8-14 January 2004
Installment #205--Visitor #

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No one likes to be in an embarrassing situation, but sometimes that kind of scenario reaps unexpected benefits. That's what happened this week when we showed some photos of our bird banding work at Hilton Pond Center to a meeting of Henry's Knob Group of the Sierra Club in Rock Hill SC. Now that the world has moved in a digital direction, we no longer use 35mm slides and Carousel projector during presentations. Instead, we take along an iBook laptop computer loaded with PowerPoint images that we display via a tiny but very sharp digital projector. As our reliance on these electronic gizmos increases, so does the chance that something will go wrong, and it did. The VGA cable that connects the laptop to the projector somehow failed and all the images on the screen had a sickly yellow wash and--worse yet--everything that should have been some shade of red came out completely black.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Male House Finch in which the red pigments have been digitally replaced with black (click HERE for normal view)

All our slides with red text on a black background were completely unreadable--and you can imagine what the traditional final slide of a sunset looked like--but the color shift was especially unfortunate because several photos were intended to illustrate field marks in what local Sierrans would forever more remember as a Black Purple Finch, Black Scarlet Tanager, and the seldom-seen Black-throated Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Even the male Northern Cardinal turned out looking more like a Phainopepla, a jet-black bird of the desert Southwest. Much to our humiliation, no amount of fiddling with the cable cleared up the color problem, but we continued on. Fortunately, the audience was sympathetic--after all, we are lifelong members of Henry's Knob Group--and with a red face we promised to return with less finicky equipment for a future program at which we might redeem ourselves.

Male Purple Finch (click HERE for normal view)

But back to the unexpected benefit of this electronic mishap. Even though the colors of birds in the projected images were distorted, it was still possible for most audience members to determine the species, and it struck us that we had actually stumbled onto a "new" teaching tool. For some birds, being able to see the true color might actually make it HARDER to identify them because when color is an available cue observers tend to overlook other field marks such as shape and pattern.

Male House Finch (click HERE for normal view)

The most obvious example of this was actually part of our ill-fated Sierra Club presentation, which included photos of Purple Finches and House Finches. Beginning birders and casual feeder watchers frequently confuse these two species because the adult males are somewhat similar in hue, usually ranging from raspberry to an organge-ish red. However, when all the shades of red are removed from a photo of these two finches, other characteristics become more apparent.

Male Purple Finch (click HERE for a normal view)

In the male House Finch, the red hues turn out to be rather restricted, occurring primarily on the head, upper breast, and rump; there's also a good deal of brown in the cheek, essentially no red in the wing, and noticeable brown streaking on the flanks. An adult male Purple Finch, however, shows extensive raspberry color that uniformly covers the entire head, breast, rump, and flank; the latter location lacks the brown streaks of the House Finch, and the Purple Finch even has pale reddish color along the edges of each tail and wing feather.

One thing that jumps out when we look at the regal mug shots of both species is the overall shape of the head and bill--characteristics that might be ignored if an observer is "distracted" by the birds' color. The House Finch (top photo) has a rather flat top to its head and a bill that is slightly decurved along the culmen or upper edge, while the Purple Finch's head (second photo from top) is rounded--sometimes there's even a very slight crest--and the culmen is quite straight. In close-up view, one can see there's a sharper hook to the bills of Purple Finches, which they invariably use to nip our fingers and irritate the dickens out of us when we try to band them. House Finches, however, almost never bite, so this behavior can actually be used to differentiate these two species in the hand!

Male Hairy Woodpecker

Our electronic debacle at the Sierra Club meeting has led us to a different way of looking at birds, one that focuses on field marks other than color. This may be a useful device, but if it's all the same we'd rather be sure our projector works properly and that we display images of birds as they truly appear. That way, next time we give a public presentation the punch line for "What's black and white and NOT red all over?" won't be our photographs--unless, of course, we're showing a slide of a female Hairy Woodpecker.

All text & 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

8-14 January 2004

American Goldfinch-- 1
Purple Finch--138
House Finch--5

Song Sparrow--1
Blue Jay--1

* = New species for 2004

5 species
146 individuals

7 species
215 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
43,518 individuals

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

Purple Finch (1)
03/02/02--after 3rd year female

Tufted Titmouse (1)
05/16/03--2nd year unknown

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

--A raft of about 20
Ring-necked Ducks has been assembling on the lower impoundment at Hilton Pond Center, diving repeatedly after vegetation and invertebrates. They're pretty spooky and haven't allowed us close enough for photos.


A second-year female Calliope Hummingbird was banded on 13 January at Clemson SC; fewer than ten Calliopes have ever been confirmed for South Carolina. This was the 50th western vagrant hummer banded by Center personnel since 1991, and the 17th during the current "winter" of 2003-04. Links to photos and descriptions of all non-Ruby-throated Hummingbirds we have captured (including two Rufous Hummingbirds that visited Hilton Pond) is at Vagrant & Winter Hummingbird Banding.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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In 2004, informative and entertaining hummingbird banding presentations are already scheduled for North Carolina, Virginia, Michigan & Kentucky/Tennessee.
(Click on the logo at left for details.)
If your group would like to host Hummingbird Mornings anywhere in the U.S. or Canada in 2004 or later, contact
Bill Hilton Jr.

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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