Winter in Peabody Park at UNCG
A winter natural history calendar for Peabody Park at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, in the Piedmont region of central North Carolina.
THE WOODS of the North Carolina Piedmont are primarily deciduous, and most leaves have fallen from the trees by the first week of December. In the Peabody Park woods, as elsewhere, the fallen leaves carpet the forest floor and return nutrients to the soil. A healthy forest is an efficient recycling system, reusing most of its chemical parts year after year, generation after generation. The rich environment of the leaf litter not only recycles nutrients, but also serves as a home to a wide variety of small animals and fungi that feed on the decaying material.
Once the deciduous trees in the Park have lost their leaves, the various “evergreen” plants become conspicuous, although they are present throughout the year of course. Two species of evergreen pines are common in the Park woods, Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana) and Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata). They are similar in appearance, and both bear their needles in bundles of two, but the Shortleaf Pine actually has longer needles than the Virginia Pine and tends to have darker, more plate-like bark. Around the edge of the former lake bed in the Park fields several White, Long-leaf, and Loblolly Pines can be found as well, planted there in the 1940s when the lake was constructed.
Although it does occasionally snow in the Greensboro area, for most of the winter the ground remains open. On the forest floor in the Peabody Park woods the green winter leaves of the Crane-fly Orchid (Tipularia discolor) stand out, as do the diminutive leaves of the Spotted Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata). And as befits its name, the Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) remains green through the winter, decorating the banks of the Park’s woodland streams.
The weedy plants of the Park fields have all gone to seed by December, and that means the fields are an excellent place in the winter for seed-eating birds. Large flocks of White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) and Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis), occasionally joined by one or two Rufous-sided Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), work their way around the Park fields all winter, feeding on fallen seeds and keeping their eyes open for the occasional hawk that may wish to feed on them.
Sky-watchers in the Park fields can look forward to the annual Geminid meteor shower, peaking around December 13th and radiating from the constellation Gemini.
Despite occasional snow storms, and even more frequent ice storms, most winter days in central North Carolina are above freezing. On sunny slopes in the Park fields on warm January days, and around the edges of warm buildings, you can often find some of the first blooming flowers of the year. Most of these are weedy, non-native species such as the Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and the Common Chickweed (Stellaria media), although some ecologically-similar native species, such as the Ivy-leaved Speedwell (Veronica hederaefolia), may also be found. There are even a few fungi that sprout and grow through the winter in the Park, including the strange, rubbery Tree-ear (Auricularia auricula) which often freezes over night and then just thaws out in the morning and resumes growing.
Tree bark makes an interesting study in Peabody Park in the middle of the winter. Many species of deciduous trees can be readily identified by their bark, such as the American Sycamore (Platanus americanus) with its strikingly mottled trunk, branches, and roots. The Sugarberry (Celtis laevigata) is an uncommon understory tree of the Park woods, but it is easily noticed in winter by its characteristic corky, warty bark. Among the native shrubs in the Park woods the Strawberry Bush (Euonymus americanus) is conspicuous in winter because, although it loses all its leaves, it retains a bright green stem.
Most Park insects are dormant in mid-winter, either as eggs, larvae, or hibernating adults. Even so, on some warm January days you can still find Water Striders (Gerridae) skimming across the surface of Buffalo Creek in the Park fields.
The signs of the coming spring become clearly visible in Peabody Park as early as February. The first migrant birds to return from farther south are usually Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula). They spend much of their time flocking together upon their arrival, and then gradually disperse later in the spring as they select mates and nesting sites.
The first Trout Lily leaves (Erythronium americanum) begin to peek out from the forest floor in mid-February, gathering energy to support a brilliant yellow floral display in March. Late in February the first leaves of the Red Trillium (Trillium cuneatum) also appear, and the Red Maples (Acer rubrum) and the Elms (Ulmus) actually come into full, though very inconspicuous, bloom.
The great nineteenth-century philanthropist George Peabody was born on February 18th, 1795, in South Danvers, Massachusetts. His success in business made him one of the wealthiest men of his generation, and he spent much of his fortune supporting educational causes in the United States and Great Britain. George Foster Peabody, who gave the money that established Peabody Park, asked that the Park be named “Peabody Park” rather than “George Foster Peabody Park” so that it would be associated in people’s minds not only with himself, but also with the earlier George Peabody, who was his distant cousin.
[Last major revision: May 2002]
© RJO 1995–2016