Bird watching in Kalaw
(text compiled by Paul Bates, Harrison Institute)
Kalaw, a former colonial hill station, is a small town situated on the western edge of the Shan Plateau. It has an elevation of 1,310 metres (4,297 feet). Although most of the original forest has long since been lost, there are still patches of evergreen, broad-leaf forest as well as secondary pine forest. Of special interest to bird watchers is the Ye Ayekan Reserve Forest (centred on 20° 35’ 51.2”N, 96° 31’ 49.2”E), which is situated south-west of Kalaw township. Together with surrounding fields and thickets, some 189 bird species have been recorded from this area.
Kalaw is an easy place to visit. Most tourists fly to Heho airport and combine an overnight trip to the town with a day or two at the nearby Inle Lake. It is also possible to drive to Kalaw from Mandalay or even take the train, although the latter is very slow.
Kalaw is a centre for outdoor activities, especially trekking (further information), but also cycling (further information) and horse riding (further information) as well as bird watching. There are numerous hotels and guest houses and it is not difficult to hire a tour guide. However, as with all of Myanmar, finding a specialist bird guide is difficult and preferably such a guide should be pre-booked before your arrival.
The forest of Yay Ayekan, the best area for bird watching (see Visitor Reports below), is popular with hikers and is easy to visit either on foot, cycle or by motorbike, which can be rented (with a driver) in Kalaw. It takes about 45 minutes to reach the reservoir by motorbike from the centre of Kalaw (considerably longer if you stop to bird watch).
Bird species include*: Falconidae: Crested Serpent-Eagle, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Ruffous-winged Buzzard, Himalayan Buzzard, Long-legged Buzzard. Rallidae: Black-tailed Crake. Scolopacidae: Green Sandpiper. Columbidae: Oriental Turtle Dove, Yellow-footed Green-pigeon, Pin-tailed Green-pigeon, Wedge-tailed Green-pigeon. Apodidae: Himalayan Swiftlet. Trogonoidae: Red-headed Trogon. Meropidae: Blue-bearded Bee-eater. Picidae: Speckled Piculet, Greater Flameback. Eurylaimidae: Silver-breasted Broadbill, Long-tailed Broadbill. Vireonidae: White-browed Shrike-babbler, Green Shrike-babbler, White-bellied Erpornis. Campephagidae: Indochinese Cuckooshrike, Scarlet Minivet. Oriolidae: Slender-billed Oriole, Black-hooded Oriole, Maroon Oriole. Rhipiduridae: White-throated Fantail. Corvidae: Eurasian Jay, Red-billed Blue Magpie. Laniidae: Grey-backed Shrike. Nectariniidae: Black-throated Sunbird, Mrs Gould’s Sunbird, Green-tailed Sunbird, Streaked Spiderhunter. Chloropseidae: Blue-winged Leafbird, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Orange-bellied Leafbird. Estrildidae: White-rumped Munia, Scaly-breasted Munia. Motacillidae: Grey Wagtail. Fringillidae: Black-headed Greenfinch, Crested Bunting, Chestnut Bunting. Certhiidae: Hume’s Treecreeper. Sittidae: Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Giant Nuthatch. Sturnidae: Black-collared Starling, Asian Pied Starling, Chestnut-tailed Starling. Turdidae: Orange-headed Thrush, Black-breasted Thrush, White-tailed Robin, White-capped Water-redstart, Daurian Redstart, BlueRock-thrush. Muscicapidae: Black-backed Forktail, White-crowned Forktail, Vivid Niltava, Pale-blue Flycatcher, Hill-blue Flycatcher, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Verditer Flycatcher, White-gorgeted Flycatcher, Little Pied Flycatcher, Ultramarine Flycatcher, Taiga Flycatcher, Brown-breasted Flycatcher, Oriental Magpie Robin. Paridae: Japanese Tit, Yellow-cheeked Tit. Stenostiridae: Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher. Pycnonotidae: Crested Finchbill, Black-headed Bulbul, Flavescent Bulbul, Brown-breasted Bulbul, Sooty-headed Bulbul, Puff-throated Bulbul, Ashy Bulbul, Mountain Bulbul, Himalayan-black Bulbul. Hirundinidae: Red-rumped Swallow. Cettiidae: Slaty-bellied Tesia, Chestnut-headed Tesia, Bianchi’s Warbler, White-tailed Leaf-warbler, Asian Stubtail. Aegithalidae: Black-throated Tit. Phylloscopidae: Marten’s Warbler, Grey-crowned Warbler, Davison’s Warbler, Hume’s Warbler, Yellow-streaked Warbler. Timaliidae: Spot-breasted Parrotbill, Chestnut-flanked White-eye, Oriental White-eye, Japanese White-eye, Burmese Yuhina, Grey-cheeked Fulvetta, Rusty-capped Fulvetta, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-babbler, White-browed Scimitar-babbler, Golden Babbler, Rufous-capped Babbler, Rufous-fronted Babbler, Spot-throated Babbler, Streaked Wren-babbler, Black-throated Laughingthrush, Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush, White-browed Laughingthrush, Silver-eared Mesia, Dark-backed Sibia, Rufous-backed Sibia, Spectacled Barwing. Acrocephalidae: Spotted Bush-warbler. Megaluridae: Striated Grassbird. Cisticoloidae: Common Tailorbird, Brown Prinia, and Hill Prinia.
