100 Birds – #28

I drove up Number 2 Canyon Road this morning hoping to see a “first of year” Bullock’s Oriole.  I was fairly late leaving and knew that the light would be a challenge but I was more interested in just finding an Oriole than in getting a photo. I had the camera beside me in case something just happened to present itself.

I stopped at the location where I spent an hour with Yellow-breasted Chat recently.  After waiting 15 minutes I moved on up canyon.  No birds there today.  There’s a tree about half way up the canyon that sits near the road and has a great dead top that birds seem to really enjoy.  Morning and afternoon light here sucks but can produce some decent images if the bird is positioned properly.  My plan was to go up to the tree and see what was happening.

I parked in a spot that allows me to easily see the tree and canyon vegetation nearby without leaving my truck.  Staying in your vehicle is frequently very advantageous for bird photography… a lesson I learned well at the Ridgefield Nationa Wildlife Refuge. As suspected, the light was awful and even the upper, dead branches were silhouetted. A caught a bit of motion off to my left and down the road a bit.  I saw a yellow bird fly into some low vegetation and disappear. Seconds later it reappeared in the middle of the thickest part of the shrub.  It hopped up onto a higher branch and began coaching it to an even higher branch where I might get a shot.  As I watched through the binocs I confirmed that it was a Bullock’s Oriole.  First of  year bird…  check.  Then the bird flew off up canyon.  Bye bye birdie.

Since the light on that side of the road was so much better I coasted down the road about 20 yards and parked across from the point I’d seen the bird disappear from sight.  I waited. The first bird to show up was female Lazuli Bunting. She didn’t hang around long and disappeared into the thicket.  5 minutes later this male Lazuli Bunting flew into a nicely open branch and started working his way toward the female.

I usually focus manually with the X-T2.  I proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that I can’t focus manually on my Nikon gear.  The advantage that focus peaking on the X-T2 (and X-T1,  X-T10 or other mirrorless cameras) provides is amazing.  I had been using back button focusing to get into the general zone of the bird and then fine tuning the focus manually. Today I moved the camera off manual focus and put it on Single Shot mode. I learned that if I half-press the shutter button and hold the shutter button there I can still focus manually and use focus peaking to make sure the bird is critically focused. I’ll experiment with this in the coming days.  On the surface it doesn’t seem that the technique would be a real advantage over the method I am most used to.  Then again, it may be a bit faster to gain focus on a bird.  That little bit of speed could be the difference between a useful shot and “bye bye birdie”.

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100 Birds – #27

Moving to the east side of Washington means that we get to see many different species of birds that didn’t show up on the west side of Cascades where we lived for a long time. When I roamed around the west side of Oregon I’d occasionally run into a bird that seemed out of range.  One notable encounter was a female Vermillion Flycatcher that had gotten well north of its normal range. Yellow-breasted Chat do make an appearance on the west side of the Cascades but sightings are not all that common and usually result in a rare bird alert or at least a bit of clamor on the bird sighting networks.

I heard about a Chat at Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge a few years ago and went to see if I could locate the bird.  When I didn’t spot it I asked my friend Gerry Ellis for some ideas on how to better my chances.  He advised that they typically hide in dense shrubs and to listen for their song/call (always good advice).  Well, that didn’t result in a sighting for me so I kept the bird on my list of “birds to see and photograph”.

Gerry and Jenn were pushing for a long list of birds in 2015… kind of their own Big Year.  One of the birds that was becoming a nemesis was the Yellow-breasted Chat. It’s pretty easy to torment them with info about a species that they figure they should be able to spot easily but which proves to be evasive.  Having moved to Wenatchee I was exploring above our house last May and heard a Chat calling.  This bird has a wide variety of calls/songs but all are distinctive.  I pulled over and began the wait.  After awhile I saw the bird in the distance.  As Gerry said, the bird was about mid-level in a shrub and not clearly visible.  I did manage to get one or two reasonable photos to validate that I’d seen the bird.  I scurried home to let Gerry know that I’d found Chat in the canyon above our house… about a mile away.  You can imagine his angst.

