15-21 January 2009

Installment #425---
Visitor #html code

(Back to Preceding Week; on to Next Week)


We went to bed Inauguration Day Eve amid dire warnings from TV meteorologists that a winter storm was about to descend upon the Carolina Piedmont and dump 2-5 inches of snow before sunrise. Through the years we've learned to take such predictions with a grain of salt--even when the highway department is dumping salt by the ton on local roadways. Too many times our anticipated big winter storms have petered out and left us with no accumulation of white stuff. We've gotten so skeptical about these snowy forecasts we no longer engage in the southern ritual of running half-panicked to the grocery store to buy the true staples of life: Bread, milk, and toilet paper. No, as usual we went to sleep on the 19th thinking this storm, like many of its predecessors, would simply pass by Hilton Pond Center--although we will admit we dreamed that night we'd get to see snow this winter just before departing on our annual hummingbird banding trip to Costa Rica. We were ready for the "blizzard" of January 2009!

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Our skepticism diminished little when we rose at 4 a.m. on 20 January, flipped on the outside floodlights, and saw not a single snowflake in the air. Satisfied the storm had missed us we went back to bed, only to be awakened by a 6 a.m. phone call for wife Susan indicating her school had cancelled classes for the day due to icy roads. Another peek out the window at that hour revealed some snow had actually arrived--maybe a half-inch of white stuff making a half-hearted attempt to blanket the landscape. It wasn't exactly a blizzard, but the flakes did make blurry our view of a distant Wood Duck box across Hilton Pond.

January snow is always good for bird banding. Birds accustomed to scratching around bare soil for seeds and invertebrates instead flock to our copious offerings of sunflower, thistle, millet and corn, and some of these hungry avian residents end up getting caught in our traps. Back on 2 January 2002, for example, Hilton Pond Center got about six inches of snow overnight and we ended up trapping a whopping 108 Common Grackles. Nothing melted and we caught 21 more the next day--meaning our two-day snow total was 129, or 14% of all the grackles we've ever banded in 28 years at the Center. (Interestingly, we also caught four of Hilton Pond's 22 Red-winged Blackbirds and three of our four Rusty Blackbirds along with those grackles.)

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

After this week's "blizzard" we were hoping for equally big numbers of birds. As dawn finally broke at about 6:45 a.m. we spotted a small flock of ten Mourning Doves working through detritus under one of our large sunflower seed feeders--perhaps a sign of good banding to come. The doves continued to feed for about 15 minutes and then scattered upward, wings whistling in that unique dove fashion. Shortly thereafter smaller birds began arriving, including Purple Finches, Pine Siskins, and American Goldfinches. As the perches of our feeders became occupied some birds moved toward a large hanging trap, inside which we had hung another tube feeder laden with sunflower seeds that got their attention (above). Eventually some finches entered the small tunnels on the trap and couldn't figure out how to exit, so we went outside, transferred a total of eight birds to a holding cage, and brought everybody back inside the old farmhouse.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

In the warmth of our office/lab we measured and banded the birds, recorded data, and released our captures one by one through a window beside the banding table. Altogether there were two female American Goldfinches, a Pine Siskin of undetermined sex, and five raspberry-colored Purple Finches--all adult males. One of the latter was already banded and we knew from the big, legible numbers on its band (above) it was not a bird we had captured recently. (Purple Finches take a 1B band; for some reason the Bird Banding Laboratory's newly issued bands in this size are hard to open and even harder to read and noticeably different in appearance from the one on our recapture above.) We recognized the band prefix and number (1791-79775) as one assigned to Hilton Pond Center, so we eagerly went to our files for a lookup. It turns out this now-red Purple Finch we just caught on 20 January 2009 had been banded at the Center almost exactly six years earlier on 25 January 2004. At time of first capture the finch had brown plumage, which means it must have hatched out in 2003. (Male Purple Finches take two years to get full red plumage.) By our calculation that puts this returning Purple Finch in its seventh year--pretty old by Hilton Pond standards but well short of the species' all-time record of 11 years, 9 months.