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Over time, most of the natural forest in the Kalaw area has been lost or modified. However, the catchment area of the Yay Ayekan Reservoir still has extensive pine and evergreen forest and is a great place to visit. Moreover, much of the town of Kalaw feels like a ‘garden city’ with many trees and open areas. There are also pockets of secondary forest, especially pine forest, on many the surrounding hillsides.
One possible cause for future concern is the upgrading of the road to the Yay Ayekan Reservoir. If this opens up the area to tourists visiting by car, this could have unfortunate consequences, especially relating to noise disturbance and the disposal of picnic litter, much of which will probably be left scattered on the ground adjacent to the reservoir.
“We visited several sites in Kalaw area, all fairly close to town. These are indicated on the map on the following page [see website link below]. Sites to the north of town were checked on the first afternoon. The habitat is mixture of rice paddies and intensively farmed crops, with various scrub (site A) and dry hillsides, covered in open pine plantation (site B). The former, visited in the middle of the day, was fairly unproductive but good views of Whitebrowed Laughingthrush, Spectacled Barwing and White-browed Scimitar-Babbler all in the same flock was nice with Burmese Shrike obliging nearby. Fields with a few water buffalo attracted three species of myna but not Collared. Site B, visited late afternoon and just 5-10 min drive from Kalaw centre was rather better. Black-headed Greenfinches were evident all afternoon, giving typical greenfinch buzzy notes from the pine tops. Slender-billed Oriole and the amazing leucotis subspecies of Eurasian Jay were also notable here with Himalayan and Oriental Honey Buzzards also appearing.
Track to Yay Ayekan: Sites north of Kalaw paled into insignificance compared to Yay Ayekan, a reservoir 15min drive south west of Kalaw on narrow country lanes. Getting there required some inside knowledge, with travelling through a fairly imposing looking army base on the edge of town necessary. However, once there, birding was superb and gave a totally different mix of forest species compared to Mount Victoria. I had most of a day here and then returned for 2 hrs next morning as I was far from done. Bird activity was high until midmorning but strong sun and breezy conditions definitely quenched things significantly from 10.00 onwards.
A. Species in the fields before the track included various cuckoos (heard), Grey-headed Woodpecker, Burmese Shrike, Eurasian Jay, Yellow-streaked Warbler, Spectacled Barwing and Black-headed Greenfinch (again calling from areas of dry pines). Best by far was easy looks at Black-tailed Crake, wandering around fully exposed at dawn on both mornings in the tiny stream running out of the forest edge.
