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1-10 October 2013

Installment #581---Visitor #Free Web Counters

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A few openings remain for
our February & March 2014

Operation RubyThroat
expeditions to observe & band hummingbirds in
Nicaragua & Belize.
We'll see & photograph lots of other birds and a variety of tropical flora & fauna.

Click on image of Canivet's Emerald or Pink Orchid for itineraries & trip details

More excursions for 2014-15 will be announced in coming months.

AUTHOR'S PREFACE: September 15, 2013 marked my 67th birthday. Facebook used to host "Birthday Causes" through which friends could donate to the celebrant's favorite charity. It was an effective way to raise funds for Hilton Pond Center & Operation RubyThroat, but even though FB canceled the program we need operating funds.

Thus, I'm still designating Hilton Pond Center as my "Birthday Cause" for 2013. If you find "This Week at Hilton Pond" to be informative or fun to read, or if you've learned something about hummers through Operation RubyThroat, please consider granting my "Birthday Cause" wish by making a tax-deductible donation via PayPal or Network for Good (links are below), or by check (1432 DeVinney Road, York SC 29745).

The goal was to have $3,500 by 30 September and generous contributors have donated $2,187 to date. (We'll count anything received within 30 days of 15 September toward the "Birthday Cause" drive.)

Thanks for your support, and thanks for letting me share my love of nature with you!


All contributions are tax-deductible on your
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This week we were in Fayette County, West Virginia for a big chunk of time at the annual "Hawk Gawk & Warbler Walk" offered through New River Birding & Nature Center. On two of the days we WERE at Hilton Pond Center it rained or was too windy, leaving the first and the tenth of October as the only times we could deploy mist nets. All this means we probably missed some Neotropical migrants moving past the Center; to date we've had one of our slowest autumns ever as far as banding is concerned. We did manage to trap what are likely our last two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds of 2013 while netting two migrant thrush and seven warbler species, but perhaps the most interesting bird of the week showed up at sunset on 10 October. Just as we were preparing to shut down for the night we looked out the window above our computer desk in the old farmhouse and saw a large-ish dark bird flapping about in the bag of a nearby net. At first we thought it was a raptor--maybe one of the Sharp-shinned Hawks or Cooper's Hawks that torment (and sometimes eat) our feeder birds--but a flash of brilliant white against the dark green background vegetation gave us our cue: The rump patch of a Northern Flicker!

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

We bounded outside faster than usual, not wanting this big bird to escape from the small-mesh net that held it. We arrived to learn the flicker was a kicker, so we gently grabbed its fast-moving legs legs, removed it from the net, and slid it into a lingerie bag we use for transport--a necessity in this case because we now needed both hands to set up our camera and tripod. We knew from experience the 60mm macro we usually keep on our Canon SLR camera would be too long a lens; alas, our arms just aren't long enough when we hold a big bird for profile photos. Even the 50mm macro was probably going to be too long, but we mounted it anyway because a wide-angle lens wouldn't be good for close-ups. When the gear was finally ready, we removed the bird from the lingerie bag and began documenting our twilight capture. (Disclaimer: For some reason we often catch unusual birds right at dusk with darkness coming on fast. Thus, images herein were made via flash, even though we much prefer to use available light. Our newly caught flicker was also hyperactive, so some photos aren't quite as sharp as we might like. Our apologies.)

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

So why such interest in this Northern Flicker, you might ask--a bird that was once called "Common Flicker" because, well, because it's pretty common across most of its range. The reason we wanted photos is because it was the first flicker we'd caught at Hilton Pond Center in 14 years and only the 36th since 1982 . . . making it one of our rarer species and one for which we had few photos. Curiously, as illustrated on the chart above, two-thirds (24) of our 36 flickers were captured during a brief five-year period (1990-94)--a phenomenon we'll try to explain forthwith.

