- Established 1982 -


23-31 May 2020

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


It's been a tough spring season for trees at Hilton Pond Center. First, an Easter Monday (13 April) storm uprooted a massive 100-foot-tall 100-year-old Southern Red Oak (above) that wreaked havoc on other trees and vegetation when it fell. Miraculously, the oak completely missed the Center's old farmhouse but destroyed four mist nets we use to capture birds for banding. This giant tree going from vertical to horizontal drastically changed the one-acre habitat it previously dominated.

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

Six weeks later (22 May), a straight-line derecho wind barreled through the property at an estimated 80+ mph, ripping limbs from a Shagbark Hickory, uprooting a venerable Flowering Dogwood, smashing bird feeders, tearing up two more mist nets, and snapping a 60-foot-tall Black Walnut at its base. This time a fallen tree--the walnut--landed atop our farmhouse roof (above), although somehow it was delicately balanced on the ridge-line and appeared not to poke through new shingles installed just last October. There was never any hope of removing that big red oak that came down back in April, although we've been harvesting many of its limbs as firewood for next winter (and likely years thereafter!). The newly felled walnut was a whole 'nother matter, of course, and we had to get it off the house post haste lest further damage occur.

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

Tree removal of a walnut from a roof was a job for professionals, so after filing our insurance claim we called Smarr's Tree Service in York SC and got immediate attention from owner John Smarr. On one day's notice he dispatched his experienced three-man crew and a huge boom truck (above) to take care of things.

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

The boom operator was about as strong as a man can get, wielding a chainsaw with one hand and grabbing large limbs with the other from his perch in the bucket. In the photo above he prepares to hurl a 40-pound walnut log over the edge of the roof to other workers waiting below.

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

The crew was quite efficient, needing only three hours to bring down the walnut tree and grind up its leafier limbs and twigs (above). All this organic material was destined for some giant mulch pile for composting.

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

John Smarr's crew was also thoughtful enough to cut the walnut trunk and larger limbs to just the right length for the Center's woodstove, and then to stack everything in a spot where we can run a hydraulic splitter on the biggest chunks. Based on burnability and BTUs, Black Walnut pieces will mix well with all that firewood we're harvesting from the old Southern Red Oak. Having lost yet another big tree, we take solace in knowing their remains will be put to good use heating our old farmhouse or mulching someone else's landscape.

(CAVEAT: We are reminded by naturalist-friend Jim Casada that Black Walnuts produce juglone, an allelopathic chemical that inhibits growth in many other plants. Thus, fresh walnut mulch should never be used in vegetable gardens. However, according to Iowa State University Extension: "Walnut leaves can be composted because the juglone toxin breaks down [within weeks] when exposed to air, water and bacteria. Composting the woodchips for a minimum of six months allows the chemical to break down to a safe level even for plants sensitive to juglone.”)

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

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


Although we weren't happy to lose a mature Black Walnut and two giant nectar-yielding Trumpet Creeper vines it supported, we were pleased to find after the workers removed the tree there was minimal, easily reparable damage to our like-new shingles. Alas, the gale force wind that tilted the walnut also blew off a metal cap we placed . . . 18 years ago . . . atop a brick chimney (above) on the Center's farmhouse, leaving the flue open to the sky. This turned out to be one bonus of the dreadful derecho because a mere three days after the cap was dislodged we netted a bird species we hadn't handled in, well . . . 18 years. And we don't think this 18-year aspect was just a coincidence because the long-absent bird was . . . an adult Chimney Swift!

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

Even a cursory examination of our photo above of the newly captured Chimney Swift (CHSW) shows this is a bird with aerodynamic qualities. In addition to a cone-shaped head and short tail, the primary feathers are long and the secondary feathers very short--giving the spread wing a very pointy configuration. The body is tapered at both ends (below right), such that the swift has the appearance of a "flying cigar" when zipping overhead.

Throughout most days--but especially in early evening--small numbers of Chimney Swifts wheel above Hilton Pond Center, slicing through the air in pursuit of flying insects. Depending on prey behavior, the swifts fly straight, cut wide parabolas in the sky, or make impossibly sharp high-speed turns while grabbing a smorgasborg of aerial invertebrates in their mouths: Wasps and true bugs, caddisflies and mayflies, ants and termites, beetles and bees. Slow-motion video reveals CHSW catch larger prey with their slightly hooked bills but open their mandibles wide so smaller items go straight down the gullet!

