South Carolina naturalist strives to learn hummingbird secrets

Just when I thought I knew a lot about ruby-throated hummingbirds, I realized that I still have a lot to learn after listening last weekend to naturalist Bill Hilton Jr., one of the South’s foremost hummingbird experts.

Hilton drove over to Atlanta from his home in York, S.C., to share with Atlanta Audubon Society members some of the vast knowledge he has accumulated over the years about ruby-throats, which are nesting now in Georgia and elsewhere in the South.

The nesting season will wrap up in early July. After that, the tiny birds will frenziedly try to fatten up to gain energy for their arduous fall migration back to winter homes in Central America.

As an amateur scientist, Hilton has studied the beloved birds since 1982 at his nonprofit Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History in South Carolina. In more recent years, he has followed the birds to Costa Rica and other Central American countries to study them in their winter grounds.

In Costa Rica, he works closely with Ernesto Carman, a nature guide who also is a keen observer of ruby-throats. Carman also spoke to Atlanta Audubon members last weekend.

Hilton is one of only 150 people in North America with a government permit to capture hummingbirds and attach ultra-tiny metal bands to their legs to track their migrations and learn more about them. So far, he has banded nearly 5,000 hummers at his center in South Carolina and more than 1,000 in Central America — the first researcher to systematically band and observe ruby-throats on both their summer nesting grounds and their winter grounds.

He has packed all of his information and lore about the birds into a remarkably comprehensive website, Check it out: Practically any information you want about ruby-throats is there.

Hilton said that as long as he has studied ruby-throated hummingbirds, he never ceases to be amazed at their toughness. Despite being only the size of an adult human thumb, many of these birds fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico during fall and spring migration, a round trip of more than 900 miles.

One new thing that Hilton has learned from his studies is that ruby-throated hummingbirds not only are very territorial and feisty on their spring nesting grounds, but they behave the same way on their winter grounds.

IN THE SKY: The moon will be full on Friday (May 24) — the "Planting Moon," as the Cherokee peoples called May's full moon, said David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer. Mercury, Venus and Jupiter are very low in the west just after dark. Saturn is in the east just after dark and will appear near the moon on Wednesday night (May 22). Mars is not easily seen right now.