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The Daily Bucket is a regular feature of the Backyard Science group.  It is a place to note any observations you have made of the world around you.  Rain, sun, wind...insects, birds, flowers...meteorites, rocks...seasonal changes...all are worthy additions to the bucket.  Please let us know what is going on around you in a comment.  Include, as close as is comfortable for you, where you are located. Each note is a record that we can refer to in the future as we try to understand the patterns that are quietly unwinding around us.
May 2014

My backyard for the first half of May was an offshore atoll in the Caribbean. I go to a coral reef every year somewhere because that underwater world is my element and my passion. And I feel a sense of urgency, knowing the reefs are declining radically, even within my lifetime.

The Caribbean is nearby compared to other coral reefs in the world, and over the last couple of decades I've explored different locales there. I've seen the decline everywhere - that's the bad news. I've also found some places where the reefs are still fairly healthy - that's the good news. The global effects of a warming and acidifying ocean are relentless, but local actions to protect coral reefs from other threats can slow down the deterioration, and possibly give this ancient ecosystem a fighting chance to adapt.

One feature of the healthy reefs I've dived is remoteness from human activity. The outer atolls of Belize are relatively remote. It shows. Out beyond the barrier reef, the atolls are 1.5 - 2.5 hours by boat out in the open sea. An atoll is a ring of coral that emerges from the water surface in some places, forming small mangrove islands (cayes), with the whole ring enclosing a shallow lagoon.

Besides a handful of dive resorts, local fish camps and two scientific research stations on a few cayes, the atolls are uninhabited. This limits sedimentation and pollution.

A healthy reef is packed with a diversity of living corals and the creatures who depend on them, like these Spotted Eagle Rays. I saw Eagle Rays every day! Other places I've dived, I might see one in a week.

(Note: I do not have an underwater camera. All these images are either given to me by fellow divers, or in the public domain. I saw everything pictured here.)

The large number of species I saw, and the numbers of individuals indicate a stable ecosystem with adequate resources.


school of Permit


Fairy Basslet

blue tangs

school of Blue Tangs

I witnessed the spawning season of the Sharp-Nosed Puffer over a week. At first I couldn't understand why the water was filled with these small 2" colorfully patterned fish, but after a few days I began seeing them in pairs, with some dead spent bodies lying on the bottom. Imagine swimming in the middle of hundreds of these little fellows, following each other, darting out attacking interlopers, hovering together.

sharpnose puffer

A coral reef ecosystem has many interspecies interactions too. Cleaning stations are one of my favorite to watch. At these spots, which look just like any other to me, an absolute truce exists. Large fish hover, mouths and gills agape, while tiny wrasses, blennies and shrimp crawl in and out snatching up parasites...the big fish get cleaned and the small ones get food, a mutually beneficial relationship.

barracuda cleaning station

barracuda at cleaning station

Another sign of a healthy reef is the presence of both young and old individuals of a species. Fishing usually takes away the largest, most prolific members of a population, resulting in fewer young. I saw various aged fish, such as these Spotted Drums. They all have a strange swimming style, round and round, under an overhang.

adult spotted drum

adult Spotted Drum

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA, juv spotted drum

juvenile Spotted Drum

The atolls of Belize benefit from more protection from fishing than most reefs in the Caribbean. Portions of Lighthouse Atoll (beginning in 1928) and Glover's Reef (in 1993) were established as a National Monument and a Marine Reserve, respectively. Turneffe Atoll was declared a Marine Reserve in its entirety in 2012. Their protected status, the influence of the dive tourist industry and their distance from the mainland population centers means the atolls have larger - older - fish I don't usually see elsewhere. Groupers were common, larger than the one in this photo.


I even saw two huge Loggerhead Turtles. Hawksbill Turtles were fairly common.


I generally dive with a few other people and a dive guide from the resort. We don't talk during a dive (mouth full of a regulator!) which is really a lovely experience, just you drifting in that sensual world without human yackety yak. So every now and then when the dive guide wants to show you something cool, he gestures with basic hand signals. One time he gestured something I didn't understand at first, waving across the reef. He meant: "healthy coral". Yes! I'd been so intent on seeing a Toadfish hidden in a crack or a sleeping Nurse Shark I hadn't gazed across the whole reef - swaying gorgonians, colorful brain corals, lavender sea fans, giant knobby barrel sponges, busy with hundreds of fish at their day's work.

