Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History
1432 DeVinney Road, York, S.C. 803-684-5852. www.hiltonpond.org.
When Bill Hilton Jr. bought acreage in rural York County, S.C., in 1982, it wasn’t with an eye toward dipping a fishing line into the one-acre pond: It was the fly-in traffic that intrigued him.
He is an ornithologist, and his passion for birds netted him advanced degrees at Winthrop University and the University of Minnesota. After teaching biology at Rock Hill and Fort Mill, S.C., high schools, Hilton purchased what became an 11-acre spread where he bands birds.
As of midday June 1, he has affixed ID bands to the legs of 57,454 of them.
Hilton is an expert – a national speaker and consultant – and banding is an ongoing project. ID bands help study migration: Hilton Pond birds have turned up in Nova Scotia, Mississippi and the Great Lakes area. It also advances work in “site fidelity”: What kinds of birds return to his place after a seasonal or annual absence? And there’s longevity research: Some birds who visit had been banded eight years before.
He has logged 126 species at Hilton Pond, with house finches the most common (about 8,000). Rarities include fall warblers not ordinarily found in the Piedmont.
Visitors are welcome, by appointment, but what you’ll get isn’t a tour – “Tours are what you get at Disneyland,” he scoffs. Instead, you’ll get a guided field trip from an expert: Your experience is tailored to what birds turn up that day at Hilton Pond, plus any questions you bring or which arise while when you’re there.
(Be sure to ask about ruby-throated hummingbirds, which he bands here. More than a quarter-million have been banded in North America... but none of them have been found in Central America, where the species winters. Hilton is trying to solve that mystery here and on trips to Belize, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. One ruby-throat he banded in Costa Rica did eventually turn up near Savannah, Ga.)
The trails are flat and cleared, though not handicap-accessible. The land was once a farm; Hilton and his wife have let the fields revert to a natural mix of hardwoods and pine.
On the field trip, which usually lasts 21/2 hours, you’ll get to hold birds (caught in nets or traps) as he bands them, and then you can release them to the wild. Visitors come in all age groups – “K to gray,” is how Hilton puts it.
“Group” is the key word in planning your field trip. The cost is a flat $150 for up to 15 people: Go with 14 others and the per-person cost is just $10. Hilton can handle up to 20 visitors at a time, with the additional five charged $10 apiece.
Wear comfortable shoes; you’re free to bring camera and binoculars.