22-31 December 2003
Installment #203--Visitor #

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At 5:30 p.m. on 31 December--New Years Eve--we banded the last bird of 2003 at Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History, and it was a disappointment. The bird--a Yellow-rumped Warbler--wasn't disappointing in itself, but it did represent the end of a 12-month span that was exceedingly unproductive as far as banding goes. With only 1,189 birds banded, 2003 was our worst full year ever since banding began at the Center in 1982; in fact, some years during which were employed away from Hilton Pond for months at a time had better totals than did the year that ended this week (see chart below). We're just grateful for the influx of 113 Purple Finches and 31 House Finches in December--including 34 PUFIs on the 28th alone--without which we would barely have gone over 1,000 birds banded for 2003.

An immature fall migrant Black-throated Green Warbler was netted on 30 Sep 2003, only the seventh-ever at Hilton Pond Center

All text, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

We try to accentuate the positive about nature happenings at Hilton Pond, but you'll understand our dissatisfaction with this year's banding totals when you compare them with past records. The 1,191 birds captured in 2003 were well below the 22-year average of 1,968 bandings, and less than one-third of our all-time high of 4,061 birds handled in 1991. Furthermore, the species total of 62 for 2003 was below the 22-year average of 71 and far under 1991's total of 95; in 2003 we banded only half the 123 species we've captured in one year or another since 1982.

While we're dwelling on disappointments, we might as well mention that one of our speciality species--Ruby-throated Hummingbirds--also were not up to par. On average we band 162 RTHUs from March through October during full seasons at Hilton Pond--the record was 197 in 1995--but in 2003 we handled only 141 new hummers. On the positive side, in the summer of '03 we encountered 26 RTHUs captured in previous years, including two females we had not seen since we banded them as adults in 1999; these were both after-fifth-year birds in 2003, a remarkable achievement for any Neotropical migrant the size of one's thumb.

Click an the chart above to view a larger version.

The only two banded species for which we set new record highs in 2003 were Red-shouldered Hawk (below) and Winter Wren, both of which are always low-number birds. We caught three red-shoulders--having banded two in both 1993 and 1995--and we've only banded eight altogether at the Center since 1982. Curiously, all the red-shoulders were caught in small-mesh mist nets designed to snare hummingbirds! Our two Winter Wrens in 2003 surpassed the record of one, equalled in six previous years.

Other species for which we were at or above average in 2003 were six Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (22-year average is five), one Green Heron (one), 44 Dark-eyed Juncos (29), 82 Chipping Sparrows (55), two Fox Sparrows (1), five Gray-cheeked Thrushes (4), nine Black-and-white Warblers (6), four Cape May Warblers (4), one Kentucky Warbler (1), four Tennessee Warblers (3), two Louisiana Waterthrushes (2), six Downy Woodpeckers (6), and one Hairy Woodpecker (1).

Three immature Red-shouldered Hawks banded at Hilton Pond Center in 2003 were a new annual high number for the species

Our most plentiful birds at Hilton Pond in 2003 were 209 American Goldfinches (bottom photo) that made up almost 18% of birds banded during the year and almost all of which were trapped January through March; a hoped-for influx during the last quarter of the year never came to pass. Then there were those 176 House Finches (15% of all captures), 141 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (12%), and 115 Purple Finches (10%); hummers and the three finch species made up 54% of the total birds for all 62 species banded for the year. The two rarest local species banded in 2003 were our third-ever White-crowned Sparrow and seventh Black-throated Green Warbler (top photo).

One problem with all these low numbers is trying to determine why the Center's banding totals for 2003 were so dismal. Here are some points to consider:

  • Although the 2003 banding calendar ran from 1 January through 31 December, we did a good bit of traveling this year and were sometimes away from Hilton Pond Center, including possible prime weekends in August when we were off conducting "Hummingbird Mornings" presentations. (Because we use a combination of pullstring traps, automatic traps, and mist nets, it's virtually impossible to keep track of our tarrping/netting hours or to standardize those hours from year to year.)

