest; not part of TRCA’s property but a needed extension to the conservation lands. It is an area of tall grasses, wild grapes, and meadow conditions that allow wildflowers, birds, bees and butterflies to flourish.  It’s an environment missing in Altona Forest proper where the houses and development go right to the trees and no natural meadow space is left. Nature doesn’t stop to consider lines on a map, or fences, or jurisdictions and this area is a vital part of the survival of some species that live in the forest.

I had previously only been in the hydro lands to distribute some milkweed seeds in  hopes of sustaining monarchs.


Common milkweed in bloom – can this be from some of the seeds I distributed?

I wandered out of the forest and into the adjoining ‘field’ in search of milkweed in bloom the next summer – and the monarch butterflies that depend on it. I found both; a few monarchs, a few milkweed – but also many invasive plants like buckthorn,  dog-strangling vine in massive swaths, and Canada thistle.

This summer I have been a regular visitor to the area. The rarely-used hydro corridor provides a bio-diverse and needed meadow and forest-edge habitat that links (albeit across busy Finch and Altona Roads – very dangerous for wildlife) to the Rouge National Urban Park.

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Meadows such as this one provide crucial open environment, food and shelter. This area fosters a fertile food chain that begins with diverse pollinators who are drawn to varied wildflowers that need full sun to thrive. Meadows complement the woods to create a healthy and integrated ecosystem. It is an animal travel-way, a butterfly-way, food-producing powerhouse (think grasses and wildflowers seeds, grapes and other berries), and nursery for wildlife of all kinds.

It is a more varied and interesting environment than I expected – some depressions hold water, cattails and red-winged blackbirds. Juvenile robins hop trustingly along the path. Rabbits appear and disappear like magic. Here and there small thickets are formed by berry-laden viburnums and hold nesting birds. Wide stretches of native bee balm happily coexist with clover, anemone, rudbeckia, native sunflowers, and other wildflowers to draw butterflies and bees alike. The air hums with buzzing bees and dragonflies, lilting birdsong, and the crackling whir of the power wires overhead.


A common ringlet

It’s easy to lose time following butterflies in hopes of a photo, pausing to listen to calling birds, or freezing when something ahead of you goes scurrying into the dense green tangle. Don’t forget to look up to see the silent riders of the drafts. Or take a long view in case the deer that sometimes visit are in sight.

Summer is glorious – and too brief: take some time to discover this forgotten corner that is so full of life in this season. You’ll need a hat and sunblock… as my painful shoulders screamingly attest. And some bug spray. Whether you decide to wander the area to enjoy the myriad of butterflies, hear the birdsong, or glimpse a hawk or great blue heron fly above, this area is an entirely different experience than the cool shade of Altona’s tall trees.

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**Perhaps another time I will write about the other other Altona Forest at the south end of the panhandle. It is comprised of 2 rainwater-collection ponds belonging to the City and the inaccessible railway lands that bisect Petticoat Creek.

Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

What is a Meadow (youtube 3min)

Importance of Grasslands

Pollinators Need Meadows  (Credit Valley Conservation Authority)

Butterflies of the GTA (pdf book)

Birds of the GTA (pdf book)

How to Butterfly Spot (scroll to bottom of article)

Looking For Monarchs – The Great Butterfly Hunt – Nature of Things (full episode)

Invasive Species of the Corridor :

Growing a meadow (in your garden or curb-side)

Sourcing Native Seeds for Meadows

The Other Altona Forest ~ © 2017 Natasha G



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Leave It To Beavers

The most amazing thing happened to Lacey’s Pond this spring … it rained and rained … and then rained some more. That’s a whole lot of water.

Those familiar with Lacey’s Pond in Altona Forest will know that the native cattails took hold and choked out any open water in the pond. They build a dense mat; last year’s layer of dead plant material below this year’s growth. Last summer and the one before there wasn’t really any pond at all – no open water. It became a cattail marsh. And while the grassy wetland is still a great spot for fostering natural species of the forest, it didn’t provide the open water frogs and other aquatic species require.