Nearly paradise. The threats to coral reefs were evident even out there though. In places, a red slimy cyanobacterial mat covered a coral head. I saw this less in the easternmost sites, at Lighthouse Atoll. This "algae" grows in places of high nutrient load, such as sewage, fertilizer, decomposition, eg. swept in from human habitation and agriculture. Algae covers and suffocates coral, and is a bigger threat in the Caribbean than the Pacific. This makes the invasive Lionfish an even bigger disaster than they'd otherwise be, since they feed on small herbivorous fish (more on what I saw of the Lionfish in a future post).

I also noticed far less Staghorn and Elkhorn coral, the branching type. Disease and coral bleaching due to the warming ocean have killed off much of these fast-growing corals in the Caribbean. There's a cascade effect in the ecosystem. For example, Damselfish, which ordinarily cultivate and defend algae gardens in branching coral, have moved to the slower-growing coral heads, where they have less protection and do more damage with their "death-bites". Here's a damselfish in its preferred coral home, of which I saw few on this trip.

staghorn and damselfish

In spite of these warning signs of decline, I still travel to the reef each year and dive, feeling immense gratitude I'm alive to still see this wonderful complex beautiful world.

Don't know if this link will work, but if you can play it, you'll see bits of one day of our diving on this trip, a day trip over to Lighthouse Reef atoll. Michael Davis is a videographer who filmed and put together this movie. You can get a sense of what it's like on a dive. Please turn off the sound though - there isn't zippy music playing under water...imagine instead the sound of water gurgling quietly :)

The Eagle Rays wave bye bye...

eagle rays


That's a bit of my aquatic backyard. What's up today in your natural neighborhood? All observations are welcome.

And -

"Spotlight on Green News & Views" will be posted every Saturday and Wednesday at 1:00 pm Pacific Time on the Daily Kos front page.  Be sure to recommend and comment in the diary.

Originally posted to Backyard Science on Sat May 24, 2014 at 06:30 AM PDT.

Also republished by Kitchen Table Kibitzing and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I've never scuba-dived . . . (15+ / 0-)

    which is ironic since I made my living for a number of years by assembling scuba masks and installing prescription lenses in them (for Sea Vision).

    I have snorkeled, but that's not the same.

    In the end, reality always wins.

    by Lenny Flank on Sat May 24, 2014 at 06:44:50 AM PDT

    •  It's been years for me... (11+ / 0-)

      I spent six weeks doing research on carbonate depositional environments... in the Bahamas. Tough work, but someone had to do it. Required that I do at least a little diving every day out among reefs that had some living crinoids (sea lilies) and shoals of impossibly beautiful fish.

      Thirty years later, I still have frequent dreams about those days.

      •  I can well imagine swimming dreams (9+ / 0-)

        even years later. It's like flying but better, supported safely by the water and everything in slow motion.

        That's an interesting research topic - carbonate deposition. There's a lot of that going on now, measuring the effects of warming and acidification. Deposition has slowed worldwide, and with sea level rising that's a crisis in itself.

        Darwin was the first person to hypothesize how atolls are formed, and his explanation in the mid 1800s is accepted as essentially correct. Corals grow upward toward the light as land sinks or water rises. He was describing the far more abundant Pacific atolls which originate as a volcanic island surrounded by a reef, the later form being just the coral ring once the island in the middle sinks below the surface. In the Atlantic, the atolls originated from limestone ridges, now hundreds of feet below the surface with corals growing upward keeping pace with rising sea level. Whether they are able to continue keeping up is a real question now.

        I love crinoids. Golden feathery arms waving in the current.

    •  I use a prescription mask. (7+ / 0-)

      With my nearsighted vision I couldn't dive otherwise (got one early on after realizing how much I was missing). I use it snorkeling too. My mask is so important I keep it in my carry-on bag, in case my luggage gets lost.

  •  nicely done, coral reefs are a distant (15+ / 0-)

    memory for me, almost 40 years since I lived on a hill above a reef. And for reasons you point out, I do not want to go back there. It would be sad.

