Bulletin 4 - March 1978: Waders in the United Arab Emirates (Part Two)

Waders in the United Arab Emirates

Part Two

by John Stewart-Smith

(These notes are a summary of the second part of a presentation given to the Emirates Natural History Group (Abu Dhabi). The first part of this presentation was written up ill the Bulletin No.1 issued in March 1977. Each species mentioned was illustrated by 35mm coloured slides taken by the author.)

30. Marsh Sandpiper Tringa stagnatilis PM WV


The Marsh Sandpiper breeds in a discontinuous area from Rumania across the Russian steppes and in Mongolia and Manchuria. It migrates as far west as the Gambia and as far south as the Cape but most go to East Africa where gatherings of hundreds occur on the lakes of the Rift Valley in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. The greatest concentration -- tens of thousands -- occur on Lake Rudolph. Some birds spend their winters in the U.A.E. and around the Gulf but the majority pass through, en route between East Africa and their breeding grounds. I have never seen many of these birds in the U. A. E ., in fact I have seen far fewer than I would expect. The Marsh Sandpiper winters much more on fresh water than on the coast. I think that there are more of these birds wintering on the east coastline of the UAE than there are on the Gulf coasts because there is more freshish water on the east coast. In appearance the Marsh Sandpiper resembles a small, slim, and long- legged Greenshank. The head and neck appear very light and the wings are rather dark and uniform in colour. The bill is long but straighter and slimmer than the Greenshank's. The very long legs are greenish and project well beyond the tail in flight. The Marsh Sandpiper is only three-quarters the size of a Greenshank and the best recognition feature in flight is the strong contrast between the white rump and the uniform dark upper surfaces of the wings.

31. Common Sandpiper Tringa hypoleucos PM WV

The Common Sandpiper is a small (20 cms long) brownish wader which breeds throughout most of the northern hemisphere. A sub-species, the Spotted Sandpiper (Tringa macularia) breeds in North America. The Common Sandpiper migrates southwards in small parties of half a dozen or so and not in large flocks like most waders. The Common Sandpiper is easiest to recognise by its flickering flight, usually low over the water, as it flies with hesitant wing beats and glides for short periods with the wings held bowed downwards at the bottom of the downstroke. On the ground it habitually bobs its head and tail, the speed of the bobbing apparently proportional to the agitation of the bird. These birds often perch on posts or the tops of bushes. They call with a plaintive, high- pitched 'tweee-we-we'. I have seen them perched on the backs of camels, calling and bobbing. They feed on small invertebrates such as worms and on insects, snails and small crustaceans but they also take some vegetable matter. In the U .A.E. they frequently walk around below low bushes picking tiny flies off the foliage and I have seen them catch insects in the air rather like flycatchers. They are usually solitary birds while feeding ill daylight but I have noticed that they tend to group together at dusk perhaps for safety against predators.

32. Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola PM ?WV

The Wood Sandpiper is the same size as the Common Sandpiper but has much longer legs and a longer bill. In flight it shows a square of white rump ahead of a barred tail and it has no bar on the brownish wings. The Wood Sandpiper breeds from Denmark and Scandinavia across Russia and Siberia, mainly north of about 50'N latitude. It disappeared as a breeding species from Britain in 1853 and from Holland in 1926 and there are only a few pairs left in Germany and Denmark, but it is the most numerous breeding wader in Finland with something approaching 200,000 breeding pairs there. This concentration of the breeding range eastwards has been reversed by their return to Scotland since 1959.

Seen in close-up, the Wood Sandpiper is a very slim, dark brownish bird heavily marked with white spots. The legs vary in colour from yellowish through orange to dark greenish on the birds I have seen here in the UAE. I find the Wood Sandpiper very easy to recognise in close-up but not so easy in the air, perhaps because they have no particularly striking markings when flying. The Wood Sandpiper winters in the Arabian Gulf and in Arabia but are never (common in the UAE).

33. Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus PM ?WV

The Green Sandpiper is an oddity among palearctic waders in that it breeds in pine woods from preference and will use other tyrpes of trees as its nesting site. It lines the old nests of other species with moss and it lays four eggs. Nests used include those of various thrushes, jays, crows, wood-pigeons and even squirrel dreys. The young hatch after about 21 days and soon jump from the next to the marshy ground below, parachuting down and relying on their light weight and fluffy down to slow their descent. The parents then lead them off to suitable feeding areas. The Green Sandpiper does not like the seashore so the best place to see them on migration through the UAE is at any sewage farm or fresh water area. This bird is fairly inconspicuous on the ground, but as soon as it flies it is unmistakable. The upper and lower surfaces of the wings are very dark brown and look black in contrast to the white rump and belly. The bird towers into the air in a rapid zig-zag flight like a snipe but it climbs even higher than a snipe. It almost always gives a loud 'wee etaweet' call which it repeats loudly and often as it jinks off into the distance. This call carries a remarkably long way in the desert and I have often been able to hear the distressed calls of a flushed Green Sandpiper long after the bird has flown out of sight.

Although the Green Sandpiper does not like the seashore, one can see them on Khor Ajman, around Umm al Qawayn and on the strip of coast just north of Ras al Khaymah. The best place on Abu Dhabi island is just north of the sewage farm between the Military area and the airport, but I have seen an occasional one in the airport gardens.

34. Ruff and Reeve Philomachus pugnax PM

The Ruff is a very interesting bird for many reasons. The male and female birds are quite different, so much so that the male is called a Ruff and the female is called a Reeve. The male is almost 30 cms long, larger than a Redshank, but the female is only 23 cms long, which is the same size as a Green Sandpiper.

During the breeding season the male birds develop extraordinary plumes around the head and long ear tufts. These can be almost any mixture of colours from white to black, with reds and browns plain or patterned being common. The small female Reeve retain their plain brown colouration and do not grow plumes on their heads.

Birds migrating through the UAE are in their plain winter plumage which shows broad buff-coloured edges to the feathers on the back. Even in winter the Ruff (which is the collective name for both sexes) shows remarkable variations in plumage patterns and in leg colours. The migration routes of these birds seem to follow great (anti clockwise?) loops across the surface of the earth, so that the birds do not follow the same routes to and from their breeding grounds. I have not noticed any marked difference between the numbers of Ruff passing through the UAE in autumn and in spring, so perhaps we are on overlapping routes. The best advice I can give on recognition is that if you see a longish-legged, brownish bird which has no distinguishing features except rather pheasant-like plumage on the back, and which you cannot place as anything else, then you are probably looking at a Ruff. I have seen only one male bird in the UAE showing any remnants of breeding plumage. That was on 18th August, 1972 and was in the desert south of the new Abu Dhabi-Al Ain highway on a brackish pool, about 90 miles from the coastline.

35. Curlew Numenius arquata PM WV SV

The Curlew is the largest of the waders, with a large female weighing over 1100 gms and measuring about 64 cms long, including a bill up to 15 cms long. The females have the longest bills and the greatest wing-span -- up to 102 cms. When a pair of curlews take off the female always leads and her greater size and wingspan are most noticeable.

The Curlew is a brownish bird with darker, white-edged feathers on the back. The white rump is noticeable in flight, extending forwards in a vee shape between the wings. There is no wing-bar. The heavy, long, decurved bill and the long legs show up well in all views. The breast is light brown well streaked with darker feathers.

The Curlew's distribution is almost trans-palaearctic, breeding from Britain east to Siberia and as far south as about 45N. The distribution limits lie approximately between the July isotherm of 53F in the north and the 77F isotherm in the south. The Curlew feeds with its long, curved, and sensitive bill on a variety of animals living on the ground and in the upper layers of the ground. These include earthworms, insects, spiders, snails, crustaceans (including small crabs), shellfish, frogs and a large proportion of seeds and berries. It migrates southwards to be found throughout most of Africa and southern Asia, but it does not travel as far as Australia. I suspect that, in common with other birds, the Curlews which breed towards the southern limit of the breeding area do not migrate as far south as others. The birds which are here in the summer pose a problem, perhaps they are just lazy migrant drop-outs.

36. Oriental Curlew Numenius madagascariensis ??

I have been unable to discover much about this bird except that it seems to be called both the Oriental Curlew and the Far Eastern Curlew. I prefer the former name as it does occur here in the UAE which is hardly the Far East. I have had the bird's identification confirmed as N. madagascariensis but it is easiest to recognise, I think, by its really huge bill. I think the picture shows this point well. I would be very interested to have records of this bird from within the UAE. My own records seem to show an erratic occurrence pattern.

