1-11 December 2010
Installment #495---Visitor #real time tracking

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All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center


14 . . . 15 . . . 19 . . . a series of two-digit numerals. If we were mathematically inclined we might try to find some pattern or special relationship among them, but what they stand for is really quite simple: They're our overnight low thermometer readings in Fahrenheit at Hilton Pond Center for 7-9 December 2010. These readings represent for us in the Carolina Piedmont what is brutally cold weather--especially for early December. The lows of 14 and 15 on the 7th and 8th were both new records for York SC and well below the average low of 35 and 36 for those two dates, while the reading of 19 degrees on the 9th was just two degrees above the all-time record set back in 2006.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

On all three frigid mornings we rose before dawn to stoke the wood stove in the Center's old farmhouse. When the sun finally came up, we could tell the surface of Hilton Pond was covered completely with a thin layer of ice (see top photo) that included some fascinating geometric patterns (just above). A fully frozen pond is something we can't recall having seen quite this early in the season--and winter won't even be here officially until 21 December! When it's this cold, we tote as much firewood as we can carry, sidle up to the stove, and think about how nice it is to be indoors. We also ponder our "less fortunate" feathered and furry friends making do with a tree cavity or underground burrow--or even just hunkered down within wind-blocking boughs of an evergreen tree or shrub. These native birds and mammals actually do quite well in sub-freezing temperatures and--in the absence of heavy snow cover--are usually able to find natural foods in field and woods. Many of us humans supplement nature's bounty with sunflower seeds and suet, cracked corn and millet, but perhaps of greater importance to winter survival is unfrozen water--something animals need frequently.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

No matter the season, water is indeed essential for life. Here in the Carolina Piedmont we're fortunate to have open water in ponds and streams nearly all year long. After all, that's one big factor that brings ducks, geese, and other aquatic birds south when snow falls and lakes freeze solid up north. Most days when we gaze out our windows we observe an unfrozen Hilton Pond, or--closer to the farmhouse--a water garden with homemade concrete bowl on a rock pedestal (above) and rivulets cascading from one small in-ground pool to the next. This week, with overnight temperatures in the 'teens and daytime highs still below freezing, water around Hilton Pond's perimeter got locked up as ice and became inaccessible to wildlife. In the water garden, however, a recirculating pump allowed some ice to form but prevented a solid freeze; thanks to this moving, available water an amazing number and variety of birds flocked to our artificial water source.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Birds and small mammals need hydration year-round, of course, and must regularly replace water lost to respiration and metabolic processes. But in addition to having water to drink, wild creatures must bathe often no matter the ambient temperature. For them, cleanliness is next not to godliness but to survival, mostly because dirty feathers and soiled pelage do a poor job of insulating and repelling moisture. People often express surprise when they see birds frolicking in a bird bath when the temperature is at or below freezing, but these feathered animals know what they need to do to stay alive. A fast-flapping Eastern Tufted Titmouse (above) was in the water for only a few seconds--just long enough to moisten its plumage so it could retire to a spot in the sun and preen out the dirt. Small mammals are able to clean themselves by licking their fur, but birds--which lack protruding tongues--must bathe, dry off, and re-annoint their feathers with water-repellent oil.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

When folks ask us what they can do to attract birds to their yards, the first word we utter is "habitat." You seldom get wildlife other than European Starlings and Ring-billed Gulls in a desert-like K-Mart parking lot or in an over-managed clear-cut grassy lawn, so it's important your property include habitat created by trees and shrubs and other vegetation to provide shelter from the elements. Our second suggestion for attracting birds is always "water," which many homeowners provide only as an afterthought. They happily buy or build bird feeders and stock them with expensive thistle and sunflower seeds that attract birds like female Northern Cardinals and Downy Woodpeckers (above), not remembering that "food"--which is third on our list of recommendations--is less important than "water." (The old maxim is basically true: Most animals can get along without eating for three weeks before dying from starvation, but unquenched thirst will kill in three days.) Thus, we stress the importance of providing clean water in a backyard habitat, knowing--and you can quote us on this--"Water often attracts wildlife quicker than food."