Shortly after that my friend Steve came to town for a visit and to see some birds.  We went up-canyon and found the Chat again.  I got a couple more mediocre photos but was encouraged that bird was actually mostly in the open and easily seen.  Backlight spoiled my photos that day.

A few days ago I went back up the canyon to see if I could find the Yellow-breasted Chat that I had heard a few days prior.  I pulled off on one of the few safe turnouts and grabbed the camera and binocs and stood patiently as I listened to at least 2 Chat calling. After about 30 minutes a Chat flew into the top of nearby tree and posed as it called.  Backlight was again a problem for photographs but that didn’t stop me from firing off a couple of dozen frames.  Then the bird relocated and turned into the light.  I took photos until my arms began to cramp.  The Chat just seemed to be working poses for my benefit. I was not able to adjust my position too much but did what I could to find a clean background. I was thrilled to have a long period with this bird when the light was good and I had no reason to rush away.  This was a reward for all the times that I’ve been skunked or failed with the camera.

Yes, I sent a copy of the photo to Gerry and Jenn.  Gerry is working hard on his premiere episode of Apes Like Us on YouTube and is tied to his office much more than he likes.  Again, a photo of the Chat gave him a bit of a mental break even if it did frustrate him a bit.  The nemesis bird continues for him.  Me, I’m a happy photographer.

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100 Birds – #26

I have been taking photographs of birds for over a decade now and I am proud of many of the images. I will always look to the truly great bird photographers for inspiration and encouragement to improve my skills. Still, it is truly rewarding to have someone look at my images and take the time to provide positive or complimentary feedback. In this day of “likes” and “+1′” I find a simple comment from a respected photographer to be vastly more rewarding and meaningful.

I recently produced a bird identification poster for the North Central Washington Audubon Society. The poster shows only birds that are common to our area in spring, summer and fall. It is not a comprehensive display but it does serve well as an educational prop for Audubon’s events. The poster is printed at 11×17″ for handouts and 24×36″ for display and discussion.

If you examine existing bird ID posters you see the artwork of master bird illustrators. Sibley and Peterson both created wonderful drawings of bird species around the globe.  Stokes, on the other hand, uses real photographs in their bird ID book and many people prefer a photo to an illustration. Some others prefer to see just simplified art, like a silhouette, as the main part of an ID exercise.  All these approaches have merit.

My photographs are the foundation for the bird illustrations on the Audubon poster. I use the term “illustration” loosely.  The process I use does not rely on pen and ink or brush and canvas.  Rather, I turn a photograph of a bird into an illustration using a variety of computer software.  Specifically, I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom to organize and process my images for any presentation, Adobe Photoshop for fine tuning images and for making specific adjustments, Dynamic Auto Painter Pro by Mediachance to make the conversion from a photo to an illustration and the Topaz Remask 5 Photoshop plugin to cut the bird out from its background. The result is a stylized bird illustration that retains color fidelity and accuracy (most times) as well important field marks used for field identification. The final file is saved as a Photoshop file and as a transpaent PNG file to allow the bird to be placed on a variety of backgrounds – white in the case of the Audubon poster.

As I was learning the process and settings in each software application I used a few friends and fellow photographers to critique and comment on the images. My thanks for your willingness to comment and for your patience with me. Other than some challenges with birds that have a white crown or breast or ones in which the color shifted during the conversion to an illustration, the birds got favorable reviews. Once I had the workflow established I began production of the separate bird illustrations.

My first effort was this Great Blue Heron.  I chose a heron because of its size and feather characteristics knowing that the painting routine would emphasize the textures and character of the feathers.

This is one of several hundred heron images I have from my visits to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge north of Vancouver, Washington. These birds are capable of standing totally still for a very long time as they wait for a fish or frog or other food to enter their strike zone. One day I decided I would wait patiently until a heron moved from its stationary pose.  I was glad I had brought a lunch because I ate it while watching. I left after an hour and the heron was still just standing there, most likely it was asleep.

I refer to the upright pose they most commonly use as “hunter pose 1”. They will stalk their prey very slowly and extend their neck forward and down, what I call “hunter pose 2”, as they prepare to strike. Once they determine it is time the actual strike happens lightning fast. I’ve watched a heron eat moles, voles, snakes, frogs and fish in my frequent visits to Ridgefield.  I’ve seen herons miss their prey a number of times but I estimate their success rate is about 75% – much better than hitting by major league baseball players.

