- Established 1982 -


1-21 January 2023

Installment #796---Visitor #web counter

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Oct 15 to Mar 15:
East of the Rockies please report
your sightings of
Vagrant & Winter Hummingbirds

(immature male Rufous Hummingbird at right)



Each fall the Finch Research Network puts out a "Winter Finch Forecast" predicting whether various northern-breeding finches will migrate south as cold weather ensues. The prediction is based largely on how successful various Canadian trees were at making seeds and nuts during the just-previous growing season. (More seeds means more winter forage available and fewer birds migrating south to find food.) Also a factor for some avian species is the extent of Spruce Budworm outbreaks in the eastern boreal forest. (Lots of nutritious budworms for nestlings result in a productive breeding season that swells a bird species' population and, in turn, leads to more southbound migration because so many birds are competing for cold-weather food). There's an interesting balance between food availability for nestlings in summer and dearth or abundance of food for fledglings and adults during winter.

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

The Winter Finch Forecast includes all sorts of finches--and a few non-finches, too--including some species we'd never expect to see around Hilton Pond. Red Crossbills, for example (rendered above by John James Audubon), remain primarily in northeastern states, although there are disjunct breeding populations in the high mountains of West Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee--even Alabama. (A solitary Red Crossbill was confirmed south of Greenville SC in 2007.) Pine Grosbeaks never come this far south no matter the weather; same, usually, with Common Redpolls (except for a well-documented and photographed individual that showed up in West Columbia SC in 2015).

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

So what did the 2022-23 Winter Finch Forecast predict for finches likely to appear at our feeders this winter at Hilton Pond Center? The following: Good southbound movement of Purple Finches (lots of Spruce Budworms during breeding season with lots of competition back home), fewer Pine Siskins (bumper crop of Canadian spruce cones with seeds), and a rare southern movement of Evening Grosbeaks (male above; as this elusive species chases scattered outbreaks of Spruce Budworms).

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

The finch forecast made no predictions about American Goldfinches (winter male above)--a species that breeds uncommonly in the South Carolina Piedmont but occurs here in big numbers some winters. Forecasters also didn't speculate about House Finches (adult male below)--which are abundant year-round at Hilton Pond Center because of local breeders, even though in fall additional HOFI do still come down from northeastern breeding areas.

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

So how has the Winter Finch Forecast done so far by our reckoning at Hilton Pond? Well, those coveted Evening Grosbeaks never got this far south--eBird shows no records for South Carolina and only a few for North Carolina--which was a big disappointment; we haven’t even seen this species at the Center since we banded 31 in early 1994. (Word is Evening Grosbeaks are already receding northward, so odds of them coming to our sunflower seed feeders are getting lower by the week.)

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

An irruptive non-finch species--Red-breasted Nuthatch (above)--does migrate to the Carolinas some years, and the finch forecast predicted southbound movement in 2022-23. Nonetheless, eBird shows only scattered records for South Carolina this winter; here at Hilton Pond we've seen none lately and banded just 20 in 42 years--the latest in October 2020.

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

The finch forecast was spot on for Pine Siskins (above); we've seen exactly zero so far this winter at Hilton Pond. This is quite a change from the huge irruption winter of 2021-22 when we caught an unprecedented 1,316 PISI. (We might have banded even more had we not temporarily run out of bands partway through the season!) Two our those siskins from that year were found and reported from far-off Washington State, near Seattle!

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

And the forecast was also correct about Purple Finches (adult male, above) that have been by far our most abundant species this winter at Hilton Pond Center. After the first PUFI arrived on 22 November we banded 282 PUFI through 21 January (see chart below)--already more than our 42-year seasonal average of 236--with at least another month to go before Purple Finches begin departing.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center
(Click on chart above for a larger version in a new browser window)

Since 1982, our earliest fall banding date for a Purple Finch was 19 October 1991, but that was far earlier than our typical first date of mid-December. (Incidentally, our latest spring banding was on 24 April 1983--well after the typical late date in early to mid-March.) Often--16 times in 42 winters--our first PUFI banding came AFTER 1 January. In fact, of 9,876 Purple Finches banded at the Center the vast majority (n = 9,370, or 95%) were captured January through April, suggesting PUFI may be facultative (non-obligate) migrants that don't start wandering this far south until food sources diminish up north and weather reaches its coldest temperatures.

