Category Archives: Flora

The Inbetweeners: a short story of seasonal change

There is a transition. A point in-between seasons that is neither one nor the other. A chronological no-man’s land, so to speak. A seasonal limbo of…

…This is nonsense of course. Seasonality is a human construction to assist us in making sense of the passage of natural time; applying order to the highly relative flow of change.

Nevertheless, a riddle could be written: ‘when are there many swifts, but at the same time… none?’. The answer, of course, sits in the middle of our ‘summer’ holidays, but many, many weeks after the solstice. The locally breeding swifts have departed, or mostly, and the gathering flocks of swifts in the sky are passage birds.

Other birds are moving too. A south-bound Wheatear has been seen, and a number of bright Willow Warbler have been found on the patch. Far more than the one or two pairs that we believe have bred locally.

I was looking out for these, and hoping to see other passage migrants – perhaps an early returning flycatcher – when I heard a strange two-tone disyllabic call from within the lime trees in our SSSI area of the Wanstead Flats. I heard it again and again, from within the trees. I even videoed the sound (click here).

And then the tiny bird emerged from the foliage. In the morning light I thought it was a young Willow Warbler with a very odd call and missing some tail feathers, but studying the calls, it appears to be one of the young Chiffchaff from the patch.

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Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

As some birds leave, and others pass through, other creatures hold on to the last strips of summer. Peak butterfly time has been and gone. But luckily not all of them have disappeared yet. I saw my first Brown Argus on the patch on Saturday (my 25th species of butterfly here) and photographed one again today…

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Brown Argus (Aricia agestis)

The diagnostic black spots on the forewing are clearly showing in this photo, which help distinguish the argus from the similar looking female Common Blue. Of course, no such difficulty exists with males – also still on the wing.

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Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)

Seasons change. Or so we imprint on the natural flow. If you need further evidence that Autumn is coming, you should have seen some of the giant fungi that have sprouted up recently, including these:

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Unknown fungi

The art of looking closely

Recently I have started studying plants far more carefully than before. This is not so much learning about the plant, as searching for galls on the plant. Some are easy to overlook such as the tight leaf edge rolls on Common Beech caused by the mite, Acalitus stenapsis:

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Leaf edge roll caused by mite, Acalitus stenapsis

But in searching for galls, I have also started to notice other things.

At first I thought the red spots at the base of wild cherry leaves were galls. I now know they are glands, or ‘extrafloral nectaries’ to name them properly.

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If the plant comes under attack from some kind of animal, the glands exude a scent which attracts different types of animal that will likely feed on the attacking pests. This knowledge would still be outside of my awareness were it not for my interest in, and search for, galls.

I also wouldn’t have found this Swallow-tailed Moth had I not been studying the underside of leaves for galls.

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Swallow-tailed Moth (Ourapteryx sambucaria)

Nor indeed this wonderfully coloured and cryptically marked micro-moth:

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Grapholita janthinana

My new-found interest in the small has led to the acquisition of an 10X magnification eye-glass to study my quarry better.

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Two Knopper galls on acorn caused by gall wasp, Andricus quercuscalicis

To be honest, Knopper Galls do not really need magnification to appreciate them, but other galls are so tiny they really benefit from it:

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Gall caused by asexual generation of gall wasp, Neuroterus anthracinus

This year on the patch I have been hunting fruitlessly, so far, for the Brown Argus Butterfly whose wing undersides resemble relatively closely the Common Blue:

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Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)

It is only by careful and close study that we truly get to know a species, sometimes taking such efforts to simply differentiate one species from another, such as the Dingy Footman from the Common Footman, Scarce Footman or others from the large eilema genus of moth.

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Dingy Footman (Eilema griseola)

As a birder, I have become trained in noticing subtle movements, sounds, colours, and shapes at distance. But this summer, honing my skills in looking at things more closely and carefully, has opened up wonderful new worlds.