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My intent is to present many of the bird illustrations here in the blog and tell the backstory of the image as I originally planned to do in this “100 Birds” sequence.  Hopefully the fact that  many images are prepared and ready to go will jump start my energy to add to the series. Stay tuned, please.

 

100 Birds – #25

Some birds are almost impossible to photograph because of their behavior.  Some are nervous as soon as they see a human’s profile and fly to cover.  Others never – OK, rarely – come out to play with the lens.  You hear them and can see movement in the brush but you don’t see the bird clearly enough for a photo.  Yet others like this Ruby-crowned Kinglet are frenetic.  You can see them in the open fairly frequently but they rarely sit still long enough to compose-focus-shoot. I’ve junked hundreds of frames of these birds due to motion blur and just poor performance on my part.

The Ruby-crowned kinglet quickly became one of my “target birds”.  These are birds that sit near the top of my list of unphotographed birds.  They are at the top because I’ve seen them repeatedly and failed to bring home the goods.  Maybe I should think about the top ten birds on that list as my “frustration file”.

But occasionally luck prevails and I find a bird in the open that sits still long enough to actually get a photo. Luck plays heavily in a lot of my photography.  I’m just fine with that and can quickly make up a great story of learning about the bird’s behavior and preferences along with long periods of time spent studying them in the wild.  But the fact is that most of the time I just get lucky and have my camera dialed in (mostly) and the bird jumps in front of it.  Click.

This kinglet was busy foraging for bugs in the duff below a fir tree on the north side of Commonwealth Lake Park in Beaverton, Oregon. When nervous, it would hop up onto a branch and prepare to dive for cover.  I approached the area slowly and on a “wander around” path.  I’ve heard that birds relax if they think you are not looking at them or have something else on your mind.  I think that’s mostly bunk but I’ll do whatever I can to get a shot of a bird on my list. This bird was pretty involved with its foraging and seemed to tolerate me as I moved in. I watched a few minutes as it hopped around and pre-focused on an area that it was frequently using.  When it hopped onto the stage I’d take a few frames. Even with that amount of cooperation and preparation my failure rate was over 90%. Whatever.  I got a decent shot of the elusive Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

Males of the species have a bright red patch on the top of their heads that they show only when trying to impress a female or to defend a territory against another male.  Someday I hope to get a photo of one of these that actually shows this feature.  Yes, the bird is still near the top of my list.

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100 Birds – #24

You are asked to stay in your car and drive the 4 mile loop road when you travel through the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge’s River S Unit in the winter months.  There are a couple of distinct advantages in doing this – you get to ride comfortably in your car so you stay warm and dry but, more importantly, you are not viewed as a human by the birds and other animals.  As a result, you get much closer to the birds than you would if you were walking. This isn’t to say that they don’t see you and become wary – they do. But they get used to cars moving by and don’t feel nearly as threatened as they do when an upright human is walking nearby.  Believe me, the Ridgefield requirement to stay in your car is NOT a penalty.  It is a benefit even if you have to bend and twist at times to see out a window…a small price to pay to have birds so close.

There is one location along the driving route where you can get out of your car, use the restroom and walk a short distance to a blind overlooking a lake and its associated marsh edges. You walk through a mixed forest of shrubs and overstory trees to get the blind and will frequently see many small songbirds along the way.   For me, the photographic reward of looking out of the blind at the lake is far smaller than what I reap on the short walk out and back.  It is not uncommon to see a variety of sparrows and nuthatch along with kinglets and chickadees.

I was surprised one drizzly day to see a Red-tailed hawk sitting on a branch about 20 yards away from the trail.  It is uncommon to see one of these birds perched so low and so willing to sit as I fiddled with the camera settings to take its photo.  It was wet and did not look all that comfortable but stayed still as I juggled my position to change foreground and background characteristics and click a few portraits.