37. Slender-billed Curlew Numerlius tenuirostris ?PM

The Slender-billed Curlew is a rare bird throughout its range. It has not been thoroughly studied and thus presents several mysteries. The proven breeding areas consist of two small areas in west Siberia and Kazakhstan (56N 72E and 48N 72E approximately), and the probable breeding area extends westwards from these two points to about 50N 50E. There is an old breeding record for eastern Iran. The autumn migration is to the southwest and until recently the known wintering areas included the northern edges of the Mediterranean, Tunisia and the Nile Delta. These birds have now been seen here in the UAE. The late Col. Tim Wellings and I saw and photographed our first record for the UAE in December, 1971. It now appears that the Slender-billed Curlew winters in the Gulf in erratic numbers, rather like the Baikal Teal.

The Slender-billed Curlew is the same size as the Whimbrel but the ones I have recognised looked paler overall than the Whimbrel and had pure white underparts and rump. It lacks the distinctive head patterns of the Whimbrel and has a spotted chest in most cases. There seems to be a large variation in the bill length, but this may be a difference between sexes. In flight, the Slender-billed Curlew looks generally pale with an almost white tail indistinctly barred. There is a strong contrast between the dark primaries and the pale secondaries. They sometimes follow a fast jinking flight pattern which is more snipe-like than the more sedate flight of the Curlew. I suspect that these birds are overlooked among Whimbrel and Curlew here in the UAE, so be on the lookout for any odd-looking Whimbrels or small Curlews. The call is similar to that of the Curlew but it is pitched higher and is of shorter duration and it lacks the guttural quality of the Curlew's calls.

38. Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus WV PM

The Whimbrel breeds in a discontinuous band across the north of the world, in boreal and tundra zones and in the mountains. They breed further north and at higher altitudes than the Curlew, but there is a reported isolated breeding population in the Kirghiz steppes. A proportion of the birds which migrate to the Arabian Gulf spend the winter here. The Whimbrel seems to have an erratically timed migration flight and it is not unusual to see birds in the UAE during summer months which would normally be too late for the spring migration or too early for the autumn migration. Numbers also tend to be erratic. Normally one sees groups of about 20 to 50 birds but on occasions, it is possible to see as many as 1000 birds. These large numbers seldom stay here for more than a day or two.

The Whimbrel has attractive dark markings on the head which are a gpod recognition feature. In flight, the smaller size, relatively shorter bill and quicker wing-beats separate this bird from the Curlew. The call is quite different from the Curlew's and consists of seven even, twittering notes. The song is more curlew-like and has a bubbling quality something like a kettle boiling!

The Whimbrels which are seen here in the UAE breed in western Siberia and may also include some of the 45,000 pairs which breed in Finland. Those which breed in Iceland, northern Scotland and Scandinavia migrate to west Africa. It is peculiar that the Icelandic birds pass through the Scottish Outer Hebrides Islands in springtime but do not do so when heading south in the autumn. They may make the long flight directly south across the Atlantic or perhaps they drift eastwards to Norway before heading southwestwards along the North Sea.

39. Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa PM ?WV

The name 'Godwit' is probably derived from Anglo-Saxon meaning 'good creature', reflecting its renown as a table dish. The Black-tailed Godwit is a large wader (40 cms long) with a long, straight bill slightly up-turned towards the tip and with long legs. It shows a broad white bar on the dark upper surfaces of the wings and has a black tail which contrasts strongly with a white rump. Seen at a distance the top surfaces of this bird are somewhat like an Oystercatcher. It has a clear flight call 'reeka-reeka-reeka', but is usually silent here in the UAE.

The breeding areas of the Black-tailed Godwit stretch from the Bering Sea in the east, across Asia and Europe to the west coast of Iceland. It is discontinuous between about 45N and 65N with disintergration towards the west, in Europe. There are three sub-species of the Black-tailed Godwit; Limosa limosa limosa L.l. melanuroides without any known breeding overlap. As the Icelandic birds breed in Scotland and the nominate sub-species breed in England, overlap is likely in the future. The broken nature of the breeding area in western Europe is almost certainly due to pressure from man where drainage and reclamation of wet marshy low-land meadows since the 17th century has reduced the area of favoured habitat available.

