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22-31 January 2014

Installment #590---Visitor #AmazingCounters.com

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A few openings remain
for our March 2014
Operation RubyThroat
expedition to observe &
band hummingbirds in


We'll see & photograph lots of birds and a variety of tropical flora & fauna.

Click on image of Jabiru stork or Snowflake Lily above for trip details.

More excursions for 2014-15 (including a new one to Honduras)
will be
announced in coming weeks.


Coyotes howling, Great Horned Owls hooting, Northern Cricket Frogs clicking, increasingly rare Whip-Poor-Wills singing repetitively--all these are sounds we have heard in darkness around Hilton Pond Center, but seldom do we actually observe animals that vocalize after sunset. Even on the brightest moonlit nights, the human eye just isn't capable of seeing much except shapes and shadows, so who knows what might be lurking there in the bush . . . watching US instead. About the only way to know who's out and about is with night goggles (which we don't own) or with an infrared trail camera (which we received as a donation last year). We set up the trail cam--a Reconyx HyperFire HC500 (above left)--on the back deck of the Center's old farmhouse and aimed it toward Hilton Pond. Between camera and the impoundment stood a dense stand of Forsythia shrubs, a recirculating water fountain, and several aerial and terrestrial feeding stations for birds. The camera was programmined to start taking photos at twilight and to stop at dawn in the hope we might discover what creatures of the night exist at the Center--either rarely or on a regular basis.

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

It didn't take long to document our three most frequent nocturnal visitors at Hilton Pond Center, and these were quite different in size: Eastern Cottontails, Raccoons, and White-tailed Deer (above). Almost every night for the past year we've gotten at least one image of each of these species on the trail cam; many nights there were dozens of photos as these warm-blooded animals lingered, triggering the infrared-sensitive shutter multiple times. Because the camera's flash is also infrared it neither spooks nor blinds our unwitting subjects but means all photos are black-and-white--except on those few occasions when the camera inexplicably stayed on during early morning daylight hours.

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

We suspect there are also lots of mice, voles, and other small mammals running about, but they aren't quite big enough to fire the shutter. Most nights that leaves deer, coons, and rabbits to hog the stage. Although exposures usually reveal just one kind of animal at a time, it was obvious deer and Raccoons (above) and deer and cottontails (below) at least tolerate each other while feeding at night. In more than a year, however, we never got a shot of Raccoons and rabbits together; we suspect an omnivorous coon wouldn't pass up a chance to take a Eastern Cottontail that lowered its guard.

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

Interestingly, the trail cam has never captured more than two deer or two raccoons or two cottontails at one time, and to date we've not seen a white-tail with antlers. Bucks must be out there somewhere; perhaps they are too wary to come close to the farmhouse.

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

Most of our trail cam shots captured the entire animal in the field of view, but occasionally a night critter gets a little curious--as with the deer above that came within inches and revealed its long lower and upper eyelashes.

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

So far only one Raccoon (above) has wandered close to the camera for a mug shot, although footprints in the snow this week showed a couple of them actually came on the back deck of the farmhouse during nocturnal explorations.

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

A decade ago we had so many Raccoons at Hilton Pond Center we decided to relocate some, lest they crowd out other wildlife. In just two weeks of live-trapping we caught 18 adults, all of which we transported and released--with permission, of course--on a friend's farm in the Broad River Valley 15 miles west of us. That exercise made barely a dent in the population. There are still plenty of Raccoons around, and a few take nightly advantage of water in a recirculating fountain (above).


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

We've long suspected Raccoons were the culprits primarily responsible for nocturnal depletions of the Center's sunflower seeds, so we designed all sorts of ways to keep them from raiding feeders. Our latest attempt was to put TWO umbrella-like baffles on each feeder pole, but even with those in place the seed levels still dropped overnight. Not wanting to jump to conclusions, we needed direct evidence 'coons were the responsible parties; necessary proof came via the trail cam (above). The sequence reveals at least one agile and determined Raccoon learned to climb the double-baffled feeder pole and get back down safely, full belly and all. (We're not sure if the climber was tossing seeds to its less adventuresome buddy below.)

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

Until recently we had only indirect evidence of another nocturnal species at Hilton Pond Center--namely Striped Skunks whose unmistakable odor pervaded the landscape as they wandered through. We finally encountered a skunk first-hand back in August 2013 when one died under the old farmhouse and we gingerly but successfully removed it without disturbing its scent gland. Then in October we finally sighted and photographed up-close--after 32 years of smelling them--a living skunk. In the three months since two more have passed in front of the trail cam, the first (above) this past December.

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

Skunks are highly variable in appearance. That first one had an all-white tail with a dorsum to match; the second (just above) was nearly all-black, with just a little pale pelage on its crown. If you're primarily a nocturnal creature, black and white are probably a good color combination; it's not like you need to be bright red or yellow to attract a mate--especially when odor does the trick.

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

And speaking of black and white, we were disappointed to learn via the trail cam that feral cats are in the neighborhood. One (above) followed exactly the same path as an Eastern Cottontail depicted in several preceding images, possibly stalking the bunny. Unfortunately, a fully grown feral cat would make short work of a relatively defenseless rabbit--and just about any other small mammal, bird, reptile, or amphibian.

