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By Pat Leonard

***Update: since this was posted, the Global Big Day tally has continued to rise (as people entered the day’s checklists into eBird after the fact). The total stands at 5,953 species as of May 13, 2015***

When the Cornell Lab of Ornithology invited bird watchers everywhere to go birding on May 9 and report their sightings for the first ever Global Big Day, no one knew what to expect. The results have exceeded all expectations! From Panama to Australia, India to Lithuania, participants enthusiastically accepted the invitation, tallying more than half of the world’s bird species. The numbers are still going up as participants continue to enter their lists through May 12.


Black dots indicate where checklists were submitted for Global Big Day. The large yellow dot shows a new checklist dropping in.

See current results.

But the day also turned into something the numbers cannot capture. Global Big Day was defined by team efforts worldwide and was not necessarily about competitive goals or checking off species. It was about truly appreciating birds, unique habitat, and diversity—and about sharing the excitement of birding and the importance of conservation.

Thank you to everyone who donated to support the Lab’s Global Big Day teams. There’s still time to make a gift toward bird conservation—the other driving force behind this event.

Worldwide Overview

As of Monday morning, May 11, Global Big Day included participation from more than 11,000 individuals from 119 countries, tallying more than 5,600 species on more than 36,000 checklists. A few highlights:

  • The very first bird reported for Global Big Day was a Bush Thick-knee from Queensland, Australia
  • Every country in Central America participated, along with 16 countries in the Caribbean. In Panama, Sociedad Audubon de Panamá mobilized teams nationwide, with 84 birders posting over 650 checklists and 620 species, almost two-thirds of the country’s species! Prominent and luxurious birder destinations including the Canopy Family (Canopy Tower, Canopy Lodge, Canopy Camp, and Canopy B&B), Los Quetzales Ecolodge and Spa, and Tranquilo Bay Eco Lodge also mobilized teams to participate in Global Big Day, hosted Cornell Lab staff in the lead up to the Big Day, and provided amazing logistical support. Every one of them provides a great birding destination for visitors to Panama and is highly recommended.
  • South America had stellar participation; birders mobilized by SAVE Brasil and Butantan Bird Observatory reported more than 1,060 species in Brazil
  • In Peru, the organization CORBIDI motivated birders across the country, and they’re currently right behind Brazil with more than 940 species
  • More than 28,500 checklists were submitted from all 50 U.S. states and every Canadian province and territory
  • 30 countries in Europe joined the effort; kudos to Lithuania, where the organization ORNI prompted participation and resulted in 22 checklists
  • India is one of the most active eBird countries year-round and turned in a most impressive 548 checklists during Global Big Day
  • Taiwan contributed an exceptional number of sightings, reporting more than 200 species
  • In Malaysia, thanks to the Sandakan Borneo Bird Club in the Sabah portion of Borneo, participants submitted 53 checklists with a whopping 333 species
  • BirdLife Zimbabwe did a great job with the event and birders there have contributed 232 species, one of the highest totals from a country in Africa so far.
  • Australia is in the top 5 participating countries and closing in on an astonishing 500 species

Sapsuckers in Panama


Team Sapsucker in Panama (L-R) Carlos Bethancourt, Chris Wood, Jessie Barry, Tim Lenz, Marshall Iliff. Photo by Carlos Gómez.

“On Global Big Day, we were Panamanians,” says Chris Wood, captain of the Cornell Lab’s Team Sapsucker and co-leader of eBird. He and four others on the team reported 320 species during the day, reveling in an exceptionally warm welcome from a country that may be small geographically but is super-sized when it comes to diversity of species and its importance to birds throughout the Western Hemisphere.

“This event is promoting interest in and appreciation of birds,” says Wood. “Once you have that, you have a solid foundation for long-term monitoring. Monitoring results in better understanding about where birds go and how they use the habitat—and it helps create more effective conservation efforts.”

For the Sapsuckers, birding in Panama was an eye-opening experience. Their day began at midnight at home base, the Canopy Tower Lodge. The first bird they heard was a Mottled Owl followed by a Great Tinamou and a Black-and-white Owl. Pre-dawn birding included one of several life-birds for the team, a Rufous Nightjar, along with Capped Heron and Boat-billed Heron.

