1-14 July 2008

Installment #406---
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During those too-frequent times when we're stuck at our desk rather than being out and about at Hilton Pond Center, we try to keep a camera at hand--just in case some photographable natural occurrence comes to pass. We use a variety of interchangeable lenses including a wide-angle one for landscape shots, a couple of different macros for close-ups, and a "normal" lens for "normal" photos (whatever those may be), but we mostly keep the camera outfitted with our 100-400mm zoom telephoto lens. This optical set-up offers the greatest chance of capturing images of ducks diving on the pond or wildlife wandering past the office window. This week we made use of almost all our lenses and captured images that are sure evidence of breeding success among animals that live around Hilton Pond. We have no long stories to tell about any of them but hope you'll enjoy what photos we have to share.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

The photo above illustrates just why we keep a telephoto lens mounted on our camera. As we were checking e-mail messages one morning this week, we glanced out the window and noticed a full-grown White-tailed Deer cautiously making her way across a small clearing that lies between the Center's old farmhouse and Hilton Pond itself. Assured there was nothing to fear, the doe turned and pawed the ground once, apparently signaling for her weeks-old fawn to follow--which it did. As we carefully unlatched and opened the patio door beside our desk to provide an unimpeded view, the doe snapped to attention and her fawn simultaneously turned its head in the direction of the sound. We had only a few seconds to raise and focus the camera and make several exposures of the dappled young deer--ears alert and already learning how to survive in a world fraught with potential dangers.

Considerably less wary than our small herd of White-tailed Deer is a horde of Japanese Beetles that does its best to defoliate local flora. After working over the leaves of invasive and undesirable Multiflora Rose bushes, these herbivorous beetles settle in on native Wild Grapes that are becoming increasingly plentiful around Hilton Pond. It's a wonder our grapevines are able to produce any fruit at all because virtually none of their photosynthesizing leaves go un-gnawed by voracious Japanese Beetles. Perhaps the ONLY thing that deters these non-native insects from eating everything in sight is the opportunity to mate; in the macro shot above the male beetle--hind legs aloft--appears to be in for a wild ride as he attempts to mount a female.

Of the 30-plus Wood Warbler species that pass through the Carolina Piedmont in spring migration only a few linger to breed, but those that do brighten the summer months like few other birds can. Among the most distinctive is the Kentucky Warbler, one of which--a juvenile already bringing in the bright colors of an adult--was caught this week in a mist net at Hilton Pond Center. The brilliant yellow of the bird's undersides, superciliary line, and eye ring--coupled with a dark mask and cap--make it easy to identify this Neotropical migrant that will spend the winter somewhere between Mexico and northern South America. We suspect this species breeds at the Center but it's certainly not plentiful; the bird above was only the 19th Kentucky Warbler we've banded locally in 26 years, the first since 2003.

Quite a bit less colorful--and much less distinctive--than the Kentucky Warbler was the small brown bird above; we've included several fingers in the photo to provide a sense of scale. Novice birders--and some experienced ones--might have difficulty identifying this individual, which we also caught this week at Hilton Pond Center. The most useful field marks are the bird's size, its wing color (including buffy wingbars), and shape of the bill. The most misleading characteristics are the striated head and fine streaking on the breast and otherwise grayish rump. Even some field guides do not show this plumage. Rather than give away the identification, we encourage you to ponder it a while and make an educated guess. (We'll reveal the name of this "mystery bird" somewhere below, so please keep reading.)

Some of our most pleasant hours in life have been spent in the saddle of a finely tuned road bicycle, most recently a top-of-the-line carbon-fiber Fuji that is pure delight to ride. On summer mornings--before the heat rises--we often pedal the back roads of York County for an hour or so, taking in the day-to-day changes of the rural countryside. When we return to Hilton Pond, we park the bike on the porch and go inside the old farmhouse to cool off, sometimes forgetting to retrieve the machine until later that day. Such was the case one evening this week when we remembered we had left the bike outside and went to retrieve it at dusk. As we reached for the handlebars we did a double-take; there seemed to be far too much dark mass in the vicinity of the seat and saddlebag. Upon quick inspection we discovered a young, three-foot-long Black Ratsnake had climbed aboard and wrapped its sinewy body around the bag and seatpost. Rather than mess with this harmless snake--we did NOT want it to get excited and spray musk all over the bike--we went back indoors for an hour or so. When we returned the serpent had slithered away, probably content there were no baby birds or mammals nesting atop the Fuji. (We hope the snake--which probably hatched last year and not in 2008--didn't think a folding spare tire under the seat bag was a relative run over and flattened by some inattentive driver.) Moral of the story: ALWAYS check you bicycle before bringing it back indoors.