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Male Long Hoverfly (Sphaerophoria scripta)

From galls to gulls (and back to galls)

The Summer ‘silly season’ in patch birding – when self-respecting birders go off and get new hobbies like… er?… surveying plant galls, or lichen, or when they attempt to turn gin and tonic drinking into an Olympic sport – may be coming to an end somewhat faster than I expected.

The quiet month of June normally leaks a little into July, but one of my patch colleagues shattered that peace last Saturday with news of an extremely early ‘Autumn’  Common Redstart on the Patch. He also found what may have been a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull. I was busy doing other stuff that morning, but returned for an afternoon wander.

The Redstart was nowhere to be found in the early afternoon heat so I strolled onto the football pitches. The pitch-roost of gulls is still pretty small at the moment, but there was a reasonable selection of non-breeding birds that was worth scanning as I was rather keen to ensure YLG joined my 2017 patch list.

I could almost immediately see that one of the young, and very pale, Herring Gull‘s was colour-ringed. It was only when it took flight that the ring came clear of the grass and was readable as Orange L1YT. I am still waiting to see full details, but I understand it is likely to be a ‘Pitsea’ bird.

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Young Herring Gull (Larus argentatus): ‘L1YT’

I followed it as it moved from flock to flock on the pitch when a slightly bulkier gull flew in behind it. I instantly knew it was different, and you can see that the bill, face mask, and tail – amongst other things – give away the ID as Yellow-legged Gull, but also point to this being a different bird from the one Tony had seen earlier.

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Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

Aside from the juvenile gull, there was little else of interest in avian terms so I reverted back to studying leaves, with my best find being this impressive fig gall caused by an aphid on English Elm:

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Tetraneura ulmi

In case you were to think that my day was solely spent with gulls and galls (some people’s idea of wildlife hell), I also counted double figures of species of butterfly with Small Copper being new for the year on the patch for me.

The Plant Invaders: Part I (Galls)

“a sort of botanical glory-hole”
― John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids, 1963

That animals eat, and make homes from, plants, is something we learn at a very young age. But fewer of us seem to be aware of the very much more complex manipulations of living plants that some organisms conduct. Sometimes the plant tissue itself is distorted by another organism. A growth forms. We call these growths, galls.

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Marble gall formed by a parasitic wasp (Andricus kollari) on Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur)

The nature and shape of these galls can vary wildly: from hard nutty growths, to soft fleshy lumps; from tiny specks on leaves, to giant weighty tumours on trees. The ’causer’, to give the parasitic organism its correct term, is often a very small invertebrate such as a mite, midge, wasp (if you are thinking of large stinging black an yellow things, you are in the wrong ballpark altogether), or aphid; but can also be fungi, bacteria, and even other plants (mistletoe for example). The ‘hosts’ are often specially chosen and parasitised by specialist causers, meaning that if you see a nail gall on the leaf of a Common Lime, it has been caused by a different species to the similar gall on the closely related Small-leaved Lime.

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Nail gall caused by a mite (Eriophyes tiliae) on the leaf of Common Lime (Tilia x europaea)

When invertebrates are involved, galls are formed to provide shelter, sustenance, and/or protection to the causer and/or its offspring. Sometimes the lifecycle of a gall causer can be so complex that different stages of metamorphosis can require different, sometimes multiple, host plants (I have a pear tree in my garden infected by a fungus that will require juniper to conduct the next stage of its vital process).

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Gall caused by an aphid (Crytosiphium artemisiae) on the leaves of Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

Galls fascinate me. Unlike birds and butterflies, they stay still when you want to study or photograph them. They straddle the worlds of botany and zoology (the study of plant galls is called Cecidology, in case you were wondering), and form a welcome distraction to the lack of interesting migrant birds on the patch during the quiet summer months.

Armed with no equipment, other than a camera phone, and very limited background knowledge, I have managed to photograph and identify at least thirty types of plant gall on my local patch. I am confident that I shall find many more.