B. The short walk to the reservoir was through shady, overgrown forest following a stream bed. A whole host of good species appeared here, but not Burmese Yuhina, despite patient waiting and working through any flocks. Notable species included Red-headed Trogon (superb male seen and heard both mornings about 2/3 of the way along, with Long-tailed Broadbill calling nearby), a totally unexpected Black-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher scoped over the stream on the second morning, Speckled Piculet (right by the dam), Common Green Magpie, plenty of drongos, including the only Lesser Raquet-tailed and Bronzed of the trip, Maroon Oriole, White-tailed Robin (surprisingly easy to see well; clearly on territory), seven species of bulbul, Davison’s Leaf-Warbler singing loudly and commonly, several Marten’s Warblers still on winter territory close to the stream bed and a very responsive Slaty-bellied Tesia singing strongly. Golden Babbler, Yellow-cheeked Tit, Silver-eared Mesia and plenty of Black-throated Sunbirds were very close in busy flocks. There was also some good flycatcher action, comprising six species, including both singles of Ferruginous and Brown-breasted Flycatchers and even a White-gorgeted on the first 200m of track after the fields.
C. Beyond the reservoir, the immediate forest became rather dryer and open in stature, with only Puff-throated Babbler of note. However, Cook’s Swifts were present mid-afternoon from the dam wall, giving good views and this was also a good place to view soaring Accipters (Crested Goshawk and Shikra).
Driving from Kalaw to Inle, one good area worth stopping at is the flooded fields on either side of the road not far East of Aungpan (20.674686, 96.682584; impossible to miss). This yielded a few herons and other waterbirds, plus Wire-tailed Swallow and Siberian Stonechats.”
Oscar Cambell - report extracted from a field trip to various locations in Myanmar that took place in March-April, 2016 (further information).
“I awoke before dawn to the sound of calling Collared Scops and Asian Barred Owls. After another early breakfast we drove through the village, where many locals were getting ready to market their produce, and on to the old colonial hill-station of Kalaw (at 1350m), taking nearly 2 hours. This was to be our last full day’s birding, and what an excellent day it was. Ko Pan, a friend of Ko Thet, joined us and proved to be a first class, experienced bird-guide. We drove to a monastery above the town and then walked down through patchy mixed forest and scrub, seeing a good selection of birds including White-browed Laughingthrush, Himalayan Black and Red-vented Bulbuls (the latter of the melanchimus race, looking like Sooty-headed), Black-throated Sunbird, Slender-billed and Maroon Orioles, and Black-collared Starling, while Black-headed Greenfinch was heard only. We took a track through the evergreen forest to Yay-aye-kan Reservoir, looking out for the area’s speciality, the rarely-encountered Burmese Yuhina. Jia Sheng saw 1 or 2 briefly but the rest of us had to wait till late afternoon for it. On reaching the reservoir we continued uphill till we reached a road and stopped for lunch at a café overlooking the deforested hillsides. Ko Pan explained this had been a major opium-growing region but now tea was the main product, although some opium was still harvested, with military connivance. We returned to the evergreen forest and stopped for a lengthy rest at the dam wall of the reservoir. The birding highlight was a pair of Burmese Yuhina, spotted by Ko Pan. Other birds included Blue-throated Barbet, Hill and Tickell’s Blue-Flycatchers, Bianchi’s Warbler, Martens’ and Davison’s Warblers (split from Golden-spectacled and White-tailed Leaf-Warbler, respectively), White-capped Water-Redstart, Blyth’s Shrike Babbler, grey-crowned pulchellus Black-throated Tit, Yellow-cheeked and Japanese [Great] Tit, Grey-cheeked Fulvetta, and Long-tailed Broadbill for Jia Sheng. We headed back to the monastery through the evergreen forest and then the conifers, finding along the way Black-backed Forktail, Slaty-bellied Tesia, Dark-backed Sibia of the restricted castanoptera form, and a fine male Black-breasted Thrush singing from an open perch. Overnight at New Shine Hotel.”
Jon Hornbuckle et al. - report extracted from a field trip to various locations in Myanmar that took place between 23 February and 6 March, 2012 (further information).
