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11-20 October 2013

Installment #582---Visitor #Web Page Hit Counter

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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.


Back in 2002, Dr. Dick Houk--retired professor from Winthrop University who was one of our field botany mentors--gave Hilton Pond Center more than two dozen seemingly nondescript brown-colored tubers (below left) that, in reality, were more precious than any gemstone. These were roots of Schweinitz's Sunflower, Helianthus schweinitzii, a plant so rare it has long been on the federal list of endangered species. (This tall sunflower was probably far more common when a vast Piedmont Prairie covered most of what is now the Charlotte metropolitan region.) Dr. Houk had rescued a batch of sunflower roots from a road-widening project that threatened to plow them under, so in May of that year we diligently planted the tubers in a small meadow at the Center. The planting was to be part of Dr. Houk's efforts to establish satellite colonies and broaden educational efforts about Schweinitz's Sunflower. Alas, White-tailed Deer apparently entered the meadow within days, dug at the loose soil, ate the sunflower roots we had just planted, and essentially wiped out the potential new population. We were devastated, of course, but found one last root the deer overlooked. Bittersweet, we quickly covered it with wire mesh weighed down by heavy rocks in the hope it would survive.

Some vegetative growth did occur that first summer and we waited with bated breath until the following spring to see if the Center's sole remaining rootstock of the rare sunflower would sprout. In 2003 a short, non-flowering stem did arise and die back at season's end, but the next year a single stalk erupted, reached the towering height of seven feet (right); it produced more than 15 flower heads--testimony to this rare plant's genetic fortitude. These blossoms attracted nectar-loving pollinators such as beetles, wasps, and small bees, so we anticipated the plant might actually be passing its genes forward in the form of seeds. Later that fall, however, we examined the dried flowers and found no evidence of seed set.

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

When Spring and Summer 2005 came to Hilton Pond and we found no sign of our Schweinitz's Sunflower, we assumed some herbivore had finally gotten to it, but lo and behold when 2006 rolled around we discovered the old tuber had given rise to TWO flower stalks--both of which bore numerous blossoms into early October. In the years since our persistent sunflower has flowered some years and been browsed to the ground in others, but this year were were stunned in early October when this specimen plant yielded its most robust growth ever: A dozen stout stalks (above) on which flowers just starting to open were so plentiful they made the stems lean almost to the ground.

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

Because we were due to be out of town the first weekend in October we made mental note to take photos of the phenomenal sunflower bloom when we returned to Hilton Pond Center. As we tried to follow through this week you can imagine our surprise when--after toting tripod, camera, and several lenses to the meadow--we discovered almost none of the flowers remained in their typical showy yellow form. Schweinitz's Sunflower is a one-inch-diameter composite flower with sterile ray flowers (often mistakenly called "petals") and much smaller disk flowers at the center of the inflorescence, but we could find very few bright yellow ray flowers. We located withered brown ray flowers on some blooms that must have flowered earlier than the rest. Few of these were present, however, and we finally figured out what had happened by taking a close look at the few yellow ray flowers that did remain.

As shown in the image above, most ray flowers apparently had been eaten completely or in part by petal-chewing creatures--likely caterpillars, beetles, or grasshoppers. Although we were unable to find any invertebrate folivores we can think of no other explanation for the sudden and nearly complete loss of so many yellow ray flowers--especially when most that remained showed telltale signs of herbivory. (NOTE: On the topmost yellow ray flower in the photo above are two fuzzy white things; these are mealybugs that, as sap suckers, would not have left chewing evidence on the sunflower's ray flowers.)

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

The near absence of ray flowers on our sunflower gave us good reason to look closely at the plentiful disk flowers that remained. In the photo just above are a few curly brown ray flowers, but what is most apparent is how many disk flowers actually are present in a Schweinitz's Sunflower blossom whose center is only a half-inch in diameter.

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

In even closer macroscopic view you find that the sunflower disk is indeed made of several dozen tiny ray flowers--each an eighth-inch tubular structure complete with yellow petals, stamens, and a curlicue pistil whose sticky, somewhat hairy surface receives that all-important pollen.