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Oak Spangle galls of wasps (Neuroterus numismalis) and (Neuroterus quercusbaccarus)

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Growth on an ancient birch formed by bacteria (Agrobacterium tumefaciens)

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Oak apple gall formed by a wasp (Biorhiza pallida) on Oak host

 

Blitzing spiders and stringing butterflies

A weekend of wildlife began with a sunset.

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Heronry Pond, Wanstead Park (having been re-filled)

A crowd of people waited in the warmth (we are about to break June temperature records again in London with five consecutive days when the mercury has topped out over 30 degrees centigrade) and watched dark shapes scythe through the sky.

We had come to watch bats, but in the light cloudless skies of the evening, it was a huge flock of swifts at first that cut through smoke-like murmurations of midges rising up from the trees like Ashphodel souls.

The bats did come out later, also appearing silently from the trees, and were silhouetted against the sky or water like the bat-sign from comic legend. Silent, that is, apart from the fact that several of us were armed with bat detectors. Common Pipistrelle were picked out from their tiny shapes in the sky, but also from the fast-paced pricking at frequencies well out of range of human hearing. Also too high to hear unaided, but positively bass-like compared with their tiny cousins, were the abstract beats of the beefy Noctule bats punching and pulsing out of the speakers in a way that would have many hip-hop artists drooling with envy.

Friday night ended, not with multiple gin and tonics, as is my normal wont, but with the strangely hospital-like glare of moth traps drawing some moths, but tens of thousands of midges and other tiny flying creatures of the night.

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Moth (and midge!) trapping

All of this activity was for our local conservation group’s annual bio-blitz weekend. Check us out here: Wren Group.

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The wonderful, knowledgeable Tricia Moxley teaching us about introduced and wild plants

I started Saturday leading several of my neighbours (people I know and people I didn’t) on a walk around our local wood. I talked a lot about trees, but the highlights were the butterflies including a year-first Ringlet and a location (but not full patch) first with a Purple Hairstreak (a species that would get me in trouble the following day).

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Ringlet butterfly (Aphantopus hyperantus)


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A temporarily trapped Purple Hairstreak (Neozephyrus quercus) and a rather disinterested baby

Overall, it was a reasonable weekend for butterflies. I counted thirteen species in total (a little way off my record patch day total of 16 from last July).

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Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus)


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Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris)*

The number ’13’ is unlucky for some. Unlucky ever since that 13th disciple betrayed Christ for some silver. Well, I too felt mildly betrayed, or was it simply embarrassed, soon after I saw another hairstreak on the ground near some elm trees whilst I was trailing behind one of Tricia’s walks. Elms, as in the favoured tree of the White-letter Hairstreak

I peered down at the little lepid and started breathing a little faster when no large orange eye peered back at me from the hindwing. The hindwing was a little crumpled, not only obscuring the eye, but also rippling the hairstreak into a ‘W’ shape. The newly emerged butterfly was promptly, but gently scooped, into an inspection pot and whisked off to be held aloft triumphantly in front of the wondering eyes of my fellow Wren members. But, on closer inspection, it was, of course, simply another Purple Hairstreak despite my earlier innocent efforts to ‘string’ it into something more exciting.

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Purple Hairstreak again with the offending unfurling hindwings

So we may not have scored any super rare butterflies, but the far less excitable (than me), and far more expert, arachnologist, David Carr did find some great spiders.

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The maestro at work, David Carr

We believe that one of his finds of the weekend was the 19th specimen ever found in the UK, of Philodromus buxi:

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Philodromus buxi


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David and Araneus triguttatus

Across all the activities, we had about 300 participants. An opportunity for many people to find out a little more about the wildlife on our doorstep.

*All photos on here were taken with the iPhone 7. I really am very impressed with the quality of the camera on it.

Peak District: the barren hills

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River Ashop, Peak District, Derbyshire

The Peak District contains some of the most dramatic scenery in England, and is a great place for walking. It is beautiful, historic, and interesting, but also bleak, damaged, and perplexing.