When schoolchildren and other groups visit Hilton Pond Center for Guided Field Trips, we ask them to follow a few guidelines to minimize impact on our flora and fauna. Our first request is "Don't step on anything green," an attempt to get folks to stay on the trails and to be careful where they walk--lest some small but significant plant get smashed. For the past few weeks, however, we've also said "And don't step on anything brown, either!" This new mndate came about because this summer, for the first time in 26 years, there are dozens of miniature brown toads hopping around the Center. If we walk slowly down the path the tiny creatures see us coming and jump out of the way, but if we move too quickly the little amphibians remain underfoot and become two-dimensional. To illustrate just how small these baby Fowler's Toads really are, we gathered up a trio and placed them in a collecting jar whose bottom is inscribed by a 5mm grid (above). In the English system these are roughly three-sixteenth-inch squares, meaning the smallest individual in the photo above measures barely a half-inch from snout to rump. (The photo below shows the smallest toad's actual size.) Assuming these tiny toadlets aren't squished or eaten by some predator, they will dine on insects and other invertebrates and grow rapidly through the summer, perhaps reaching an inch and a half before hibernating. As mature adults, Fowler's Toads--common across South Carolina above the fall line--can reach a length of 3.25". We almost never see toads this big around Hilton Pond, and we're at a loss as to why this year--all of a sudden--we have such a huge influx of toadlets.

So that's our photo portfolio for the first half of July 2008: A white-tailed Deer fawn, hormonally charged Japanese Beetles, a couple of juvenile songbirds, a bike-riding snake, and the tiniest toads we've ever seen--all signs of breeding success for at least six animal species at Hilton Pond Center.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Comments or questions about this week's installment?
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Be sure to scroll down for an account of all
birds banded or recaptured during the period,
plus other nature notes of interest.

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"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written & photographed
by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of
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1-14 July 2008

Ruby-throated Hummingbird--22
Eastern Phoebe--2
American Goldfinch--2
Acadian Flycatcher--1
Chipping Sparrow--1
Indigo Bunting--1
Kentucky Warbler--1
Northern Cardinal--2
Eastern Towhee--1
House Finch--14
Eastern Tufted Titmouse--2
Carolina Wren--2
Brown Thrasher--1

* = New species for 2008

12 species
52 individuals

46 species
1,068 individuals
29 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(since 28 June 1982)
124 species
51,235 individuals

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

2008 Ruby-throated Hummingbird returns from past years--23

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (15)
07/16/05--after 4th year female
07/26/05--4th year female
08/17/05--4th year female
06/01/06--after 3rd year female
08/17/06--after 3rd year female
08/31/06--3rd year female
05/25/07--after 2nd year female
06/07/07--after 2nd year female
06/15/07--after 2nd year female
07/19/07--after 2nd year female
07/21/07--2nd year male
07/23/07--after 2nd year female
07/30/07--after 2nd year female
08/06/07--2nd year male
08/23/07--2nd year female

American Goldfinch (3)
12/31/06--3rd year female
10/25/07--2nd year male
12/28/07--2nd year female

Northern Cardinal (1)
07/15/07--2nd year male

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the


--Our first Hummingbird Morning of the summer is coming up on 1-3 August at the annual HummerFest for the Nature Station, Land Between the Lakes KY. We'll be lecturing and banding hummingbirds for the public at this popular annual event. If you've ever wanted to see up to 200 hummingbirds at once, this is the place. Details at Hummingbird Mornings 2008. See you there!

--Ruby-throated Hummingbirds FINALLY began to appear in decent numbers this with at Hilton Pond Center. With just two banded in April, none in May, and seven in June, we were pleased to band 22 in the first half of July. Equally exciting were the 15 returns we caught during the period (see below left), bringing the season total to 23. (Our average number of returns since 1984 also happens to be 23, with last year's 49 returns being 13 more than the previous record.) Only two of the returns were males, and one was an after-fourth-year female in at least her fifth year of life. Of 29 RTHU banded to date, 16 have been adults; we expect a significant increase in the number of young hummers as the season progresses.

--The smallish "mystery bird" in the photo essay above is one of a few sparrows that breed in the Carolina Piedmont and around Hilton Pond. Our give-away hint is "otherwise grayish rump," which means the bird has to be a juvenile Chipping Sparrow. As fall approaches, it will lose the streaking on its breast and rump and eventually will develop a rusty cap and black upper mandible when it enters its first breeding season next spring. Three chips if you got the ID on your own!

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 all 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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