Many naturalists were sad to see that this area morphed to a dry and filled-in area – and hoped remediation could be undertaken to bring back the pond to enhance the forest’s viable ecosystems. It would help replace the naturally-occurring ponds that were drained and destroyed in this area during neighbourhood-building. The varied ‘terrains’ are what helps to encourage and improve biodiversity and gives Altona Forest it’s ESA (Environmentally Significant Area) status.

TRCA didn’t amend the area under its current ethos that progression within the forest is natural so the pond should be allowed to dry to a marsh. Lacey’s Pond and its sadly dilapidated boardwalk have been a great bird-watching spot, but the area had stopped supporting an aquatic ecosystem.

And then the second amazing thing happened this spring … beavers came to the pond. This is a small pond. There is no river or even real stream nearby – just a trickle of water. How they found it and where they came from will have to stay a wonderful mystery. Beavers can hear the faintest sound of water from far away and are drawn to it.

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Beaver adding a little more ‘Eau Canada’ to Altona Forest

There are at least 2 beavers at the pond. They have been spending their days shoring up the south-east side of the pond… where the boardwalk goes. This is because the water leaves the pond from the southeast and flows south towards the panhandle. Beavers are diversity builders. They will help to clear the pond and make it deeper and more habitable and desirable for a number of native species… from plants to invertebrates to fish to frogs … and birds.

Beavers are architects of massive amounts of change. They can change the direction and flow of watercourses, build meadows, conserve water – promoting the introduction of other species, create clearings and thus change the plant and tree species that grow near their lodges. It’s extraordinary that we are able to see these changes in our neighbourhood – and see wild beavers at work. They do what is natural to them to create a livable space – and in doing so they may change the destiny of this pond.

They are undertaking wholly natural remediation that will change the area back to the pond it once was.

It’s a great sight… watching beavers swim around, chew on branches, and slap the water with their tails when surprised. They are very tolerant of being watched as long as it’s from a distance and with stillness on your part. Of course, they are less than enthusiastic about those who break the law with off-leash dogs. And this is a real threat not only to the beaver but many other species.

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We can leave it to the beavers to naturally restore the pond to a viable and functional aquatic ecosystem.

Can we enjoy the forest in tandem with their lives and uses of Lacey’s Pond? Of course. But it does depend on many people being wildlife savvy, cautious, and kind – and giving them the space and safety they need.

How wonderful that for this Canada Day, our national symbol moved into our small conservation area and provides an ongoing demonstration of their amazing talents and capabilities!


** This area of boardwalk has been broken for some time and now south access is not possible. The north access is possible but with the higher water levels its nearly impassible at this time. If you are daring and are going to try, you will need rain boots since there’s a stretch of mud getting to the boardwalk, and then the boardwalk sinks 3-7 inches into the water with each step. The supports have rotted. The viewing deck is strong and stable and offers some great beaver viewing.


Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

Altona Forest Map (Lacey’s Pond and the boardwalk are between posts 11 and 12)

About Beavers

Beaver Whisperer (CBC full episode)

Leave It To Beavers ~ © 2017 Natasha G


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Biting Back Garlic Mustard

Throughout Ontario, an innocuous looking weed has taken hold. It has spread through the countryside, into gardens, and into conservation areas like Altona Forest. It will grow in shade or sun and has the ability to alter the soil’s biology. It pushes out native plants that support wildlife and rare native butterflies. This insidious invasive alien is a herb called garlic mustard.

Would you recognize garlic mustard if you see it? It grows to about a foot and half high, has small four-petaled white flowers at this time of year, and triangular serrated-edged leaves. I’ve seen it all around our neighbourhood – and in the forest.

IMG_8757 (2)Lots of garlic mustard near post 36 or 30

You will see many community-organized events aimed at getting rid of it. And even in areas where the challenge has been dealt with it will move back in, so vigilance and constant action is the only recourse. Seeds remain viable in the soil for years – necessitating regular removal. Each garlic mustard plant produces hundreds of seeds – spread by people (clothing, shoes and bike tires) and animals, by wind, along streams and trails.