Daylight brought humidity and temperatures in the nineties. The team spent 2 hours on the famously birdy Pipeline Road, which is really a dirt track through the forest. They bounced along in the so-called “BirdMobile” supplied by their Canopy Tower hosts and driven by Domi Alveo. Having Canopy’s Tower’s Carlos Bethancourt on the team was another eye-opening experience, notes Sapsucker Marshall Iliff. “Carlos’s knowledge of Panamanian species and his ability to find them and recognize their sounds is extraordinary,” says Marshall. “We felt truly humbled!” For example, Panama boasts about 100 species of flycatchers alone, each with slightly different whistles and trills. The Sapsuckers counted 39 of them.


Following the Pipeline Road. Photo by Carlos Gómez.

The entire day was punctuated by memorable moments as the team moved from tropical rainforest to marshes, highlands, and rice fields. Imagine having a Spectacled Owl fly by so closely you can feel the wind from its wings; having a Pheasant Cuckoo perch at eye level along the Pipeline Road; floating down the Chagres River to discover 40 super-rare Masked Ducks; hearing the spine-tingling “roar” of a Rufescent Tiger-Heron at night while Panamanian night-monkeys cavort in the trees. For Sapsucker Tim Lenz, the highlight was seeing dozens of hummingbirds jockeying for position at backyard feeders in the Cerro Azul development northeast of Panama City, including male Rufous-crested Coquettes with their punk-rocker hairdos.

After being dazzled by so many new species the Sapsuckers say they finally “felt like competent birders” again when scoping the bay at Panama City where a large proportion of the global population of Western Sandpipers winters, along with other familiar Arctoc breeders such as Black-bellied Plovers, Whimbrel, and Short-billed Dowitchers.

The Sapsuckers ended the day at rice fields and lowland marshes where they identified the Pied Water-Tyrant and Cocoi Heron, finally wrapping up with Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Common Nighthawk, and Barn Owl in the rapidly fading light of a tropical sunset. If the day could be summed up in one word, it might be “diversity.”

“The huge diversity of birds sounding off during the dawn chorus almost overwhelms your senses,” says team member Jessie Barry. “It’s a blend of so many birds, some familiar and others more scarce—there are dozens of species you try to pick out at each stop. It was a dream come true to see so many birds.”

“Inspiration” is another word that keeps coming up. Every step of the way, the Sapsuckers say they were inspired by the efforts of participants around the world and the phenomenal levels of participation in Global Big Day which they could follow in real time on the eBird website.

Redheads in New Jersey


For the state Redheads team and everyone else, finding birds was hampered by thick fog. L-R: Ben Barkley, Luke Seitz, Brendan Fogarty, Benjamin Van Doren. Photo by Andy Johnson.

The Big Day spirit of cooperation was also evident at the 32nd annual World Series of Birding in New Jersey. Teams were allowed to share information for the first time and it served everyone well as they all struggled with persistent fog, a bit of rain, and migrant species that vanished overnight.

Three teams made up of Cornell University students, collectively called Team Redhead, competed in the event’s state, county, and Big Stay divisions, registering stellar performances across the board.

“Even though the conditions were not great—we went an hour without finding any new birds at one point—we still came away feeling really good about the day,” says state Redheads team member Ben Barkley. “Even though it’s still a competition, there was a lot of sharing.”

The state team, made up of Barkley, Andrew Dreelin, Brendan Fogarty, Luke Seitz, and Benjamin Van Doren, totally upended the traditional birding route, starting the day with a Northern Mockingbird in the Meadowlands. But the real highlight was hearing a bird that’s been missing from World Series tallies for years: the secretive Black Rail, a find made possible after another team shared the bird’s location. The state Redheads team defended last year’s championship title, bringing home the Urner Stone Cup for the highest species total: 208. They happily shared the title with a Maryland youth team called the Raucous Gulls. Although technically not eligible for the award, the youth team tallied 216 species.

The Redheads team that birded Cape May County included Teresa Pegan, Eric Gulson, Mary Margaret Ferraro, and Max Witynski. They were very happy with their tally of 148 species which put them in second place in their division.

