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8-14 July 2005
Installment #277---Visitor #

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Informative and entertaining hummingbird banding presentations are coming up in August 2005 in South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland & Kentucky/Tennessee.
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We've been pretty vocal about this year's low number of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at Hilton Pond Center and elsewhere, but hummers are not the only species for which we've seen fewer birds. Eastern Towhees, for example, continue to decline locally, with only 11 banded at the Center through 14 July; by this time we should have caught three times that many, and there's no way we'll reach our all time high of 85 set back in 1991. We've also yet to see a Yellow-breasted Chat in 2005, even though we caught 24 in the summer of '92. Here in the Carolina Piedmont Chats are Neotropical migrants and towhees are year-round residents, but one thing they have in common is a preference for brushy areas in which to breed. Brushiness probably reached its peak at the Center in the early 1990s--eight years after we began to allow natural succession to re-vegetate the property--so it may be the absence of chats and towhees is simply due to a change in habitat as our 11 acres turned into a young mixed forest. We're not so confident, however, that habitat change explains this year's downswing in numbers of one of our most common, most visible, and most vocal local residents--the Carolina Wren.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

We observe Carolina Wrens--South Carolina's state bird--on the hottest summer days and during frigid winters at Hilton Pond Center. They're one of the first species to serenade us each spring with their boisterous "tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle" song--a tune just as likely to be heard out-of-breeding-season as in. This year, however, our woods have been relatively wren-less, and instead of several males competitively vocalizing throughout the spring and summer, we hear only one or two.

In the eastern U.S. the Carolina Wren is nearly ubiquitous from Pennsylvania to Florida and west to Texas, breeding practically everywhere except the highest mountains and lowest coastal salt marshes. These birds are quite at home in isolated swamps and forests, but they're most obvious when hanging around farmsteads and suburban neighborhoods--where they're just as likely to nest in an rubber boot or coffee can as in a bluebird box or tree hollow. Being members of the Troglodytidae--roughly translated as "cave dweller"--Carolina Wrens either seek out a cavity or make one of their own.

Here at Hilton Pond Center we stay warm most of the winter courtesy of a high efficiency wood stove with clean-burning catalytic converter. We collect fallen limbs from around the property and supplement this harvest with more substantial firewood salvaged from roadside trimming and construction sites. (Brother Stan is also a faithful provider of old oaks that blow down on a golf course near his home.) When we accumulate enough wood, we start splitting it to manageable size--something we did in the old days with sledge and wedge. Lately, however, we've taken to using a gasoline-powered hydraulic splitter that lets us do more in a day that we once did in a month. Last time we used the splitter was about mid-April; since then it's sat idle in the side-yard, protected from the elements by a waterproof plastic tarpaulin. Having acquired a few nice-sized logs since April, we finally decided this week to split what we had and to stack it to dry in our wood rick. What a surprise we got when we threw back the tarp and found atop the splitter's engine a beautifully constructed Carolina Wren nest, complete with three purple-spotted eggs.

First thing we did before even thinking about cranking up the splitter was feel the eggs, all of which were cold. This meant either they were old and dead, or the female hadn't started incubating. The latter is possible but unlikely--it's a bit late in the breeding season to start a whole new clutch--but just to be sure we photographed the cave-like structure and its contents and re-covered the splitter with the tarp. We checked the nest again on the first and second days following our discovery but, alas, found no additions to the three eggs. Since a wren usually lays on several successive days until her clutch is complete, we had strong evidence the nest was probably abandoned.

We'll never know the true story of what happened under the tarp, of course, but for now we're leaving the nest and eggs covered and where we found them on the splitter, just to see what happens. Even though this particular nest was in a highly sheltered site, we can't help but wonder if that cold, wet, windy spring we had here in the Carolina Piedmont might not have killed the female wren. Or perhaps it was too cold for her on that cold metal splitter to both incubate comfortably AND find food enough to keep her metabolism high and capable of incubating. But maybe what happened was--as sometimes occurs in wrens--a male built several dummy nests, the female laid eggs in two of them, and then she gave up on incubating the clutch we found on the splitter. We hope it's the latter, but if one of our Hilton Pond females perished this spring it could be why there hasn't been the usual assemblage of fledgling wrens flitting around the property into our mist nets. We never liked taking the same banded "wrenlets" out of our nets over and over again, but we'd put up with such shenanigans if we knew it meant our Carolina Wren population isn't really on a downswing after all.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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Be sure to scroll down for an account of all birds banded or recaptured during the week, plus other nature notes of interest.

"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


8-14 July 2005

Ruby-throated Hummingbird--5
Carolina Chickadee--1
Tufted Titmouse--1
House Finch--10
Northern Mockingbird--2

* = New species for 2005

5 species
19 individuals

44 species
891 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
124 species
46,198 individuals

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

--Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (RTHUs) were a tad more prevalent this week, with five captured--including the first hatch-year male since a very early one on 4 June. Through this week we've captured NO juvenile female RTHUs, 16 adult males, and only five adult females. Our 23 banded RTHUs of all ages and sexes puts us 35% below our 22-year average of total captures by 14 July.

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

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (1)
09/14/04--2nd year male

Northern Cardinal (1)
11/21/02--after 3rd year male

Carolina Wren (1)
07/01/04--2nd year male

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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.

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