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) was intentionally brought to the area as a cooking herb. It is native to Europe, Asia and north Africa. If you crush a leaf between your fingers it has garlic scent. It’s actually an interesting and tasty herb.

Invasive plants have long been a problem – things that were planted for a purpose or that stowed away unseen on ships only to gain a foothold in these woods. Foreign invasive plants don’t have any natural uses for wildlife so they don’t benefit the native ecosystem, they push out (out-compete) natives that actually do contribute to the local biodiversity and life-cycles, and they have no local enemies or predators so they spread uncontrollably.

imageedit_6_8568770773Garlic mustard pushes out native wildflowers like trillium, toothwort, and trout lilies and changes the biology of the soil to keep natives from returning.

Garlic mustard brings together two usually-opposed groups:

Firstly, conservation areas are regulated and protected so species are not to be disturbed in any way. With so much of the land converted for human habitation, farming and commercial use, saving ravines, watershed areas, and even small tracts of land is vital. They become less viable for plant, bird and other species. Every native plant becomes more important.

Secondly, we have seen a marked rise in the interest in home-grown foods and foraging. Many cultural groups also have long histories of foraging for foods in natural areas. This is problematic for a number of reasons: most natural areas are protected by law and should not be foraged from. More importantly, only 2-3 people can completely deplete a plant for this year and all future years. If the foraging ethos is only remove 1 of 4 of the plants, each successive person exponentially depletes the reproducing stock. This is because small areas of land are over-used by many people.

Enter garlic mustard. It’s foreign and an invasive plant. It’s delicious and has many uses in the kitchen. It’s easy to identify and harvest. So should you pull it up from a conservation area and take it home for dinner? Absolutely! (Just be very careful where you step so you don’t kill next years native wildflowers.) You can’t deplete it enough – take all you want. Is that official? Likely not – because those who don’t understand the whole story will see ambiguity and trample or remove native species from these amazing places to the long-term detriment of nature.

Garlic mustard is easily found, tasty, and a foragable food. Harvest it – and enjoy it. It is the best of all worlds when you are helping the forest, native biodiversity, and trying the foraging trend in the only genuinely sustainable way. Bon appetite!


The easiest time to identify garlic mustard is when it’s in bloom       Image ~ pixabay

Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

Invasive Species Awareness Program Listing

Recognizing Garlic Mustard (photos)

Garlic Mustard Fact Sheet (pdf)

Garlic Mustard (US source – NY Invasive Species)

Impacts of Garlic Mustard (US source – Penn State)

OMAFRA overview

Butterfly At Risk (due to garlic mustard)


PS Even if you don’t want to eat it, please join a group and pull it! And remember – invasive species go in the garbage and NOT in yard waste collection or composting


Biting Back Garlic Mustard ~ © 2017 Natasha G


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Going For Golds

One of the most eye-catching spring flowers in Altona Forest is the marsh marigold. It is a cheery late April-May bloomer with bright yellow flowers and deep green, rounded heart-shaped leaves. Have you seen one? Do you know where to look?

I was looking for herons in the south ponds in May when I saw what looked like a whole field of buttercups at the marshy end of the pond. I could see a few plants closer to where I was standing and scrambled to get a better look.


proliferating along a sunny stream

It didn’t take much research to identify the beautiful plant as a marsh marigold; a native bloomer sometimes called cowslip, king cup, or Caltha palustris if you want to use the scientific nomenclature. The plant is unlike garden ‘marigolds’ we are familiar with: it’s a succulent member of the buttercup family that grows only in wetlands.  It is closer to a waterlily and can dry up and become dormant in the hot, parched summer months. The closed ball-shaped flower bud is very much like ranunculus – they are from the same family.

Since this plant is also native to Europe, there are longstanding traditions of using it in food and gardening. There are many more names for this plant in Europe and England, one being the ‘mayflower’- an interesting historical reference to spring celebrations and the ship that carried the puritans to America.