The famous Gritstone rock formations were like natural staging posts and diversions on our walks up in the hills.

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Sometimes the layers – that would have been formed hundreds of millions of years ago from depositions of sand under the sea – were visible.

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And sometimes it was hard not to anthropomorphise the escarpments overlooking the plains down below the Kinder Scout plateau.

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The bleakness of the moors is famous and loved by many. I can certainly appreciate a beauty in the desolation of the moors, hills, and plateaus, but there is also something that leaves me uneasy.

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That unease stems from the knowledge I have that these areas should not look like this. This is not a natural wilderness, but – like so much of British uplands – a scraped, denuded desert shaped by the hand of man and the teeth of sheep.

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George Monbiot describes the ‘white plague’ and the ‘sheepwrecked‘ landscapes that have been stripped of so much that is ‘natural’.

It would be unfair to ignore the fact that some wildlife seems to thrive in these landscapes. Everywhere we went the squeaks and songs of Meadow Pipit followed us, and Skylark seemed to punctuate the bleakness, singing and looking down upon the land we have stripped almost bare for them.

Of course, the careful management of the land is deliberate to encourage one species in particular to flourish: Red Grouse. I didn’t have my camera with me, but even with an iPhone and some binoculars, I was able to pick the odd head out of the heather.

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Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus)

Occasionally, a parent would be separated from a chick, and the stripey young birds would scuttle across the paths in front of us.

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Red Grouse chick

And, of course, when land is maintained (burned and stripped) for one species, others sometimes benefit as well. Curlew were sometimes seen suspended in the wind or passing over our heads in small herds (yes, that is the correct collective noun), but more often they would announce their invisible presence with their mournful cries. At one point two almost sea-bird-like shapes appeared above our heads and seemed to hover over and watch us. Before I put my my bins to my face to identify them, they gave the game away with not just a call, but a song: weirdly my first Golden Plover for the year. I later watched one drop down in the grass so I took a record shot with my phone up against my bins:

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European Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria)

Despite trying to make a case against the wildlife desolation, I was also lucky enough to see a pair of Ring Ouzel and Whinchat. Whenever there was a tree – rare but present in gorges and river valleys – there were Willow Warbler singing – far more common up there than the also-present Chiffchaff and Blackcap.

Despite wheezing my office-air-con fuelled lungs, hungover, up hills, I also turned my eye to other non-avian fauna. Not exactly spectacular from the lepid-pespective, but a year tick for me was Green Hairstreak – a butterfly I expect to see many of shortly on my local Patch, but haven’t yet.

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Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)

I was also quite pleased with this rather uniquely marked Two-banded Longhorn Beetle (I have looked through tens of pics of this species and can’t find any that look quite like this):

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Two-banded Longhorn Beetle (Rhagium bifasciatum)

So… not dreadful, but still a pretty small number of species given the expanse of wilderness. I tried to cast my mind back before memory to what these hills would have looked like just a few hundred years ago. Fully wooded and just full of life. Life that is now not just gone, but beyond gone, before memory so treated as an irrelevance or a non-existence by the powers that be.

My perspective became ‘resolve’ and hardened when I saw this sign.

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Let’s just read that first paragraph again:

This apparently simple landscape has been shaped by people over hundreds of years. Forest clearance, farming and grouse shooting have all had a lasting impact.

You don’t say! Perhaps those words washed over you as neutral or benign, but just imagine flying to Brazil to visit the Amazon Rainforest and when you get there, there are just burnt and empty fields or pasture land for cows and there was sign saying “forest clearance, farming and wild animal shooting have all had a lasting impact”! Yes they ‘effing well have. We have wrecked our wooded island like a larger scale version of Easter Islanders who wiped out first their trees and, then, themselves.

