15-21 January 2004
Installment #206--Visitor #

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Interested in hummingbirds?
Want to help collect observational data and submit it as part of Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project?
We're having a Training Workshop in Fort Mill SC on 7 Feb.
See you there?

NOTE: Counts four hours toward North Carolina environmental education certification.


Hilton Pond is a small, two-acre impoundment constructed in about 1955 to retard erosion and provide fresh water for livestock. Today, that same water attracts all sorts of wildlife, from deer to dragonflies to turtles to toads. As might be expected, many bird species use the pond as a source of sustenance: Belted Kingfishers dive after fingerling bass, Mallards munch on duckweed, and Great Blue Herons stalk the shallows looking for everything from crayfish to Bullfrogs. Thus, we ought not be surprised when this week there was an overflight of birds that looked just like the gulls we're accustomed to seeing when we vacation on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Wait a minute, those ARE the gulls we see at the beach!

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Yes, indeed, these noisy white birds that folks associate with coastal habitats have become quite common here in the Carolina Piedmont--more than 150 miles from the nearest saltwater. Despite the commonly applied misnomer of "seagull"--partly the result of that spiritual minibook entitled "Jonathan Livingston Seagull"--not all gulls are restricted to maritime habitats. In fact, Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) are almost as likely to be found along major rivers and large lakes as on the oceanfront; they even breed in the Great Plains and in central Canada. Herring Gulls (L. argentatus), larger relatives of the ring-bills, also occur in similar habitats in ever-increasing numbers.

Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls, and other species in their family (Laridae) undoubtedly are drawn inland in the Carolinas by easier pickings than they find along the shore. The ocean is bountiful in its contributions to the food chain, but huge coastal bird populations make it hard for younger gulls to gorge their gluttonous gullets. Unlike their more graceful cousins, the terns, gulls seldom do their own fishing, preferring instead to scavenge on flotsam, jetsam, and whatever roughage is thrown from fishing vessels when the shrimp catch is hauled on board.

This scavenging lifestyle is what brings gulls to York SC each winter. Hilton Pond, of course, is hardly a major lake, but just a mile or so from the property sits what must be heaven for birds that make their living as scavengers: The York County landfill (above), a vast acreage where garbage and trash from local residents and businesses is dumped, smashed, and buried.

If you've never been to a county dump--oops, we mean landfill--you should plan a trip for at least two reasons. One would be to observe how incredibly wasteful we Americans are as we throw away material that most other people in the world would probably fight for. The second reason for a landfill excursion would be to see what is likely the largest assemblage of scavenging birds in your particular area. Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures roost in trees around most dumps, often swooping in to sort through garbage when machines move to a more-distant pile. With the onset of winter, Ring-billed "Garbage" Gulls--or "Landfill Larids" as one birder calls them--typically join the vultures, perching on trash heaps and picking through old tires and disposable diapers for some edible morsel.

In any given flock of Ring-billed Gulls, there will be obvious plumage differences between individuals, and these are signs of age. An adult (top and bottom photos) is all white except for gray back and wings; its wingtips are black, the legs are dark greenish-yellow, and near the bill tip is a distinctive black ring that gives the species its common name. Adults usually sport a pale gray hood in winter. Each subadult (below right) has a wide brown band at the end of its tail, and the rump, head, and breast are more or less marked with brown speckles; a young bird also has brownish rather than gray wings, the legs are pinkish, and the end of the bill is entirely dark rather than ringed.

When we stalked the York County landfill this week to take the photos on this page, we inadvertently spooked the gulls, and the flock all swirled up at once into a clear blue sky, making those raucous gull cries we've heard many times at the beach. We aimed our camera upward and fired off as many photos as we could--fearing for a time we might get a sizeable deposit of guano on the lens.

After we returned to our van, the gulls settled back in to work their garbage piles a little more, gulping down cast-off edibles that allow them to survive far from the coast. There are many fewer gulls at the York landfill now than there were ten years ago, when it was common to see 2,000 to 3,000 individuals on any given winter day. Back in the late 1990s, however, York County discontinued burying food waste at the landfill, opting instead to load such refuse into container trucks that haul it elsewhere. Even though some perishables still get dumped locally, the gull population today is only 10% of what it was, and vulture numbers have plummeted even further. The York landfill may no longer be a scavenger's cornucopia, but there's always the parking lot at Wal-Mart or Burger King--just two of the many places where people throw out so much trash that gulls find easy pickings for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The gulls that fly over Hilton Pond are opportunistic, hanging at the dump until the food runs out and then sailing over to Bojangle's for dessert. By late afternoon, they start streaming in small flocks toward Lake Wylie on the Catawba River about ten miles away. There, they typically settle down on the water's unfrozen surface and bob around all night--far enough from shore to be out of danger from any potential predator--and joined some winters by a few smaller, black-billed Bonaparte's Gulls (L. philadelphia). Next morning, bright and early, the Ring-billed Gulls part company with their slumber mates and wing their way back toward Macdonald's or the landfill--hungry and eager to see what perfectly good and tender, tasty tidbit has been cast aside as garbage by our modern, civilized throw-away society.

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

Interested in hummingbirds?
Want to help collect observational data and submit it as part of Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project?
We're having a Training Workshop in Fort Mill SC on 7 Feb.
See you there?

NOTE: Counts four hours toward North Carolina environmental education certification.

15-21 January 2004

American Goldfinch--1

Dark-eyed Junco--1
Purple Finch--79
House Finch--3

White-throated Sparrow--1

Blue Jay--1

* = New species for 2004

6 species
86 individuals

7 species
301 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
43,604 individuals

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

Carolina Chickadee (1)
06/09/03--2nd year unknown

Purple Finch (1)
03/06/02--after 3rd year female

Tufted Titmouse (1)
02/17/03--after 2nd year unknown

--A Purple Finch on 16 Jan was our 6,000th of its species banded at Hilton Pond Center since 1982, and we ended the week with a total of 6,060 (387 of them in the winter of 2003-2004). These cold-weather visitors are outnumbered locally only by House Finches (6,836 individuals, which are either resident or migrant). Together, these two species currently make up 29.6% of all birds banded at the Center.


An especially photogenic after-second-year female Rufous Hummingbird was banded on 15 Jan at Charlotte NC.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

This Week at Hilton Pond
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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