- Established 1982 -


22-29 February 2020

Installment #713---Visitor # hit counter

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Thanks to a cornucopia we faithfully provide, numerous backyard bird feeders at Hilton Pond Center bring a little excitement during damp, dark days of winter. Dawn to dusk, Carolina Chickadees zip in, grab a single sunflower seed, hurry off to a perch, crack the seed and eat it--then fly back in and repeat the sequence . . . over and over again. White-throated Sparrows, Brown Thrashers, and Mourning Doves are content to rummage through whatever seeds have fallen to the ground beneath feeders, while American Goldfinches pluck thistle seeds from a mesh sock dangling from a hickory branch. Suet attracts a surprising variety of avian diners, from Pine Warblers to Carolina Wrens, and Hermit Thrushes to Northern Cardinals.

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

Every now again a raucous band of Blue Jays (above) bursts onto the scene outside the office window of the Center's old farmhouse, shrieking loudly as less aggressive competitors scatter into nearby shrubs. But even those jays are dominated by a Red-bellied Woodpecker pair that comes and goes at the feeders with impunity. The jaybirds are wise to depart, lest a red-bellied's sharply pointed one-inch bill peck on a jaybrain rather than wood.

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

Those nearly ten-inch-long Red-bellied Woodpeckers (RBWO) are the largest of the Center's regularly occurring picids--i.e., members of the woodpecker Family Picidae that also includes tropical piculets and Old World Wrynecks. (We regret that much-bigger crow-sized Pileated Woodpeckers--male, at left--have appeared locally on only a half-dozen occasions in the past 39 years.)

The image above reveals several things of interest about woodpeckers in general and red-bellieds in particular. For one, notice the long , pointed tail feathers pressed tightly against the seed feeder; these are extremely stiff and provide a stabilizing element--the third leg of a tripod completed by the woodpecker's two legs. Also visible is that long, straight bill adapted for chiseling into trees; woodpeckers peck wood to extract beetle grubs and other insects and to excavate nest holes in dead snags. (It would not do for a woodpecker to have a curved bill that would bend and possibly break under the pressure of repetitive raps.)

Note also the Red-bellied Woodpecker has a series of alternative black and white strips on its dorsum, making it one of the "ladder-backed" woodpeckers. (Included in this informal group are several western species, plus the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker of southeastern states.)

Our top photo of the Red-bellied Woodpecker doesn't show its reddish-orange underside--an attribute that isn't of much help since it is seldom visible in the field. (The species almost certainly got its common name from an ornithologist who first saw this woodpecker as a museum study skin specimen redbelly-up.) What IS shown is the RBWO red nape, making this particular bird a female. In a male red-bellied (above right), crimson extends forward past the crown all the way to his forehead. Because of this, folks frequently mis-identify Red-BELLIED woodpeckers as Red-HEADED Woodpeckers (above left), but in the latter the entire head is deep scarlet.

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

At least thrice as abundant as Red-bellied Woodpeckers at Hilton Pond Center is their pint-sized relative, the diminutive Downy Woodpecker (DOWO). This is the smallest picid in the eastern U.S., measuring a mere six inches or so, bill tip to tail tip. Like many woodpeckers, its standard attire is black and white with--at least in males--a touch of red. Among DOWO, the male (above) has a red spot on its nape, a mark is absent in females. (In spring, many recently fledged downies--especially young males--have red in the crown rather than on the nape. We wonder if this is a target spot that helps the parents see nestings in the dimly lit nest cavity.)

It's easy to tell whether and adult downy is male or female because of the presence or absence of that red nape spot, but distinguishing this species from the somewhat larger and strikingly similar Hairy Woodpecker (HAWO) is more challenging. In silhouette, the DOWO (above left) has a shorter bill--about half the length of the head or less, while the hairy's bill (below right) extends more than half the head length.

Although not 100% accurate, a better way to differentiate these two mimics is to look at their white outer tail feathers. As shown in our photo above of a DOWO at a suet feeder, the white feathers have black spots--a mark absent in nearly all HAWO. Unfortunately, these spots are not always easy to see from the back when a downy is against a tree trunk or feeder. This winter the Center's suet and black sunflower feeders have hosted two male and two female downies that appear to represent mated pairs, but we have yet to see a Hairy Woodpecker. (This is not a surprise because our 39 years of banding records show local DOWO outnumbering HAWO by ten to one.)

Even though Downy Woodpeckers are known to take up residence in boxes erected for bluebirds, the majority of these little chisel-bills excavate their own nest cavities in snags and broken branches of hardwood trees. Interestingly, a downy pair usually keeps a nest for just one breeding season, making it available the next year for everything from bluebirds to nuthatches to Southern Flying Squirrels. We've observed that scenario in exactly that order here at the Center.

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

Our third winter woodpecker at Hilton Pond is here ONLY during cold months, showing up most years in late October and departing by mid-March. We know it has arrived when we hear its cat-like mewing--plus a slow series of soft taps in a gnarled old Pecan tree in the front yard of the Center's old farmhouse. We speak here of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (YBSA)--twice mis-named and down this winter from its breeding grounds in Canada (or perhaps the Appalachian Mountains).

We say "twice mis-named" because a sapsucker doesn't really suck sap--it laps it up with feather-edged tongues (the bill is not a straw)--and because the woodpecker's yellow underside is seldom seen as it clings tightly to tree trunks. (Another example--like the Red-bellied Woodpecker--of a bird being named by a museum taxonomist rather than a field ornithologist.)