When we went outdoors to retrieve the old Purple Finch and his trapmates our activity naturally spooked all their free-flying relatives. Even though birds usually return to eat within a minute or two after we go back inside, for some reason the feeders remained unoccupied the whole ten minutes or so it took us to band our most recent captures. As we finished photographing the old Purple Finch, we traded camera for binoculars and started scanning the trees outside our office window. We noticed there were still quite a few birds out there, but virtually all were sitting motionless on branches, not even moving their heads. This "freeze response" was a sure sign a predator was about and, sure enough, within seconds a small hawk suddenly swooped through. Accipiter!

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

The hawk landed behind a tree trunk and out of view so we waited patiently and were rewarded when it dived toward the ground, spooking a Chipping Sparrow that had hunkered down. As the accipiter gave chase the agile chippie escaped unharmed into one of our ubiquitous and intentianially situated brushpiles, after which the hawk fluttered up and eventually settled down on a ground trap baited with cracked corn and millet. Our accipiter was rather small (about Mouning Dove size) and its tail was squared-off and slightly notched--a diagnostic characteristic for the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Accipiter striatus. (The usually larger Cooper's Hawk, A. cooperi, typically has a rounded tail.)

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

We suspect the sharpie was familiar with our ground trap and probably had seen birds within, hence its decision to perch there. Such behavior is one reason why banders must keep a close and constant eye on their traps, lest predators try to get at captured birds. This particular hawk was oblivious to us as we took photos through the glass and even after we opened a sliding door slightly for a better shot. The raptor constantly swiveled its head as it stood on one leg, baring the long, thin, bare tibiotarsus that gives rise to the name "sharp-shin." This was an older bird, indicated by the horizontal russet banding on its breast; juveniles are marked by vertical brown streaking. Young birds also have yellow irises while this sharpie had the piercing red eye of an adult--probably three years or older. One other ageing character in Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks: Younger birds have brown backs while full adults are blue-gray (above), which is why folks sometimes call speedy accipiters "blue darters."

As soon as the sharpie went after the Chipping Sparrow all the other birds scattered, finding refuge in shrubs and low vegetation. None of them came out for 15 minutes or so, after which the Sharp-shinned Hawk tired of its perch and flew up to a nearby Eastern Red Cedar where it found no late breakfast. When we stuck our camera lens out the door the sharpie jumped and flew off--perhaps to some location where there weren't so many brush piles to provide refuge for birds that otherwise might end up as prey.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Although we watched our backyard feeders the rest of the day, there was much less activity than during the morning. Perhaps the memory of the swooping sharpie made the finches and sparrows more wary. Or maybe it was because by midday the snow had already started to melt and birds were back at scratching through the topsoil instead of exposing themselves on feeder perches. In any case, by mid-afternoon almost all the white stuff on the ground had disappeared; even the snow that had coated evergreen leaves of a Yellow Jessamine vine (above) had begun to slide off. That's the way it is in the South. When it snows it usually doesn't last long, and school superintendents often end up wondering just why they cancelled classes in the first place. No matter, however, because we still got to watch the drama of predator and prey during our anticipated but unfulfilled "blizzard" of January 2009.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Comments or questions about this week's installment?
Please send an E-mail message to INFO.

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

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 tax-deductible contributions allow us to continue writing, photographing, and sharing "This Week at Hilton Pond." (Please see Support if you'd like to make a gift of your own. You can also contribute by ordering an Operation RubyThroat T-shirt.)

  • Paul Burgess (via PayPal)
  • Donna Greenstein (via PayPal payment for image use)

"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written & photographed
by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of
Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.

You may wish to consult our Index of all nature topics covered since February 2000. You can also use our on-line Hilton Pond Search Engine at the bottom of this page.

