8-14 February 2004
Installment #210--Visitor #

(Back to Preceding Week; on to Next Week)


In December 2003 we observed waterfowl beginning to gather on a larger impoundment that lies partly on the property at Hilton Pond Center and into which water from Hilton Pond flows. Size and mix of the flock varied from day to day through mid-January until eventually there were about three dozen Ring-necked Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, and Wood Ducks. On several occasions we attempted to get close enough to snap a photograph but--especially without a portable blind--that was well-nigh impossible. The ducks spooked and either flew or swam to the far end of the pond anytime we got anywhere near. After repeated failures, we gave up for lack of time but took hope when a few Ring-necked Ducks actually came to us instead and started hanging out on Hilton Pond. At first there were three males, then six, and by this week we have a regular flotilla of two females and nine drakes--plus a couple pairs of Woods Ducks that come and go as the spirit moves them. One of the female Ring-necked Ducks is being guarded very attentively by a prospective mate, perhaps a better sign of impending spring than a groundhog's shadow.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

For the past year or so we've been using a Canon D60 digital camera for all our photographic work, and we're fortunate to also have a 100-400mm zoom lens with a 1.4x telextender. Because the sensor on this particular camera provides an image 1.6 times what a film camera would allow, the effective maximum focal length of the set-up is actually 400 x 1.4 x 1.6, or almost 900mm--a mind-boggling magnification that traditionally would have required a big, heavy, exceedingly expensive lens. Now that Ring-necked Ducks have been hanging out on Hilton Pond, we decided to mount the camera and lens on a tripod in a window of the Center's office--a spot about 50 yards from the pond's edge and from which we have a fairly unimpeded view of the water. Despite the long focal length of the telephoto and extender, the ducks still appear pretty far away when they paddle around the pond, but we've been able to get off a few shots as they swim to the closest point. That brings up a good news/bad news scenario, as follows:

BAD NEWS: Almost every day we've tried to shoot our ducks there has been rain or heavy cloud cover--not the best circumstances for long-distance photography. GOOD NEWS: The digital system allows us to adjust the camera to an ISO 1000--equivalent to extremely high-speed film. BAD NEWS: This rating provides lots of digital "noise"--similar to "graininess" in the film world. GOOD NEWS: With a software program called Photoshop it's possible to smooth out much of the noise. The four photos on this page are the result of all this digital magic; not our best work, but certainly adequate to illustrate what a Ring-necked Duck looks like.

MORE BAD NEWS: Our Ring-necked Ducks never stop swimming, requiring us to constantly re-focus the lens and pan the camera. They also preen frequently, dipping their heads into the water, flapping their wings, and practically doing Eskimo rolls in on-going efforts to keep their feathers in good shape. In the photo above, for example, four of the five drakes are attending to personal hygiene and exhibit postures not conducive to good species identification. FINAL BAD NEWS: Ring-necks are diving ducks that disappear beneath the water's surface in search of vegetation and small crustaceans--a feeding behavior that always seems to occur just as we get a particular bird in our viewfinder. (All this good news/bad news is relative, of course, to our photographic needs. Frankly, we're tickled just to have these ducks on Hilton Pond in the first place.)

The Ring-necked Duck, Aythya collaris, takes its name from an obscure collar around the base of the male's neck, but we've always believed it should have been called "Ring-BILLED Duck" because of the white bands near the tip and base of an otherwise-blue bill sported by the male. The drake has an orange eye and an iridescent purplish head that often looks black, a dark metallic-green breast, a dark back, and a vertical white "crescent moon" on each grayish-colored side. The relatively drab hen (squinting through the alders, below left) has neutral brown plumage and is best distinguished by the white ring near her bill tip; a thin, horizontal white line behind the eye is sometimes visible. In flight both male and female show a wide gray trailing edge on the dorsal wing surface.

We're hopeful that over the next few weeks that we'll get some sunny days and even be able to move our camera a little closer to Hilton Pond as the waterfowl get more accustomed to us. We haven't long, however, because Ring-necked Ducks only occur in the Carolinas during winter, and by month's end they'll start moving toward breeding grounds in New England, the prairie pothole states, and central Canada. Until then we need to work hard on getting more photos that capture the birds' finer details--rather than just dark silhouettes that would lead the casual observer simply to say "Yep, M. R. Ducks."

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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 and photographed by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.

You may wish to consult our Index of all nature topics covered since February 2000. You can also use the on-line Search Engine at the bottom of this page.

For a free, non-fattening, on-line subscription to "This Week at Hilton Pond," just send us an E-mail with Subscribe in the subject line. Please be sure to configure your spam filter to accept E-mails from

If you enjoy This Week at Hilton Pond,
please help

Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.
It's painless, and YOU can make a difference!

Just CLICK on one of the logos below.

Make direct donations on-line through
Network for Good:
Donate a portion of your purchase price from 500 top on-line stores via iGive:
Use your PayPal account to make direct donations:

Oct 15 to Mar 15
Please report
your sightings of
Vagrant & Winter

8-14 February 2004

American Goldfinch--3
Purple Finch--118
House Finch--2

* = New species for 2004

3 species
123 individuals

13 species
735 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
44,038 individuals

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

Purple Finch (6)
03/22/96--10th year male **
01/24/00--after 5th year female
03/13/00--6th year female
02/23/02--after 3rd year female
03/10/02--4th year male
03/14/02--4th year male

Northern Cardinal (1)
08/08/95--10th year female **

** These two birds are now the oldest on record at Hilton Pond Center.

Along with locally banded birds recaptured at Hilton Pond Center this week, we also trapped a brown Purple Finch bearing a band that was not ours. A quick call to the federal Bird Banding Lab told us the finch had been banded by G. Loery as a hatch-year bird of unknown sex on 20 Sep 2001 at Litchfield, Connecticut, about 640 miles north. This bird, which we now know is a 4th year female, is only the eighth Foreign Recapture at the Center since 1982.

Following last week's account of Pecan-bowling Mice, we got an e-mail asking if we hadn't exaggerated how many White-footed Mice invade the old farmhouse at Hilton Pond Center each winter. In response, we set a number of live traps for seven consecutive nights and caught 24 mice, all subadults and juveniles. Obviously these little rodents are thriving at Hilton Pond and far outnumber the human inhabitants.

--12 Feb, was an auspicious date at Hilton Pond Center: We banded our 44,000th bird since 1982. Considering the way things have been going this winter, it's not surprising it was a Purple Finch (PUFI). In fact, one of the PUFIs banded that day was our 6,400th individual of the species in the past 22 years. The recent PUFI rush--perhaps influenced by frozen precipitation north and west of here--brought the local PUFI total for the current winter of to 743 birds, surpassing our previous seasonal high of 685 from 'way back in 1986-87. We still have a little ways to go to break our record for PUFIs in a calendar year, having banded 697 in 1987--compared to a "mere" 632 since 1 Jan 2004.

A rare vagrant
Black-chinned Hummingbird was banded on 13 February at Gastonia NC

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

(Back to Preceding Week; on to Next Week)

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.

Up to Top of Page

Back to This Week at Hilton Pond Center

Current Weather Conditions at Hilton Pond Center

You can also
post questions for
The Piedmont Naturalist

Search Engine for
Hilton Pond Center

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.