Feathered forecasters

When planning my week’s work – or indeed anything else that involves being out of doors – I usually check four different weather forecasts, and take an average. It’s very seldom that all these different forecasts agree with one another, and not infrequently they all get it wrong. In the 21st Century, we have access to so much technology, historical data and computer modelling software that weather forecasts are better than ever before – and yet there’s still an element of guesswork involved. Before the technological age, though, people often looked to nature for clues as to what the weather had in store for them.

Rain or shine… or maybe both!

Country folklore is bursting at the seams with such things. If the Hawthorns are heavy with berries, a hard winter lies ahead. When the Rooks build their nests high in early spring, it’ll be a dry summer. The emergence of leaves on the trees can also predict whether the coming summer will be a drought or a washout – “Oak before Ash and we’re in for a splash; Ash before Oak and we’re in for a soak”. And, of course, when the cows lie down in the corner of the field, it’s due to rain.

Oak before Ash?

Needless to say, some of this is probably nothing more than superstitious nonsense – or at best, more useful for indicating what has already happened, rather than what is about to happen. For example, the Hawthorns may be fruiting prolifically due to the conditions in the preceding summer, rather than the forthcoming winter. And in all honesty, the cows probably lie down because their legs are tired. But for all my scientific cynicism, there may actually be a degree of truth in some of these old truisms, because at times it seems that our wildlife knows what’s going to happen before we do.

Hawthorn berries – a sign of cold to come, or simply the result of a good summer just gone?

Take this last week for instance. Up until mid-week, it had been unseasonably mild at Forvie. With temperatures up around 16oC, we found ourselves ludicrously overdressed for all but the most sedentary jobs. We also enjoyed quite a bit of unfeasibly warm sunshine, just to add to the illusion of an Indian summer in November. Our annual ditch-clearing work, usually carried out in a Force 7 with sleet hammering in your face, was undertaken in almost Mediterranean conditions – and we naturally ended up with an iron-ochre perma-tan to match.

Mark hard at work with the ditch-rake
Ochre in the Mealy Burn
A very effective (and cheap) fake-tanning medium
Job done – that water level will have dropped then!

The previous Friday, two of our colleagues from elsewhere in NatureScot, Tina and Becky, came to Forvie for their ‘volunteer day’, whereby they were let out of their respective offices for good behaviour (really?) to help us out and see what we get up to on the Reserve. We spent the day lifting beach litter, before having a tour around South Forvie in the last of the daylight, ending with a fabulous sunset to boot. Our guests took a bit of convincing that it wasn’t like this here every day. Anyway, their efforts were very much appreciated, and weather-wise they couldn’t have picked a better day.

Becky and Tina – beach-clean ninjas
They’re always this happy, apparently
A fine summer’s day – in mid-November

But for all that, signs of change were in the air. For several days there was a noticeably heavy southward movement of Pink-footed Geese and, to a lesser but still notable extent, Whooper Swans. After a couple of days of this, Reserve Manager Catriona and I looked at each other and remarked, “What do they know that we don’t?”. At that point it was fine, warm and settled – why the urgency?

Pink-feet heading south
Whoopers on the move

Sure enough though, mid-week saw the weather break. The wind veered northerly and the temperature nose-dived. Overnight frosts gave way to squally showers of sleet, driven before icy winds under a leaden sky. Suddenly we were grateful for all those layers of clothing that we’d been furiously shedding earlier in the week. How quickly things can change here!

Whooper Swans freshly arrived from the north

It appeared almost as if the geese and swans had ‘read’ the conditions several days in advance. Whether there’s any scientific truth in this, I can’t begin to say. Perhaps the birds can sense a change in atmospheric pressure, or are able to interpret the winds and skies in a way that we don’t fully understand. Or maybe it’s just coincidence. But we’ve noticed similar movements on numerous occasions in the past, often just ahead of a snowfall, cold snap or big storm.

Pink-footed Goose – a feathered Michael Fish?

It’s an intriguing mystery – but in an age where we can instantly find the answer to just about any question by tapping on our phones, isn’t it nice to be baffled by the brilliance of nature every now and then?