- Established 1982 -


1-15 August 2020

Installment #726---Visitor #hit counter

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The first half of August is a slow time for avifauna at Hilton Pond Center. Most parent birds have finished with reproductive activities and no longer are saddled with the exhaustive task of feeding ever-hungry nestlings and pesky fledglings. In numerous species post-juvenal or adult molts have begun, with some birds losing enough wing and tail feathers to make flight--and predator avoidance--more difficult; hiding out in dense vegetation is a safe way to spend the day, especially since growing new plumage consumes so much energy.

We're also not yet seeing a fall influx of Neotropical migrants passing through from up north, so we take most of our early August birding enjoyment from watching and banding Ruby-throated Hummingbirds whose numbers are swelling by the day. (As of 15 August 2020 we were experiencing our second-most-productive hummer season since 1984: That's 126 bandings, plus 47 returns from previous years!) Despite an overall reduction in non-hummingbird activity, however, there's still some really speedy stuff going on in the natural world around Hilton Pond--as the following account reveals.

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

One dictionary defines the verb "to mushroom" as "increasing or developing very quickly," with synonyms such as "burgeon, flourish, luxuriate, proliferate, shoot up, spread, and sprout." That term certainly applies to a specimen of Amanita jacksonii (AKA Amanita caesarea, above) that appeared in the front yard one morning this week at Hilton Pond Center. At dawn it was a chicken egg-sized red-orange button barely poking above the soil. Noontime it was recognizable as a mushroom with short stalk, and the photo above shows how it looked just before sunset. By next morning the cap had opened all the way to flatness, with the whole mushroom tipped over like a broken umbrella--lying where squirrels, chipmunks, and an Eastern Box Turtle found it delectable.

Such is the life of a mushroom, which spends the year underground as a root-like asexual mycelium--only to be stimulated by wet weather or some other factor until it bursts upward from the substrate to form that more-familiar spore-bearing structure we photographed. Relative to many natural processes this above-ground phenomenon happens mushroomingly fast.

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

And speaking of speed, we were checking one of the Center's mist nets this week for birds when instead we encountered a couple of Dog-Day Cicadas, Neotibicen canicularis, that flew quickly into the net--in tandem. We extricated the pair and placed them on a dead branch for photos, being careful not to cause their premature separation. We ought not have been concerned: The male (facing right, above) had a firm grip on the female with his claspers, tiny tong-like structures that hold his intromittent organ tight against the female's sex opening while he transfers sperm. (Notice the tip of her cone-shaped abdomen is pointed upward in a receptive posture.)

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

We snapped a few images of this copulatory pose and suddenly the male zipped off--buzzing loudly as male cicadas are prone to do--and very likely in search of another mate. (Actually, female cicadas find the males, attracted by that incessant buzzing.) Left behind after this speed date was a fertilized female that eventually flew off herself, undoubtedly looking for an appropriate twig. There she would cut through bark with her saw-like ovipositor and lay eggs that hatch into nymphs in six or seven weeks. The nymphs drop to the ground, burrow into the soil, and find a tree root they pierce with sucking mouthparts. After two to five years of subterranean life, mature dog-day nymphs exit their burrows and cast off those familiar ghost-like golden exoskeletons (above right) we find in all sorts of odd places. Yes, five years underground seems like a long time, especially after a rapid-fire mating process that took only a few minutes.

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

If you're a tree-hugger like us, you might want to avoid embracing the trunk of this native Honeylocust, Gleditsia triacanthos (above), growing on a slope above Hilton Pond. The tree is an "armored" species, its bark in this case protected by long, sharp daggers capable of inflicting severe pain on the unsuspecting dendrologist who backs into one accidentally. Such a mishap will cause one to hurriedly move in a different direction at a rate much faster than mushrooms sprout or cicadas mate!

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

We've never tasted the smooth-but-pebbly bark of Honeylocust, but based upon sweetness of its seedpod pulp we wouldn't doubt the tree's sap is likewise sugary. This could help explain the advantage of being armored; herbivores aren't likely to take a bite out of thorn-covered bark. But what herbivores would eat tough Honeylocust bark in the first place, you might ask. Paleontologists think megafauna from the Pleistocene Epoch--Giant Ground Sloths, Woolly Mammoths and Mastodons, and other oversized creatures such as deer, bison,and beavers--might have exerted such selective pressure.

Incidentally, those sharp projections on a Honeylocust trunk are true thorns, which are actually modified woody stems. Compare these to roses and blackberries that actually have decurved "prickles"--NOT thorns, despite what poets say! Unlike Honeysuckle thorns, rose prickles arise from epidermal tissue--while cactus spines are modified leaves. The photo above shows new orange Honeylocust thorns from 2020, dark brown ones from last year, and gray ones from sometime before that.

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

When considering things that happen fast in nature one isn’t likely to think about butterflies, which seem to flit about slowly and ever-so-gracefully on a midsummer breeze. Yeah, well, then you've never tried to take photos of butterflies! Some of these colorful winged creatures are deceptively fast, so much so that the best time to catch them with a camera is on cool morning before they get revved up ready to fly. By midday butterflies are flapping all over, speedily looking for nectar plants or--in the case of a female--almost frantically seeking a suitable host plant on which to deposit her eggs. One such lepidopteran is the Red-spotted Purple (female shown above) , whose caterpillars in these parts seem to dine primarily on foliage of Black Cherries, Prunus serotina.