I always think there is a proper balance between “working the scene” and overdoing it.  I try to get both vertical and horizontal formats on the camera.  I tend to overshoot just to make sure that I have a few sharp images to work with. I know others who shoot more than I do and that’s just fine.  I still think I have too many similar images to sort through at home and try to avoid unnecessary clicks.  I’m rarely successful at limiting my enthusiastic trigger finger.

The image below is one of 45 that I took of this hawk on that cloudy, cool, slightly wet day.  Each file on my computer has a nuanced difference in the pose.  I think that I benefit from having to evaluate such similar but distinct images.  I’ve learned what type of pose pleases me most.  I am also quite aware of how many photos fail due to lack of focus, shadows on the bird’s eye(s), too much stuff competing for your eye or poor exposure.  Lots of experience gained through “failure”.

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100 Birds – #23

The Belted Kingfisher is the only kingfisher species in the majority of North America. The Green and Ringed Kingfishers have very limited ranges in southern Texas so most Americans won’t see anything but the Belted Kingfisher.  What a shame!  When we visited the Sunderbans area of India in 2011 we saw six species of kingfisher in the first hour we were on the boat. Wow.

These birds are not easy to get close to as they typically sit where they have an open view and tend to be pretty cautious when humans show up.  Many is the time that I’ve seen nothing but the bird’s back end as it flies away to another favored perch. They will perch on a branch above or near water and scout for fish.  When they see prey they will dive and catch the fish or prey in their distinctive beak.  After they get the catch they fly back up to the perch for a snack. Kingfisher seem to want to make sure that you know they are in the area.  Their call is loud and distinctive.  “Look at me”, “over here”, “LOOK AT ME”.

Belted Kingfisher are fairly common here in Wenatchee.  We walk the river path frequently and it is a rare day when we don’t hear or see a kingfisher.  Do I have any contemporary photos of a kingfisher?  Nope.  It seems that every time I see a kingfisher within distance to photograph it is on a day when I was lazy and left the camera at home. Dianne is nice to me and doesn’t chastise me for leaving the camera behind.  Really, she doesn’t have to since I do enough by myself.  This photo is a heavy crop of an image taken back in Oregon as the bird perched above Commonwealth Lake Park.

There are a couple of local photographers that I have visited with enough that I presume I can now refer to them as friends.  John Barta and his wife Linda are frequent visitors to the Walla Walla Park area where we like to walk.  Frank Cone is a prolific local photographer that I see less frequently face-to-face but with whom I communicate on Facebook.  Both John and Frank have been posting a number of kingfisher photos lately.  I enjoy their work and have a bit of kingfisher-envy.  My lesson is that I need to be out there if I am to expect to get a photo.  Oh yeah, and it helps to have a camera along… makes it a lot easier to take a photo if you have one.

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100 Birds – #22

 

When we moved to Wenatchee, Washington we knew we’d see a variety of birds that inhabit the eastside of the Cascade mountains. We were excited to see new species.  What I didn’t think about (at least not much) was the species we’d leave behind.  Some birds that we saw commonly at our Portland house or in the area just don’t seem to make it over the hill and this far north.  Or so it seems with the Lesser Goldfinch.  In Portland we saw a lot of these birds and fewer of the American Goldfinch.  Here in Wenatchee we see a lot of American Goldfinch and I have yet to see a Lesser Goldfinch in the neighborhood.  Looking at a range map for the Lesser it may be that we are too far north for the Lesser to show up.  That could change as climate change occurs.

This photo was taken about 3 miles from our house in Portland.  Commonwealth Lake Park is an urban park that has a 0.75 mile paved trail around it.  The pond lays in some the highest density urban areas in the state of Oregon and gets a tremendous amount of use by a wide variety of people.  I fell into the group of users that showed up frequently, walked a couple of laps (or more) and carried binoculars and a camera.  On this day there was a small flock of Lesser Goldfinch hanging out in a sparse tree at the west end of the park.  Busy feeding on catkins they seemed unconcerned about me and the camera.  This is as close it comes to automatic photo taking – many birds to look at, all fairly low in the tree, unconcerned and perched in even lighting.  Click, click, click.  Next?