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

As noted, we've never been able to find any viable seeds in the dried flower heads of our sunflowers but will look again this year. Perhaps having just one Schweinitz's Sunflower plant doesn't allow for cross-fertilization, or perhaps those occasional pollinators that visit haven't done a good enough job in return for the nectar reward they receive.

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

As we admired our Schweinitz's Sunflower inflorescence this week we never did find any folivores that would have dined on ray flowers; however, clinging to the blooms we DID find a few healthy Arabesque Orbweavers, Neoscona arabesca (above). Without showy yellow ray flowers to attract pollinators the flower heads were no longer optimum perches where a spider might wait for lunch to arrive, but maybe by this time of year that doesn't matter. The spiders looked very well-fed and it could be they had eaten many of the elusive plant eaters that had themselves fattened up on ray flowers. We can't know for sure, but we can guarantee we'll keep looking. That's one of the fascinating things about nature at Hilton Pond Center and elsewhere: "Everything's connected to everything else," and no matter how hard we try we'll never be able to figure out all the connections.

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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For the director's "Birthday Cause" in September we received $2,927 in donations (including those below)--a much-appreciated amount that almost reached our goal of $3,500.

  • Janice Boyd (repeat donor; via Network for Good)
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The Piedmont Naturalist--Vol. 1--1986 (Hilton Pond Press) is an award-winning collection of newspaper columns that first appeared in The Herald in Rock Hill SC. Optimized for tablets such as iPad and Kindle, electronic downloads of the now out-of-print volume are available by clicking on the links below. The digital version includes pen-and-ink drawings from the original edition--plus lots of new color photos. All sales go
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11-20 October 2013

Black-throated Green

American Goldfinch--1
Yellow-rumped Warbler--13
Northern Cardinal--2
Eastern Tufted Titmouse--2

* = New banded species for 2013

5 species
19 individuals

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

1,494 individuals
(32-yr. avg. = 1, 864.5)
155 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(since 28 June 1982, during which time 171 species have been observed on or over the property)
126 species
59,665 individuals
4,837 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(with original banding date, sex, and current age):
Eastern Tufted Titmouse (1)
06/01/09--5th year male

Carolina Wren (1)
06/01/09--3rd year female

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

Nature Blog Network

--The 2013 fall banding season continues to be very, very slow. Granted, we have been away from Hilton Pond Center away for part of it, but it's still the least productive autumn migration we can remember. If it weren't for a an influx of 13 Yellow-rumped Warblers (all banded on 15 Oct), we'd probably be having withdrawal symptoms. The "bird of the week" was an immature male Black-throated Green Warbler, our second of the fall but only our 19th in 32 years of banding at Hilton Pond.

--We banded no new Ruby-throated Hummingbirds this week at the Center and remain at 155 for 2013; that's only about 89% of where we typically would be by this time. Since our latest date for a local RTHU is 18 Oct, we suspect our season is finally over, but we'll wait another week or so to see if there are any record-setting late stragglers.

--We already had to demolish our big storage shed at the Center due to termite and carpenter ant damage; now the Observation Deck (above) behind the old farmhouse is being deconstructed and rebuilt, albeit slowly. Replacement funds, in part, are coming from on-line donations from friends of Hilton Pond Center.

--Wood Ducks usually disappear from Hilton Pond by midsummer; a drake (above) was patrolling on 18 Oct, undoubtedly already trying to pick up females for the next breeding season. 'Round these parts they get down to serious business in February, which is not so long away.

--Hilton Pond Center's 2013 Yard List of birds seen on or over the property stands at 75 species through 20 Oct. (Since June 1982 we have observed 171 species; last year we had 86.)

--If you'd like more info and images than are provided in this week's photo essay (above), please see our archived on-line discussion at Research: Schweinitz's Sunflower Recovery

--Last week's photo essay was about a locally uncommon Northern Flicker--an atypical woodpecker we caught and banded at Hilton Pond. The installment is archived and always available on our Web site as Installment #581.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Please report your sightings of
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(spring female at right)

Oct 15 to Mar 15:
East of the Rockies please report your sightings of
Vagrant & Winter Hummingbirds

(immature male Rufous Hummingbird 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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