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

A second cat--fully black--was even more alarming because its collar indicated it wasn't feral but someone's pet. Needless to say, free-roaming cats (either domestic or feral) pose a real threat to native wildlife at Hilton Pond Center and elsewhere. We're happy to report free-roaming cats appear to be in decline around the old farmhouse, possibly because tearing down the shed out back last fall left them with no place to shelter or lurk before pouncing on unsuspecting wildlife.

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

The trail cam captured the sunrise image of one other domesticated animal--a wandering dog whose purple collar and tag meant it, too, was someone's pet. Free-roaming dogs pose less danger to wildlife than feral cats, but a county leash law stipulates this canine should have been secured within the confines of someone's back yard rather than wandering through the property at Hilton Pond Center.

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

The trail cam did document with a single image (above) a native member of the Dog Family: A fast-moving fox. We've studied this image and wish it were in color because we've gone back and forth on whether it's a Red Fox or a Gray Fox. Both species occur in the Carolina Piedmont, and both are in decline because of expanding Coyote populations. That said, Red Foxes typically have white chests and tail tips, while Gray Foxes usually don't have feet as black as what shows in the photo. However, since the top edge of the tail seems dark in this particular animal our gut feeling is to go with Gray Fox; if we're correct, this would be a new yard species (#30) for Hilton Pond Center's mammal list. (Red Fox has been sighted here before.) We're quite certain it's NOT a Coyote, although that, too, would be a new yard species. (We've heard them howling on an adjoining farm but never seen a Coyote on the property.) We'd be pleased to hear your thoughts on the identity of our mystery canid; just send a note to INFO.

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

Although some trail cam enthusiasts keep their cameras on 'round-the-clock, such a policy wouldn't work very well at the Center. Constant daylight visits to the feeders by birds and ever-present Eastern Gray Squirrels (above) would result in hundreds of pictures each day--images that would be made with much more clarity by our Canon SLR camera and telephoto lens.

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

Despite its photographic shortcomings, the trail cam at Hilton Pond Center is an efficient way to survey whatever creatures of the night might be present. (Why no Virginia Opossums have appeared on camera is a mystery. We KNOW they're out there.) We're using this camera to help document otherwise "invisible" nocturnal animal species that around Hilton Pond and are just waiting for our first Coyote to show up--possibly chasing one of those long-eared Eastern Cottontails (above) that munch by night on seed spoils beneath our bird feeders.

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

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22-31 January 2014

Chipping Sparrow--1
American Goldfinch--46
Song Sparrow--1
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker--1
House Finch--2
Blue Jay--1

* = New banded species for 2014

6 species
52 individuals

12 species (33-yr. avg. = 63.2)

74 individuals
(33-yr. avg. =

(since 28 June 1982, during which time 171 species have been observed on or over the property)
126 species
59,756 individuals
4,837 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(with original banding date, sex, and current age):
White-throated Sparrow (1)
11/22/10--after 4th year male

House Finch (1)
09/13/13--2nd year male

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

Nature Blog Network

--Thanks mostly to a sudden influx of American Goldfinches the last few days of January, we're finally able to start banding a respectable number of birds this winter at Hilton Pond Center. We suspect these AMGO were forced further south in recent weeks by brutal winter weather north of the Carolina Piedmont. One goldfinch caught on 28 Jan became the 9,000th of its species banded locally since 1982; it's only the second member of the Center's prestigious "9,000 Club," the first inductees being House Finches that now number 9,343. (Next in line: 8, 039 Purple Finches, which will take several winters to move up to the next plateau.)

--An immature female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker banded on 28 Jan was only our 44th at the Center in 33 years.

--On 22 Jan a flock of about four jillion blackbirds (above) descended like a blanket into treetops above the Center's old farmhouse. They cheeped, chittered, and defecated, and then departed as suddenly as they came, heading south toward some more sheltered evening roost. As far as we could tell they were all Common Grackles, high up in the canopy and observable only in silhouette.

--Hilton Pond was lightly iced over on the morning of 24 Jan 2014; the overnight low was 13.3 degrees--a bit warmer than the 12.8 eventually recorded on 30 Jan. (Coldest day of the winter is still 8.7 degrees on 7 Jan.)

--Our trusty 6-inch snow depth measuring tool indicated the Center received exactly one inch of white stuff during the 28-29 Jan frozen precipitation event, AKA "Winter Storm Leon." (see photos above and below).

--Against a clear blue sky in light winds and with temperatures finally above freezing on 30 Jan, Turkey Vultures were engaging/indulging in annual courtship flights over Hilton Pond. Wobbly fliers, these big-winged birds are masters of the air and put on a good chase when hormones come into play. TUVU will be on eggs pretty soon here in the Carolina Piedmont; they need an early start on spring since incubation lasts about 40 days and nestlings don't fledge for up to 100 days more!

--As of 31 Jan Hilton Pond Center's 2014 Yard List stands at 34--about 20% of the 171 avian species encountered locally since 1982. Our four new birds seen this week (in order of appearance): Common Grackle, Red-winged Blackbird, Eastern Towhee (adult male with red eye, above), Eastern Bluebird, Canada Goose, and Brown Thrasher.

--The immediate past installment of "This Week at Hilton Pond" dealt with Wood Warblers that can be seen with more or less regularity in the Carolina Piedmont during winter. The write-up is archived and always available on the Center's Web site as Installment #589.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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.