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

Red-spotted Purples, Limenitis arthemis--AKA Red-spotted Admirals--are large blue-and-black butterflies that resemble swallowtails sans tails. They are considered Batesian mimics of the toxic Pipevine Swallowtail, Battus philenor; through such mimicry they minimize predation. Showing an uncommon form of sexual dimorphism, the female Red-spotted Purple is more colorful than her mate, with bright orange spots on dorsal edges of her forewings. Both our photos above were possible because the individuals slowed down long enough to find a patch of moist soil where they engaged in "puddling"--sucking up small amounts of dissolved minerals important for basic metabolism and reproduction. Even while drinking the male rapidly opened and shut his wings, making it difficult to get a sharp exposure.

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

The speediest of all our subjects this week at Hilton Pond Center has to be the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (RTHU, hatch-year male, above), whose wings beat at the eye-blurring rate of about 60 times per second. As usual, our local RTHU population has gradually increased in early August, although the number of adult males with red gorgets decreased dramatically in recent weeks. While a few adult females may still be tending to very late second-brood nestlings by mid-August, adult males are essentially done for the year; in fact, some have already headed south to establish territories on non-breeding grounds in Mexico and Central America. Thus, chances of seeing adult male RTHU at your feeder diminish a little more every day as we march toward September.

Adult male ruby-throats have actually been few in number at the Center the past several years. One we caught and banded on 14 August was just the 15th of the year, following on totals of 16 last year and 15 in 2018. Compare that to our high of 60 in 2015 and 46 the year before that and you start to wonder--without answers--what might be going on more recently.

(NOTE: Those 15 adult males so far this year comprise just 12% of the 125 RTHU banded in 2020--about average for our 37 years of research at the Center. Most summers, adult females outnumber adult males 4:3; we have 32 in the current season--more than double their male counterparts.)

It's likely we won’t catch many more adult male RTHU during the current breeding season. August will be winding down, and since 1984 we've only banded 51 in September--none after the 23rd.

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

That one male Ruby-throated Hummingbird (above) we did capture on 14 August this year looks like he's been through the wringer. He survived the "Hummingbird Wars"--which included vigorously defending a territory and mating with at least one female--so he's probably more than ready to head south. He looks pretty disheveled, in large part because he has already started molting. Notice the pin feathers around his eye, at the base of his bill, and on his forehead. These white sheaths will break away and unfurl the feathers within--we would hope before he migrates--lest the hard, cylindrical structures cause more aerodynamic drag than overlapping feathers.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds--especially adults--do often start their body molt in North America, but they save wing and tail replacement for the Neotropics. It would be bad news to begin flight feather molt just as you headed out from Hilton Pond on a 2,000-mile migration route--no matter how fast you tried to fly.

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 Dr. 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 thoughtful and generous contributions to Hilton Pond Center during the period 1-15 August 2020:

  • Marie Baumann* (mist net fund; repeat Top Tier supporter)
  • Sara Benevente (via Network for Good)
  • Melanie Haney (via Network for Good)
  • Judith Haynes (via Network for Good)
  • Cathy Hutto (via PayPal)
  • Jill Morrow (mist net fund, via PayPal)
  • Susan Joseph (repeat donor; via PayPal)
  • Ginger Klein (via PayPal)
  • Amanda McNulty (via Network for Good)
  • Robert Oesterle (repeat donor; via PayPal)
  • Bob Olson (long-time supporter; via Network for Good)
  • Patricia Rickard (repeat donor; via PayPal)
  • Joan Schramm (via PayPal)
  • The following friends contributed via the "Donate" button on one of the Center's Facebook postings or fund-raisers; some may be repeat contributors via Facebook or other means. Liz Layton*, Jamie Harrelson, Lynnette Halstead, Dawn Headrick, Laura Crompton, Tammie Lesesne, Catherine Wu-Latona*, Mike Brown, Russell Rogers, Gretchen Locy

    (* = 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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1-15 August 2020

Ruby-throated Hummingbird--30
American Redstart--4
American Goldfinch--
Acadian Flycatcher--1
Northern Cardinal--6
Summer Tanager--1
Carolina Wren--4
House Finch--15
Downy Woodpecker--2
Red-bellied Woodpecker--3
Mourning Dove--1

* = new banded species for 2020

11 species
68 individuals

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

952 individuals
(39-yr. avg. =

126 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(Banding began 28 June 1982; since then 171 species have been observed on or over the property.)
127 species banded
70,642 individuals banded

6,481 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds banded

(with original banding date, sex, and current age):
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (0)
None this week.

Carolina Chickadee (1)
08/20/16--5th year male

Northern Cardinal (1)
05/07/18--after 3rd year female

Carolina Wren (1)
01/18/18--after 3rd year female

Tufted Titmouse (1)
07/27/18--3rd year male

Brown Thrasher (1)
09/28/19--after 2nd year unknown

--For the first time in more than a decade, Hilton Pond is full in mid-August. Most summers lack of rain and high hot-weather evaporation rates cause water levels to drop drastically. We suspect evaporation has been slowed in 2020 by the layer of Rootless Duckweed that covers most of the pond surface.

--As of 15 Aug, the Center's 2020 Yard List stood at 83--about 48.5% of 171 avian species encountered locally since 1982. (Incidentally, 81 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: Barn Swallow

--Our immediate past installment of "This Week at Hilton Pond" was about a native vine, woodpeckers, and round-number birds. It's archived and always available on our Web site as Installment #725.

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.