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By: Madeline Rae , 8:21 PM GMT on August 24, 2016
Bill Hilton [York, South Carolina]
It was 1982 when Dr. Bill Hilton Jr. made his family’s property in South Carolina a nonprofit nature center. The Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History explores all aspects of flora, fauna and natural history in Piedmont, a swath of land in the eastern U.S. that sits between the mountains and the coastal plain (it used to be the shoreline in prehistoric times when sea levels were higher).
Bill, now Executive Director of the center, has lived and worked on the property for going on 35 years. His special area of interest and expertise is birds, particularly ruby-throated hummingbirds. He studies the various birds that pass through his property and bands many of them to track migration, longevity and whether they have site fidelity to Hilton Pond (that means whether they stick around or come back to the same place or whether they are just flying through).
While many look at weather data to get a view into the future forecast, more often than not, Bill uses his personal weather station (PWS) and other weather data to help explain the past and present seasons. After recently looking at a two-week span of temperature, he noticed that one day was close to freezing. This happened to be around the time when several bird species were beginning to lay and incubate their eggs. The cold ambient temperatures made it hard for the birds to keep their eggs warm and as a result, these early-nesters suffered fairly substantial losses. Without weather data to look at, Bill says he would have a hard time explaining the unusual nest losses.
Bill doesn’t have to look at the numbers, however, to see the impact weather has on the nature center. Hilton Pond, whose water levels rise and fall with the rain or lack thereof, is a pretty accurate rain gauge in itself. There also was a large, 130-year-old white oak tree that towered over the entire 11-acre property. It’s height made it a natural lightning rod when a thunderstorm rolled through one day. The lightning strike blew the bark off the tree and left it with a lightning scar. Bill says that was the beginning of the end of that tree, which fell down a few years later due to a severe rainstorm.
Although he hated to lose the tree, Bill was able to witness the full circle of life as the downed tree opened up a hole in the sky, which allowed more sunlight to the property and led to more herbaceous growth.
Bill’s “pet passion,” as he calls it, is phenology, the study of changing seasons and particularly how it impacts flora and fauna. South Carolina has four very distinct seasons, allowing Bill to clearly see the changes the land and its inhabitants go through during these periods. There isn’t a harsh winter, but a very hot summer. Spring and fall are both pretty short, which means greening after the last frost occurs very rapidly in spring and leaf color change is faster and shorter than that of fall in the mountains. Winters have a fair amount of rain, but less than 12 inches of snow - schools shut down in just 1 inch of snow. The leafless hardwood trees mean there is more direct solar radiation on the property, keeping it a little warmer than if there were pine trees that block out sunlight in the winter.
As a bird bander and long-time naturalist educator, Bill has banded more than 64,000 birds in 35 years, making Hilton Pond Center the most active bird banding station in the Carolinas. The most efficient way to catch birds is by far the mist nets. Imagine a giant 42 x 10 foot hair net strung up between two poles. The mesh is essentially invisible against the background, so birds fly into them and get caught. On sunny days, however, these nets become more visible so birds know to avoid them. When the wind picks up, the nets billow out and they lose the ability to catch birds. Bill also won’t run the nets when it rains. The caught birds can get their feathers matted down, which can be detrimental to them. Extremely hot days can also affect the bird’s health, so mist nets aren’t used then either.
Although these nets are the most effective means of capturing and banding birds, timing their use with the weather can obviously be a bit tricky, so Bill has a number of other traps for use in various weather.
In the wintertime, he focuses on what he calls his “real research” - looking at the ruby-throated hummingbird. They happen to be the most common hummingbird in the eastern U.S., where they breed in the summer before migrating to their winter habitats in Central America. Bill follows the ruby-throats down south, doing research in Costa Rica, Belize, Nicaragua and Guatemala.
With the weather station still at Hilton Pond, Bill can be anywhere in the world and pull up the weather data from back home. As a bonus, he has a webcam pointed straight at the center’s feeders, so he can monitor when they get low and tell his brother when to go fill them up again.
Check out Bill Hilton’s PWS data! And take a look at his website to get periodic updates of the happenings at Hilton Pond.
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All photos © Bill Hilton Jr.
The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.