  • All four winter finches (American Goldfinch, Purple Finch, House Finch, and Pine Siskin) have failed to appear in substantial numbers for several years in a row, including 2003. (These four species make up 44.19% of all birds banded at the Center since 1982.)

  • There were virtually no good weather fronts during spring and fall migration periods in 2003 that otherwise might have brought good flights of warblers and other migratory species.

  • On many days during which we might have run mist nets we were plagued by rain, wind, and other inclement weather. (The good news is that the York area had the most precipitation it's seen in nearly 70 years, so our four-year drought was broken and Hilton Pond itself no longer looks as if it were becoming "Hilton Bog.")

  • Even formerly abundant resident species such as Northern Cardinals and Eastern Towhees are in decline. Perhaps West Nile Virus is taking its toll on bird life around Hilton Pond.

  • Migratory birds--Neotropical migrants in particular--are known to be suffering from habitat destruction at both ends of their migratory paths--and along the way as well.

  • And perhaps of greatest importance, vegetation at Hilton Pond Center has changed dramatically since our long-term banding project began. In 1982 our 11-acre tract was almost completely open, with wide expanses of grass in which were scattered a few large trees. Today the property is 22 years into vegetative succession and is nearly covered by shrubs, understory trees, and additional large trees. Although the Center is far more "natural" today, we suspect many birds that were caught in nets in our first decade of operation are now up in the tree tops and beyond our reach. And, with all this new vegetation, it may be hard for seed-eating winter birds--and hummingbirds--to find a feeder/trap and the bait it contains. (Sometimes letting nature take its course is counterproductive to such goals as high numbers of banded birds.)

Many variables such as those listed above make it difficult to determine whether our low numbers in 2003 are a fluke or a trend. Nonetheless, the 1,191 birds captured during the past 12 months bring our 22-year total of banded birds to a respectable 43,305--assuring that Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History continues as the most productive long-term bird banding station in the Carolina Piedmont and one of the most active in the Southeast.

