15-21 May 2006

Installment #316---
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Back in the 1970s when we were teaching biology at Fort Mill (SC) High School, our students grew increasingly interested in natural history and begged us to take them on field trips to observe diversity of plants and animals and habitats. At least one Saturday per month a group of them would hop in a van and journey with us to a different outdoor destination, where we often linked with the South Carolina Association of Naturalists to benefit from the group's expertise. It became pretty obvious our own self-taught facts about many aspects of natural history wasn't going to be enough if we were to meet the unquenchable thirst for knowledge exhibited by our Fort Mill students. With no formal training about birds, for example, we could hardly be expected to answer detailed questions about avian wonders, so in the summer of 1977 we took a big step and enrolled in a six-week field ornithology course near Blacksburg VA at Mountain Lake Biological Station (lab building below). This turned out to be one of the most fortuitous decisions we've ever made--a choice that without doubt had major impact on our future.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Wife Susan--and son Billy III, born just four months earlier--joined us in 1977 for the duration of the Mountain Lake course, during which we all stayed in rustic but comfortable Maphis Cabin (complete with stone fireplace, below right). Susan and Billy both helped as we erected our first mist net just off the cabin porch and caught the first wild bird we'd ever held--a female American Redstart we immediately handed to our instructor, David W. Johnston. Dr. Johnston was--and still is--a superb educator, an accomplished ornithologist, and a master bird bander, and we were fascinated when he showed us how to measure, band, and release the warbler unharmed. As we worked with more birds, we quickly discovered what a terrific teaching tool this activity could be, so we committed then to become adept in the art and science of banding birds. We also realized we needed to learn a lot more about ornithology--which led us to take another major step in moving the family to Minneapolis in 1978 for a four-year study of Blue Jays and lots of other natural history topics. Grad studies at the University of Minnesota were superb, of course, but didn't bring quite as much wide-eyed pleasure as that glorious summer the Hilton family spent at Mountain Lake Biological Station.

Mountain Lake is an unusual body of water near the top of Salt Pond Mountain in Giles County VA. The 45-acre impoundment is one of only two natural lakes in Virginia, and at 3,875' is the highest lake east of the Mississippi. It's a recent natural wonder, created only about 6,000 years ago when an earthquake loosened hundreds of tons of rock that formed a dam downstream from several mountain-top springs. These springs produced enough flow to eventually form an "oligotrophic" cold-water lake--crystal clear and devoid of algae and turbidity found in "eutrophic" impoundments such as Hilton Pond. Normally the lake is about 100 feet deep, but because the now-submerged springs are precipitation-dependent--and because the earthen dam is semi-permeable--an extended drought means less water flows into than out of the lake. When we first saw Mountain Lake 29 years ago it was full to the brim, but this week when we journeyed north from Hilton Pond Center we were surprised to find a very dry winter in 2005-06 had lowered the water level nearly 15 feet and exposed wide banks of tan-colored rock and soil (above). The locals are praying for rain in the hope the lake will soon return to "full pond"--even though low water is part of Mountain Lake's normal cycle, as indicated by small tree stumps exposed when the water level dropped to its current level.

We should point out that Mountain Lake itself isn't actually part of Mountain Lake Biological Station, which is operated by the University of Virginia. The lake is in private ownership and part of a resort and nature conservancy that includes historic Mountain Lake Hotel--forever famous as the site where the 80's movie "Dirty Dancing" was filmed. This 2,600-acre resort adjoins the 642-acre biological station and collaborates with it on studies of mountaintop flora and fauna, so it's not unusual to see a researcher's mist nets or flagging tape right beside the hotel's walking trails or tennis court. In fact, nearly every adult Dark-eyed Junco we observed around the hotel had a unique combination of color bands--note the yellow plastic ring on the left leg of the bird above--all done as part of a long-term university-based study on junco life history.

We were at Mountain Lake Hotel this week to give the keynote presentation for the second annual Mountain Lake Migratory Bird Festival. We'd been invited by committee member Peggy Spiegel--whom we met when she signed up for our 2005 expedition to band Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in Costa Rica--to share hummer information with festival attendees. Peggy is a lifelong bird enthusiast and educator and was a prime mover in creating and implementing what is already becoming one of the better spring bird festivals. This year's event attracted folks from all over the U.S. to Mountain Lake--just in time to see courtship displays and spring behaviors of a spectacular assortment of Neotropical migrants, including a male Chestnut-sided Warbler (above) drinking nectar from Striped Maple flowers.