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

The Northern Flicker is one of those birds whose name does NOT indicate its taxonomy. As one might guess from its shape and long bill, the flicker is in the Woodpecker Family (Picidae), but it's different from other woodpeckers not only in name but in behavior and habitat. Our most common local picid, the Downy Woodpecker (195 banded to date), is much more prevalent now than it was 32 years ago--likely for the same reason Northern Flickers are less common. As we've pointed out many times, our 11 acres have changed considerably in the past three decades, going from open grassy lawn to young mixed woodland. Downy Woodpeckers inhabit the latter, while flickers like the former.

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

As their name suggests, most woodpeckers use long bills to peck holes in trees from which they extract insect grubs. The ever-more-mature hardwoods at Hilton Pond are just what Downy Woodpeckers need to provide food and eventual nesting sites, but Northern Flickers go at feeding a bit differently; they forage primarily on the ground, where they insert long sticky tongues into ant tunnels and lap up these social insects. In fact, ants typically make up nearly half a flicker's diet, the remainder of its invertebrate fare coming from beetles, butterflies, and moths (some caught on the wing). Flickers also eat lots of berries--expecially in cooler weather--as evidenced by dark purple stains in the white lingerie bag that temporarily held the one we caught. The fruit of Flowering Dogwood (right) appears to be a favorite. (Occasionally flickers eat suet and may take sunflower and thistle seeds. They've even been reported lapping sugar water at hummingbird feeders.) The flicker's penchant for ants is most pronounced when it goes after colonies in hard soil, pounding with stout bill to break up red clay that sometimes cakes its mandibles (see photo). Also evident in the close-up above is the slightly decurved aspect of the flicker's bill; in most woodpeckers both mandibles are quite straight, so this configuration may help in some way with ant-digging.

But back to the decline in Northern Flickers at Hilton Pond Center, as noted on our chart above; we think it's habitat-based. The property was mostly open when we first arrived in 1982, so there were lots of grassy areas where flickers could seek out anthills and feed on their insects of choice; in those days we'd capture one to three flickers per year. Things changed in the early 1990s when grass soon gave way to shrubs and the only lawn left was around the old farmhouse--right where the majority of out bird-catching mist nets were located--so we caught our biggest numbers of flickers. Eventually, as canopy trees shaded out these last vestiges of lawn and we gave up mowing everything except our trails, Northern Flickers ran out of places to feed, and they just don't come around any more.

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

We've often said the Northern Flicker looks like a bird put together by a committee, with each member amending the bird's appearance with his or her favorite attribute (see photos above). There's that startling white rump patch, of course, which contrasts with heavy barring on the flicker's back. A rich pinkish-brown throat leads to a black bib, and it's hard to miss all those big black spots on the flicker's belly and breast. Top everything off with a gray crown contrasting sharply with a brilliant crimson nape and the Northern Flicker is indeed a hodgepodge of field marks. (We should point out the bird we captured this week at Hilton Pond Center was a female with a plain cheek; as shown above left, an eastern male adds a final dash of elegance with his prominent black mustache.)

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

Despite all these plumage attributes, the most striking parts of the Northern Flicker we caught this week at the Center were the feathers of its wing (above) and tail (below)--each of which had a bright yellow shaft that gave the bird another of its former names: Yelllow-Shafted Flicker. This is the state bird of Alabama, where it's sometimes called the Yellowhammer (or, more colloquially, "yaller-hammer.") By the way, the flicker gets its name from flicking its bill--not its tail--and to our ears, the call of the Northern Flicker sounds like "flick-flick-flick-flick-flick." (NOTE: In the image below you also can see very stiff and pointed tips on the central tail feathers--a useful adaptation that helps stabilize the flicker when it perches vertically on a tree trunk.)