“Continuing on to the old hill station of Kalaw (1350m), we settled into the Hill Top Villa with its flowery surroundings. In the afternoon, we hooked-up with the local bird guide, Gidean, and drove the short distance to a trail leading to a well-known monastery called Dhein Taung. The open pine woods, scrub- and grass-covered slopes and broadleaved evergreen forest edge provided excellent habitat for a wide range of birds. First off, we admired several relaxed Black-headed Greenfinches by a smaller monastery, then there were some White-browed Scimitar-babblers feeding up in a pine tree of all places, and then we had great views of White-browed Laughingthrushes and a good number of Brown-breasted Bulbuls. A responsive pair of striking Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-babblers performed for us and we had good scope views of the interesting local form of Dark-backed Sibia, with its rusty tertials. On the way back to the bus, a Brown Prinia popped-up briefly. Our last day birding in Burma was a long and very birdy one, and brought some of the best observations of the tour. Even before we had finished eating our picnic breakfast at sunrise, we were getting amazing views of a pair of Black-tailed Crakes right out in the open above some small farm fields. Walking slowly along the track towards Yay Ayekan reservoir we added a long list of species to our burgeoning bird list - the best being Burmese Yuhina, which was easily seen this year on three separate occasions. After a nice packed lunch at the dam, in company with White-capped and Daurian Redstarts, a flock of distant raptors circled-up above the forested horizon. They were juvenile vultures but the views were too brief and distant to confirm their suspected identity as Himalayan. Such a rare site these days. The numerous other bird highlights during the day included a lovely singing Pin-tailed Green-pigeon, a shy Common Green Magpie, Hill Blue Flycatcher, Martens’s and Davison’s Warblers (the former split from Golden-spectacled and the latter from White-tailed Leaf Warbler), grey-crowned pulchellus Black-throated Tits, and Grey-cheeked Fulvetta. It had been a very satisfying end to a very enjoyable trip.”
Craig Robson - report extracted from a field trip to various locations in Myanmar that took place between 28 December and 10 January, 2012 (further information).
“With a full day at our disposal around the old colonial hill-station of Kalaw we spent all morning and the early afternoon birding by Yay-aye-kan Reservoir. As the sun rose over the scrub and paddies various conspicuous birds appeared – Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Blyth’s Shrike Babbler, Long-tailed Shrike, Redvented and Red-whiskered Bulbuls, Black-backed Sibia, Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler and a couple of very brief White-browed Laughingthrushes. It took a bit of time before Spectacled Barwings came into view, showing rather longer than a couple of brief Chestnut Buntings for Denzil. Not wanting to waste time we headed into the evergreen forest in search of the areas speciality, the rarely encountered Burmese Yuhina. We spent much of the morning scrutinising the feeding flocks in search of the prize without success, though plenty other goodies turned up; Asian Emerald Cuckoo, Speckled Piculet, Small Niltava, Marten’s Warblers, Slaty-bellied Tesia, Hill Blue Flycatcher, Davison’s, Greenish and Hume’s Leaf Warblers, Ashy Bulbul and also a mixed group of Pin-tailed and Thick-billed Green Pigeons. As the heat began to intensify we turned around and retraced our steps – a good idea as finally the shout came up from Mark of ‘Yuhina!’ as a pair of Burmese Yuhina were found firstly in the canopy before flying down to the trackside to feed on some small berries and giving mind-blowing views for several minutes before heading back into the forest, brilliant. Following a relaxing lunch on the dam-wall we headed back through the conifers back to town, finding Black-headed Greenfinch, Yellow-streaked and Buff-throated Warblers along the way, with plenty of time for us to drive over to the shores of Lake Inle in preparation for the following morning.”
James Eaton- report extracted from a field trip to various locations in Cambodia and Myanmar that took place between 14 February and 3 March, 2011 (further information).
“After a swift check-in at our hotel in Kalaw we went for an afternoon/evening birding session walking uphill northbound. Initially through grassy scrub and disperse pines later on more deciduous forest. A small flock of Black-headed Greenfinches was nice, the first Burmese Shrike, Chestnut-capped Babblers and a few Japanese Tits. We followed a steep hillside and across the deep valley a flock of Dusky Crag-Martins flew around. After walking 1,5 h (GPS5) we reached a small pocket of forest just below a temple called Ma Naw Hla, we spent the last minutes of sunlight here and found a rather out-of-range first-year male Ultramarine Flycatcher (GPS6), also Radde's Warbler, Rufescent Prinia, and Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babblers called from the opposite side of the valley. It was all dark when we got back to town.
