Winter Ecology

While we may think of winter in the garden as a barren season when most creatures and plants are gone, there is a surprising amount of life to be found even on the coldest days. In Madison Square Park, we plant and care for our gardens year-round to keep the Park full of life. 

 

Winter EcologyAround this time of the year, most of our plants have lost their leaves and are starting to go dormant, but we have a sizeable number of evergreen shrubs that will remain green throughout the year. While some of these are purely decorative, we have quite a few hollies that are distinguishable by their sharp, glossy foliage, and bright red berries. These berries will ripen over repeated freeze and thaw cycles throughout the winter, providing an important food source for birds that nest in the Park rather than migrating south. Some plants that bloom earlier in the year, including beebalm, hibiscus, and butterfly weed have already died out for the year, but they have left behind stems and seed pods that provide an additional source of food for our winter birds.

 

Winter EcologyWhen other birds have flown towards warmer regions, a select few remain in the city for the winter, nesting in trees, shrubs, and even in large enough piles of leaves. Thanks to the work of local birders and online data collection platforms such as eBird, we have been able to keep track of what birds are visiting the Park. During the cold months of December through February, woodpeckers visit the Park. The red-bellied woodpecker and the yellow-bellied sapsucker are two species of woodpecker that you may spot nesting in tree cavities. Both species drill holes into trees in order to eat insects, but the yellow-bellied sapsucker drills “sap wells” where it attracts insects to the sap while also drinking it. The brightly colored blue jay is another vibrant winter visitor to the Park, preferring to nest in the forks of trees and notable both for its bright blue feathers and its loud calls. These gorgeous birds are not picky eaters and will forage food from any available source, up to and including storing acorns in the ground for later consumption. 

Winter EcologySpeaking of winged animals, there are some unique insects that live in tandem with our witch hazel collection. Because witch hazels flower in winter, often as late as January or February, they are faced with a dearth of active insect pollinators. However, a group of interesting moths in the genus Eupsilia, part of the owlet moth family, are among the principal pollinators of witch hazels. These cold-hardy moths remain hidden from the cold during the day, but during the night they emerge to find tree sap to feed upon. They shiver in order to raise their body heat to a temperature high enough for their wings to work, then take off on short flights from tree to tree, stopping often to warm themselves up again. These moths are attracted to the nectar of witch hazels, which are among the only flowers open at this time.