The Big Stay team, which did its birding in one location, won its division by just one species, reporting 71 in all. Sarah Dzielski, Lauren Flesher, Nathanial Hernandez, and Reid Rumelt made up this team and were thrilled to include a Mississippi Kite in their final tally.

The Swarovski Carbon Footprint award is shared by two teams, one of them the CMBO Birds and Blooms Scarlet Knight Herons which was raising funds for the Cornell Lab with its efforts. The team of David La Puma, Don Freiday, Timothy Freiday, Jessica Gorzo, and Bill Lynch identified 126 species as they did their birding without the use of a motorized vehicle. Way to go!

Fueling the Conservation Engine

For the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Big Days have traditionally been a means of raising funds to support its programs in education and conservation and to assist with undergraduate research through the Redhead Fund. This year was no different. Thanks to the generosity of supporters we are closing in on $300,000 toward our goal of $500,000 (so please consider donating to help our cause). As participation in Global Big Day grows, the hope is that conservation groups in other countries will find the event a useful way to bring in funds for their important work as well.


“I believe we will look back on this day as a pivotal event,” says Chris Wood. “This is when we really begin engaging a global audience and making Big Days about uniting birders in a collective global effort to survey birds, doing it together, and forging vital partnerships.”


An extraordinary talent: Sapsucker Carlos Bethancourt.

Many thanks to all who have supported Team Sapsucker and Team Redhead this year and who participated in Global Big Day. And an especially heartfelt “thank you” to Raul Arias and the entire Canopy Family for their tremendous hospitality during our team’s visit to Panama.

“There is no question that we would have seen far fewer birds and been much less comfortable without their help on every level,” says Wood. “Their local expertise, excellent lodging, delicious food, smooth logistics, and superlative skill at finding birds are simply unmatched. Everyone in the Canopy Family was simply amazing.”

Thanks to drivers Domi Alveo and Lorenzo Ibarra; to Jenn Sinasac who coordinated the entire visit; to Rosabel Miro and the staff at Panama Audubon; to eBird reviewers Jan Axel and Darien Montañez; and to the incomparable Carlos Bethancourt.

“Carlos was clearly the most valuable member of Team Sapsucker and personifies the rare combination of traits one looks for in the very best leader, conservationist, guide, and friend. Carlos—you will always be a Sapsucker!” says Chris Wood.

The Sapsuckers agree: “We can’t wait for next year!”

For more on the teams, Global Big Day, and more:

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Author Laura Erickson, and wildlife photographer Marie Read talk about their new book, Into the Nest: Intimate Views of the Courting, Parenting, and Family Lives of Familiar Birds, that documents every stage in the family lives of birds. Their book offers rare glimpses into birds’ daily lives during the breeding season; from dramatic courtship to nest construction, egg-laying, and first attempts at flight by the young.

The talk took place on May 4, 2015. It was part of the Cornell Lab’s long-running Monday Night Seminar series, a tradition established decades ago by Lab founder Dr. Arthur Allen. If you enjoyed this seminar, check this page for our list of future speakers—we’ll note which upcoming talks will be livestreamed—or come visit us in person!

See our index of archived livestreamed seminars to enjoy more talks from the Cornell Lab.

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singing Prairie Warbler by Joshua Clark

Prairie Warbler by Joshua Clark via Birdshare.

Guest post by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, authors of The Warbler Guide

Spring is here, and with it come the warblers, with their spectacular colors and beautiful songs. Unfortunately for many birders, however, spring also means the frustration of learning or relearning warbler songs. When it comes to birding with our ears, almost everyone—including us—is at a much lower level than when birding with our eyes. A big part of this problem is there’s never been any consistent system for studying or learning songs.

This spring we encourage you to try again, but this time with a system that can help you describe and remember what you’re hearing. By using a few simple, objective terms, you can understand the structure and quality of a song, and identify what’s unique about it. We’ll describe it here and show how to use it to identify 3 great warbler sounds of spring. (You can also download our guide on how to recognize 8 warbler songs.)

When You Listen to a Song, Ask These 3 Simple Questions

The Warbler Guide system is based on a simple idea: if you can accurately and objectively describe a sound, you can identify it. As a bonus, when you describe a song you pay closer attention to its details, and it becomes easier to recognize.