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

Unlike House Finches in which young males get their raspberry color during their first autumn season, it takes male Purple Finches two years to go red. That means at your feeder in the Carolinas any brown PUFI (as above) could be a female of any age--OR a young male. Even in-hand it is sometimes not possible to determine a brown PUFI's sex, so don't be calling all those brown ones females! (NOTE: At the bottom of this page is a list of all birds recaptured this week at the Center; included are several "old" Purple Finches--several of which could not be sexed at time of banding but now are confirmed as male or female.)

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

Complicating this are young males that are inexplicably advanced and already have pink wash to their body plumage. Problem is, old females sometimes do the same--as in the one above we recaptured five winters after banding her as a brown hatch-year bird. Nonetheless, females apparently never get as bright as adult males, although it's quite common for older female PUFI to have bright red rumps.

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

And then there are those gold Purple Finches (see above) whose genetics and/or eating habits keep them from laying down red pigment derived from plant matter they eat. We refer to such individuals as being "xanthochroic" (from Greek for "yellow"). We estimate--based on captures--this aberration occurs to some degree in about 1% of PUFI.

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

Anytime we captured a red "normal adult male" Purple Finch last fall we aged it as "after-hatch-year" (AHY) because it had to have hatched before 2022. (Remember, if he hatched in 2022 he'd still be brown.) We couldn't assign him an exact age, so we used the Bird Banding Lab's default designation of AHY. Starting 1 January 2023, however, that same red male would become "after-second-year." (Next year he'll be after-third-year," and so on until maybe "after-twelfth-year"." The longevity record for a banded PUFI is 12-years-plus). What's cool is when we band a young "hatch-year" brown Purple Finch and recapture it five years later as a red adult male like the one above; then we know it's exact age is five years.

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

We do like banding red Purple Finches because we know something about their age AND sex, and this year we seemed to trapping a lot of them. Through 21 January, of the 282 PUFI captured at the Center 66 were adult males, i.e., 23%. To compare, we looked at our winter records and saw that last year (2021-22) only 19% were adult males--which validated our suspicion we were getting more of this age and sex in 2022-23. We searched a bit further, however, and found in 2020-21 we banded 28% adult males, and in 2018-19 the number was much higher at a whopping 37%. (This is an example of why it's better to depend on written records than one's memory!) We don't know what all these percentages mean, but we'll be keeping a closer eye on age/sex ratios in future years.

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

So that's our interim report on finch abundance this winter at Hilton Pond Center. By now we've sadly given up on seeing any "holy grail" Evening Grosbeaks, and it seems unlikely any Pine Siskins will appear--although one never knows with this vagabond species. It looks like American Goldfinches will not be having a big winter; we banded a cluster of 18 in mid-December but now only see one or two per day at the feeders. And we have no idea what happened to all the local House Finches after we banded a bunch of young ones last summer. (In the photo above, there's one female HOFI on a perch at right; all the rest are Purple Finches.)

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

In the near absence of all those other finches, that leaves our plethora of migrant PUFI as our predominant species this winter. Only half-jokingly, we refer to Hilton Pond as THE southeastern epicenter for Purple Finches; on-going eBird reports--and our 9,905 bandings of them since 1982--bear out the claim. And with 282 PUFI banded through the third week in January, we're pretty confident we'll go well over the 300-bird mark for 2022-23 before they all hustle back north to Canada to start looking for Spruce Budworms to feed a new set of future-migrant Purple Finch nestlings.

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

(from our on-going series)

"Never trust a person too lazy to get up for sunrise
or too busy to watch the sunset."

Sunset over Hilton Pond, 07 January 2023

Please allow us, if you will, one final subtle sunset in honor and memory of Norma Laverne Dressler Ballard (mother of Susan Ballard Hilton) laid to rest yesterday in Greenville SC after a long, amazing, and wonderful life of 97 years.
(Gifts in Norma's honor may be made to Hilton Pond Center and Operation RubyThroat. She loved her hummers.)

