15-21 April 2009

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Through the years, several of our photo essays have dealt with the fascinating assortment of turtles that do quite well at Hilton Pond Center, where some species can be seen sunning on pond banks even in midwinter. We've written about a hatchling Common Snapping Turtle we rescued as it crossed the a well-traveled road in front of the Center, about Yellowbelly Sliders who live up to their name by slipping into water at the slightest sign of danger, about Eastern Mud Turtles that prowl the murky depths, and--most recently--about Painted Turtles (below) that lumber onto land each spring to lay their leathery eggs.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

As if on cue, when we were writing our installment last year about Painted Turtles, Chrysemys picta, a mature female came ashore, made her way to the flat, grassless area just behind the Center's old farmhouse, and began excavating a nest hole (below) only a few feet from our office window. We got to watch and photograph the whole event.

Here's what we wrote back on 15-21 June 2008:

Something about this microhabitat caught her attention as a possible nest site, so she began urinating to soften the packed earth. Within a few minutes her hind legs were churning--in slow motion, of course--as she scraped away soil with her claws. For more than a hour she dug, pausing occasionally to rest before digging some more. Eventually she stopped and tilted up the anterior end of her shell; we're guessing she was laying eggs at this point. After a few minutes in this posture the turtle lowered her shell and her hind legs again went into action, filling in the nest hole and covering her eggs with dirt. Finally, for about 15 minutes she slid back and forth in rhythmic fashion, smoothing over her excavation before heading back toward Hilton Pond. The whole procedure took a little more than two hours, during which time we used our telephoto lens to snap a few photos--hopeful our staying some distance away would not alarm the turtle.

After this Painted Turtle female departed, we went out to examine her handiwork and had a difficult time finding the spot where she had made her nest. This, was exactly what she had intended: To make the nest site inconspicuous to the eye. Only a few small clods of still-moist soil enabled us to find the nest (right).

The problematic thing with the Painted Turtle's egg-laying technique is that all that her urine undoubtedly has odor, so a non-human animal with sharp olfactory powers probably has no trouble sniffing out a fresh turtle nest. We're sure that's what happens to most reproductive attempts by turtles around Hilton Pond; females lay their eggs on land and within hours some enterprising Raccoon digs them up, having scrambled eggs for supper and leaving behind an empty nest hole.

For this particular nest we decided to thwart the 'coons by covering the spot with wire mesh weighted down by a chunk of concrete. It's not that we were trying to interfere with nature or the Raccoons' diet; we just want to see what happens if these particular eggs are left to hatch. In a month--after summer rains have washed away the scent of the mother turtle--we'll remove the mesh. Turtle eggs usually take about 60 days to hatch, so come late August we may be revisiting the topic of Painted Turtles once more as several little turtlets dig their way to the surface and head toward Hilton Pond.

Last summer, as planned, we removed the wire mesh in late July but decided to cover the nest with an old ten-gallon aquarium (left) that would corral turtlets as they hatched out. From mid-August through October we checked the upside-down tank almost daily and as autumn came and went we were surprised no young turtles emerged. We left the aquarium in place all winter--creating a sort of terrarium in which several weedy plants stayed green even in the snow--and started checking again for hatchlings in mid-March. Nothing transpired, except plants inside the glass grew prolifically in the warm greenhouse temperatures. When we looked under the aquarium this week we noticed two little dark-green disks; amazingly, the Painted Turtle youngsters had emerged at last!

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

After gently scooping up the turtlets and placing them in a glass bowl we pulled out all the vegetation to be sure we hadn't overlooked any hatchings. There were none to be found but we did locate the one-inch-diameter hole (below right) through which these newest additions to our turtle population had emerged. We carefully widened the hole itself, looked within the nest cavity, and were surprised to find no other turtlets or eggs AND no signs of empty eggshells. It seems our Painted Turtle mother had invested a lot of time and energy on a two-egg clutch.