One reason why birders can identify birds by sight is that we have a whole vocabulary for it: words like “eyeline,” “streaking,” “wingbars,” “upperparts.” But how to describe a song? We might describe it as “sweet” or “rough” or “dark,” but these words mean different things to different people. Or we might focus on the melody, like we would with music. The problem there is that many birds don’t have a consistent melody—try memorizing the constantly changing song of a Northern Mockingbird, for example.

So instead, we’ve developed three simple questions that will separate most warbler songs, and many other bird songs: sound quality, pitch trend, and number of sections. Describe these aspects of the song, and then turn to either the Warbler Guide book or Warbler Guide app to quickly narrow down your choices. (Note: For more, see How to Listen to Warbler Songs, in The Warbler Guide. The Warbler Guide app is currently iOS only; an Android version is planned.)

Question 1: What is the Sound Quality of the Song?

We use a few simple terms to describe sound quality in a song: Buzzy, Clear, and Trilled. To help us visualize sounds, we use a very useful tool called a spectrogram. These show you time from left to right and pitch from low to high (more about how to read spectrograms).

the three main sound quality types in bird songBuzzy   Like a bee – a good example would be Black-throated Blue Warbler song.

Clear Something you could whistle. Cardinals have a Clear song, as do Yellow Warblers.

Trilled A lot of sounds in a row that are too fast to count (technically, more than 11 sounds per second). Screech-owls sing a trill, which some birders imitate when pishing for birds. Worm-eating Warbler song is also a trill.

One small twist: sometimes a bird can sing more than one quality in a song. For example, a series of Clear elements followed by a Buzz: we’d call that Partly Buzzy.


Question 2: What Is the Pitch Trend of the Song?

the four patterns of pitch profile in bird song

Click for our guide on how to read spectrograms.

Is the overall pitch of the song Rising, Falling, Steady, or does it move up and down (Variable)? Note that here we’re looking for the overall trend of the song, so if there’s a slight fall in pitch but otherwise the song is mostly rising, then it would still be considered a Rising song.


bird songs with one, two, and three sections

Click for our guide on how to read spectrograms.

Question 3: How Many Sections Does the Song Have?

We break songs down into parts called Sections. A Section begins whenever there is a dramatic change in pitch or speed. Counting the number of Sections in a song can be one of the most effective ways to identify it.

Here are a few spectrograms that show a one-, two- and three-Section song. The gray bars at the bottom of each spectrogram show you where sections start and stop.

In addition to Sections, we can also talk about Elements (the single sounds in song) and Phrases, which are groups of repeated Elements—more on that later.

That’s it! With those three questions, you can describe and separate most warbler songs. Now let’s try some examples.

Try It With a Few Songs

Song #1: Prairie Warbler

Listen to the song and compare it to the spectrogram:

prairie warbler spectrogram

What Is the Sound Quality? This bird has a Buzzy song, which we hear when playing it. We can also see it in the spectrogram: each Element is “fuzzy,” as opposed to straight line, and that indicates a buzz.


A buzzy, rising, 1-section song means Prairie Warbler. Photo by Scott Whittle.

What Is the Pitch Trend? The overall pitch of the song is Rising, with a gradual step up in pitch between each Element.

How Many Sections Are There? We can see in the spectrogram that this bird has a 1-Section song. Don’t be fooled by the gradual rise in pitch: although the pitch is changing a little between each Element, it’s a steady change, and there is no sudden change in pitch or speed, so that makes it a single Section.

So we have a song that is Buzzy, Rising, 1-Section. If we look in the song finders in the Warbler Guide, or if we enter these three qualities into the Warbler Guide App filter, guess what? We get a single bird! That bird is Prairie Warbler.

Song #2: Wilson’s Warbler

Listen to the song and compare it to the spectrogram:

spectrogram of wilson's warbler song

What Is the Sound Quality?  There are a lot of repeated Elements here, but they are relatively far apart, so they’re not too fast to count. That means this is not a Trill, but just a song with a series of Clear Elements.

wilson's warbler

A clear, falling, 1-section song: Wilson’s Warbler. Photo by Scott Whittle.

What Is the Pitch Trend? Overall this song has a Falling pitch. As a side note, you might notice a subtle shift downward in the second half of the song—that’s a good indicator for many Wilson’s songs.