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

Swifts have heads like no other birds. Again, a Chimney Swift bill is short, decurved, and very wide at the base. Stubby, stiff feathers protrude in front of the eye socket (see photos above and below) while others overhang like an eyebrow, and the eyeball itself is recessed in a groove. All this helps protect the eye from incoming insects.

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

The width of the mouth is hinted at by the photo just above, although if the orifice were gaping it would show its true size. Notice the swift's nostrils are atop the upper mandible rather than on the sides--likely another adaptation for streamlining.

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

The tail (above) of a CHSW is yet another amazing structure. Historically, Chimney Swifts--which breed in North America east of the Rockies and as far north as very southern Canada--nested in hollow trees, abandoned woodpecker holes, and other natural cavities. As their name suggests, when early settlers began adding chimneys to their homes and commercial buildings swifts shifted their lodging preference to these artificial structures.

Although a chimney typically hosts only one CHSW nesting pair per year, other unmated swifts may share the roost at night. In autumn, large industrial smokestacks temporarily house hundreds--even-thousands--of these southbound long-distance migrants headed toward South America for the winter. Which brings us back to the swift's tail feathers (above), each with a stiff central rachis that serves as a prop against the hard bricks of a chimney.

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

Unlike most bird feet, those of Chimney Swifts are covered with skin rather than scales (above), giving the tibiotarsus a soft and fleshy feel. (Special care is needed when banding swifts so the leg is not injured.) Those three toes in front have stout sharp claws that allow the swift to perch in a vertical position on the chimney's inside wall--a behavior facilitated by the hallux (hind toe) being able to rotate partway forward for even greater stability.

When the mid-May windstorm knocked the cap off the chimney of the Center's old farmhouse, it took local swifts no time at all to find this newly available roost and/or nest site, and a pair started building within a few days. (Sometimes in the evening when we're in the living room we can hear swifts chittering and fluttering in the chimney above the open fireplace.) With several big trees now gone from the Hilton Pond landscape, these Chimney Swifts were whirling about the property at lower levels this week; when one shot through a new gap in vegetation it got snared in a mist net. Nice to have these birds back after 18 years, and nice to have one in-hand for photographs to share with our readers--just our 19th CHSW banded locally since 1982.

NOTE 1: After mist netting our free-flying Chimney Swift on 25 May, we banded another five days later--but only because it fell down the chimney and was floundering about in the living room. Most homeowners might consider swifts nesting in their flues to be a disadvantage, but banders have a very different perspective. Chalk up this second CHSW as our 20th banded in 39 years!

NOTE 2: Since swifts decided to nest in our smokestack, we won’t be installing a new chimney cap until autumn after they have departed. We may get a little summer rain down the flue, but with homes and commercial structures often built without chimneys these days, we're glad to provide a home for these flying cigars at Hilton Pond. (Who knows? Maybe when we get all these fallen trees cut and split into firewood we'll have time before potential tenants return next spring to construct a Chimney Swift Tower, example above right.)

NOTE 3: Apodiformes--which means "no feet"-- is an avian order with three families of short-legged birds: Swifts (Apodidae), treeswifts (Hemiprocnidae), and hummingbirds (Trochilidae). In all, their feet seem to disappear when they tuck them in during flight. Some taxonomists disagree with this clasification scheme and elevate hummers to their own order, Trochiliformes.

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


Along with those two Chimney Swifts, the last week of May 2020 brought a significant number of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (RTHU) to Hilton Pond Center. Of the latter, 14 were unbanded individuals--more than tripling this year's running tally of "new hummers and bringing it to 20 by month's end. Although this year's RTHU banding started slowly, as of 31 May those 20 new birds put us at 142% of our 37-year average. (NOTE: Many correspondents--including other hummingbird banders--report RTHU numbers appear to be down so far in 2020; the tally says otherwise at our specific locale.)

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

More remarkable in late May were the returns of 24 "old" ruby-throats we banded locally in previous years, giving us 35 returns so far in 2020. Almost all these we have recaptured every year since their original banding encounter, but one was a female (above, after color marking) banded as an adult in August 2017 and not seen again until this season.

One enlightening aspect of recapturing banded hummers is it allows us to determine the age of each--especially if we happened to band it as a recent fledgling. Of this week's 24 recaptures, 17 were banded in their natal year and we therefore know their exact ages. Among other returns banded last year or earlier as adults we can extrapolate their minimum age, but not the maximum.