    Photo from this morning. Both Red-shouldered hawks are hopping around a lot. Not the fuzzy-headed chicks they were last week. Fledglings? What's after that? Is there a name for this stage? Are they juveniles yet?

    "You are what you write, not what you look like."

    by PHScott on Sat May 24, 2014 at 07:58:31 AM PDT

  •   Beautiful place Ocean Diver (11+ / 0-)

    Clear warm water and an amazing ecosystem. Thank you for sharing this.

    I did a little 'dorkeling' at Mahaual, Yucatan after a bad hurricane year, I think it got hit 3 times. The reef was buried by sand, much coral was broken but it was recovering. As the sea warms, hurricanes will become more intense and frequent. recovery may be impossible. The seas will survive, the reefs also, after all the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is a product of climate change.  There might not be any humans around to appreciate them however. I like humans, I just wish they had some vision and sense.

    sorry, too negative, but tiny keyboard and big fingers.
    Thanks again

    I support application of Common Core Standards to Congressmen.

    by Wood Gas on Sat May 24, 2014 at 08:04:16 AM PDT

    •  I tend to agree about the ultimate fate of (7+ / 0-)

      our species. That's why I'm profoundly grateful my lifetime has coincided with coral reef communities. Even my grandchildren may not have that. Our species is extremely recent, extremely fast in its cultural development, and hence intrinsically unstable in a biological sense. I suspect we are not long for this world, although I will do everything I can to improve the prospects environmentally.

      The thousand tiny cuts you mention have a cumulative effect, even if each one is recoverable. It's surprising how well a reef can recover from hurricane damage. After Wilma, a cat 5 monster in 2005, stalled right over Cozumel (Mexican Yucatan) for several days churning up the seas and thrashing the reef it was a sandy rubbley mess, but I went there a couple of times a few years later and it was recovering remarkably well. For example, the lavender sea fans which had all been destroyed were regrowing, tiny purple fans a few inches big. By itself a hurricane isn't fatal. But combined with other threats, reefs have a hard time recovering.

  •  Muskrat Suzie, Muskrat... (16+ / 0-)

    Okay, I only saw one muskrat this morning, and I honestly don't know if it was a Sam or a Susie. It was a nice, plump little furball, flipping that flattened rat-tail back and forth as it carried vegetation from shore back to the little island.

    Fun fact: while we're used to seeing invasive Old World species in America, the Muskrat is an invasive species from America. They were introduced into Europe as a source of fur, and spread quickly across all of Europe and Asia. They're a particular pest in the Netherlands, where they have a habit of burrowing into dams and dikes.

    Quite a bit of resemblance to our frequently seen beaver, though a good deal smaller and without the big paddle tail to slap the water when I get too close.

    Though both of these dudes are rodents, they're in different parts of the rather bushy rodent tree. Muskrats are actually closely related to field mice and lemmings.

    Also out on the lake this morning, a couple of female wood ducks escorting at least 13 ducklings. Looks like they found a friendly tree hole or two.

    Also hanging around were at least seven goslings. Looks like our "replace the eggs with wooden replicas" project was a little less than 100% successful.

    Mammals weren't the only thing out swimming in the warm water.

    That's Nerodia sipedon, the Northern Water Snake. I've seen several of them well out in the middle of the lake, hanging with their heads out of the water and their bodies angled down at about 30 degrees. They're quick to find any fish that are injured by fishermen on the lake and will swim away with quite large fish -- I have no idea how they tackle eating them.

    Another picture of a Green Heron. We're at that time of year when any lap of the lake results in 1-3 Great Blue Herons and at least half a dozen of the smaller Green Herons. I just love these guys.

    Finally, a couple of mystery birds I'd like help identifying. The first is pretty small -- swallow-size -- which makes me suspect possibly Purple Martin. Despite all the Martin condos in people's back yards around here, I'm not sure I've seen one before. The second bird is also small and grey. I'm thinking some kind of flycatcher.

    Can you tell I've been in a spot where I couldn't Bucket all week?