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100 Birds – #21

A day alone in the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge north of Vancouver, Washington always reaps rewards. I tend to start such a day with a cup of coffee as I sit near the entry station listening to birds and other sounds come from the marsh and forest cover of the refuge. I take note of birds flying in and out and begin to glass the birds with binoculars.  I’ll check the camera settings, position the beanbag on the window and dial in a rough exposure so I am mostly prepared when a photo presents itself.  It always presents itself.  Ridgefield never disappoints when it comes to birds.  I really can’t think of a time when I left the refuge without at least one nice opportunity to photograph a bird, a raccoon or some scene.  The place is rich and is a treat to visit any time of the year – mosquitos and other visitors may color the experience but there are always moments when you can be alone with the place and the critters that frequent it. Watching the sunrise over a marsh full of waterfowl, blackbirds and wrens is hard to beat if you want to begin a calm, zen-like day.

The automobile route of the Ridgefield NWR S Unit is about 4 miles long and you are required to stay in your vehicle much of the year.  During a few summer months you can exit your car and walk around.  It is during this time that the Kiwa trail is open to visitors and offers a wide variety of habitats and avian opportunities. The refuge is typically quiet with the exception of the train movement on the east side of the refuge. Much of the time in the refuge can be a pretty pure “moment of nature” if you want one.

The refuge is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the national network of refuges.  As such, activities occur within the refuge.  Seasonal waterfowl hunting is allowed.  Water levels are regulated.  Roads are graded. Vegetation is managed in a minimal way…plantings and weed control.  The refuge, like the others, is a busy place.  Management is intended to foster habitats to support the wildlife populations that use the area.  While there is always debate about what is being done, what should be done or what should NOT be done, the intent is benefit wildlife.  Humans are lucky to have access to the area. The value of the refuge is increasing rapidly in my opinion.  Housing development on the perimeter has changed the experience and influences the edge vegetation/habitats. I think the development is inevitable and something that I need to come to grips with.  I wish there was a nice buffer around the refuge to ease the immediate geographic pressures of houses against native forests and wetlands. That won’t happen now so the value of the refuge goes way up. The refuge is an island of nature in a fragmented landscape. People should recognize and appreciate the treasure they have in their back yard.

I was driving slowly around the loop and making stops when I thought a photo might be possible or when I just wanted to stop and watch, listen and feel the place. At one point I approached a culvert crossing of the road and it looked different to me.  It was.  Managers had come in with equipment and cleaned the inlet and outlet of the culvert to allow water flow.  There was a fairly large pile of what I think was some road gravels that had been pulled out of the water and piled along the road.  It was a pile of black sands and gravels and seeds and leaves had begun to accumulate on the surface. There were several Golden-crowned Sparrows hopping around gathering seeds.  The light was a fairly bright overcast.  I pulled over and parked nearby.  As I sat still watching the action, the birds adjusted to my car and me and resumed their work.  It’s always work for a bird.  Find food, preen and protect your feathers, watch for danger, find a mate… it is nonstop.

I raised the camera onto the bean bag on my window and started following birds as they feasted on the seeds that had been uncovered during the maintenance or which had fallen since the pile was placed. The setting on the dark pile of gravel/sand was different than anything I’d shot before and I still have mixed feelings about it as a stage for a photograph.  But the birds were nearby and happy.  I took about 100 photos and departed the area. I selected this photo for presentation here because I like the attitude that the bird is showing.  It looks confident, alert and a bit brash…almost challenging. Many photographers prefer the mega-birds for photography – the herons, eagles and egrets or geese.  I do too but can’t seem to resist a chance to record a small songbird. The energy and small size of these sparrows adds a challenge to the photo work.  The result, though, is that once the photo is on the computer monitor I get to take a close look at the beauty of the feathers on the bird and dramatic display of structure around the eye. So often we see birds fly by and they go virtually unnoticed.  There’s a bird.  Big deal.  Seeing a bird fly by and knowing what it is seems to be the next step in appreciating the complexity and dynamics of our birds. Studying, in an informal way, the variety and complexity of feathers on a single bird is not something that most people can or want to do. Me, I enjoy seeing the patterns and variety of feathers and wondering “Why? How?” Some may say I’m curious.  Others may say I’m nuts.  I think I’m fortunate. 20140221_104015_DSC_7395

100 Birds – #20

Only four of the seven species of chickadees in North America are likely to be seen.  The other 3 species are limited to far northern latitudes or small geographic ranges in Mexico. In the western United States we get to see the Chestnut-backed Chickadee, the Mountain Chickadee and the bird shown in this photograph – the Black-capped Chickadee.