Today would turn out to be an outstanding birding day! We started well before sunrise bringing a packed breakfast from our hotel. Ko Pan met us early with a cab, we drove for 20 minutes south until we reached the eastern borders of the protected evergreen forest around Ye-aye-kan (GPS7). At the break of dawn Ko Pan took us on small paths through rice paddies and fields for a couple of hundred meters until we reached the bottom of a deep valley running west. Activity during the first hours was intense to say the least. New birds popped up everywhere and calls echoed through the forest. Bird-waves were abundant and we had a hard time keeping up the pace. We followed a small creek going uphill for most of the morning. We had Orange-bellied Leafbird, hundreds of Phylloscopus-warblers, many Dark-backed Sibias, Black-eared Shrikebabbler, Mrs Gould's Sunbird, a male Little Pied Flycatcher. When we reached the top of the valley at a small ridge a family group of 4 Burmese Yuhinas suddenly appeared close to the track! (GPS8) We got good views as the flock slowly moved away. With the main target bagged we continued along this ridge for another hour then downhill until we reached the upper reservoir (GPS9). After a quick break on the embankment where an Himalayan Buzzard soared we went inside the lush forest once again and soon we stumbled upon a large feeding flock scoring Speckled Piculet, Blyth's Shrike-babbler, Hume's Treecreeper, and a lot of white-eyes of three species. Further on we had a loose nervous flock of 45+ feeding Green Pigeons, both Wedge-tailed and Pin-tailed Pigeons were noted. At mid-day we walked still north-west and soon reached the northern border of the forest reserve. We had lunch at a Nepalese Restaurant popular among trekking tourists. From this view point we had some Cook's Swift but none Darkrumped which we hoped for. After a spicy lunch we headed back southeast going back to the forest – still adding marvelous birds: Blue-bearded Bee-eater, a flock of locally rare Black-throated Laughers and another party of Lesser Necklaced Laughers. A showy Marten's Warbler called with a repeated “chup”-call and a sudden Pale Blue Flycatcher disappeared too soon. We also had a good look at an adult soaring Northern Goshawk. At late afternoon we reached the lower reservoir and slowly started the descent going east along a jeep track. White-crowned Forktail showed off and Red-billed Blue Magpies were noisy. We left the forest behind at dusk and continued through cultivated lands and pine wood all the way back to Kalaw town, walking the last hour in pitch darkness. We were aroused by the experience but rather stiff in our legs when we reached our hotel.
Our last morning at Kalaw, Jonas was still exhausted but still decided to join in after having a Coca Cola-breakfast. Ko Pan and a cab awaited us early and we reached the north-eastern perimeters of the forest reserve at perfect timing. At the adjacent rice paddies we heard 2-3 different Black-tailed Crakes calling, although non-responsive. In nice morning sunlight we added new birds constantly, a pair of Spectacled Barwings performed well (GPS10), nice since we only heard them yesterday. Some migrants including Daurian Redstart, Chestnut Bunting and Radde's Warbler. A new Seicercus-warbler called, this time “chu-rrp”, from scrubs at the forest border, a Grey-crowned Warbler. We slowly proceeded along the jeep track inside the forest heading for the reservoir. The activity wasn't as good as yesterday, one of the best birds was probably a Scaly Thrush in shadowed muddy understorey at the bottom of the deep valley, although disappearing all too fast. We added a few more Marten's Warblers, a male White-tailed Robin, a party of Silver-eared Mesias, and Davison's Leaf Warblers. Up at the reservoir a few small flocks of Pin-tailed Green Pigeons flew by, and a flock of 10 Black-throated Bushtits hurried across the clearing. White-capped Redstart and Blue Whistling Thrush at the embankment. We followed the smaller track running on the east side of the first (lower) reservoir until we reached the upper reservoir, here Ko Pan found us a superb Asian Stubtail showing off on top of a large trunk for a short while before shooting away. In slow pace we started to walk back. We were picked up by the cab at the same spot we started at 12.30 heading back to Kalaw for check-out and heading to Heho to catch our evening flight to Bagan.”
Mans Grundsten et al. – report from a field trip to various birding localities in Myanmar, 9-21 December, 2012 (further details).