  •  We dove Roatan in April. (12+ / 0-)

    Another, nearby Caribbean reef. Still in fantastic shape. I'd say the best I've ever seen, and I've gone diving all over the Pacific, even if my Atlantic and Caribbean experience is limited - mostly on shore, and frankly it has been trashed.

    Never been to Belize, but I'd love to go! Flying over the reefs, they look fantastic...

    •  Cool! Where in Roatan were you? (8+ / 0-)

      There's a Marine Park on the west side that is actively patrolled by those folks, makes a difference.

      I'm curious about where you dived in the Pacific, the places where it's trashed along the shore. Over there, like the Caribbean, the farther you are from population centers the better condition of the reefs. That's why I choose dive ops out on islands whenever I can, like off the mainlands of Sulawesi, Fiji, New Guinea. I've had really good diving in such places.

      Belize is savvy about dive tourism, well set up for that in terms of infrastructure and administration. You should go, you'll love it!

      •  I meant it was trashed on Atlantic shores, (4+ / 0-)

        not in the Pacific. Although both the Pacific and Atlantic (Caribbean, really) coasts of Honduras and Costa Rica certainly qualify. I last dove the Pacific coast of Mexico in 1975, and at that time there were excellent sites, so I can't say the entire Central American coastline has been destroyed, but certainly offshore is where it is at.

        Besides the coasts of North and Central America, being from Hawai'i naturally I've dived many sites there. Huge biodiversity, but poor coral growth overall, although there are a very few great sites. Kandavu in Fiji was a favorite, as was Lifou in the Loyalty islands, as well as reefs on the south end of New Caledonia (or are those technically in the Coral Sea?). And of course the Great Barrier Reef, although the Whitsundays closer to shore were pretty much as good.

        But all said and done, I still think Roatan was the best for sheer National Geographic type beauty. Yes, we stayed at West End, still a funky style tourist town focused on diving. The back side of Utila was also excellent, but it is a long boat ride from Sandy Bay, where most people visiting the island wind up diving (and which I rate as "trashed"). Utila is cheaper (cheapest in the world?), but it's worth the little extra to dive Roatan instead, if only because the island itself is so much nicer to visit.

        •  I'm considering a dive trip to Hawaii (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          LIcenter, matching mole, Wood Gas

          since it's even closer for me than the Caribbean. I've dived off Kauai and that was nice, especially way out at Niihau. But it was kinda cold, 70s. I'm spoiled now, really don't like temps below low 80s and my dive partner, Mr O, is even more sensitive to cold. Very lean. He wears a 5 ml in 84 degree water!

          Does the big island have that kind of temp and if so what months? What are the great sites there and what dive ops would you recommend? Thanks for any info you can pass along :)

          •  On the Big Island my favorite sites are (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            OceanDiver, LIcenter, Wood Gas

            Keawaiki on Kona side, a few miles south of the Waikaloa/Anaeho'omalu resort complex, and the Kapoho "tide pools" on the Hilo side, below Green Lake by the "champagne ponds". The latter is actually more a skin diving spot than scuba, as you are going through shallows from pool to pool, but the coral development and fish biodiversity are amazing. For mantas and pelagic fish, "broken road" just before South Point is an easy entry where almost anything could come swimming by. Captain Cook's monument is actually great also, but very popular and crowded.

            As for dive ops, I have no experience as I always had my own gear. I just get fills where it is convenient, as long as they are willing to fill my compact 80's to 3200 lbs. Temp wise, it is a bit chilly, upper 70s generally year-round. I use a vest and manage to stay warm.

            •  Appreciate the info. You must be pretty hardy (4+ / 0-)

              hauling your gear and shore diving. I have my own kit except for tanks (I had bad experiences early on with both a rental reg and a BC so I bought my own good quality stuff) but I do like getting help from staff schlepping gear onto and off a dive boat - I have a bad back. The temp issue comes up for us because we do 3 dives a day for ten days at least. Nothing extreme in terms of depth or currents, but the cold builds up after a while, just can't warm up enough to be comfortable if the water isn't warm. But those dive sites sound awesome. I'm going to do some research on a trip over there. Thanks!

  •  Looks like you had a great trip OD. Thanks for (9+ / 0-)

    giving us a peek too. Now back in the PNW, you have to swap your diving and swim gear for rain gear.