Although the leaves of the marsh marigold are poisonous and the sap is caustic, they are edible when prepared correctly. (What crazy person figured that out?) Other human uses are in herbal remedies. Marsh marigold has medicinal properties used by the first nations in preparations for colds.


Bud structure and young flower

Marsh marigolds offer so much to our wetlands and manage to look as though they were planted by expert gardeners. Each plant grows into a neat clump about a 1.5 feet tall, seeds into the area to create a colourful field or a serpentine line that follows a brook or stream, and looks after itself with very little demands of the type of soil.

Marsh marigolds can be found in any province or territory in Canada. They are perennials hardy to growing Zone 3 – a lot colder than Altona Forest gets. They grow on the edges of water or in marsh or swamp areas, but will tolerate some drought once established. They grow in sun, part-shade, or shady locations and will adapt in soils that range from damp to about 6 inches of water. They are also excellent plants for cleaning the water they inhabit – improving the wetlands as they beautify them. And if you needed yet another reason to love them – they draw butterflies and hummingbirds as well.

If you have a pond, wet area of your garden, or are building a rain garden, consider sourcing native marsh marigolds from a reputable nursery. Whether it’s in your pond-scape or in the wild, marsh marigolds clean water by their intake of nutrients. They are also amazing native replacements for the invasive yellow iris creeping into our wetlands – like the Rouge Park ponds.

Now that you are likely charmed by this sunny native and know that they are found in the moist woodlands and pond edges of Altona Forest, watch for them as you wander the spring-time trails. They are not in many areas, but they are unmistakable when you see them.


Marsh marigold near the south pond- flower detail

Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

About Marsh Marigolds (Wiki)

Marsh Marigold Identification, History and Habitat

Historical and Old World References

Marsh Marigold (Aquatic Plant Profile)

How to Grow Marsh Marigolds

Going for Golds ~ © 2017 Natasha G




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Easy Butterfly and Bee Gardens

The long, dark Canadian winter months mean our gardens (like us) can only dream of the warmer days to come. Are you craving warm spring air and blooms? Native over-wintering pollinators are too.

Plant native plants to support our neighbourhood’s biodiversity and it’s supporting role to Altona Forest – and our region as a whole. The gardens near green spaces are vitally important to the health of those spaces: a network of home gardens can provide sustainable habitat for displaced and at-risk pollinators. Be creative this spring – create a pollinator haven with both native blooms and a few ‘fabulous foreigners’.


Want to protect bees, monarchs, and other pollinators while enjoying your garden this year? It’s easy – plant some native blossoms and avoid pesticides/herbicide chemicals in your garden. Yes; it really is that simple. With gardening season around the corner, plan your garden as a pollinator-friendly place.

Birds, bees and butterflies see the world from above and don’t notice the fences and the neat blocks of private property. They see forest and forest edge; food or barrens. Roads, roofs, patios, driveways and traditional lawns are barren deserts to them. Imagine the view through their eyes – what is left?

They seek water, shelter, and reliable, untainted food sources. This is best created with native trees, vines, perennials and annuals. Small gardens with reliable food sources are capable of bringing back habitat if enough homes participate. This blog includes options of natives to plant in our small urban/suburban spaces to support biodiversity.

Not everyone can or will go 100% native in their gardens. Just add a few natives into the mix. I wouldn’t tell you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself – I’ve been living pesticide and herbicide free for a few years and made my garden 30% native plants. Does a smaller percentage still help native bees and butterflies?  You bet!


Native bloodroot blooms early in spring – in the dappled shade under bare trees – a great native option instead of crocus

Native species are easy to add into your current garden and can be striking while supporting local wildlife. Here are some reasons you should add some native plants to your space:

  • They are generally low-maintenance
  • They draw and support local wildlife and insect life in ways we never even considered – but research is beginning to bring to light
  • They are winter/drought hardy to your region
  • They are beautiful

Part 2: Non-Invasive Fabulous FOREIGNERS

There are some plants that are NOT native but are perfect for a pollinator-friendly garden. Here are three fabulous pollinator-friendly foreign plants that will draw native pollinators to your space for food – and come back year after year:

  1. Lavender – The whole plant (leaves, stems and blossoms) smells heavenly while keeping mosquitoes away. Lavender is upright and clumping and if you buy a small plant, it might not blossom for 2-3 years. Don’t panic if it doesn’t. Buy the angustifolia variety since that is the ‘English lavender’ and most likely to thrive in our climate. It needs full sun and well-drained soil. It thrives in dry spots and neglect and draws bees non-stop from mid-July until the end of September if you leave the flowers on the plant. A bonus is that lavender is edible – from the rosemary family – and sprigs can be used as you would use rosemary while thick stems can be used as meat skewers. Blossoms can be used to make sugars and lavender lemonade. Of course you want to leave many of the long-lasting blossoms on the plant for the bees and butterflies too!
  2. imageedit_18_2381164681Sedum – Also known as stonecrop, this is an upright clumping member of a wide group of sedums plants. One of the popular varieties is ‘Autumn Joy’ for its large flower heads, but others are as successful. They are neat growing, no maintenance, and attractive in almost any setting. There are now some purple-leaf and variegated varieties – but verify what light conditions those need before planting them. I grow sedum in full to part-sun and never water them because they are drought tolerant once established. And from August to mid-October, the wide flower heads of the sedum draw a myriad of bees and butterflies. Leave the large flower heads on the plant through winter so they will feed the birds as well as adding some winter texture to the garden.
  3. Buddliea – Referred to as ‘butterfly bush’ with ample reason: if you plant it, they will come. Given the choice of all sorts of butterfly-friendly blooms in a professional garden built for pollinators (Rosetta McClain Garden), I watched as dozens of monarch butterflies went directly for buddleja on their fall migration. Buddleia comes in a myriad of varieties and colours now. This plant’s tall reaching stems look weedy to me, so it’s best in a mixed perennial bed – with full sun (8hrs) if you want to see sufficient blooms. (*While not invasive in the Altona Forest area, this plant is invasive in many areas of the US – please check your local planting guides)


Planters with tropical annuals can also be bee and butterfly magnets if you choose ones with verbena, passion fruit vine, lantana, fuchsia, and geraniums. Zinnias and nasturtiums are easy from-seed garden plants that are kid-project friendly and draw butterflies regularly.

Don’t forget some herbs for a very sunny location and you will have herbs for your table or BBQ while drawing bees and butterflies: the best choices for pollinators are fennel, oregano, sage, thyme and mint (cat mint and cat nip are in this plant-family for your felines).


So go ahead – fall in love with your garden this spring and don’t resist the garden centres. If you give a little thought to pollinators, you’ll help create ‘nectar corridors’ for bees and other migrating pollinators like butterflies in these suburban barrens. Each pollinator-friendly garden supports the integrated ecosystem, strength of biodiversity, and long term viability of green spaces like Altona Forest.

Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

What Makes a Pollinator Garden?

Bees and Other Pollinators – an excellent guide to the local pollinators and their needs

Native Plant Inspirations – TRCA pdf – great local plants

Hamilton’s Pollinator Program (wtg Hamilton! Raising the bar for other municipalities)

Gardening for Wildlife – section of the CWF website dedicated to gardeners

Grow Me Instead – Guide to Non-invasive Garden Plants – this link is for the Ontario (north and south) guides, but there are guides for most provinces

Pollinator Habitat – TRCA pdf

How to Draw Hummingbirds

Supporting Pollinators – Ontario Nature

Easy Butterfly And Bee Gardens  ~ © 2017 Natasha G










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Bird-Brained Quest

Inadvertently, I’ve had a winter project. After a fleeting sighting early in winter, a woodpecker has been taunting me. For months. I was only able to catch a shadowy, blurry far-off photo – but it was definitive: a red-bellied woodpecker had arrived in Altona Forest.

I love woodpeckers.

I’ve spilled coffee. Burned my lunch. I’ve sat holding a camera waiting for him to appear until my arm ached… all trying to get photos of him (her?). Dozens of irredeemably blurry photos.

He frequents the blue trail from posts 17-20 between the trail and the houses.