“On the way to Kalaw we stopped at Dhan Ma Kan Bridge. Twelve Grey-headed Lapwings were picked-out feeding amongst cattle right at the back, along with a Green Sandpiper. We arrived at the old hill station of Kalaw in time for lunch, and then checked-in to our period hotel on the edge of town at 1350m. In the afternoon, we traveled the short distance to a trail leading to a monastery called Dhein Taung. The open pine woods, scrub, grass and broadleaved evergreen woodland that cover the slopes here provide excellent habitat for birds. We started off with close-ups of Black-headed Greenfinch, before edging around into a small valley. There was a constant stream of birds on offer: a showy pair of Plaintive Cuckoos, Blue-throated Barbet, Slender-billed Oriole, Brown-breasted Bulbul, brilliant looks at Spot-breasted Parrotbill and Spotthroated Babbler, Rusty-cheeked and White-browed Scimitar-babblers, Spectacled Barwing, and Hill Prinia. Things were rounded off nicely with two singing male Black-breasted Thrushes, one of which was scoped.
Our last full days birding in Burma saw us walking the two or three kilometres to Yay Ayekan reservoirs, which are set amongst some quite nice secondary broadleaved evergreen forest, passing through open pine forests along the way. It was an exceptionally busy mornings birding, highlighted by several close up sightings of Burmese Yuhina - one of our main avian reasons for visiting this region. Things were to get even better after we lunched at the reservoirs, when we had crippling views of a calling Black-tailed Crake. The many other bird highlights included a Chinese Francolin scoped in a tree, Grey-faced and Himalayan Buzzards, Oriental Turtle-dove, Himalayan Swiftlet, Cook’s Swift (split from Fork-tailed), a calling Eurasian Cuckoo, a superb Red-headed Trogon, both Long-tailed and Silver-breasted Broadbills seen from the same spot, Slender-billed and Maroon Orioles, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Mrs Gould’s and Black-throated Sunbirds, Plain and Fire-breasted Flowerpeckers, large numbers of Common Rosefinches, Black-collared Starling, White-capped Water-redstart, Daurian Redstart, both Pale and Hill Blue Flycatchers, Ashy Bulbul, Japanese Tit (split from Great), Yellow-cheeked Tit, Striated Swallow, several recently described Martens’s Warblers, Davison’s Warbler (split from White-tailed Leaf-), Greenish and Radde’s Warblers, Grey-cheeked Fulvetta, great views of a pair of Silver-eared Laughingthrushes, and Dark-backed Sibia.”
Craig Robson - report extracted from a field trip to various locations in Myanmar that took place from 10-23 March, 2013 (further information).
We birded the forests around Ye-Aye-Kan reservoir, mainly on smaller tracks, for two full days and this resulted in a reasonable 70 or 80 species including Long-tailed and Silver-breasted Broadbill, Cook´s Swift, Scarlet-faced Liocichla, Red-headed Trogon, Greater Yellow-nape, Greater Flameback, Common Green Magpie, Dark-backed Sibia, Yunnan Fulvetta, Puff-throated Babbler, Chinese Francolin, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Spectacled Barwing and Large Hawk Cuckoo. Unfortunately we did not find the much wanted Burmese Yuhina or the Olive Bulbul.
Therefore we did another one-day hike to the reservoir and focused only on the jeep track leading to the reservoir and not on the small paths, for it is much easier birding, less muddy and very good forest here. This proved to be an outstanding idea, for after an hour we were rewarded with quick views of a pair of Olive Bulbuls. Seeing Burmese Yuhina took more effort, but after five hours of searching we finally found a pair, which unfortunately disappeared just as quickly as the Olive Bulbuls. We found that most birds in Myanmar are rather furtive and hard to observe or approach. Other species observed along the jeep track included Grey-headed Parrotbill, White-crowned Forktail, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Hill Blue Flycatcher, Asian Emerald Cuckoo and Stripe-breasted Woodpecker, White-browed Shortwing, Rufous-necked Laughingthrush and White-tailed Robin.
I liked birding the forests around Ye-Aye-Kan reservoir a lot, but Palearctic winter is definitely a better time. When going in Palearctic summer you miss a lot of migrants and you should expect (very) muddy conditions and leaches, although the jeep track is ok. However, if you just go for the Yuhina and the Bulbul you might as well go in summer, for it is perfectly possible to see them.”
Johannes Fischer – report of a field trip to Kalaw in July-August 2013 (further information).