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

We're fortunate the Center includes one-acre Hilton Pond, plus another reservoir that's partly on the property. These relatively large impoundments are very appealing to birds that utilize available water in various ways, be it drinking, bathing, feeding, or avoiding predators. (After the pond froze over we didn't see too much of our resident Belted Kingfisher pair, see male above, likely because they elected not to crash into ice while diving after prey.) The pond is a terrific habitat, but many birds find much smaller water features even more attractive--especially if a pump provides movement and the sound of running or dripping water. As temperatures plummet, water becomes an increasingly precious commodity, so an unfrozen bath or pool becomes an irresistible magnet for thirsty birds.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Such was the case on those three brutally cold mornings this week, when we watched wave after wave of birds swoop in to drink and bathe in little pockets of water within the pools near the farmhouse. On each frigid day we saw more than a hundred individual birds--the majority were Cedar Waxwings and Eastern Bluebirds (see above)--and we took photos through double-paned glass that kept us warm from our kitchen observation point. (The glass allows a clear view but does degrade a photographic image--especially on cloudy days when light is poor.) When we later examined our digital images we realized the cold-weather water garden had attracted at least 19 bird species; since we couldn't spend all day looking out the window we suspect a few others were missed. (A complete list of species that showed up this week at our water garden is included in "Other Nature Notes" near the bottom of this page.) As evidence of this week's winter water spectacle, we provide below a gallery of just some of the birds (and mammals) that drank or bathed as the mercury stayed well below freezing at Hilton Pond Center.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

An adult male Eastern Bluebird (above)--much brighter than the female--dips his lower mandible into unfrozen water. Most birds are unable to suck, so to drink he'll need to lift his head, tip the bill upwards, and let water run down his gullet.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

White-throated Sparrows have an eye line that is either white or buffy; dullness or brightness is not a sign of age or sex, although heavy breast streaking on the buffy individual above indicates it's probably a young bird. These field marks showed up nicely in late afternoon sun that cast a long sparrow shadow across rocks lining the water garden.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Adult male Northern Cardinals and Eastern Bluebirds (above) always put on a good show against a drab winter background. Note that both these birds have aluminum bands on their left legs. Since most right-handed banders place bands on a bird's right leg, we're fairly confident these two individuals were banded locally. (At Hilton Pond we band males on the left, females on the right.)

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

This lone Pine Siskin (above)--the first we've seen locally after a flock of 15 came and went the first week of November--found some open water where an overflow pipe connection between pools kept ice from forming.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Around the old farmhouse this winter we have only one Northern Mockingbird--the species is notoriously territorial--and this individual has a muddy yellowish eye characteristic of younger birds. A mature mocker usually has irises of are crystal-clear yellow.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

In winter, Eastern Bluebirds tend to hang around in flocks of 15 or more, although we've seen as many as 60 perched together on one power line in the Carolina Piedmont. All the bluebirds in the photo above are females; they sport the orange breast and blue tail of an adult male but have much drabber backs and heads.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Perhaps the least anticipated of the 15 species to appear at our Hilton Pond water garden this week was the rusty-tailed Hermit Thrush (above). There were actually two of these that spent a good bit of time chasing each other away from a favored drinking spot.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Dark-eyed Juncos (above) are the original "snowbirds," but they come to the Carolinas each winter whether or not there's white stuff on the ground. Even so, their numbers at Hilton Pond have declined steadily since we started banding them here in 1982.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

A female House Finch (above) perched on an icy, slippery pool side rock for several minutes before entering the water to bathe. Since birds lose some flying prowess when wet, she may have been scanning the area to be sure a potential predator wasn't lurking.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Carolina Chickadees (above) appeared at the water garden very few times, and they always drank in a hurry. When weather is warmer, chickadees and Eastern Tufted Titmice slake their thirst drinking at ant moats from which we hang hummingbird feeders.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Our smallest sparrows at Hilton Pond are Field Sparrow and Chipping Sparrow. Folks sometimes confuse the two, but Field Sparrows lack the dark eye line and white superciliary line of the rusty-capped Chipping Sparrow (above). Both species gorge on White Millet beneath our feeders.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