A newly hatched turtle often has a small, raw bump on its lower shell (below), a remnant of where the developing reptile's yolk sac was attached. Only one of our hatchlings bore such a scar but it seemed old, so this--along with the absence of empty eggshells--led us to speculate the new turtlets hatched late last autumn but stayed in the nest until weather warmed up this spring. Baby turtles are known to do just that, undoubtedly an adaptation that allows them to remain safe underground for months rather than running the risk of overwintering in cold--even freezing--pond water.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

After photographing the two little Painted Turtles we were in a slight quandary about what to do next. We thought about placing them in the small water gardens in the farmhouse side yard where we could watch them but ruled that out because they might be too easily captured by the pesky Raccoons that visit almost nightly. We did rule out the completely laissez-faire "natural" approach of just releasing them right where they had hatched because the nest was a good 75 yards from the water--quite a ways to travel for a little reptile barely the size of a 25-cent piece. In the end we simply carried the bowl and two turtlets to the edge of Hilton Pond and watched as instinct took over; they swam away and immediately dived for the relative safety of the dark bottom.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

We don't know if these two Painted Turtle youngsters will make it--there's a good chance they'll be consumed by a big fish or a small heron and maybe even another turtle looking for lunch--but we figured we might as well help out a little. It's the least we could do for two turtlets who, in typically slow turtle fashion, finally appeared ten months after their mother laid her eggs in warm June soil at Hilton Pond Center.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

ADDENDUM: On 25 January 2000--the week before we posted our first This Week at Hilton Pond photo essay, we were running traps and caught 14 birds, including three Chipping Sparrows. On 17 April 2009 were were running essentially the same traps in the same locations and caught 30 new birds--and got one Chipping Sparrow that was already banded.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

A check of the chippie's band showed it was #2390-22239, a number we did not immediately recognize. That's because when we consulted our records we learned it was a bird we banded nine years ago; we simply don't remember all of the older band numbers we've used. At banding in 2000 we were unable to sex this bird--Chipping Sparrows are sexually monomorphic with males and females appearing similar--but we aged it then as an After Hatch Year bird that had to have be born no later than 1999. Based on this ageing convention, upon recapture in 2009 the Chipping Sparrow is After Tenth Year--making it the oldest bird we've ever had at Hilton Pond Center. (We still don't know its sex.)

Despite its advanced age, this bird doesn't qualify as the oldest Chipping Sparrow in the federal Bird Banding Laboratory database--that honor goes to one age 11 years 10 months at its most recent recapture--but we're still very pleased to have renewed our acquantance with this Methuselah-bird we banded back in 2000 at the Center.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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Be sure to scroll down for an account of all
birds banded or recaptured during the period,
plus other nature notes of interest.

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

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15-21 April 2009

American Goldfinch--73
Pine Siskin--37
Chipping Sparrow--26
Purple Finch--5
House Finch--1
White-throated Sparrow--5
Mourning Dove--9

* = New species for 2009

7 species
156 individuals

19 species
916 individuals

(since 28 June 1982, during which time 170 species have been observed on or over the property)
124 species
52,798 individuals

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

Chipping Sparrow (5)
01/25/00--after 10th year unknown
3/17/08--after 2nd year unknown
03/26/08--after 2nd year female
04/21/08--after 2nd year male
07/24/08--2nd year male

American Goldfinch (8)
04/20/05--6th year male
12/31/06--4th year female
04/27/07--4th year male
06/23/07--4th year female
10/25/07--3rd year male
11/07/07--3rd year male
01/21/08--3rd year male
04/20/08--after 3rd year male

Northern Cardinal (2)
03/22/05--after 5th year female
12/10/06--after 3rd year female

House Finch (3)
06/17/07--3rd year male
06/16/08--2nd year male
11/30/08--after hatch year female

--Although we've seen at least one male Ruby-throated Hummingbird at our feeders almost every day since 5 April at Hilton Pond Center, we've yet to band one locally in 2009. We've noted one of the birds has a tiny band on its left leg, so he's likely a return from a previous year.

--Our most commonly captured birds at the Center include four "winter finches": House Finch (7,960 banded), American Goldfinch (7,654), Purple Finch (7,554), and Pine Siskin (1,768). With a rare incursion of siskins this winter--in conjunction with good numbers of goldfinches and Purple Finches--as of 21 Apr these four species comprised 47.23% of the 52,798 birds banded locally since 1982. (Their highest percentage was 48.53% back on 12 Apr 1993.) As spring migrants show up at Hilton Pond the four-bird percentage will drop, but despite hummingbirds, warblers, and other Neotropical migrants due to arrive by summer's end close to half our banded birds still will be winter finches.

--We have indeed had a good run of Purple Finches and recently rare Pine Siskins this winter at Hilton Pond Center, but after this week we doubt we'll band many or any until the chill of autumn returns in late October. It's also likely we've seen the last of our White-throated Sparrows of which we banded just 18 during the entire winter--much less than our annual average of 70 and all-time high of 164 in the winter of 1989-90. (Even worse, we only caught TWO Dark-eyed Juncos this year--an abysmally low total for a species whose best year was 74.)

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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