It appears that some authorities are aware of the problem. We walked past a field of plastic posts. My friend remarked it was probably a commercial plantation, but when I peered into the tubes I was heartened to see a mix of species: English Oak, Birch, even Rowan had been planted and protected from the ever-hungry mouths of the white plague.

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Rowan. I thought back to the ancient stooping tree over the trout-filled stream that we walked by in some inaccessible corner. I thought back further. I thought back into the depths of imagination when dots of Rowan would have appeared in the newly ice-cleared land dominated by the pines, oak, and birches.

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An old Rowan or Mountain Ash (Sorbus aucuparia)

The rowan with their many leaves and colourful berries bringing something different to our newly re-forested land. Our land that soon after became an island (when dogger disappeared under the waves), and then… just a few thousand years later (blink of an eye in geological terms) has been stripped and scoured and scorched to the bleak and barren hills we now know that overlook our equally barren agricultural lowlands.

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Common Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

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Walking through planted pine woodland

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Well established pine and fir plantation

And so, during my walks in the Peaks, I reflected on the wild, the re-wild, the desolate hills, the life wiped out that is never to come back, and occasionally also the human life forgotten and lost in these hills, like the villagers of Derwent whose homes were ‘drowned’ in the name of progress (Ladybower Reservoir) with only the odd sign left telling of their presence.

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Looking down to Ladybower

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Gateposts from a now destroyed and drowned house in Derwent

If you would like to read more about re-wilding, I can heartily, and strongly, recommend George Monbiot’s magnum opus, Feral, which I see as a manifesto for the wild we so desperately need to let back into our hearts, our lives, and our environment.

 

Norfolk Broads and the Common Crane

Sometimes it is good to be out in the wild but not birding. I actually have two weekends of that in a row. This weekend just gone saw five old school friends and me on a boat on the Norfolk Broads (what could possibly go wrong?!) and this weekend coming I will be hill walking with two other friends in the Peak District. On both occasions, I am the only birder.

I could wax lyrical about the history of flooding and marshlands and navigation and… water and wetland generally in East Anglia, but tonight I just don’t have time. As many will know, the Norfolk Broads are flooded peat-works (excavated by the monasteries back in the Middle Ages) and joined by some of the major rivers.

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Historic wind drainage pump on the River Yare

The six of us chugged along in our hired boat doing a spot of fishing, playing various musical instruments, drinking beer, bird watching, sunbathing, drinking beer, playing poker, drinking beer and various other activities that may have also involved drinking beer.

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My pals armed with guitar, harmonica, and fishing rod and comedy captain’s cap of course

But a lot of the time we just enjoyed the expansive waterways, the expansive vegetation, and the even-more-expansive skies.

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Rookburgh St Mary Broad

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Distant rain and rainbow over the marshes

I obviously had my binoculars to hand most of the time, although trying to operate them in one hand whilst standing on a boat and drinking beer simultaneously with the other hand is not all that easy, so sometimes I lay down to do it more easily (you understand?) and was occasionally snapped naturally for a photo.

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Yours truly ready to pounce into birding action

We didn’t spot anything unusual, but by the end of the trip I made sure my friends could all identify a Cetti’s Warbler by its song. I think they struggled a little more with all the Sedge Warbler and Reed Warbler, but were suitably impressed with the Hobby, Marsh Harrier, Kingfisher, and Short-eared Owl sightings. I didn’t have my camera, so no bird pics this time, just iPhone shots of landscapes and thirty-something-year-old men.

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One of the narrower waterways linking a flooded ‘broad’ with the river

One of the birds you might hope to see in this area is the Common Crane; made extinct but reintroduced to a couple of secret sites in East Anglia. However, it was only when back in London that I heard this bird was at Rainham Marshes – a huge London tick for me and many others, and a first ever site record.

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Common Crane (Grus grus)

This record shot was taken from up on the ridge of the Rainham landfill site and looking down several hundred meters on to Wennington Marsh towards the A13.

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X marks the spot

Not a bad weekend overall.