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

Sunset over Hilton Pond, 20 January 2023

This evening's sunset--facing west with the pond beyond the trees--had a couple of unexpected bonuses: That pinprick of light at left is the planet Jupiter, and at upper right (look hard!) are five Canada Geese winging their way toward some larger pond or lake where they'll wait out the darkness.

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

Don't forget to scroll down for lists of Hilton Pond supporters and of all birds banded and recaptured during the period.

Photoshop image post-processing for this page employs
DeNoise AI, Sharpen AI, and other Topaz Labs tools

"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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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, fellow scientists, and the general public. Please scroll below to the blue section 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/Vimeo (; 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 donors made contributions to Hilton Pond Center during the period 1-21 January 2023.

  • Anonymous (recurring monthly donation of $17; via PayPal)
  • Sue Bridson (repeat donor)
  • Gordon Dressler (repeat "Top Tier" highest supporter)
  • Marie Thirion Fitzpatrick (via PayPal)
  • Quarterly disbursement from iGive (supported by on-line purchases by friends of Operation RubyThroat; enroll at iGive)
  • The friends below contributed via the "Donate" button on one of the Center's Facebook postings or fundraisers; some may be repeat contributors. Several have set up through Facebook to make a recurring monthly donation to benefit the Center. Many are much-appreciated long-time and/or repeat donors.
    --Laura Neath Black & Shelley Hilton (both in memory of Norma Dressler Ballard), Gretchen Locy, Lynn Biasini McElfresh, Ellen Templeton
    * = Past participant in Operation RubyThroat Neotropical Hummingbird expedition

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The Piedmont Naturalist--Vol. 1--1986 (Hilton Pond Press)
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1-21 January 2023

American Goldfinch--
Purple Finch--261
House Finch--10*
White-throated Sparrow--6
White-breasted Nuthatch--1
Song Sparrow--1
Mourning Dove

* = new banded species for 2023

7 species
290 individuals

7 species (42-yr. avg. = 64.5)

290 individuals
(42-yr. avg. =

(Banding began 28 June 1982; since then 173 species have been observed on or over the property.)
128 species banded
77,355 individuals banded

7,190 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds banded since 1984

(with original banding date, verified sex, and current age):
Purple Finch (12)
03/21/19--6th year male
12/23/20--4th year male
01/06/21--4th year male
01/28/21--after 3rd year female
01/28/21--4th year male
01/28/21--4th year female
02/16/21--after 4th year male
02/25/21--4th year female
03/02/21--after 4th year male
03/17/21--after 4th year male

02/13/22--3rd year male
03/03/22--3rd year female

House Finch (4)
12/20/21--after 3rd year female
06/04/22--2nd year female
07/16/22--2nd year male
08/13/22--after 2nd year female

** Notable local longevity for species

---Of 12 banded Purple Finches recaptured this week at Hilton Pond Center, three were banded here on the same day in Jan 2021. Their return within a few days of each other this year suggests they may be traveling together as a flock. If nothing else, they have strong site fidelity for our little 11-acre patch of land in the South Carolina Piedmont.

--A 6th-year adult male Purple Finch recaptured this week at the Center was banded here in Mar 2019 as a 2nd-year brown bird of unknown sex. Maleness was determined when he had red plumage at his previous recapture in Feb 2021.

--As of 21 Jan, Hilton Pond's 2023 Yard List stood at 27--about 16% of 173 avian species encountered locally since 1982. Our record for one calendar year is 111, reached in 2020 & 2021. (Incidentally, all species so far this year have been observed from windows, porches, or the yard around 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, where you, too, can be a "citizen scientist!") New species observed locally during the period 1-21 Jan (list from eBird):

--Our immediate past installment of "This Week at Hilton Pond" was a summary of our 2022 banding results and is archived and always available on our Web site as Installment #795.

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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Current Weather Conditions at Hilton Pond Center

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.