1-7 September 2004
Installment #237---Visitor #

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Even though Hilton Pond Center lies 150 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, we take the brunt of many coastal storms--especially when they are as big as Hurricane Frances. This massive recent weather phenomenon--at one time bigger in area than Texas--ripped through Florida last weekend and drifted slowly northward, sucking up maritime moisture with its counterclockwise motion and then dumping torrential rains across the southeastern U.S. As of this writing--on the evening of 8 September 2004--Madame Frances was not quite finished; satellite images showed her cruising into the densely populated Northeast where she undoubtedly will drop additional precipitation.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

(Click for LARGER VERSION of image above, compiled 7 Sep 2004)

Here in the heart of the Piedmont in York, South Carolina, Hurricane Frances had little impact until yesterday (7 September; see photo above), when she spawned tornados in neighboring counties and tipped the barrel on Hilton Pond Center. During all the daylight hours, we got a MERE 2.1" of rain, but as twilight arrived the skies cut loose and another 2.1" of liquid precipitation fell between 8 and 10 p.m. in wave after wave of intense showers.

We heard more rain falling during the night, so we awakened with curiosity about just what the weather might have wrought--especially after we checked our trusty old South Carolina Farm Bureau rain gauge and found that the overall storm had nearly topped it out at 5.3" (left). (NOTE: Technically, photos we took this morning, 8 September, shouldn't be included in "This Week at Hilton Pond" for 1-7 September, but we had to wait until daylight today to survey the property for any damage from yesterday's storm.)

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Actually, we couldn't take ANY photos until after mid-morning today--there was still drizzle coming down until 10 a.m. or so--but we did stick our head out the door shortly after dawn. We were greeted by a curious high-pitched sucking noise--the sound of the 4" overflow pipe at Hilton Pond trying to do its job despite being clogged by sticks and leaves. For the past four summers the top of that pipe has been two feet or more above the surface of the water, but thanks to summer rains and back-to-back-to-back Hurricanes Bonnie, Charley, and Gaston, our namesake impoundment had risen to "full pond"--indicated by a small raft floating at the same level as the stationery pier to which it is moored. Yesterday's downpour floated the top of the raft at least six inches ABOVE the height of the pier (above) and brought the water across the overflow, sending torrents splashing over a concrete spillway at the northwest end of the dam. (The pond is on the left in the photo above right.) This is something that hasn't happened with such force in many years; normally, the overflow pipe takes care of any excess water, and the spillway remains dry. This morning the runover was still 4" deep after the rains had stopped completely, and although we didn't go out during last night's monsoon to observe, we suspect up to a foot of water was cascading over the dam at the storm's peak. We base that conclusion on the sizes of fish that washed over the dam and that now were lying on their sides in half-inch-deep puddles below the spillway.

One of those fish was a palm-sized Bluegill, Lepomis macrochirus (above). This particular species--one of the most common vertebrates in Hilton Pond--is known as a "bream" or a "panfish," since a good-sized individual just about fills the bottom of a skillet. Many young Bluegills undoubtedly serve as food for Large-mouthed Bass that lurk in the shallows, but the adult in the puddle was destined for a slow death until we photographed it and scooped it carefully into Hilton Pond. Back in the 1980's when we had even more one-day rainfall than Hurricane Frances brought in the past 24 hours, there were literally hundreds of inch-long bass, Bluegills, and Mosquitofish gasping in the flats below the spillway. It was impossible to save them all--Raccoons and Northern Water Snakes had a feast the following night--so we're grateful the most recent storm wasn't as devastating to our local fish populations.

After inspecting the dam we explored for further hurricane impact, but our progress was impeded because many trails were under water (above). In fact, below the dam it was hard to tell the difference between what was a walkway and what was a stream, since the trails provided a path of least resistance for water still flowing from the spillway. There was no doubt water had come over the dam with some force; the flow had swept the trails clean of dead leaves and other detritus and many living grasses and forbs had been laid flat (below left). Since their roots weren't disturbed, these green plants undoubtedly will rebound and straighten back up, but we do have concern for some larger trees below the dam that had soil eroded from around the bases of their trunks (below). The trees probably will be okay in the absence of any high winds while the soil is still saturated, but who knows what might happen if Hurricane Ivan comes ashore and proceeds inland next week with gale force gustiness.