Festival participants got some truly great looks at all sorts of birds native to the Virginia highlands, not the least of which was an industrious male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (above) making frequent visits to an ornamental Paper Birch tree just outside Mountain Lake Hotel's activity barn. Sapsuckers excavate row after row of quarter-inch holes in the trunks of trees that produce particularly tasty sap. As this sap runs, the resident hole-driller returns to lap sweet liquid with a feathery-edged tongue quite unlike the heavily barbed ones characteristic of most other woodpeckers. The grid of holes makes up a "sapsucker well" that also attracts sugar-seeking insects, and sapsuckers sometimes snap up these little six-legged competitors as sources of fat and protein. Numerous other bird species have been reported at sapsucker wells, and conventional wisdom says wells are especially important for hummingbirds arriving in northern latitudes before there's an abundance of spring wildflowers. We'd never actually seen a hummer drinking at a sapsucker well--at least not until this week when a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird visited one several times an hour during the Mountain Lake Migratory Bird Festival.

The hungry ruby-throat (above and below right) was probably already incubating and in need of an easily accessible food source so she wouldn't be off her eggs too long in the cool spring air of Virginia's mountains. While watching the sapsucker make frequent trips to the well, we noticed the hummingbird often came in just after the woodpecker departed, so it may be the hummer's nest was where she could see the well and avoid feeding while the larger bird was present. On a few occasions when the ruby-throat itself was sap-lapping, the sapsucker came in and made concerted efforts to chase the hummer away.

Needless to say, we were excited at long last to see a hummingbird utilizing a sapsucker well, and we were especially pleased to be able to document it with photos after years of reading about the phenomenon. As icing on the cake, when sharp-eyed Bill Walsh of Alexandria VA wandered along Blueberry Ridge above Mountain Lake Hotel, he spotted another hummingbird flying toward a still-leafless oak tree. Bill watched the hummer land on an oddly shaped branch and, sure enough, when he viewed the limb through binoculars he found a female ruby-throat sitting so tightly on her lichen-encrusted nest that lots of folks got chances to observe and take photos (below).

It seems appropriate these two hummingbird experiences would occur in the vicinity of Mountain Lake, where we had gotten turned on to ornithology almost a third of a century earlier. We were excited to see the sapsucker well and hummer nest, but it was also fulfilling to be part of this year's birding festival and afterwards to get a chance to drive a few miles up the road from the hotel to Mountain Lake Biological Station. Since the education and research facility wasn't open yet for summer classes, we wandered the nearly deserted grounds with wife Susan, thinking happily about the Summer of '77 and our first encounter with bird banding.

When we got to Maphis Cabin (above)--where we spent that memorable summer with firstborn Billy--the door was unlocked, so we entered with a certain degree of reverence. We were more than a little pleased to find the interior still as rustic and homey as it had been 29 years earlier and wondered whether later generations of grad students had enjoyed the facility as much as we had.

After this week's trip from Hilton Pond to Virginia, we made a pact that another three decades would not pass before we visit the hotel (above) or the biological station, so we're making plans now to attend next year's Mountain Lake Migratory Bird Festival on 18-20 May 2007. Chances are hummingbirds will still be feeding from sapsucker wells or nesting in nearby trees, and we'll again reminisce about how birds changed our destiny--beginning that summer long ago at Mountain Lake Biological Station in the idyllic southern highlands of Virginia.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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Thanks to the following fine folks for recent gifts in support of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History and/or Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project. Your contributions allow us to continue writing, photographing, and sharing "This Week at Hilton Pond."

  • Wisconsin State Journal (Madison WI)

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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15-21 May 2006

American Goldfinch--1
House Finch--2

* = New species for 2006

2 species
3 individuals

20 species
825 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
124 species
47,407 individuals

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

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

--Although we did catch one female Ruby-throated Hummingbird during a banding demonstration at Mountain Lake Migratory Bird Festival in Virginia this week
(see essay above), we still have handled none in 2006 at Hilton Pond Center. In a typical spring we would have banded at least nine RTHUs by the end of the third week in May.

--Every year we hear comments from folks in the Carolinas who say they have fewer RTHUs than normal; we tend to reply it's probably because observers remember the hordes they had at feeders the preceding August when all the adults were still around and fledgling birds swelled the ranks. This year we're not so sure and ourselves wonder whether last autumn's major hurricane onslaught could have knocked off more migrant RTHUs than usual. Our only option now is to wait to see how many RTHUs show up at Hilton Pond as summer and fall come to pass.

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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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