In Memory of
the Crew of
Space Shuttle Columbia

1-7 February

Earth from Space:
A View Worth
the Risk

Installment #159---Visitor #

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On 2 February, old Punxsutawney Phil emerged--or was plucked--from his plush air-conditioned burrow at Gobbler's Knob, Pennsylvania. Beneath a bank of television lights and in front of thousands of on-lookers, he quite expectedly saw his shadow. We have the greatest respect for Phil--and folks who can spell his birthplace correctly--but we're not sure his annual Groundhog Day predictions are applicable to Hilton Pond Center or the Carolina Piedmont.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Although a shadowy appearance by Phil accurately portends six more weeks of winter on his Western Pennsylvania stomping grounds, there are plentiful signs that Phil's prognostications simply wouldn't pan out here at Hilton Pond Center any better than those of a "house pet" Groundhog-- alias "Woodchuck"--described and rendered by John James Audubon (above).

Some examples that the Groundhog was wrong:

--Native plants are a'bloomin'. On 2 February, even as Punxsutawney Phil was predicting six weeks of winter, at least one native plant was already in full bloom at the Center. Right on schedule, twigs on our Hazel Alders, Alnus serrulata, were covered with pinkish catkins-- droopy male flowers (right) that by week's end were beginning to release tiny clouds of semi-sticky yellow pollen. In a few more days, there will be enough of this stuff floating around to pollinate the shrubs' female flowers--and to create a thin yellow sheen on the surface of Hilton Pond.

--Reptiles are out and about. Beneath a crystal clear sky, the afternoon temperature on 4 February reached 70 degrees, quite warm enough for some of our more adventurous Painted Turtles, Chrysemys picta, to crawl out of Hilton Pond and onto an old log to catch a few rays. After all, water temperature at pond bottom measured 44 degrees on that day--all the incentive a poikilothermic ("cold-blooded") creature should need to evacuate its still-frigid swimming hole.

--Birds are acquiring breeding plumage. Although most songbirds wait for warmer weather to bring in a fresh set of feathers, male American Goldfinches at the Center are already taking on a calico appearance (below left). Folks often assume that yellow plumage on males at this time of year occurs because dingy feather tips wear away to reveal brighter coloration beneath. That may be true for some species, but goldfinches actually do undergo a "winter" molt--including the male's distinctive black forehead-- that gets them off to a fast start once breeding season arrives. (We've always thought it a little odd that male American Goldfinches acquire their mating attire so early; they actually are mid-summer nesters and among the last species to commence egg-laying each year.)

--No mo' snow. Yes, we're aware that parts of the North Carolina Piedmont had a few inches of snow on the night of 6 February, but this can happen well into March, even after the official first day of spring. Any such February-March snow cover typically disappears within a day or two as our post-snowstorm "winter" temperatures soar again to the mid-60s. We wouldn't be surprised if the 9.5 inches we got at Hilton Pond on 23 January (below) is the last of the white stuff we'll see for the rest of this season.

So, Punxsutawney Phil, despite your wisdom, your venerability, and the top hats of your handlers (below), the jig is up: Winter is already over in the Carolina Piedmont. We believe you can use your considerable Groundhog skills to predict the length of winter up north, but here at Hilton Pond Center we're confident that spring is just around the corner, that more wildflowers will soon bloom, that birds and turtles are about to perform their mating rituals, and that it ain't gonna snow no mo', no mo' . . . knock on wood(chuck).

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center
Punxsutawney Phil photo © Associated Press

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NOTE: Be sure to scroll down for an account of all birds banded or recaptured during the week, as well as some other interesting nature notes.

"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written & photographed
by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of
Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.

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1-7 February 2003

American Goldfinch--24
Song Sparrow--1*
House Finch--1

* = New species for 2003

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)
American Goldfinch (3)
10/13/00--4th year male
02/10/02--3rd year female
04/17/02--3rd year male
Dark-eyed Junco (1)
11/12/01--3rd year female
Eastern Towhee (1)
10/20/01--third year female
Northern Cardinal (1)

05/30/98--after 6th year female

None banded this week

3 species
26 individuals

12 species
251 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
42,365 individuals
--Another 0.7" of rain on the night of 6 Feb brought Hilton Pond to within 3" of its optimal depth--a significant improvement since it was 48" low as recently as mid-September 2002.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka The Piedmont Naturalist, it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this Web site--including articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this Web site, contact the Webmaster.