A tiny portion of precipitation that flowed down the water-logged trails gurgled into a quarter-inch hole that apparently led to an underground nest. Clustered around the opening were numerous half-inch-long red ants whose abdomens were quite distended--perhaps due to osmotic absorption of water that had entered their home. We half-joked that these must be some kind of specialized flood control workers that had been deployed as miniature shop vacs, sucking up excess water to keep the queen's subterranean chamber dry and cozy as she laid eggs to replenish the colony.

Yesterday, except when it was raining hard, our few remaining Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were still visiting feeders. One enterprising young male found the perfect perch inside one of our pull-string hummingbird traps that hangs in the eaves of the old farmhouse at Hilton Pond Center. From that spot, he was sheltered from wind and rain and had only a six-inch commute to get to his dining room. Without any competitors for his sugar water, he was in a sort of rainy day hog heaven where all his creature comforts were met despite the downpour.

One amusing aspect of our most recent hurricane experience came this morning after we'd patrolled the trails and determined the property had suffered essentially no damage. As we removed our wet footgear and stowed the digital camera, we looked out the office window and saw another Ruby-throated Hummingbird flying about six feet off the ground and moving very, very slowly from left to right. The bird was making so little forward progress that it was almost hovering, and we were at a loss to determine just what it was doing. Picking protein-rich insects out of the air, perhaps? Displaying at a rival hummingbird that had braved the storm and come into the area?

As we leaned toward the window, we suddenly had the answer to this puzzle. On the ground just below and ahead of the hummingbird was a male Eastern Box Turtle whose speed--or near lack of it--was equalled by the hummer. Apparently the orange and brown reptile (above) had piqued our hummingbird's curiosity; the hummer was following from a safe distance to see if the turtle might be friend or foe . . . or food. We weren't surprised to see this typically terrestrial turtle strolling about--they often come up from low-lying areas after rainstorms to avoid rising waters--but we certainly never expected to see one being shadowed by an inquisitive little hummingbird.

There's no doubt we've had an over-abundance of rain in the past 24 hours: the view from the old farmhouse shows that instead of being dark green, Hilton Pond is a dingy brown hue (above)--an indication the pond is replenished in large part by run-off from red clay slopes that surround it. All in all, however, this week we ducked the bullet from Hurricane Frances. Back in 1989, the eye of Hurricane Hugo came directly over Hilton Pond Center and took some of our biggest and oldest trees. Today there are dead, waterlogged branches littering the trails, but the worst vegetative damage we found came when wind snapped off large numbers of Common Persimmon fruits--one of our all-time favorite wild foods. Normally, we'd just grab the 'simmons off the ground and eat 'em, but experience has taught us you don't do such things this early in September before the 'simmons are ripe--lest you pucker up so far your lips end up on the back of your head like some Looney Tunes character.

Thanks to Hurricane Frances, we probably lost a few fish in the overflow from Hilton Pond, but no trees are down, the hummingbirds are still flying, the dam held, and the old farmhouse stands high, dry, and ready for whatever nature brings next. Now if Hurricane Ivan will just go away quietly . . . .

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Original satellite image of Hurricane Frances courtesy of
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

For comparative photos of what Hilton Pond looked like during the drought years, see these installments from 2001 and 2002.

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

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Please report your
sightings of
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds


1-7 September 2004

Ruby-throated Hummingbird--10
Acadian Flycatcher--1

* = New species for 2004

2 species

51 species
1,703 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
45,008 individuals

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


--This week's arrival of Hurricane Frances upstaged a singular event in the history of bird banding at Hilton Pond Center: The banding of our 45,000th bird, a hatch-year female Ruby-throated Hummingbird on 3 Sep. We ended the week with 45,008 birds banded in the 22 years since 1982. Of those, 2,973 have been ruby-throats--we're striving mightily toward the 3,000 mark for hummers before this year's fall migration ends--and the most common bird has been the House Finch, whose 6,964 total to date means we'll certainly reach the 7,000 milestone for that species before next year arrives. For a look at a chart of our top species numbers through July 2004, see More Than 400 Banded.

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 Web site--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.