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22-31 March 2015

Installment #617---Visitor #AmazingCounters.com

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


Just after midnight on 22 March I returned home from my annual ten-day Operation RubyThroat hummingbird expedition to Crooked Tree in Belize, exhausted but full of excitement and ready to write a summary report--only to find in my absence a severe electrical problem at Hilton Pond Center had utterly destroyed the internal hard drive on the main desktop computer. Worse yet, a seemingly impossible situation had transpired: The backup drive also got trashed, as did a backup to that backup. I was sweating bullets, knowing I might have lost years' worth of e-mails, files, and photos--especially those from 25 research trips to the Neotropics. After a week of great travail, I got the damaged but now-blank main drive replaced--under extended warranty, thank heavens--but could find no backup files on either of the external hard drives.

Finally, by some miracle and after many sleepless nights of trying, I was able to rescue one almost-up-to-date backup file that contained most of what I thought was lost; with this large file--plus what was stored on archived drives and on a laptop that went to Belize--the only things missing were my vast collection of digital jazz music, Hilton Pond nature photos taken during the preceding 30 days, and e-mails from the week prior to our latest trip. To say I was relieved would be a vast understatement, even though it has taken nearly three weeks to rebuild the system and files--and I'm still finding glitches.

Bottom Line: I need you to bear with me as I complete the Belize 2015 write-up and beg forgiveness for tardiness on posting even this abbreviated late-March photo essay. I've always conscientiously tried to back up every computer-based file redundantly, but sometimes the digital gods are ruthless. To thwart future difficulties I've purchased a 6-Terrabyte mirrored hard drive as an additional backup and also will start saving more files to the cloud--all in the hope this disheartening scenario never recurs.



Pine Siskin numbers dwindled dramatically the week before we departed for Belize on 12 March, so despite their abundance the first 2.5 months of the year we fully expected these little visitors from up north to be gone when we returned to Hilton Pond Center in the wee hours on 22 March. Surprisingly, numerous PISI were still present, and we banded 32 of them on 22-24 March. Purple Finches were even more abundant, with 44 banded during those three days, plus eight American Goldfinches.

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

We can now report Hilton Pond Center has hosted at least 735 siskins this winter through the end of March! From a long-term perspective, in 34 years of banding we've handled 3,252 PISI-- meaning this winter's irruption has been responsible for nearly a quarter of them (23%). That's a bunch of Pine Siskins--plus a lot of thistle (above) and black sunflower seeds--and it appears there are still a few more PISI out there to band!

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

We posted this "poem" (Wordle version above) to the Center's Facebook page on the morning of 26 March, with apologies to REAL poets:

At Hilton Pond Center it's "Hummingbird Eve,"
A stream of warm sugar water runs down my sleeve.
The feeders are hung and my traps are awaiting,
A four-to-one mix is how I am baiting.
March 27 is first day for ruby-throats here,
If I saw one before then I'd give a great cheer.
My annual goal is 200 to capture and band,
In the hope one will travel to some far-off land.
Or maybe I'll catch one from down in Belize,
Where I just spent a great week midst tropical breeze.
From Crooked Tree's cashews to Hilton Pond's flowers,
To fly that long trip would take many hours.
I'm ready to greet them, these quite tiny hummers,
After winters far south, they come here to spend summers.
I'll keep you updated by Facebook and posting,
Knowing you, too, are happily hummingbirds a'hosting.

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

From this "poem" you can conclude our earliest spring migrant Ruby-throated Hummingbird sighting at the Center has been 27 March; there were two occurrences on this date, the latest being last year. Amazingly, just at dusk on 26 March this past week we glanced at a hummer trap on the back deck of the old farmhouse and spied a male RTHU hovering inside. Needless to say, we flew outside in a flash to retrieve it (see photo above). In hand, we saw the hummer was already banded on his left leg, and a quick look at the number revealed an amazing fact: He was that record-tying (now record-breaking) early bird we caught in 2014 on 27 March, and here he was one day earlier this year! Is this mind-boggling, or what!?

Despite this early return, we caught no new RTHU through the end of March. Our feeders have been up and kept fresh since St. Patrick's Day, so it's just a matter of time and patience until the first unbanded RTHU comes in. And then the REAL fun begins at Hilton Pond!

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

Click on map above to view a larger version in a new browser window

Now that we have that first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the year at Hilton Pond Center--even if it is a return and not a new capture--numerous folks have asked when they might expect to see their first migrant RTHU in their own neighborhoods. Thus, we've again posted our migration map (above) showing average first dates for various latitudes of North America.