The migration journeys of the three sub-species of the Black-tailed Godwit differ. The Icelandic birds (L.l. islandica) begin to leave the west of Iceland in late July with the main movement in August, and they winter in southern Ireland, south-west England and France, with small numbers possibly going through the Azores. The eastern birds (L.l. melanuroides) move down the eastern half of Asia as far south as northern Australia. The nominate birds, which breed west of 85E, start to move south as early as June and travel southwards to winter in the Congo, Tanzania and adjacent countries with some going as far as the Cape Province. Not all the birds cross the equator and some spend their winters on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea, in south Turkey, the Arabian Gulf and in western India as far south as Ceylon.

I have only seen single birds here in the UAE and I suspect that the UAE shores of the Arabian Gulf are not suitable for the Black-tailed Godwit, although the closely related Bar-tailed Godwit can be seen here in every month of the year and in considerable numbers during the migration.

40. Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica PM WV SV

The Bar-tailed Godwit looks rather like a straight-billed Whimbrel when in winter plumage. It has no wing bar, the tail bars are not very noticeable in flight, the legs are not quite long enough to project far beyond the tail but the slightly up-curved bill is quite distinctive. Bar-tailed Godwits breed much further north than the Black-tailed Godwit and their breeding areas are separated by the northern coniferous forest belt, where no godwits breed. There is a breeding range in the extreme north-west of Alaska but the remainder of apparently suitable habitats in North America are occupied by two species of Dowitchers which have lengths of bill and leg corresponding to those of the Bar-tailed Godwit.

The Bar-tailed Godwits move southwards, with large numbers wintering in western Europe while some continue to western Africa. Others move through Arabian Gulf to eastern Africa with some staying in the UAE. The eastern sub-species (L.1 baueri) which is larger and has a more spotted rump and underwing coverts, breeds in eastern Siberia and in Alaska. These migrate to south-east Asia and as far as Australia and New Zealand. The extent of southern movement is erratic and it is possible to find wintering Bar-tailed Godwits anywhere between about 55N and 40S provided that there is suitable habitat. The birds which can be seen here in the UAE during the summer are probably non-breeders which do not complete their migration.

I have noticed that the Bar-trailed Godwits have a soft flight call (contact call?) which can only be heard at close range. At first I thought that the sound could have come from the birds wings, but now I'm sure it is a call. They sound rather like a litter of puppies whimpering. I have not seen this call recorded previously, which strikes me as very peculiar.

41. Great Snipe Gallinago media PM ?WV

The Great Snipe is only fractionally larger than the Common Snipe, being 28 cm long, but it has a generally bulkier appearance both on the ground and in the air. Like the Common Snipe, the Great Snipe has a long, straight bill and has brown and white plumage with buff stripes on the head and back. The underparts are heavily spotted and barred with only a small unmarked white patch on the belly. The only obvious plumage differences between the common Snipe and the Great Snipe are the latter's white outer tail feathers and white trailing edge to the wings. The white tail patches usually show up well as the bird flares to land. Unfortunately, the juvenile birds have not got these helpful white markings.

The Great Snipe does not twist and jink as it takes to the air and it is usually silent in flight, but it sometimes gives a single harsh 'chaark' cry if one gets very close to a sitting bird before being seen. The flight pattern is noticeably heavier and slower looking, with more bowed wings, than that of the Common Snipe.

The breeding area of the Great Snipe is contracting and numbers have been decreasing over most of the range since the beginning of the 19th century. Once again, the primary cause of this decrease is pressure from mankind both from drainage and agriculture and by indiscriminate shooting.

They breed in northern Scandinavia, Russua, west Siberia to 90E and in northern Poland. The southern limit of the breeding area is about 50N. In eastern Siberia this species is replaced by Swinhoe's Snipe (Gallinago megala) which resembles the Common Snipe in breeding behaviour.

The Great Snipe migrates southwards along a narrowing 'funnel' through Arabia and the majority of birds spend their winters in grassy marshes and swampy areas in tropical eastern Africa, with some going as far south as the Cape Province and Natal. Others winter in the marshes at the head of the Arabian Gulf, in the coastal areas of Baluchistan and, probably, in small numbers on the UAE peninsula.

