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16-31 July 2013

Installment #575---Visitor #blog analyzer

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All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center


With due respect to William Shakespeare--who penned the romantic comedy "A Midsummer Night's Dream"--at Hilton Pond Center we seem more prone to dream by day. In fact, psychologists call it "daydreaming," in our case we happily ponder various aspects of nature encountered when walking our trails or observing the idyllic tableau visible outside the office window.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

The main attraction of that outdoor tableau is--of course--the pond itself, a one-acre impoundment built about 1950 by the U.S. Soil Conservation Service to deter erosion and provide water for livestock. When we first came in 1982 to what we now call Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History, except for big trees near the old farmhouse (above) the 10 acres surrounding this little body of water were almost completely open--having been used for grazing cattle or growing row crops for at least a century. Previous owners mowed the lawn right down to water's edge and along the banks grew only a few Hazel Alder shrubs; no trees or sedges, no rushes or wildflowers.

We weren't at all enthused over cutting 10 acres of grass, however, so 31 years ago we decided to let nature take its course--meaning all sorts of vegetation began growing on Hilton Pond's banks and the earthen dam that forms it. Although fed only by direct rainfall and runoff from surrounding fields, the pond stayed full most of the year, and our no-cut strategy worked pretty well for about 15 years until three things came to a head: 1) Roots of plants close to the pond began drawing up prodigious amounts of water lost skyward via transpiration; 2) Such heavy drought set in across the Carolina Piedmont that for multiple years rainfall failed to replenish water loss; and, 3) Hot, dry summers accelerated surface evaporation.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

The end result of all this was that even though Hilton Pond partially refilled during winter rains, it began shrinking as soon as evaporation and plant activity resumed each spring--resulting in late summer water levels so low that 30-foot-wide mud banks were exposed and our fish and turtles and other aquatic creatures were forced to get quite chummy. (See photos just above and above right of similar problems in the summer of 2002.) We were very concerned our pond was becoming a marshland, and we just didn't like the ring of "Hilton Bog Center for Piedmont Natural History."

From the mid-to late-1990s through last year, summer drought conditions were pretty much consistent in this part of the Carolina Piedmont, so despite winter precipitation water levels at the start of spring got increasingly lower. In April 2012, for example, Hilton Pond was nearly two feet shy of being full--not a good way to begin the growing and breeding season.

And then came 2013 with its cool spring and very-much-wetter-than-normal summer. Through 31 July this year the Center has recorded 36.81" of precipitation--far above York's annual average of 25.54" for the first seven months of the calendar year--and Hilton Pond has responded magnificently. For virtually the entire summer the water level has been at or near "full pond," with excess water draining off through four one-inch holes in a cap (above left) we installed on the overflow standpipe years ago after an original metal top rusted away.

That said, "full pond" is actually a relative connotation; i.e., when the dam that forms Hilton Pond was constructed nearly 70 years ago the stone and packed clay was somewhat higher. Later on--possibly in the late 1960s--previous owners allowed the dam to breach on the northern end and water eroded away a foot or more of the structure, dropping our pondwater level by an equivalent amount.

We were made acutely aware of this low place on the dam 'way back on the evening of 2 September 1986, when "The Rainstorm of the Century" inundated much of York County. Below is a shortened version of how we described the phenomenon in "The Piedmont Naturalist," our weekly column published in The Herald newspaper in Rock Hill SC:

"At Hilton Pond Center we measured more than four inches of rain in the first hour of downpour, after which precipitation tapered off for a few hours. A second cloudburst about 11 p.m. dumped another four inches on already saturated soil, and that's when things really began to happen.

"By midnight, rain had mostly abated but there was still substantial thunder and lightning not far away. We made the risky decision to tour Hilton Pond with a flashlight to check on things. We've been on the nature trails so many times in the dark we hardly needed a lamp--especially since frequent lightning flashes provided more than adequate candlepower.

"The first big lightning bolt didn't give an electrical jolt but did provide a shocking revelation of what had happened to Hilton Pond after four hours of very heavy rains. Amazingly, Wood Duck boxes whose support posts had been high and dry that afternoon were in danger of being swamped--meaning the water was already up at least three feet! Not until we saw the earthen dam, however, did the storm's full impact really hit home.

"As the trail sloped down toward the dam's north end, we were startled to find the pond overflowing with knee-deep water. Via our flashlight beam we could see large masses of pond weed and small silvery fish rushing past. Two foot-long Northern Water Snakes slithered with the current, and we wondered how they would like their new homes downstream. Normally, an iron standpipe handles the overflow when Hilton Pond gets deeper than 11 feet, but there was no way four little holes in that six-inch-diameter tube could cope with the deluge--especially since the cap was probably under two feet of water. After a cursory review of the situation we went to bed wondering how things would look like by day.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

"After rising next morning at dawn to check on the dam we saw from afar it had withstood the sky's onslaught. Returning for a closer view we found the overflow was now "only" ankle deep--down considerably from knee-high the night before--and we saw big piles of pond weed and algae matted among the shrubbery. In tiny puddles were thousands of small fishes--mostly fingerling Largemouth Bass and even a palm-sized Bluegill (above). There also were hundreds of those little Mosquito Fish that had made summer nights more pleasant by eating their namesakes, and a variety of daces, minnows, and shiners wriggled in the grass. Several watersnakes were still there--three of them nearly too fat to move after a night of gorging on helpless fish.

