1-14 August 2008

Installment #408---
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Throughout 2007--thanks to a summer-long drought--water levels in Hilton Pond dropped rapidly from May through October. Our little one-acre impoundment was recharged somewhat by several winter downpours, but when spring came this year the depth marker showed we were still 18 inches below full pond. Such a low level to start the season--coupled with pessimistic weather forecasts--gave us great concern 2008 might be the year in which ever-lower water would dictate we change the name of Hilton Pond to "Hilton Bog." Indeed, after only .3" of rain the first two weeks in August, even a more-than-welcome 1.3" accumulation on the 14th did little to resuscitate a sick pond that is perilously close to disappearing. Every day without rain the pond drops another half-inch or so, exposing more and more of its muddy banks.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

The photo above shows just how far water levels have dropped at Hilton Pond. When water is at its deepest--11 feet at the standpipe near the dam--the raft at the end of the dock floats even with the dock itself, but this week it rests nearly four feet below that point. As the pond's banks are exposed, grasses, sedges, rushes, and other herbaceous plants are quick to colonize the rich, moist mud; when the pond is full, none of the green foliage is present around the perimeter or in the foreground (above).

When water levels drop more than 12" or so the muddy banks of Hilton Pond become exposed--a mixed blessing at best. Many bottom-dwelling animals from freshwater clams to dragonfly larvae run the risk of drying out, but enterprising predators such as the Great Egret above are presented with productive new places to feed. Although a few Great Blue Heron nesting colonies exist in or around York County, we suspect the egret in the photo above is a youngster from the Carolinas coastal region that came inland during post-breeding dispersal.

Among the victims of lower water levels are a variety of plants that require abundant moisture to survive. First to go are the Hazel Alders (above), shrubs whose roots need more or less constant contact with water. Prior to the devastating five-year drought that began in the late 1990's, Hilton Pond was ringed with a dense thicket of alders, most of which succumbed to the lengthy lack of water. In the past few years some alders have rebounded, but our current drought has caused leaves on these cone-producing shrubs to turn brown and wither--a likely sign the woody plants themselves will perish.

Also hard-hit by lack of water are several Bald Cypress trees we planted about 20 years ago around the margins of Hilton Pond. Although these needle-bearing but deciduous trees are normally associated with Lowcountry swamps, they actually are native inland as far north as southern Ohio. They do require abundant moisture, however, and this year--for the first time--have been dropping their drought-stressed needles well before autumn arrives. We're not sure what the long-term effects of premature leaf loss might be on Bald Cypress, but we'd hate to lose these graceful trees.

Bad enough the drought is beginning to kill woody growth around the Center, but our newly immigrated American Beaver(s) continue to assault tree growth along the pond margin. This week we found additional evidence of the beaver's ability to gnaw down good-sized vegetation; a four-inch diameter Sweetgum was on the ground (above), and the top was chewed through just below a main fork. Losing trees to drought is one thing, but we can hardly afford to suffer additional loss due to some giant aquatic rodent.

Damage from the drought isn't limited just to vegetation around Hilton Pond itself. In fact, a walk down any of our trails shows quite a few woody plants being stressed by lack of water. In particular, moisture-loving trees such as Red Maple, Sweetgum, and Tulip (Yellow) Poplar are throwing off leaves at least six weeks ahead of schedule. Assuming we get some decent rainfall this autumn and winter, we suspect most of these mature trees will survive, but some of the less virulent individuals may perish.

While some trees are showing leaf-loss due to the drought, some of our woody growth at Hilton Pond Center has even begun to drop its fruit prematurely. One of our most-productive Common Persimmons near the pond normally holds its one-inch-diameter bounty (above) well into October, but this year the ground beneath is littered with unripe fruits. Whether the seeds within will still be viable is yet to be determined.

Our Ruby-throated Hummingbird population remains sub-par this summer, but we're not sure this has anything to do with the drought. We DO believe a sudden influx of Yellowjackets (above) is likely due to lack of rain and resulting scarcity of flower nectar. Yellowjackets have been assaulting our hummingbird feeders in unusually high numbers, some days making it difficult for hummers to get at sugar water. Although many hummingbird enthusiasts try to eliminate local Yellowjacket populations, we try to remind folks these are native insects that play important roles as pollinators and scavengers. If you have Yellowjackets, they can be minimized by keep your feeders scrupulously clean and filled with fresh 4:1 water:sugar mix. We suspect these pesky insects will disappear from feeders if we ever get any rain.

Even as we write this installment, the water level of Hilton Pond continues to drop--with no signs of recovery in the immediate future. Fortunately, we haven't had a particularly hot summer so evaporation has slowed somewhat, but if the current lack of rainfall continues we may see ever-lower water levels, greater expanses of muddy bank, and a gaggle of Great Egrets showing up to take advantage of the Piedmont Drought of 2008. Anyone care to do a Rain Dance?

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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Be sure to scroll down for an account of all
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"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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1-14 August 2008

Ruby-throated Hummingbird--30
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher--1

American Redstart--1
Eastern Phoebe--1
Carolina Chickadee--2
American Goldfinch--2
White-eyed Vireo--1
Red-eyed Vireo--3
Chipping Sparrow--1
Northern Cardinal--5
Summer Tanager--2

House Finch--18
Northern Mockingbird--1

* = New species for 2008

13 species
67 individuals

47 species
1,160 individuals
86 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(since 28 June 1982)
124 species
51,327 individuals

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

2008 Ruby-throated Hummingbird returns from past years--35

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (1)
07/03/07--2nd year male

American Goldfinch (3)
05/19/04--after 5th year female
12/31/06--3rd year female
04/24/07--after 3rd year female

Carolina Chickadee (1)
06/10/03--6th year female

Eastern Towhee (1)
09/25/03--6th year male
07/27/05--4th year female
06/04/07--3rd year male


--The Nature Station at Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky--where we were again privileged to speak and band hummingbird the first weekend in August 2008--is a true hummer haven. The staff there has been feeding Ruby-throated Hummingbirds for more than 30 years and most summers can boast of a huge population as fall migration begins to build. This year, however, the numbers were down by about 30%--similar to what we've heard from many correspondents across the Southeastern U.S.

--One female RTHU we captured at Land Between the Lakes this week already was adorned by a tiny aluminum anklet bearing a number with which we were unfamiliar. Turns out the hummer had been banded at LBL by Bob Sargent during the 2003 HummerFest. That means this amazing bird is at least six years old--an indication she's made quite a few round trips from Kentucky to the Neotropics . . . and back.

--After a very slow start in 2008, by 14 Aug our current year hummingbird banding results had improved considerably, with 86 RTHU captured by mid-month. Based on our 24 years of hummer banding, that number actually meant we were doing pretty well--107% of where we would normally be by 14 Aug.

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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