The best areas to see Great Snipe in the UAE are at sewage outfalls or any areas of freshish water. They will usually crouch and hide in vegetation rather than fly but if one is flushed a careful look around will often produce others crouching on the shady sides of tussocks.

42. Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago WV PM

The Common Snipe is a semi-cosmopolitan small (27 cms long) brownish wader with a long bill and rather stumpy legs. The back plumage is a lovely mixture of dark and rufous feathers strongly striped with golden buff. The tail shows a little edge of slightly buff-white feathers. When flushed the Common Snipe usually gives a series of dry rasping 'schaap' cries and towers upwards in a rapid jinking flight. The song is a monotonously repeated 'chic-ka chic-ka' tending to speed up slightly towards the end. During territorial display on the breeding grounds, usually towards dusk, the birds climb steeply to about 500 ft and then dive steeply, spread their outer tail feathers and produce a loud bleating sound which reminds me of the bleat of a goat.

The Common Snipe breeds over most of the northern hemisphere between about 70N and 45N (but excluding Greenland) and over most of South America (including the tropical rain forest), Africa southwards between the Rift Valley and the east coast, and then in the whole of southern Africa south of about 15S. They do not breed in Australia and have not been recorded there during migration either. The northern breeding birds are migratory, wintering as far south as tropical Africa and southern Asia as far down as Indonesia. The North American birds move as far south as the northern parts of South America. The migration of African and South American breeding birds is not at all clearly defined but seems to be triggered by periods of drought.

The birds which pass through the UAE on migration usually do so in small groups of 5 to 10 but these numbers are sometimes exceeded, particularly during the autumn migration when my own observations indicate larger numbers passing through than in the spring. Perhaps some birds which have been hatched in the northern hemisphere stay in the south with the southern population although I have no evidence whatsoever for that statement.

43. Stone Curlew Burhinus oedicnemus PM ?WV ?BR

There appears to be considerable confusion about the distribution of the Stone Curlew and the two related species of Senegal Thick-knee (B. senegalensis) and the Spotted Thick-knee or Cape Dikkop (B. capensis) , particularly in Arabia. I suspect that most of the reference books are content to repeat what has already been written instead of bothering about original field observations. If anyone has the time and the patience to conduct a proper field study of the 'Stone Curlew' in this area I'm sure there is much original work to be done.

The Stone Curlew is a medium-sized (41 cms long) bird which inhabits open country ranging from the heathlands of Europe to the open desert. It has long, yellowish legs, mottled brownish plumage and a short yellow bill with black tip (not vice versa as stated in 'Heinzel') and very large yellow eyes. It shows two distinct white wingbars and a dark trailing edge to the wing in flight. It often trails its legs in flight. It looks far more like a plover than a curlew to me. The large eyes give one a clue as to the habits of this bird. During the day it crouches immobile in any shade available, eyes slitted against the glare.

It is extremely difficult to see, even in the open desert. The fact that it has a local name (kairwan) and is a recognised falconry prey here in the UAE indicates to me that it is (or was) far more numerous than it appears to be. Stone Curlews feed at night on almost anything. They have two distinct methods of feeding. One is a slow, purposeful, heron-like stride, a freeze and a sudden stab. The other is an upended busy picking motion quite like a plover.

In the eastern and southern Sahara the ecological place of the Stone Curlew is taken by the Senegal Thick-knee and in the rest of Africa by the Cape Dikkop. I suspect that the Stone Curlew seen in the UAE are either migratory birds or are at the edge of their breeding area. However, there are breeding reports from within the UAE. There have been reports of Cape Dikkop from the east coast of the UAE but I have not seen them there. Any locals presented with a choice of pictures of Stone Curlew and Cape Dikkop choose the Stone Curlew as the 'Kairwan'.

44. Black-Winged Pratincole Glareola noedmanni PM ?BR

Professor K.H. Voous, Col. Richard Meinertzhagen and others do not accept that Glareola naedmanni is in fact a true species but regard it as a locally dominant colour variant (sub-species) of the Collared Pratincole (G. pratincola). Their reason is the occurrence of intermediate specimens indicating interbreeding or colour clines.