    "There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats ..." - Kenneth Grahame -

    by RonK on Sat May 24, 2014 at 08:37:06 AM PDT

  •  Meanwhile, back on dry land, (9+ / 0-)

    the squirrels are busy digging up the acorns they hid last year.

    I titled that photo "squirrel six pack." They're common here, with all the oak trees around, but it's rare to see so many in one field of view.

    Another scorcher in middle Georgia, with a predicted high of 93. I have resisted air conditioning thus far. As long as the low temperatures are in the mid 60s or lower, I can keep the house comfortable. Once the lows approach 70, everything gets muggy and sticky, and the thermostat is engaged.

    Thanks for posting the news from the reef. Aside from a bit of snorkeling in Hawaii, the undersea world has been hidden from me.

    •  That's a great image of digging up acorns. (6+ / 0-)

      Must make a mess out of your lawn?

      I guess I'm a PNW wimp, but I've discovered I can't go to the tropics without AC. Even with a fan, the heat and humidity just sucks all the energy out, partly because I don't sleep well in those conditions. Don't need AC in the NW.

      Speaking of oaks, here's an interesting observation I made in my excursion to small outer islands this past week. Our only oak, Q. garryanna, which grows so rarely on my home island, is much more common out there. Most of the trees on all the islands were clearcut by the early 1900s for the lime kilns, including the small islands (easy transporting logs by water) so these oaks grew there on their own later. For whatever reason, they competed better against the Doug firs and Grand firs and alders. Possibly because it's pretty dry out on those rocks, not much soil. I'm just uploading my trip pics and will post some in an upcoming bucket so you can see the setting.

      Thanks for the squirrel drama! They are cute natural neighbors :)

  •  Wonderful if troubling diary, O'diver (6+ / 0-)

    I am glad that some of the places you visited apparently have some protected status.

    In some ways I am more concerned about climate change's impacts on the ocean than on how the changing weather would affect people.

    All quiet at 5 am in Duckville, PNW, this morning.  Thought I saw a robin-sized diving bird in the water like a duck, but it hid when I tried for a closer look.

    I saw a backyard frog no bigger than a dime this week.

    I also saw herons in the sky three times in a few minutes, and am wondering if it was actually 2 or 3 herons.

    “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” ― Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

    by 6412093 on Sat May 24, 2014 at 12:06:23 PM PDT

    •  Hmmm. I don't know what small duck you might (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      foresterbob, LIcenter, salmo, Wood Gas

      be seeing there. Out in the bays I'd suggest Pigeon Guillemot but those are strictly marine.

      Nice heron and frog reports. Thanks. Look up look down ;-)

      I agree about the ocean and climate change. The ocean is a bigger system than anything we see on land, by far. It drives all sorts of effects on land, even way inland. Its gigantic size gives it a certain stability, but once things start to change, the momentum is hard to stop, or even divert. It is definitely troubling. Worth fighting to slow the change, in whatever ways we can.

  •  Thanks for the underwater tour (7+ / 0-)

    I've become much more aware of the marine environment since moving to Florida.  Part of that is just experiencing the ocean on a monthly basis instead of once every year or so.  But I'm also in contact with marine biologists all the time.  Although we don't have coral reefs this far north I hear about them quite often and what I hear is pretty disturbing.

    So it's nice to hear about a place where the reef is still reasonably healthy even if it isn't in top shape.

    Belize is the only place I've ever been diving in the ocean (I learned in a pool and did one freshwater dive in Illinois).  I keep thinking off taking it up again now that I live some place where I could do it regularly.

    Light clouds today in Tallahassee.  Still hot but it looks like a change in the weather is coming.

    I think I heard my first katydids of the season last night but the tree frogs were so loud that it was hard to tell for sure.

    "To see both sides of a quarrel, is to judge without hate or alarm" - Richard Thompson

    by matching mole on Sat May 24, 2014 at 12:12:49 PM PDT

  •  Just a quick note (8+ / 0-)

    to say how much I enjoyed reading your diary. And thanks for going to the trouble to find pics to illustrate.