A pinhole leak in the pump hose in the water garden emitted a fine spray of water that allowed Cedar Waxwings (above) to take a shower even when ambient temperatures were well below freezing. Waxwings usually have yellow tail tips, but those that eat berries from plants such as Tatarian Honeysuckle and Pyracantha may develop orange tips--as shown by the partly hidden bird furthest back in the photo.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Birds, of course, aren't the only creatures that need drinking water in winter. While we watched, a Bushy-tailed Tree Rat (AKA Eastern Gray Squirrel, above) stopped by for a sip. Since many small mammals are nocturnal, we wouldn't be surprised if Raccoons, Opossums, and various mice come after dark to quench their thirst at our unfrozen water garden.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Some references say Eastern Chipmunks (above), which are actually ground squirrels, are less active in winter across their range and hibernate in burrows for weeks or months at a time. That certainly hasn't been our observation here at Hilton Pond, where several chipmunks were out and about even on this week's sub-freezing days.

We're hopeful these photos from Hilton Pond Center will stimulate you to supplement your backyard bird and wildlife feeding operation with a water feature of some sort. Here in the Carolina Piedmont they're predicting another week of bone-numbing low temperatures for mid-December 2010, but even if you live in balmy southern California or the Neotropics we guarantee water will bring more birds than food alone. And if you don't have space for a garden pool and mini-waterfall, we suspect you still can squeeze a bird bath into your yard or place a large shallow dish on the deck. Change out the water a few times each week to minimize disease transmission and, if you like, keep your set-up completely unfrozen with a low-wattage heater from the local farm supply store or birding shop. In any case, don't ever gorget to provide winter water. It's a magnet for chilly birds that need it to survive.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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1-11 December 2010

Chipping Sparrow--3
Pine Warbler--1
Dark-eyed Junco--3
Northern Cardinal--1
Purple Finch--1
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker--1
White-throated Sparrow--3
Mourning Dove--2

* = New species for 2010

8 species
15 individuals

55 species
1,092 individuals
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (new high)

(since 28 June 1982, during which time 170 species have been observed on or over the property)
124 species (29-yr avg = 68.4)
54,734 individuals
(29-yr avg = 1,887)
4,288 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (27-yr avg = 159)

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

None this week

Operation RubyThroat has teamed with EarthTrek so citizen scientists--like YOU--can contribute observations about hummingbird migration and nesting behavior. Membership is free for this great new opportunity to help increase scientific understanding of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Data entry forms for 2010 are on-line, so please register today at EarthTrek.

NOW is the time to report your 2010 RTHU fall departure dates for the U.S. & Canada, and fall arrival dates for Mexico & Central America.
Please participate.


--With brutally cold temps as low as the 'teens, we didn't work super hard at banding birds this week at Hilton Pond Center. We never deploy mist nets when it's below 32 degrees and although trapping probably wouldn't have bothered birds all that much, a bander's hands tend to freeze in really cold weather--and that's no fun at all. Thus, we mostly sat indoors, content to watch and photograph visitors to our partly unfrozen water garden (see essay above), noting a good many birds outside our window were ALREADY banded! Nonetheless, we did run traps a few days when temps got above freezing; we caught the birds listed at left--including two new species for the year.

--The following 19 bird species, in no particular order, showed up to take advantage of unfrozen water in small garden pools and a birdbath outside the Center's old farmhouse: Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Cardinal, Cedar Waxwing, American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin, House Finch, Purple Finch, Northern Mockingbird, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Carolina Chickadee, Eastern Tufted Titmouse, White-throated Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Hermit Thrush, Dark-eyed Junco, and Pine Warbler. They were joined at one time or another by two small mammals: Eastern Gray Squirrel and Eastern Chipmunk.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research, conservation & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka "The Piedmont Naturalist," it is parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Web site contents--including text and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To request permission for use or for further assistance, please contact Webmaster.

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