Keep in mind that wind, weather fronts, and your yard's altitude might all have an effect on when first hummers arrive. Remember also at this time of year you needn't deploy your entire feeder collection, nor do you need to fill any of them all the way. That said, if your neighbor is hanging a slew of hummingbird feeders you'll have to step up to attract more hummers to your own feeding station.

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

Some folks might wonder why we were excited on the afternoon of 29 March to capture a locally common Chipping Sparrow in one of our traps. Well, this particular bird just happened to be the 2,000th of its species banded locally since 1982 when we started long-term avian research at Hilton Pond Center. That's CHSP #2,000 in the photo above--a subadult bird that hasn't yet acquired its white superciliary line or full rusty cap. Note also the upper mandible is not fully black--one sign of an adult in breeding condition.

With this banding, Chipping Sparrow became the ninth species to join the Center's elite "2,000 Club," along with American Goldfinch (9,922), House Finch (9,454), Purple Finch (8,315), Ruby-throated Hummingbird (5,054), Pine Siskin (3,231), Northern Cardinal (2,529), Yellow-rumped Warbler (2,198), and White-throated Sparrow (2,080). We're guessing the Center won't induct any new members into this particular club anytime soon; closest behind are Gray Catbirds with a "mere" 919 banded.

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

A pair of Great Horned Owls heard the preceding night and two female Brown-headed Cowbirds at the feeder on the morning of 31 March were the 42nd and 43rd "Yard Birds" for 2015 at Hilton Pond Center. The owls very likely have well-developed chicks in a nest by now--maybe even fledglings--but I'm hoping the socially parasitic cowbirds (see our file photo of a female, above) are just moving through . . . instead of laying their eggs in other birds' nests.

In winter, cowbirds often join other blackbirds in large flocks, moving through farmland and suburbia foraging on the ground for nuts, seeds, and invertebrates. As spring arrives, cowbird behavior changes dramatically. Females become elusive, while males hang out in conspicuous small groups--vigorously displaying and calling to compete for a female's attention. Both sexes are promiscuous, never forming a pair bond for much longer than it takes for the mating act to occur, after which a female can lay as many as 12 eggs during each of three different ovulation cycles during the breeding season. That's a LOT of potential nest parasitization that host parent birds could well do without.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center
Blue Jay calendar image above courtesy South Dakota Birds

For the record, March 2015 (calendar above) went out like a very early Ruby-throated Hummingbird we had banded on 26 March 2014. From a meteorological standpoint we can't report on whether end-of-month weather was leonine or sheepish; regretfully, Hilton Pond Center's digital weather station wasn't uploading data because of the computer malfunction described in our prologue above. That's all fixed, we hope, and our rejuvenated computer system is again using WeatherSnoop and EvoCam to post regular status reports and weather Webcam images to WeatherUnderground.

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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22-31 March 2015

Pine Siskin--111
American Goldfinch--51
Pine Warbler--3

Chipping Sparrow--22
Dark-eyed Junco--
Northern Cardinal-- 4
Purple Finch--63
House Finch--2
White-throated Sparrow--2
Brown-headed Cowbird--1
Eastern Towhee--
Mourning Dove--1

* = New banded species for 2015

12 species
262 individuals

19 species (34-yr. avg. = 64.9)

1,590 individuals
(34-yr. avg. =

(since 28 June 1982, during which time 171 species have been observed on or over the property)
126 species
62,476 individuals

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

Chipping Sparrow (5)
12/18/10--after 5th year unknown
03/22/13--after 3rd year unknown
02/08/14--after 2nd year unknown
02/15/14--after 2nd year unknown
04/09/14--after 2nd year male

American Goldfinch (1)
02/15/14--3rd year female

House Finch (2)
09/18/13--3rd year male
06/12/14--2nd year male

Purple Finch (2)
01/25/11--after 6th year male
01/26/13--after 3rd year female

--As of 31 Mar Hilton Pond Center's 2015 Yard List stands at 43--about 25% of the 171 avian species encountered locally since 1982. New yard birds during the period: Canada Goose, Great Horned Owl (heard) & Brown-headed Cowbird.

--The immediate past installment of "This Week at Hilton Pond" will be a photo essay about our just completed seventh Operation RubyThroat hummingbird expedition to Belize. When completed the write-up will be archived and always available on the Center's Web site as Installment #616.

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)

Please report your
sightings of
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

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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.