How Many Sections Are There? This a simple, one-Section song.

So our final description is a Clear, Falling, 1-Section song. (One extra thing to notice is that the clear, separated notes have a sharp or staccato quality.) If you plug these characteristics into the Warbler Guide app using the filter feature, here’s the result:

demo of warbler guide app filtering feature with wilson's warbler

There are no other warblers that have 1-Section, Clear, Falling songs, so this description is diagnostic in both the East and West.

Song #3: Northern Parula

Listen to the song and compare it to the spectrogram:

northern parula song spectrogram

What Is the Sound Quality?  Unlike Wilson’s, this bird makes a true Trill. We can tell it’s a Trill in the spectrogram by the series of closely packed near-vertical lines—notice that there are far more than 11 Elements per second, which indicates that it’s too fast to count. But now notice that there is a second section in the song, and that section is just a single Clear Element. Because the song has two qualities, we’ll call it Partly Trilled.


A trilled, rising, 2-section song: Northern Parula. Photo by Scott Whittle.

What Is the Pitch Trend? The first Section of this song is clearly rising, and the second doesn’t change that much, so we’d call this a Rising song.

 How Many Sections Are There? We can see two Sections here: first there is a long Trill, with a Rising pitch trend. But then there is a very different, fast, clear, up-down Element to finish the song—that’s the second Section.

So this is a Partly Trilled, Rising, 2-Section song. Once again, this song has a diagnostic combination: a Rising Trill with a clear up-down element at the end can only be Northern Parula. In fact, all of Northern Parula’s songs end with that distinct, clear, higher up-down note, which makes it a very handy diagnostic quality to know about.

Happy Warblering! 

So by looking at three basic qualities—Sound Quality, Pitch Trend and Structure—we can finally make an accurate description of a song, and often find things about it that identify the bird to species.

You can use the answers in combination with our book and app to quickly find the bird you’re hearing. Even for non-warblers, applying these questions will help you hear details in songs that will make you a much more effective listener, and a much better birder! And if you’d like to learn more songs—download this guide to the songs of eight species, each of which has something diagnostic about it.

warbler guide authors tom stephenson and scott whittle

Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle.

Happy Warblering!

Scott Whittle and Tom Stephenson are the authors of The Warbler Guide and the Warbler Guide app, from Princeton University Press. Warbler recordings are via the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library.

 More help learning bird songs:


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By Hugh Powell

A documentary about songbird migration and illegal hunting in Europe is out in the iTunes store. Emptying the Skies—named for and inspired by a 2010 Jonathan Franzen article that exposed the scale of the problem—is a fascinating and at times harrowing look at the clash between cultural traditions and new environmental realities. (Find it on iTunes here.)

It’s also a thought-provoking exploration of the nature of activism. It centers on three Italian members of a European organization called the Committee Against Bird Slaughter, each with a different background. One is an articulate environmentalist; another a vegan animal-rights activist; the third a banker from Milan. But for each of them, something about the scale of hunting and the helplessness of the songbirds struggling in their traps compels them to move beyond political protests. They sneak onto private land (although they often alert the local police to their plans ahead of time), destroying traps and risking dangerous confrontations with the landowners.

Though the film is solidly on the side of the activists, it provides some balance by airing the side of the hunters and trappers. Some turn out to be elderly men and women cherishing a link to the past; others are loud and violent. The film suggests that others are linked to organized crime.

The story unfolds through interviews with the activists and other players, and it’s enlivened by beautiful cinematography filmed throughout a year across France, Italy, and Cyprus. Interspersed are many shots of birds caught and sometimes suffering in a variety of low-tech, often cruel snares. The footage is not always easy to watch, but the activists are ultimately uplifting in their attempt to balance direct action with nonviolence, and their conviction that things are getting better as a result.

We got an inside look at the film through a Q&A with the film’s directors, Doug and Roger Kass. Read on for their take on filming during sometimes-hostile field operations, what makes the activists tick, and whether the film is ultimately hopeful.

Cornell Lab: Where are you from, how did you find out about this issue—and what made you want to make this film?

