The Influence of the Weather on Bird Migration

Email: d.l.a.flack@pgr.reading.ac.uk

As well as being a meteorologist, I am a bird watcher. This means I often combine meteorology and bird watching to see the impact of the weather on birds. Now that we are well into March my focus in bird watching turns to one thing – the migration.

March generally marks the time when the first summer migrants start arriving into the UK. Already this year we have had reports of Sand Martin, Wheatear, Garganey, Little Ringed Plover, White Wagtail, Osprey, Swallow, House Martin, Ring Ouzel and Whitethroat (up to 9 March), some of which are depicted below.

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Wheatear
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Garganey
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White Wagtail
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Swallow

There are many people that consider the arrival dates of certain migratory species of birds and how this arrival date changes over many years. I do keep extensive records of the birds that I see (and thus arrival dates), but what interests me more are the odd days in the record, and the sightings of unusual birds and working out how they arrived at their destinations.

A good example of this can be found by looking at my first Swallow sighting of the year in Kent and East Sussex. Since I started bird watching in 2001 my first Swallow of the year has moved from around 10 April to between 26-March and 1 April. However in 2013 my first record was 15 April. Then in 2015 and 2016 I saw my first Swallow on 1 April and 27 March respectively (I was in Cheshire in 2014 in late March/early April).

So what happened; why were the Swallows late in Kent in 2013? