Spring in Peabody Park at UNCG
A spring natural history calendar for Peabody Park at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, in the Piedmont region of central North Carolina.
THE WOODLANDS of the North Carolina Piedmont are predominantly deciduous, and once the canopy of trees closes over late in the spring very little energy-producing light reaches the forest floor. A number of species of wildflowers that can be found in the Peabody Park woods take advantage of the open canopy of the early spring to reproduce and store up energy before the shade closes in over them.
One of the first of these flowers to bloom in March is the Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana), found at only one location in the Park. Another March ephemeral is the Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), also found at only one location in the Park. It produces a chain of tiny white flowers, each of which lasts for just one day. Trout Lilies (Erythronium americanum) are among the most spectacular of the early-spring wildflowers of the Park, their brilliant yellow nodding flowers rising up from a carpet of dark green mottled leaves. In just a few short days the Trout Lilies store up a year’s supply of energy in an underground bulb, and then the flowers and leaves wither, only to reappear the following spring.
The conspicous Red Trillium or Little Sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum) is one of the more common March flowers of the Park, along with the May-apple (Podophyllum peltatum) which produces a nodding white flower under an umbrella of dark green leaves. May-apples spread by underground rhizomes as well as by seed, and large colonies of them carpet the ground at several locations in Peabody Park. The graceful White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), slightly smaller than the Red, is another species that blooms in March at only one Park location. Two species of Wild Ginger or Heart Leaf (Hexastylus spp.) also occur in the Park, one of them represented by only two individual plants. The remarkable flowers of Wild Gingers are shaped like tiny jugs, and they rest directly on the ground at the base of the plant under the leaf litter where ants and beetles crawling on the forest floor pollinate them.
Between the forest floor and the still-open canopy, an understory of flowering trees spreads out through the Peabody Park woods in March. Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), the state “flower” of North Carolina, is perhaps the most conspicuous of these, with its showy white bracts surrounding clusters of small green flowers. The Eastern Redbud or Judas Tree (Cercis canadensis), a member of the pea family, is the other principal tree the Park understory. Its spectacular magenta flowers sprout directly from the trunk and branches in March, well before its large, heart-shaped leaves appear later in the spring. The dramatic spring displays of Dogwood and Redbud have made both species prized as ornamentals in many parts of the country.
March also brings a number of early-spring migrant birds to Peabody Park, some of which will stay to breed during the summer. Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) are the first members of the flycatcher family to arrive. Their distinctive tail-wagging behavior is readily seen and their loud phee-bee call is one of the first to be heard in the Park woods each year. Ruby-crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula) also appear in March on their way to breeding areas in the mountains and farther north. The tiny red patch on the crown of the male is rarely seen, but the loud song—remarkably loud for such a tiny bird—is often heard. Carolina Wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) also begin to sing during March as they stake out their territories for the coming breeding season. They remain in Peabody Park all summer. Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) also appear in March, sometimes even in February, and remain in the Park through the summer to breed. Great Horned Owls have been heard in the Park at night during March at least once in recent years.
On the 11th of March in 1902, the year after Peabody Park was established, Professor T. Gilbert Pearson brought together on the campus a group of students and faculty interested in bird protection, and this meeting founded the Audubon Society of North Carolina, with Pearson as its first executive secretary. Pearson went on to form the National Association of Audubon Societies (now the National Audubon Society), and to become one of the most important conservationists of the twentieth century.
Many of the Park’s trees leaf out and bloom during the month of April. The beautiful yellow flowers of the Yellow Poplar or Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), a member of the Magnolia family, are perhaps the most conspicuous and delightful to see late in April. Also toward the end of the month the fragrant Sweet-shrub or Spicebush (Calycanthus floridus) comes into bloom in a small section of the Park woods. Its deeply-cut maroon flowers have a very unusual scent that is described by different people as being like either spiced apples or paint thinner. A small colony of Rattlesnake Ferns (Botrychium virginianum) emerges at one location in the Park in April, each stalk bearing one large triangular sterile leaf, and a small fertile leaf that produces the spores by which the fern reproduces.
Many migrant birds arrive in the Park in April. Common Yellowthroats (a warbler species, Geothlypis trichas) arrive early in the month, and sing loudly in the woods along the creek beds. They are usually hard to see, but when they are seen their bright yellow breasts and jet black masks make them unmistakable. Later in the month Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) arrive, and their twittering calls overhead are one of the surest and most delightful signs of the return of spring. These “flying cigars” feed all day on aerial plankton, and roost and nest in chimneys or hollow trees. For the remainder of the spring and summer they will be visible every day flying over the Park’s woods and fields. Hermit Thrushes (Catharus guttatus) also arrive in the Park in late April. The earliest of three similar species of thrushes which have been seen in the Park woods, Hermit Thrushes can be identified by the contrast between their rufous tails and their more grayish backs. Also in late April one of the few truly migratory species of insects in the United States returns to Peabody Park, the orange and black Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus).
Late in April the Bulbous Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus) blooms abundantly in the Park’s fields along Buffalo Creek. This familiar non-native species is readily identified by its folded sepals and by the large underground bulb from which it sprouts. Several species of tiny yellow Hop Clovers (Trifolium spp.) may also be found on lawns and other sunny spots in the Park in April. Like the more conspicous White Clovers (Trifolium repens) and Red Clovers (Trifolium pratense), the Hop Clovers have a compound flower head made up of many individual tiny flowers. Clovers are members of the pea family, and like all members of the pea family they play a vital role in converting atmospheric nitrogen into soil compounds that can be used by other plants.
In April of 1997 comet Hale-Bopp visited Peabody Park for the first time in about 5000 years. (It actually visited the entire inner Solar System, not just the Park.) The Peabody Park fields provided excellent Hale-Bopp viewing opportunities. The last time this particular comet appeared in these skies the entire North Carolina Piedmont was covered by millions of acres of dense forest that were very much like the small section of forest which remains today in Peabody Park.
May is the heaviest month of the year for bird migration in Peabody Park. Many species of warblers (Parulidae) migrate through the Park in May, among them the Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia), the American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), the Worm-eating Warbler (Helmitheros vermivorus), the Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia), the Northern Parula (Parula americana), the Blackpoll Warbler (Dendroica striata), the Black-throated Blue Warbler (Dendroica nigrescens), and also the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata) which is actually a winter resident on campus although its numbers increase during April and May. The ground-dwelling Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapillus) has also been found in the Park, although the area it occurred in most frequently has since been destroyed by construction.
Swainson’s Thrushes (Catharus ustulatus) and Wood Thrushes (Catharus mustelinus) also arrive in the Park in May. Swainson’s Thrush is the more common of the two, and its rising song is often heard in the Park’s woods at this time of year. The Wood Thrush has one of the most beautiful songs of any North American bird—a loud and liquid rolling and bubbling sound that rings through the trees. The Wood Thrush is less common in Peabody Park than Swainson’s Thrush, though it has been known to nest in the Park on at least one occasion.
Other May migrants include the Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus), a brown and yellow bird of the canopy and forest edge, the Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus), an often heard but rarely seen insect feeder of the canopy, and the red and black Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea), one North Carolina’s most spectacular birds.
Several species of woodland flowers bloom in the Park in May. Two of the most common are the Solomon’s-seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and False Solomon’s-seal (Smilacina racemosa). These plants of the forest floor are similar at first glance, but the Solomon’s-seal bears yellowish flowers that hang down under the leafstalk, whereas the whitish flowers of the False Solomon’s-seal appear in a cluster at the stalk’s end. The inconspicuous green flowers of the Strawberry Bush (Euonymus americanus) also appear in May. Later in the fall these flowers turn into very conspicuous orange capsules bursting with bright red fruits. In bloom along the branches of Buffalo Creek in May you can also find Yellow Iris (Iris pseudacorus), a non-native but strikingly beautiful species that has escaped from cultivation and become naturalized in the Park.
[Last major revision: May 2002]
© RJO 1995–2016