22-28 January 2004
Installment #207--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.
Teachers and other hummingbird enthusiasts are invited
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NOTE: Counts four hours toward North Carolina environmental education certification.


The Carolina Piedmont--home of the Super Bowl-bound Carolina Panthers (logo, below left)--doesn't usually see the hard winter weather that is commonplace for that other team (New England Patriots), but when we do get hit even a little snow and ice brings human progress to a sliding, inevitable stop. Our occasional southern storms seem to have little effect on real wildlife, however, except to bring droves of birds to feeders we have been maintaining faithfully year-round at Hilton Pond Center. When the weather folks let it be known that a winter storm was set to strike on the night of 25 January, instead of stocking up on milk and bread we made sure we had plenty of sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and millet--all in the hope of banding more birds than we normally handle during our often balmy winter months. The weather wizards were right with their forecast, and we awoke just at dawn on the 26th to the sight of wind, snow, freezing rain, sleet, and a whole bunch of hungry birds scratching through the white stuff in search of winter sustenance.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

We had brought in all our bird traps the night before so they wouldn't get coated with ice, but it only took a few minutes to deploy them on the ground and on platform feeders that double as trap stands. We loaded the traps with seed bait, leaving up a giant Droll Yankee sunflower tube feeder to keep the birds interested while their brethren were investigating traps and getting banded. Thanks to frigid temperatures in the upper teens and a wintry mix that continued to fall on and off through 27 January, there was an on-going progression of birds that for two entire days we could barely keep up with--even though we got less than an inch of accumulation.

True to their "snowbird" nickname, several Dark-eyed Juncos (above) were among the first to enter traps and get queued up for banding. These sparrow relatives journey down each fall from further north--or from a breeding population in the southern Appalachians--wearing head, back, and bib plumage that is slate-colored but often has a brown wash. A close view shows juncos have pinkish bills and feet, but one of their most distinctive characteristics may be white outer tail feathers that flash brightly as they dart into the bush. Two-day banding total (26-27 Jan): 16 juncos.

As might be expected, hardy Northern Cardinals also were among the first visitors to the feeders during the storm. Outside our windows at Hilton Pond Center, cardinals are typically the earliest birds to arrive in morning and the last to depart at day's end. We thought we had captured and banded most of our local cardinals--which overall have decreased in number of the past few years--so we were somewhat surprised to capture five new ones: a brightly colored male and four more demurely attired females (above left). Based upon prior painful experience, we were careful NOT to remove our gloves as we held this big-billed bird for photographic purposes.

Cardinals are not the only songbirds at Hilton Pond Center with a pointed crest, nor are they the only crested birds that bite. In fact, given a choice between being bitten by an Eastern Tufted Titmouse (above) or a cardinal, we might go with the latter. Whereas cardinals merely clamp down as hard as they can, titmice--like their smaller relatives the chickadees--have an uncanny knack for finding a bander's cuticles, which they incessantly peck and nip during the banding process. Ouch! Quit that! The 11-acres around Hilton Pond only support a few pairs of titmice, which are highly territorial and need cavities such as abandoned woodpecker nests in old hardwood trees--something not so common at the Center. Our titmice apparently maintain pair bonds year-round, visiting the feeder in twos and then flitting away as another duo takes their place. In late summer as the "fall shuffle" begins, Eastern Tufted Titmice from neighboring woods wander through--perhaps looking for potential mates or unclaimed territories--but we were a bit surprised to capture two new, unbanded titmice on 26-27 January.

White-throated Sparrows (above) typically make up a noticeable percentage of our winter birds at Hilton Pond, but only 18 showed up last fall--well below our average of 77 birds and our all time high of 154 in the winter of 1990-91. There's still plenty of time to go this winter, however, and the four new white-throats banded during the recent storm will help a little. Not all White-throated Sparrows reveal such bright yellow lores as the bird pictured here; in fact, some are downright drab, but all have at least some degree of white feathering beneath their bills. Generally, the dark head stripes are obvious in any individual, but the intensity of the white center stripe varies.

Having studied Blue Jays for four very long Minnesota winters, we were happy to see a small group of these colorful corvids descend this week on the Hilton Pond banding station. Although some folks don't like jays because they can be aggressive around feeders, this particular flock was ignored by all the other birds. Good thing there was plenty of seed to go around, however, because the jays did gorge themselves (right)--apparently in a contest to see which individual could stuff more kernels of corn in its crop before flying off to cache them for later consumption. We only caught four of these long-tailed Blue Jays during the two storm days, but one was the largest ever banded here at Hilton Pond Center. Its 145mm wing chord indicated it may well be one of those birds that has migrated down from Minnesota, where we found that Blue Jays were as much as 10% larger than their more southerly conspecifics.

And speaking of BIG. Eastern (formerly Rufous-sided) Towhees have among the largest feet one can find on a bird, relative to body size (below left). Towhees are ground-feeding birds, and they spend their days noisily scratching around in leaf litter with great big feet as they look for berries, insects, and sundry invertebrates. About the same size as a Northern Cardinal, towhees have black bills that aren't nearly as powerful as that of a redbird, but they're still able to crack open hard seeds to get at the meat within. Male towhees sport black heads and backs and tails--areas that are rich brown on females such as the one illustrated here. Young Eastern Towhees have muddy gray-brown eyes that gradually turn red in older adults; in various individuals the iris remains some shade of orange and--in southern coastal areas--can even be white. Our two-day towhee total: Two.