Here's a list of ages for those 24 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds captured during the just-finished period of 23-31 May:

11 Second Year (hatched & banded in 2019)
2 Third Year (hatched & banded in 2018)
1 Fourth Year (hatched & banded in 2017)
2 Fifth Year (hatched & banded in 2016)
1 Sixth Year (hatched & banded in 2015)
4 After Second Year (hatched prior to 2019; in at least their 3rd year)
3 After Third Year (hatched prior to 2018; in at least their 4th year)

Although a few RTHU overwinter in coastal states, the vast majority--likely more than 98%--end up going to Central Mexico or Central America for the non-breeding season. Thus, all the birds listed above have accumulated quite a few air miles between Hilton Pond Center and the Neotropics.

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

(NOTE: As shown on the chart above, 35 "old" RTHU recaptured through May 2020 already tie this as the tenth best year for ruby-throat returns since 1985. The record is 62 in 2017, and we stll have more than four months to go in the current hummingbird season.)

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


At Hilton Pond Center we were excited on 2 April 2020 to band our 70,000th bird since 1982. Some of you have already helped mark that significant milestone with a donation supporting our initiatives in environmental education, field research, and resource conservation.

Now, with the loss in mid-April of our massive Southern Red Oak, including collateral damage to other vegetation and destruction of mist nets--PLUS damages from the follow-up mid-May windstorm described above--a Spring Fundraiser we started in April took on new urgency. Unfortunately, the fundraiser ended on 31 May well short of our $7,000 goal.

To help us get past these latest stumbling blocks, please consider making a donation via PayPal, at Network for Good, or through the Center's new Venmo account ( Checks can be sent to 1432 DeVinney Road, York SC 29745. Since we're a non-profit, all such gifts should be fully tax-deductible. Thanks for whatever assistance you can provide as Hilton Pond Center buckles down and continues to move forward as the most active year-round bird banding station in the Carolinas.

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

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Payable to:

Checks also can be sent to Hilton Pond Center at:
1432 DeVinney Road
York SC 29745

All contributions are tax-deductible on your
current-year income tax form

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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Thanks to the following fine folks for recent gifts in support of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History and/or Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project. Your tax-deductible contributions allow us, among other things, to continue writing, photographing, and sharing "This Week at Hilton Pond" with students, teachers, and the general public. Please see Support or scroll below if you'd like to make a gift of your own.

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 23-31 May 2020, some as part of our Spring Fundraiser:

  • Barbara Gordon
  • Patricia Jerman (repeat donor; via PayPal)
  • Susan Joseph (via PayPal)
  • Susan Katz (alumna of Operation RubyThroat expeditions to Costa Rica & Nicaragua)
  • Judy & Bob Peak (in memory of hummingbird enthusiast Dannye Wagner; 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. Noah Gilmore, Bernard Noonan, Dawn Headrick, Anita Clemmer, Andrea Cook
    (* = past participant in Operation RubyThroat Neotropical Hummingbird expedition)
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The Piedmont Naturalist--Vol. 1--1986 (Hilton Pond Press) is an award-winning collection of newspaper columns that first appeared in The Herald in Rock Hill SC. Optimized for tablets such as iPad and Kindle, electronic downloads of the now out-of-print volume are available by clicking on the links below. The digital version includes pen-and-ink drawings from the original edition--plus lots of new color photos. All sales go
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23-31 May 2020

Ruby-throated Hummingbird--14
Northern Parula--1

Carolina Chickadee--3
Eastern Phoebe--1
Black-and-white Warbler--1
Acadian Flycatcher--1
Great Crested Flycatcher--1
Northern Cardinal--1
Tufted Titmouse--1
House Finch--15
Chimney Swift--2
Carolina Wren--6

* = new banded species for 2020

12 species
47 individuals

52 species (39-yr. avg. = 64.7)

641 individuals
(39-yr. avg. =

20 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(Banding began 28 June 1982; since then 171 species have been observed on or over the property.)
127 species banded
70,331 individuals banded

6,375 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds banded

(with original banding date, sex, and current age):
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (24)

See narrative above for description of RTHU recaptures during the period.

Chipping Sparrow (1)
02/27/20--after 2nd year male

Northern Cardinal (1)
09/23/18--after 3rd year male

Downy Woodpecker (2)
07/16/17--4th year female

10/09/18--3rd year female

--As of 31 May, the Center's 2020 Yard List stood at 79--about 46% of 171 avian species encountered locally since 1982. (Incidentally, 77 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: Mississippi Kite, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Acadian Flycatcher.

--Our immediate past installment of "This Week at Hilton Pond" was mostly about impact of another big tree lost during a May windstorm. It's archived and always available on our Web site as Installment #721.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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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.