2003 Bird Banding Totals for
Hilton Pond Center for
Piedmont Natural History
(York SC)
Blackbird, Red-winged 0
Blackbird, Rusty 0
Bluebird, Eastern 2
Bunting, Indigo 4
Cardinal, Northern 60
Catbird, Gray 9
Chat, Yellow-breasted 2
Chickadee, Carolina 13
Cowbird, Brown-headed 14
Creeper, Brown 0
Cuckoo, Black-billed 0
Cuckoo, Yellow-billed 1
Dove, Mourning 8
Finch, House 176
Finch, Purple 115
Flicker, Northern 0
Flycatcher, Acadian 3
Flycatcher, Great-crested 0
Flycatcher, Least 0
Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied 0
Flycatcher, Willow 0
Gnatcatcher, Blue-gray 6
Goldfinch, American 209
Grackle, Common 1
Grosbeak, Blue 0
Grosbeak, Evening 0
Grosbeak, Rose-breasted 0
Hawk, Red-shouldered 3
Hawk, Sharp-shinned 0
Heron, Green 1
Hummingbird, Ruby-throated 141
Hummingbird, Rufous 0
Jay, Blue 7
Junco, Dark-eyed 44
Kingbird, Eastern 0
Kingfisher, Belted 0
Kinglet, Golden-crowned 0
Kinglet, Ruby-crowned 5
Meadowlark, Eastern 0
Mockingbird, Northern 0
Nuthatch, Brown-headed 1
Nuthatch, Red-breasted 0
Nuthatch, White-breasted 0
Oriole, Baltimore 0
Oriole, Orchard 0
Ovenbird 2
Owl, N. Saw-whet 0
Pewee, E. Wood- 1
Phoebe, Eastern 4
Redstart, American 12
Robin, American 11
Sapsucker, Yellow-bellied 0
Screech-Owl, Eastern 0
Shrike, Loggerhead 0
Siskin, Pine 0
Sparrow, Chipping 82
Sparrow, Field 0
Sparrow, Fox 2
Sparrow, Grasshopper 0
Sparrow, House 0
Sparrow, Lincoln's 0
Sparrow, Song 7
Sparrow, Swamp 0
Sparrow, White-crowned 1
Sparrow, White-throated 68
Starling, European 0
Swift, Chimney 0
Tanager, Scarlet 1
Tanager, Summer 2
Thrasher, Brown 9
Thrush, Gray-cheeked 5
Thrush, Hermit 3
Thrush, Swainson's 14
Thrush, Wood 2
Titmouse, Eastern Tufted 9
Towhee, Eastern 14
Veery 0
Vireo, Philadelphia 0
Vireo, Red-eyed 12
Vireo, Blue-headed (Solitary) 0
Vireo, White-eyed 5
Vireo, Yellow-throated 0
Warbler, Bay-breasted 0
Warbler, Black-and-White 9
Warbler, Black-thr. Blue 5
Warbler, Black-thr. Green 1
Warbler, Blackburnian 0
Warbler, Blackpoll 0
Warbler, Blue-winged 0
Warbler, Canada 0
Warbler, Cape May 4
Warbler, Chestnut-sided 2
Warbler, Connecticut 0
Warbler, Golden-winged 0
Warbler, Hooded 0
Warbler, Kentucky 1
Warbler, Magnolia 12
Warbler, Nashville 0
Warbler, Orange-crowned 0
Warbler, Palm (yel. race) 0
Warbler, Parula (N. Parula) 0
Warbler, Pine 2
Warbler, Prairie 0
Warbler, Prothonotary 0
Warbler, Swainson's 0
Warbler, Tennessee 4
Warbler, Wilson’s 0
Warbler, Worm-eating 0
Warbler, Yellow 0
Warbler, Yellow-rumped 17
Warbler, Yellow-throated 0
Waterthrush, Louisiana 2
Waterthrush, Northern 2
Waxwing, Cedar 0
Woodcock, American 0
Woodpecker, Downy 6
Woodpecker, Hairy 1
Woodpecker, Pileated 0
Woodpecker, Red-bellied 1
Wren, Carolina 26
Wren, House 1
Wren, Winter 2
Yellowthroat, Common 2

American Goldfinches (after-second-year male above), with 209 individuals captured, were the most commonly banded species at Hilton Pond Center in 2003

All text, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written and photographed by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.
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Oct 15 to Mar 15
Please report
your sightings of
Vagrant & Winter

22-31 December 2003

Ruby-crowned Kinglet--1
Pine Warbler--1
Yellow-rumped Warbler--1
Northern Cardinal--1
Purple Finch--84
House Finch--15
Tufted Titmouse--1
Hermit Thrush--1
White-throated Sparrow--3
Blue Jay--1

* = New species for 2003

10 species
109 individuals

62 species
1,189 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
43,303 individuals

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)

Carolina Chickadee (1)
03/29/02--after 2nd year male

White-throated Sparrow (4)
12/17/02--after hatch year unknown (#1)
12/17/02--after hatch year unknown (#2)
11/04/02--after hatch year unknown
12/18/02--after hatch year unknown

Carolina Wren (1)
06/30/01--3rd year male

Purple Finch (1)
03/12/02--after 2nd year female

Tufted Titmouse (1)
07/30/01--3rd year female

Despite overnight lows in the 20s and 30s and daytime temps in the 40s and 50s, nearly every daythis week there were a couple of Painted Turtles sunning on the bands of Hilton Pond. We even spotted a Bullfrog poking its nose out of a shallow water garden outside the farmhouse window.

--On 31 December a Hooded Merganser drake was courting a female on Hilton Pond.


Rufous Hummingbirds were banded this week at Spartanburg SC, Columbus NC,
Landrum SC,
and Seneca SC; a returning adult female was also re-trapped at the last location.

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 website--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