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

And that brings us to a discussion of why old field guides call this bird "Yellow-shafted Flicker," somewhat newer ones say "Common Flicker," and today the accepted terminology is "Northern Flicker." If you've ever been to the western U.S. you may have seen flickers that look a bit unlike the one we caught this week at Hilton Pond. Major field marks are the same, but underwings and undertail and feather shafts out west are red rather than yellow, hence the name "Red-shafted Flicker." These birds are so different in appearance--especially from beneath--they were considered to be two separate species. Bird behaviorists have been hard at work, however, and discovered these birds interbreed where their populations overlap, meaning they must be the same species; thus, the two have been relegated to subspecies ranking with the (yellow-shafted) Northern Flicker listed as Colaptes auratus auratus and the (red-shafted) Northern Flicker as C. a. cafer. It's interesting that a third bird--the Gilded Flicker, C. chrysoides--has a range in Arizona that overlaps that of the red-shafted variety with which it seldom interbreeds; therefore, Gilded Flicker retains full species status, at least for now.

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

Bird geneticists do currently support the above-mentioned delineation of flicker subspecies and species, but sometimes we wonder if these birds are even woodpeckers at all. (John James Audubon--see his rendering above--recognized what he called "Golden-winged Woodpeckers" were quite unlike other picids he saw in eastern woods.) As we know from banding and observing them at Hilton Pond Center, flickers have slightly decurved bills, they peck anthills instead of wood, they feed mostly on the ground rather than in trees, they exhibit a hodge-podge of field marks, and about the only plumage character they have in common with the rest of the Picidae is red on the backs of their heads. So maybe all the flickers deserve their own family; in light of their atypical behaviors and unusual appearance, we suggest Colluvidae--from the Latin word for "all jumbled up."

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

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"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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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" with students, teachers, and the general public. Please see Support or scroll below if you'd like to make an end-of-year tax-deductible gift of your own. Don't forget, we're still trying to reach $3,500 in donations for the director's birthday wish in September, so we hope you can help!

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1-10 October 2013

Ruby-throated Hummingbird--2

Eastern Phoebe--2

Carolina Chickadee--3
American Goldfinch--1
Pine Warbler--1
Yellow-rumped Warbler--3
Northern Cardinal--5

Swainson's Thrush--3
Gray-cheeked Thrush--1
Northern Flicker--1 *

* = New banded species for 2013

10 species
22 individuals

53 species (32-yr. avg. = 65.2)

1,475 individuals
(32-yr. avg. = 1,863.9)
155 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(since 28 June 1982, during which time 171 species have been observed on or over the property)
126 species
59,646 individuals

4,837 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(with original banding date, sex, and current age):
Carolina Chickadee (3)
05/31/11--3rd year male
08/02/12--after 2nd year male
09/08/12--2nd year female

Eastern Phoebe (1)
10/03/12--after hatch year male

Northern Cardinal (1)
04/16/12--after 2nd year male

Carolina Wren (1)
06/25/11--3rd year female

Eastern Tufted Titmouse (1)
04/16/12--5th year male

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--In 2013 we've had relatively low numbers of new Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at Hilton Pond Center, with 155 banded by 10 Oct; that's only about 89% of where we typically would be by this time, with about a week to go in the hummer banding season. (Our latest date for a local RTHU is 18 Oct.) With no more returning RTHU during the current period our "old bird" yearly total still reached a whopping 46--second only to 49 returns in 2007 and well ahead of our annual average of 27.

--This year's fall migration has pretty much been a bust at the Center, with almost no Neotropical warblers passing through. Since 1 Sep we've netted only eight of the 35 parulid species banded locally since 1982: American Redstart, Northern Parula, Black-and-white Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Pine Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Ovenbird & Northern Waterthrush.

--With the addition of this week's Northern Flicker, Hilton Pond Center's 2013 Yard List of birds seen on or over the property stands at 75 species through 10 Oct. (Since 1982 we have observed 171 species; last year we had 86.)

--Last week's photo essay was about September surprises at Hilton Pond: An enormous spider web, a Mourning Dove with unusual feathers, and a stinky new insect for the Center. The installment is archived and always available on our Web site as Installment #580.

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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