When I first started posting bird photos to Google+ I was told by one prominent site moderator that I’d quickly learn that chickadee images are always crowd pleasers.  It reminded me of another saying that I first heard at a workshop with photographer John Shaw.  John was talking about the commercial aspects of nature photography when he said “Adorable sells”. The chickadee certainly falls into the group of cute, likeable or adorable birds. They don’t migrate great distances and it is possible to see them all year if you live in a favorable location.  Their call is easy to distinguish and their fast, frequent flights around an area draw your eye to them fairly easily. As a photographer I am always happy to see chickadees since they tend to sit still longer than other small birds.  I’m not saying that they pose for extended periods but compared to a kinglet or wren the chickadee seems to stay put a bit longer.

This photo was taken in the backyard of our old house in Portland, Oregon.  We put out feeders for the birds and welcomed them to our small patio.  I spent way too much time sitting at the doorway to the patio waiting for birds to come in and perch on one of the many perches that were there naturally or on one or more that I’d positioned to provide good photo backgrounds.  The perch in the photo is a stick that was located next to a tree rose in a pot on the patio.  I was always amazed to see a bird perch on top of the skinny, rough stick when they had smooth, more horizontal perches easily available.

To entertain myself and pursue high quality images I invested in a device known as a CamRanger (http://camranger.com/).  This little device connects to the camera which is placed on a tripod and positioned near the perch of choice. The CamRanger makes its own little WiFi network that can be connected to a smart phone WiFi settings. The CamRanger app lets you sit inside and control focus, exposure and remotely trigger the shutter.  The fact that a person is not evident to the birds is a HUGE advantage to capturing good photos.  Of course there is the limit to the scene that is observed at any given time but controlling focus and exposure while you sit on the couch reading and relaxing has a lot going for it.  Since the time I bought the CamRanger they have added a motorized tripod top that allows you to pan the camera as well as control exposure and shutter.  Those who know me know that I enjoy such things and can appreciate that there is one sitting in my camera storage area.  Someday soon it will come out to play in the Wenatchee area.

I suspect that some who read this post will find the process by which the photo was taken to be unethical or ill advised.  Many people resent “baiting” birds for photographs but I don’t know any people who don’t condone bird feeders in their own yards or nearby.  So yes, I drew the bird into the area by long term access to feed, I provided it a place to perch that I could use to get a nice photo (IMHO) and I sat in the comfort of my own house watching the screen on my iPhone and reading as I waited for a bird to land in front of the camera.  Then it was just a matter of tapping the screen on the bird’s eye to set the focus point and pressing the button to trigger the shutter. Click.  Job done.  Without this explanation you’d be hard pressed to know that this is not a quick capture in the woods somewhere.  The viewing reaction is what is important and I hope you agree that this is a cute little bird. Remember, adorable sells.  You can call me or email me.  Just kidding… or not.

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100 Birds – #19

 

The spring migration had begun and I was sitting on the patio enjoying a glass of wine with Dianne as the sun began to descend. I’ve learned that I should always have the camera handy as we sit, talk and scan our devices for news or trivia. This White-crowned Sparrow landed in our neighbor’s tree and began to preen and pose. The bird was backlit so the light was a bit flatter than I like. Photographing birds is rarely done under perfect conditions so one makes due with what one gets and then tries to improve the image with post processing.

There’s little more to this story.  It is just a fairly simple bird in a simple setting with mediocre light. But, we had not seen many White-crowned in our yard at the time this photo was taken so seeing one was a treat.  A few weeks later it seemed that we had been swarmed by them and we’d see as many as 20 at a time as they emptied our feeders.  They didn’t stay long though and we haven’t seen one in weeks now.  I’m hoping they return during the fall migration.  We’ll be ready for them.

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