Roger Kass: Born and raised in Bedford, New York, I have a background in law and movie production.  I first learned of the issues presented in Emptying the Skies by reading Jonathan Franzen’s story in the New Yorker magazine and wanted to make a film about it to bring these terrible truths to a larger audience.


The Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) is a commonly hunted species in the Mediterranean. This female safely returned to her northern breeding grounds in England. Photo by jefflack Wildlife & Nature via Birdshare.

The main characters in the movie are environmentalists and people who love animals, but they don’t seem like bird watchers exactly. What motivates them to take this interest in tiny songbirds? Follow-up question: they are all men. Why do you think there were no women?

Doug Kass: As is often the case, there were a lot of things we weren’t able to put into the final film. Most CABS members we met were very passionate bird watchers and had extensive lists of sightings, as well as favorite locations, and bucket lists. You could describe them as “extreme bird-watchers,” because unlike most birders, they come into physical contact with the birds.

As much violence as there is in the film against the birds, and the CABS members trying to save the birds, it’s only a sampling of what happens in the field. It’s extremely dangerous, and common that physical beatings take place. We chose to focus on three guys who have a very tight bond and rely on each other in very stressful situations, but there are also many women who go on missions with CABS. They are brave and skillful and very resolute. In some locations women are a special asset to the team because poachers have no problem attacking men, but when it comes to women, they don’t know how to proceed. That too though, is not always the case. It’s also worth mentioning that there are volunteers from all over the world who feel this work is important enough to join in the effort. Obviously we could not represent everyone.

One of the brave women who we filmed but ultimately were not able to put into the edit was the mother of one of our principal subjects– Andrea. Mothers around the world will go to extremes to be with their children. In this case, we filmed Andrea’s mother on a mission in Cyprus, the most dangerous of all locations. Since Andrea is almost always out in the field, she felt like this would be one of the only ways to spend time with him. She was fearless.

The movie focuses on an organization called CABS that takes direct action to destroy bird traps, and trespasses on private property in order to do it. A second organization, BirdLife Cyprus, seems more interested in a non-confrontational, political solution. Which of these approaches do you feel will be more successful in the long run? 

Doug Kass: While the two organizations do have their differences, they do a lot of work together. Their final goal is very much a common one. As with many environmental issues, it’s going to take the work of a lot of people, and a lot of approaches. I think both organizations are important and valuable to the cause. One thing to bear in mind about CABS though, is that they also do more conventional political work; lobbying, and passing on information behind the scenes. At the same time, they feel that by taking the risks there’s a chance that people will take notice, and of course they’re right.

The activists risk being threatened or attacked by hunters, and the film recounts a couple of altercations that came to blows. Was the camera crew ever attacked, and how did you feel about the risks you were taking?

Roger Kass: During our first trip to film in Cyprus, the cameraman/director and I were filming the activists dismantling illegal traps when we were chased by a band of poachers for over an hour.  They were in trucks and we were on foot and it was very scary as they closed in on us, violently cursing and threatening us. The police arrived in time to prevent bloodshed on that occasion but it was very close and we were very shaken. The CABS activists we followed were not always so lucky, however, and have been violently attacked in Cyprus and elsewhere repeatedly. It’s really a wonder none of them have been killed yet, since they’ve been shot at, stoned, clubbed, and beaten up so many times. I have to say that I was a bit naive about the potential to be harmed when we first began the film and once I fully realized how dangerous the undertaking was, I questioned the wisdom and sanity of it all many times, yet still pressed ahead. At a certain point you just give yourself over to self-belief and fate.

In making a film about the natural world, was it a difficult decision to show so many scenes of birds suffering or dying in traps? How did you balance this in the movie, and do you feel in the end that the movie is hopeful or mournful?

Doug Kass: It was definitely hard to see the animals suffering. Through CABS’ archive and our own filming, there were many more images than we could use, which is sad, but I think the film strikes a good balance.

The ending, I like to think, offers some hope. I also would like to think that it inspires others in some way or another. If it does that, then of course there’s hope.

You can watch the Emptying the Skies trailer here:

You can find it in the iTunes store here.

SPECIAL NOTE FOR NEW YORK CITY: Thanks to a donor, free tickets are available to the film’s opening run in New York City this week. Claim your two free tickets while supplies last.

More Cornell Lab movie reviews:

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