1-7 January 2004
Installment #204--Visitor #

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Back in the "old days" (from 1982 through about 1986) the property at Hilton Pond Center resembled a wide-open savannah---mostly covered by Broomsedge and dotted with a few mature trees. As natural succession continued, the acreage became dominated by 10-foot-tall Eastern Red Cedars, Winged Elms, Sweetgums, and miscellaneous pines so thick one could scarcely see more than a few feet through them into the woods. Eventually, by about 1995, the sun-loving cedars began to die out beneath a canopy of even-aged hardwoods and pines, and the understory and shrub layer opened back up. It was during this most recent vegetative change that we finally began to see signs of the largest wild mammal likely to be present in this part of the Carolina Piedmont: the White-tailed Deer.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

The first indication deer were moving across the Center's 11 acres was an occasional track in soft earth along our trails. The split hoof of a deer is pretty distinctive, each half leaving an indentation that is pointed at the anterior end and rounded at the back (see below). In deep snow or mud, the two "dewclaws"--vestigial toes with mini-hooves--also leave an imprint. This configuration is why deer are placed in the Artiodactyla, an order of even-toed ungulates (hoofed animals) that includes two-toed cattle, pigs, antelopes, and--oddly enough--even four-toed hippopotami. The odd-toed hoofed animals such as single-hoofed horses--and three-toed tapirs and rhinoceroses!--are in the Perissodactyla. Around Hilton Pond about the only two-toed footprint that might be confused with a deer would be made by an escaped goat from a farm down the road, so we were confident the tracks we found locally in the middle 1990s were indeed left by white-tails.

. . . .

Upon rare occasions in the neighborhood we had observed a White-tailed Deer bounding at night across otherwise-deserted highways, but the first time we ever saw one at the Center was in early 2000. On that auspicious morning we were sitting at our computer desk overlooking Hilton Pond when what to our wondrous eyes should appear but several large deer hightailing it across the property with free-roaming dogs in hot pursuit. Unfortunately, that day we had unfurled about 20 of our nearly invisible (and expensive) mist nets used to capture wild birds, and we watched helplessly as the frantic deer ran through one net after another like players bursting through banners hung between goalposts at a high school football game. Aside from being able to say we'd finally seen deer at Hilton Pond Center, about the only good thing that came from this net-destroying incident was that our account of it caught the attention of Sam Sumida of Avinet--makers of suppliers of bird banding equipment---who has become a loyal supporter of the Center's education and research programs.

White-tailed Deer, Odocoileus virginianus, undoubtedly were common in the Carolina Piedmont prior to the coming of European settlers, but 300 years of year-round hunting and habitat destruction diminished their numbers considerably. That white-tails--like Wild Turkey--are so plentiful today is testimony to the hard work of federal and state game departments that manage habitat and enforce hunting laws. In fact, wildlife management folks have done such a good job increasing herd sizes that, as suitable habitat is gobbled up by development, once-scarce deer are now found in many suburban--even urban--locales where homeowners complain that white-tails browse on expensive shrubbery or run into and damage private cars and trucks.

Like elsewhere in the Carolinas, White-tailed Deer are becoming more common at Hilton Pond Center. Scarcely a day goes by on our trails that we don't see one or two--or at least a flash of white tails that gives them their name (above right). This week a doe and her yearling wandered right up to the back window of the Center's old farmhouse and allowed us to squeeze off a couple of camera shots before they spooked into the woods (see top photo). This past summer we surprised a spotted newborn fawn, and more and more often we discover trees debarked by bucks as they scrape the velvet covering from new antlers (above left) and prepare to compete for the opportunity make additional fawns.

Even when we don't see the actual deer, we sometimes come across their scat on our paths. It's interesting that most droppings are compacted boluses (below right) rather than piles of little tear-shaped balls usually identified with deer. Pellet-like scat is produced when white-tails consume dry matter such as twigs, while the compacted feces in the photo result from a diet of green plant material. All this means that many deer-forage plants--especially grasses--are still actively growing in our relatively mild Carolinas winter. We should note that, along with all these other "normal" sightings and signs, there was also that famous Ghost Deer For Christmas (bottom photo), a piebald white-tail that showed up at the Center on 25 December 2002 and that both startled and amazed everyone who saw it.

Yes, deer are on the increase at Hilton Pond Center and elsewhere in the region. In fact, the van we use for off-grounds programs and research fell victim to a large white-tail in October 2001 as we drove down U.S. 321 just south of York. A couple of does darted across the road and, before we could slow the vehicle, the big buck following them slammed us broadside, becoming venison in the process and doing $1,800 in body damage to the van. Unlike our bird nets, the vehicle was covered by insurance, so we only lost our deductible. It was still a significant financial hit but, quite frankly, one we're willing to absorb for the opportunity to observe White-tailed Deer around Hilton Pond--so long as they stay out of our mist nets and don't eat all the nectar plants we provide for hummingbirds.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center
Deer hoof and track drawings courtesy Carolina Biological Supply Company

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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Oct 15 to Mar 15
Please report
your sightings of
Vagrant & Winter

1-7 January 2004

Purple Finch--59
House Finch--6
White-throated Sparrow--1
Blue Jay--1
Mourning Dove--2

* = New species for 2004

5 species
69 individuals

5 species
69 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
43,372 individuals

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

Eastern Towhee (1)
08/08/02--3rd year female

White-throated Sparrow (2)
12/28/98--after 6th year male
11/04/02--after second year unknown

House Finch (1)
03/25/03--after 2nd year female

Purple Finch (1)
03/02/02--after 3rd year female

Tufted Titmouse (1)
05/16/03--2nd year unknown

After record-high temperatures in the mid-70s earlier in the week, we awakened to a reading of 18.1 degrees on 7 Jan--quite a range of readings on the digital thermometer.

--Although it was only in the upper 40s on 6 Jan, we saw a fresh-looking Eastern Comma butterfly that likely had been stimulated to come out of hibernation by the warm temperature during two days preceding.


An adult female Rufous Hummingbird was banded on 3 January at Anderson SC.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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In 2004, informative and entertaining hummingbird banding presentations are already scheduled for North Carolina, Virginia, Michigan & Kentucky/Tennessee.
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If your group would like to host Hummingbird Mornings anywhere in the U.S. or Canada in 2004 or later, contact
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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka The Piedmont Naturalist, it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this website--including articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this Web site, contact the Webmaster