"Even though all those finny creatures were still gasping and flip-flopping around as floodwaters receded there wasn't much we could do to help. We hurriedly grabbed handfuls of bream and threw them back into Hilton Pond but most just spun around and gulped air at the surface. These stranded fish were already dying. We couldn't help but think they might not have ended up this way if the dam had been a little higher on the end where it overflowed."

Although chances were slim for eight inches of rain like we had that night back in 1986, we eventually decided to shore up the low end of the dam. Brother-in-law Wes Ballard came over from Greenville one day in 1991 and helped move several VERY heavy reinforced concrete steps from the old farmhouse to the far side of the pond. There we placed them end-to-end on the spillway (right), figuring they'd be too heavy to be washed out by anything short of 40 days and 40 nights of rain. This turned out to be a wise move, for 13 years later in 2004 Hurricane Frances brought so much rainfall the dam again overflowed--'though not as badly as in 1986. Our jerry-built concrete addition held back some of the water and prevented additional erosion, but we still lost numerous fish as they inexplicably swam over the dam from the pond (at left in the photo above), ending up in shallow rivulets that soon would disappear.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Yes, Hurricane Frances in 2004 was the last time water levels got anywhere near the top of the dam, but through the years we remained ever-positive our Piedmont drought would break and Hilton Pond would fill again. In fact, in 2009 we were SO optimistic brother Stan Hilton delivered to the Center a donation of 90 bags of ready-mix from Setcrete Inc. in Gilbert SC. Placed atop the old concrete steps (above), the bags set up hard and fast--effectively raising the height of the dam another foot. We've been waiting ever since for sufficient rainfall to test our latest attempt at dam engineering.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

In 2013 it looks like our midsummer daydreams about a fuller, bigger Hilton Pond are finally nearing reality. Abundant rainfall this year--accompanied by lower-than-normal temperatures that have slowed surface evaporation--means the pond is as full as we've ever seen in late July. With that in mind, we replaced that perforated cap on the standpipe with a solid one (above), meaning accumulation from future rainfalls won't be able to drain through it. If enough precipitation occurs, waters of Hilton Pond will cover the standpipe and start lapping against the makeshift concrete dam we installed and upgraded.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Should the current "rainy season" continue in 2013, Hilton Pond will acquire a little depth--from its current 11 feet to 12-feet-plus--and subsequent side effects are likely to occur. For one, water will expand pond margins and increase surface area significantly, thereby flooding a few old trails we've been using for 31 years. (We have no problem with that; we can always wear boots if needed.) Second, significant change will happen with regard to plant life. Aquatic plants and those that need wet soil such as Swamp Milkweed (above) should flourish, but some trees growing on pond banks are merely moisture-loving and may not tolerate having roots completely submerged. (That doesn't bother us, either, because if hardwood trees die they'll provide homes and feeding areas for woodpeckers and other cavity nesters. At the very least dead trees become snags on which birds can perch and be more easily observed.) And, finally, since flooding will cover only flat areas the water will be only a few inches deep--producing ideal egg-laying sites for everything from frogs to dragonflies (above left) AND perfect places for wading birds to forage on whatever ends up breeding there.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

You could say what we're doing at Hilton Pond is conducting a little environmental experiment we've slowly but surely been preparing for during the past couple decades. The dam is repaired, the standpipe is closed, and thanks to record-setting precipitation the pond is essentially full. Yes, we know some folks in the Carolina Piedmont are getting tired of this year's repetitive rain, but all we need to begin the experiment is one more heavy downpour--just a couple of inches will probably suffice--and then our Midsummer Day's Dream of a somewhat bigger, slightly deeper Hilton Pond may actually come true.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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NOTE: The fourth weekend in August we'll be at Hawks Nest State Park in Fayette County WV for our annual New River Hummingbird Festival. This year the park has put together a comprehensive package that includes lodging, food, hummingbird banding demonstrations, and presentations about hummers, hummer plants, and birds of the New River Gorge. A few spaces are still available. See poster below for details.

New River Hummingbird Festival graphic above by Rachel Davis

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

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16-31 July 2013

Ruby-throated Hummingbird--20
American Goldfinch--3
Carolina Chickadee--1
Northern Cardinal--2
Eastern Tufted Titmouse--1
House Finch--52
Mourning Dove--1

* = New banded species for 2013

7 species
80 individuals

45 species

1,268 individuals
49 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(since 28 June 1982, during which time 171 species have been observed on or over the property)
126 species
59,439 individuals
4,731 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(with original banding date, sex, and current age):
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (4)
07/25/09--5th year female
07/09/12--2nd year female
07/20/12--after 2nd year male
07/30/12--2nd year male

This Week at Hilton Pond
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Nature Blog Network

--In 2013 we continue to have relatively low numbers of new Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at Hilton Pond Center, with 49 banded by July's end; that's about 90% of where we typically would be by this time. However, four returning RTHU during the current period brings our "old bird" total for the year to 40--second only to 49 returns in 2007 and well ahead of our annual average of 27.

--Hilton Pond Center's Yearly Yard List 2013 of birds seen on or over the property stands at 70 species as of 31 Jul.

--Last week's photo essay was about two new species of little snakes seen for the first time at Hilton Pond Center. The installment is archived and always available on the Center's Web site as Installment #574.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(spring female at right)

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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 Dr. 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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