For a free, non-fattening, on-line subscription to
"This Week at
Hilton Pond," just send us an E-mail with SUBSCRIBE
in the Subject line. Please be sure to configure your spam filter to accept
E-mails from

If you enjoy "This Week at Hilton Pond,"
please help

Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.
It's painless, and YOU can make a difference!

Just CLICK on a logo below.

Make direct donations on-line via
Network for Good:
Use your PayPal account
to make direct donations:

If you like to shop on-line, you please become a member of iGive, through which more than 750 on-line stores from Barnes & Noble to Lands' End will donate a percentage of your purchase price in support of Hilton Pond Center and Operation RubyThroat. For every new member who signs up and makes an on-line purchase iGive will donate an ADDITIONAL $5 to the Center. Please sign up by going to the iGive Web site; more than 200 members have signed up to help. It's a painless, important way for YOU to support our on-going work in conservation, education, and research.


15-21 January 2009

American Goldfinch--65
Pine Siskin--76
Chipping Sparrow--5
Song Sparrow--2
Fox Sparrow--1
House Finch--11
Purple Finch--23
White-throated Sparrow--4
Mourning Dove--2 *

* = New species for 2009

9 species
189 individuals

11 species
282 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
124 species
52,164 individuals

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

Carolina Chickadee (1)
07/13/05--5th year male (local hatch)

Chipping Sparrow (1)
03/24/08--after 2nd year unknown

American Goldfinch (8)
04/23/06--5th year male
10/25/07--3rd year male
11/13/07--3rd year male
12/06/07--after 3rd year female
12/19/07--after 3rd year female
01/09/08--after 3rd year male
05/19/08--3rd year male
05/26/08--3rd year male

Song Sparrow (1)
02/28/07--after 3rd year unknown

White-throated Sparrow (3)
12/07/06--4th year unknown
01/24/07--after 3rd year unknown
12/11/07--after 2nd year unknown

Purple Finch (5)
01/25/04--7th year male
2/02/05--6th year male
02/21/06--after 4th year male
03/11/08--after 3rd year male
03/18/08--after 3rd year male

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

--Bitter cold slammed into Hilton Pond Center at mid-week, with a low of 14 degrees on 15 Jan and just 10 degrees the following night. For the first time this winter, the pond itself was completely iced over on the morning of the 17th. It was a thin layer, however, and by afternoon only about a third of the surface still held any ice. (Long gone are the days when we could walk across Hilton Pond in January without fear of falling through.)

--We were surprised to see an Eastern Chipmunk gathering seeds on 17 Jan; bright sunshine and midday temps in the upper 20s must have brought this striped rodent out of the semi-hibernation it enters when things get really cold.

--As seems appropriate for the current winter, a Pine Siskin this week became the 52,000th bird banded since 1982 at the Center. Siskins have irrupted this year aross the southern U.S. for the first time in at least a decade. Our siskin total for the past 28 seasons now stands at 1,635, or 3.13% of our cumulative total.

--Four White-throated Sparrows this week were the first we've banded this winter; this usually common species has been exceedingly scarce, but we have yet to even SEE a Dark-eyed Junco at the Center, much less band one. A strange winter indeed.

--On 21 Jan we trapped two adult male Purple Finches, each with a 4mm bird tick attached to the skin of its crown. That's the third such parasite this month.

--We depart 22 Jan for five weeks studying Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in Costa Rica, so it will be a while until we post our next installment of "This Week at Hilton Pond." Upon our return we'll put together our usual extended photo essays depicting what we learned and saw during our time in the Neotropics. Meanwhile, stay warm!

Oct 15 to Mar 15:
Please report
your sightings of
Vagrant & Winter

(Back to Preceding Week; on to Next Week)

Up to Top of Page

Back to This Week at Hilton Pond Center

Current Weather Conditions at Hilton Pond Center

You can also
post questions for
The Piedmont Naturalist

Search Engine for
Hilton Pond Center

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.

Mac Computer