Pratincoles breed (among other areas) throughout Iran, Baluchistan and the Indian-subcontinent (except the west coast). There is reason to believe that they also breed in the Umm al Qawayn/Ras al Khaymah area of the UAE. According to some published references if there are any breeding pratincoles in the UAE they ought to be Collared Pratincoles, but I have seen far more Black-winged Pratincoles here in the UAE than the very similar Collard Pratincoles. I hope to prove that pratincoles do breed in the UAE and also to resolve this confusion in my own mind.

The Black-winged Pratincole looks like a dark tern or a large swallow in the air. It is about 26 cms long and has black underwings, a forked black tail with white outer feathers, an olive-brown back and a creamy white throat. It has a very short bill, dark eyes and black feet and legs. It shows a white rump in flight. They have a flight call rather like a tern.

In the UAE these birds are usually seen in small groups of 5 or 6 and I cannot recall having seen more than 20 in the air together. They hawk after insects in the air like swallows and snap their prey up with quite a loud clap of the bill. Their prey varies in size from the locust to the mosquito and they hunt long after sunset. The best place to see the Black-winged Pratincole in the UAE is the area along the coastal road between Um al Qawayn, Jazirat al Hamra and Ras al Khaymah and east of that road to the foothills between Manama, Idhn, Al Khat, Hayl and up to Rams. I suspect that they breed along the wadi which runs northwest from Falaj al Mu'allah.

45 Collared Pratincole Glareola pratincola PM ?BR

The Collared Pratincole looks exactly like the Black-winged Pratincole already described above, except that the underwing coverts are a deep chestnut brown colour. The pratincole habit of stretching their wings above their heads after landing make this recognition feature easy to see. The outer half of the top surface of the wings of both pratincoles described are much darker than the inner half. Juvenile birds have a broad breast-band of dark brown streaks, and winter birds lose the distinct black edge to the creamy-coloured throat patch.

46. Cream-coloured Courser Cursorius cursor PM ?WV RES ?BR

The Cream-coloured Courser is a small (23 cms long) wader which has adapted completely to desert conditions. It is not much larger than a Starling but looks bulkier in the air. It is predominantly sandy coloured, plover-like bird with long creamy-white legs and a curved and sharply pointed bill.

They are very difficult to see on the ground and are thinly distributed over their breeding range. This extends right across Africa between about 32N and 15N latitudes with a southern extension to cover most of Ethiopia, Somaliland and central Kenya. The whole of the Arabian peninsula, Iran and Baluchistan to about 75E is included in the breeding area of the Cream-coloured Courser.

Normally, the Cream-coloured Courser will escape by running very fast until at a safe distance, where it turns to face the intruder, raises its tapered neck and sometimes stands on tiptoe. When it flies, usually giving a short double 'praak-praak' call, the cryptic colouration suddenly vanishes and the bird shows all-black wings below with the outer half of the wings black on the upper surface. The short tail has a broken dark sub-terminal band and the white feet project beyond the tail in flight, giving it a pointed appearance.

No one has yet described any courtship displays. The birds lay two, sometimes three, eggs which are stone-coloured and closely streaked and spotted with brown. They are laid on the open ground and are very difficult to find. The breeding season apparently starts anywhere from February to the end of May and it is possible that two broods are raised. It is also possible that the breeding season relates to the weather and insect food supply rather than to the calendar.

Some of the birds are migratory but nobody yet knows exactly where they go or which route they follow. In fact, some birds apparently migrate northwards at the same time as others are moving generally southwards. The Cream-coloured Courset is a resident of the UAE and, I believe, breeds in the same area as the pratincoles mentioned earlier.

Two interesting and rewarding projects for the Emirates Natural History Group would be to study the pratincoles and the coursers in the Northern parts of the United Arab Emirates. References

Bannerman D.A. & W.M. Birds of Cyprus and the Middle East

Firouz, Scott et al Birds of Iran

Gooders (Ed.) Birds of the World

Heinzel, Fitter & Parslow Birds of Britain, Europe, N. Africa & M.E.

Meinertzhagen R. Birds of Arabia

Penny M. Birds of Seychelles

Peterson, Mountford & Hollon Birds of Britain and Europe

Vere Benson Birds of Lebanon and Jordan

Voous K.H. Atlas of European Birds


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