    "Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism." Hubert H. Humphrey

    by nomandates on Sat May 24, 2014 at 12:15:43 PM PDT

  •  Nice piece and photos (7+ / 0-)

    about a Caribbean reef. I hate it when I see the most beautiful violet coral because it means the water is heating up again and the coral is suffering. lI see a lot of everything you posted almost daily here on St. Croix...swam with an Eagle Ray this morning, yesterday a Dolphin and some Hawksbills. Here are some Tarpon looking for handouts on the dock.

    If peace is to prevail we all have to become foes of violence.

    by spacejam on Sat May 24, 2014 at 01:50:37 PM PDT

  •  Nice. (6+ / 0-)

    Never been to Belize, but love to dive on Bonaire.  Shore diving is my thing since I like to take my time and don't like divemasters that swim me around.

    The reefs there have taken a hit from algae due to pollution, sewage outfall, mainly.  The Dutch government is finally putting in sewage treatment facilities.  However, a couple of things that are noticeable and done well; there is a section that is off limits to fishing and the very large fish migrating out of it are noticeable, and they are making a project of serving lionfish, yummy, but now one needs to get below 100' to have a chance of snagging any.

    •  Good to hear sewage treatment is going in. (4+ / 0-)

      There's a place on the south side of Roatan by Oak Ridge I like to dive but it's gotten increasingly scummy with that red algae. No sewage system  - outhouses are built over the water, yuck. That water circulates out onto the reef. You couldn't pay me to swim in that harbor, but I see kids swimming there all the time :(

      It's the lionfish that are only below 100'? Sounds like they are being hunted pretty aggressively, that is very cool. From what I've seen anywhere in the Caribbean, the only solution to the lionfish problem is ongoing full time spearing on sight. Some places are able to keep up, at least above rec diving depths.

      Thanks for the report on Bonaire.

  •  I used to have a 280 gal. marine tank (6+ / 0-)

    I could sit there for hours on end just watching the goings on. Nothing really exotic. Mostly reef fish. Dominoes, Angels, Clowns, some spiny crabs, Lipstick Naso Tangs, Blue/Yellow tangs, Desjardini Tang, and a couple of Yellow Watchman Goby fish. Wound up unemployed for 2 1/2 years and had to sell everything. (sad)
    Anyway, A quick question. Do I need an invite to post a bucket, or is it open to all who wish to take the plunge.
    Forgot my manners...........Absolutely awesome bucket OD!

  •  Thanks Rescue Rangers! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Wood Gas, LIcenter, KenBee
  •  Temporary victory in Bimini reef destruction (4+ / 0-)

    The Privy Council in London no less has stepped in to stop dredging by a mega resort company that was threatening large-scale destruction to the reef in Bimini in the Bahamas.
    Huge public outcry resulted after a Bahamian court refused to issue an injunction after the dredging caused widespread silting.

    Opponents and environmentalists claim that the dredging operation did not have legal permits and did not follow required process even for silt skirting.

    The Bahamas is an independent member of the British Commonwealth and the Privy Council action is very unusual.

    I have good friends in the Bahamas and they were heartbroken over the dredging. No one knows if this will be a long-term victory over the development or not but definitely a closer watch will be placed on the operation.

    BTW, I highly recommend my favorite, Small Hope Bay Lodge on Andros in the Bahamas for divers, snorkelers, and those whose Idea of a Vacation is to lie in a hammock on the beach. Small, family-owned and operated, all-inclusive. No golf courses, no casino, just you, the beach, and one of the largest barrier reefs in the world.

    •  Fingers crossed the London injunction prevails. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Lenny Flank, Wood Gas

      Incredible that such a destructive development project could get that far. I thought Bahamas had better rule of law than that. They obviously value tourism - but don't understand dive tourism? Sedimentation kills coral as everyone knows. Thanks for the heads up on this.

      That Andros destination sounds great - that's just the kind of place we like to stay. I will check it out. Appreciate the tip :)

    •  Thanks for this recommendation (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      OceanDiver, Wood Gas

      The Bahamas is only two short flights from Tallahassee (or a long drive and a short flight) and we've talked off and on about visiting ever since we moved here.

      "To see both sides of a quarrel, is to judge without hate or alarm" - Richard Thompson

      by matching mole on Sun May 25, 2014 at 09:29:58 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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