He even visits my garden and enjoys my suet – but he does not stay still – a flash of red and he’s gone. Wants my hospitality but won’t pose. I know he’s mocking me. Mocking! Don’t let the sweet face, elegant shape, and incredibly marked wings of this Carolinian cutie fool you. He loves teasing and taunting.

It’s almost as though he’s decided to tolerate the gaze of my cat (who has a crush on him) but flee at even the shape of me. Of course, he’s invariably right there when I least expect it – and gone if I so much as move a muscle. I’ve luckily been able to see him at very close range at the suet that hangs on the house wall – about 8ft from me and my coffee.

Another cruel joke is the name ‘red-bellied’ woodpecker. What red belly?

So that’s my winter… outwitted by a bird brain!

(And postponing my monthly article just to show him to you… finally)


(That’s my Altona story – I want to hear yours – what have you been seeing or doing in the forest? Post your stories & photos on


Bird-Brained Quest ~ © 2017 Natasha G








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Winter Photo Scavenger Hunt

It’s that time of year when many of us are feeling starved for outdoor fun or trapped with too much indoor time. It might be hard to find the motivation to get into nature when winter lingers.

If you’re seeking a new way to have some winter forest fun, try a photo-scavenger hunt. All you need is a device (camera, cell phone, tablet) that captures images, a list of things to find and photograph, and warm layers to keep out the chill. Unleash your creativity and find a way to make each photo interesting by getting up close or changing the angle.

To make this outing easier to plan for your friends, family, walking group, or partner, here’s a 20 item list for your winter exploration in Altona Forest:

  1. A cut tree showing its growth rings
  2. A bracket fungus/mushroom on a tree trunk
  3. A woodpecker hole
  4. A plant with berries
  5. An animal trail in the snow
  6. A bird (hint – winter is great for spotting woodpeckers)
  7. Something bright green
  8. A nature sculpture
  9. A piece of nature caught in ice
  10. A tree with some leaves still on it
  11. Something that shouldn’t be in the forest
  12. A trail sign/marker
  13. A bent tree
  14. Boardwalk (over wet areas)
  15. A cone on/from an evergreen tree
  16. Someone hugging a tree
  17. Something that starts with the first letter of your name
  18. Tree bark so interesting it looks like art
  19. A bench (preferably with you and your group on it – to remember your visit)
  20. One great photo to share – post on My Altona Forest facebook page (tag it with PhotoScavengerHunt if you want to see it on the page’s main wall)

Don’t forget your list as you head out the door.

Feb12 030

This list is comprised of 3 types of items; easy to find items, difficult to find items, and items that invite creativity or interpretation. Check things off as you find them – and look for things you can add to future lists if you want to re-create the challenge. Here’s what it might look like.

I have based this list on an easy walking loop (#1 below) in the forest but consider the other routes as well. Take along the map if you are unfamiliar with the trails:

  1. Start at the Summer Park entrance and follow the blue trail from posts 15-25, along the boardwalk from 25-27 near post and then back out near post 15.
  2. A very popular extended loop is following posts 15-24,  then along the boardwalk in ascending order (28-30) and then onto the trail from 31-35. Turn north/east at the fork and follow posts 13-15 and exit back to Summer Park.
  3. A third winter walk  for your scavenger hunt is entering at post 1 (Strouds Entrance) and walking north to at least Lacey’s Pond (post 12) before turning back.

Doing the same list on a different route – or in a different conservation area – makes this a brand new challenge.

A photo-scavenger hunt gives you a bounty of great photos you can collage or post to social media. If you are sharing publicly, please consider tagging #AltonaForest so we can enjoy your views and perspective of the forest!

Beyond getting out for some fresh air and exploration of nature, a photo scavenger hunt gives you reason to look more carefully, get closer, and discover new things along familiar routes.

Jan31 107

PS Here’s a young-kids version of a winter scavenger hunt – you can use it in tandem with the grown-up photo version above – enjoy!

Winter Photo Scavenger Hunt ~ © 2017 Natasha G



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