While we were observing Blue Jays in Minnesota, our fellow grad student and good friend David Blockstein was working on Mourning Doves in neighboring North Dakota. Thus, we're always pleased at Hilton Pond when one of these plump, spike-tailed birds waddles in toward our feeders--and especially when we catch one in a dove trap that David gave us when his field work was completed. Up close, we were struck by the subtle colors of the one Mourning Dove we caught during the storm, an adult male (above) with blue wash on the nape and crown, rose blush on its breast, a blackish "ear-spot," sky-blue skin around the eye, and an indescribable iridescent gold-lavender-yellow-green-pink sheen at the bend of the wing. We have no argument with those who choose to legally hunt this common game bird, but having seen its incredible colors up close we personally would have a great deal of trouble pulling the trigger on a Mourning Dove.

We banded some other bird species on 26-27 January--and retrapped several old ones from previous winters (see list at page bottom)--but considering the shivering cold temperatures and low-light overcast conditions, we had trouble holding a few birds still enough to photograph. The two Fox Sparrows we trapped were both exceptionally jumpy, as were all ten of the Chipping Sparrows and the solitary Song Sparrow, and since we already had plenty of American Goldfinch photos we simply let both go after banding. We should note that one of those goldfinches was the 5,001st banded at Hilton Pond Center since 1982--our third species to reach the 5,000 mark.

Oddly, we didn't catch any House Finches during the storm days, even though an adult male did visit; he's the top red bird in the tube feeder photo at upper right. Purple Finches more than made up for the lack of House Finches, and they just kept coming . . and coming . . . and coming--39 in all for 26-27 January. Only three of them were raspberry-colored adult males, including the bottom red bird in the feeder photo; the other brown birds with white eyelines are either female or young male Purple Finches, and perhaps the most interesting of these was one that carried a 4.5mm tick behind its left eye (below).

Tick-laden birds have been relatively common at Hilton Pond Center in the past--in fact, we recently had been wondering where all the ticks had gone--but even though we've banded more than 400 Purple Finches this winter, none have had any ectoparasites. While capturing birds during the recent storm, we made a sependipitous observation that may help explain the current lack of ticks. As we brought the Purple Finches indoors for banding, we noticed a distinct odor of Eastern Red Cedar--a sure sign these birds had been hunkering down for part of the day in one of the native evergreens around Hilton Pond. If finches spend much time there, we wouldn't be surprised if aromatic cedar oil that rubs off onto their feathers actually helps repel ticks and other ectoparasites.

Yes, our most recent winter storm caused great inconvenience for some folks in the Carolinas--just ask our younger brother in Leesville SC who had to start sleeping with his dogs to keep warm when the power stayed off for four straight nights. Nonetheless, 26-27 January was a great time for nature watching at Hilton Pond Center, especially because of 66 birds of 11 species we got to band over two very cold days while it rained, blew, friz, and snew.

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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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.
Teachers and other hummingbird enthusiasts are invited
See you there?

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

22-28 January 2004

American Goldfinch-- 10

Dark-eyed Junco--18
Chipping Sparrow--10
Song Sparrow--1
Fox Sparrow--2 *
Northern Cardinal--6 *
Eastern Towhee--2 *

Purple Finch--97
House Finch--1

White-throated Sparrow--4
Tufted Titmouse--2
Blue Jay--7
Mourning Dove--1

* = New species for 2004

13 species
161 individuals

13 species
460 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
43,763 individuals

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

Dark-eyed Junco (2)
12/17/02--after 3rd year female
01/12/03--after 2nd year unknown

Chipping Sparrow (4)
02/26/00--after 5th year unknown
03/05/01--after 4th year unknown
02/28/02--after 3rd year unknown
01/09/03--after 2nd year unknown

Purple Finch (6)
02/08/97--after 7th year female
01/24/00--after 5th year female
03/12/02--after 3rd year female
03/15/02--after 3rd year female
03/17/02--4th year male
03/18/02--after 3rd year female

House Finch (2)
02/18/01--after 4th year male
06/06/03--2nd year male

White-throated Sparrow (1)
04/20/00--after 5th year female

Blue Jay (1)
12/22/02--3rd year unknown

--A trio of Ring-necked Ducks, (two males and a female) showed up on Hilton Pond late on 25 Jan, swimming and diving in the sleet and snow. Previously this winter they had been seen only on the Center's larger, lower 4-acre impoundment.

--Bad weather on 26-27 Jan gave way on the 28th to a cold but bright and sunny day. Amazingly, after 66 birds were banded during the two storm days, almost none came to the feeders on 28 Jan, and we caught none.

--Despite temperatures in the low 20s, a Hermit Thrush was bathing in water kept unfrozen by an electric pump in a small water garden outside the old farmhouse at Hilton Pond Center.

None this week

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