Sapsuckers are slow, methodical workers, spending their days drilling tree trunks with quarter-inch holes in distinctive horizontal rows (see photo above left). These wounds ooze sap, providing the bird with a dilute but nutritious source of carbohydrates during cold weather. (Such "sapsucker wells" are known to supplement diets of quite a few other birds, including warblers, kinglets, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.) We humans merely imitate the age-old skills of sapsuckers when we tap a maple tree to make sugary syrup.

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

You'll notice in our first sapsucker image the bird displays crimson on both its head and throat; this makes it a male, because females do not have red throats. Most of the time, however, female YBSS show at least a little red in their forehead and crown (below left), making the black-capped one at this winter's suet feeder (above) rather unusual.

When we first observed this seemingly anomalous red-less female back in November 2019 we inquired of other banders who have more experience with Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers; we learned some researchers never capture females without red crowns and others band them up to a sixth of the time. There is some suspicion this plumage difference may be a geographic marker for certain sub-populations. The phenomenon is worthy of further study but might be difficult to confirm because many sapsuckers nest in remote areas of Canada and are observed primarily on their wintering grounds.

Two other points of interest in our photo just above of the female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at the suet feeder: 1) A prominent white wing stripe characteristic of this species; and, 2) The way the bird is holding onto feeder wires. On the right foot two fore-claws cling to the wire, while the two hind toes are not visible. All woodpeckers have this zygodactyl foot configuration with two toes forward and two toes back (see photo at right). This is quite different from the anisodactyl configuration of songbirds that have three toes front, one back. Zygodactyly is an adaptation that enhances the woodpecker's ability to cling to and climb on vertical surfaces, while anisodactyly in passerines (and many other bird families) is more adapted to perching. (Incidentally, sapsucker toes are quite strong and the talons very sharp--much to the chagrin of bird banders whose hands invariably get scratched during the banding process. And don't even ask how much damage those long, chisel-like bills can do to one's knuckles!)

Aside from the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers detailed above, four other picids have been observed and banded at Hilton Pond Center, but none were seen this winter--and all occur locally in relatively small numbers. These absentees are the aforementioned Pileated, Hairy, and Red-headed Woodpeckers, and the ant-eating Northern Flicker (male, left); the last prefers grassy lawns to the Center's woodlands. As noted on our chart below, downies far outnumber all other local woodpeckers, while pileated and red-headed have been banded only once each in 39 years. We have confirmed on-site nesting only for downy and red-bellied, although four other species are possible breeders around Hilton Pond.

Species Season Nesting # Banded
Downy Woodpecker All Y 242
Red-bellied Woodpecker All Y 98
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Winter 49
Northern Flicker All ? 36
Hairy Woodpecker All ? 28
Red-headed Woodpecker All ? 1
Pileated Woodpecker All ? 1

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

Even though we've had just three kinds of woodpeckers at Hilton Pond Center this winter, any of the other four species listed above is liable to pop up at any moment. To encourage them to visit and stay, we put out bark butter during cold weather and suet year-round. (For summer months we opt for suet blocks formulated not to melt in heat of the sun.) Hang and maintain a suet cage or three and you, too, will likely attract woodpeckers to your own backyard. And if you leave a dead snag standing where it won't fall on your house, you might even get to watch a picid pair producing young.

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

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Don't forget to scroll down for Nature Notes & Photos,
plus lists of all birds banded or recaptured during the period.

"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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We're pleased folks are thinking about the work of the Center and making donations. Those listed below made contributions received during the period. Please join them if you can in coming weeks.

Gifts can be made via PayPal (; credit card via Network for Good (see link below); or personal check (c/o Hilton Pond Center, 1432 DeVinney Road, York SC 29745). You can also donate through our Facebook fundraising page.

The following made contributions to Hilton Pond Center during the period 11-29 Feb 2020:

  • Susan Joseph (via PayPal)
  • Gretchen Locy (via PayPal)
  • The following friends contributed via the "Donate" button on one of the Center's Facebook postings or fundraisers; some may be repeat contributors via Facebook or other means. None this week. :-(
    (* = past participant in Operation RubyThroat Neotropical Hummingbird expedition)
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22-29 February 2020

Chipping Sparrow--6
American Goldfinch--
House Finch--
Mourning Dove--4

* = new banded species for 2020

4 species
43 individuals

11 species (39-yr. avg. = 63.6)

230 individuals
(39-yr. avg. =

(Banding began 28 June 1982; since then 171 species have been observed on or over the property.)
127 species banded
69,920 individuals banded

6,355 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds banded

(with original banding date, sex, and current age):
Dark-eyed Junco (1)
01/28/16--6th year female

American Goldfinch (1)
04/22/19--3rd year male

Pine Warbler (1)
02/01/18--4th year male

Northern Cardinal (2)
02/02/18--after 3rd year female
10/24/18--after 3rd year male

House Finch (3)
03/18/19--after 2nd year female
06/23/19--after 2nd year female
06/23/19--after 2nd year female
(two birds)

--Two pairs of Wood Ducks continued to patrol Hilton Pond during late February Occasionally we would spy a female entering or departing one of the nest boxes, a sure sign she is laying eggs by now.

--As of 29 Feb, the Center's 2020 Yard List stood at 42--about 24.6% of 171 avian species encountered locally since 1982. (Incidentally, all species so far this year have been observed from the windows or porches of our old farmhouse! If you're not keeping a Yard List for your own property we encourage you to do so, and to report your sightings via eBird. You, too, can be a "citizen scientist.") New species observed during the period: None.

--Our immediate past installment of "This Week at Hilton Pond" was about our local results during the 2020 Great Backyard Bird Count. It's archived and always available on the Center's Web site as Installment #712.

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.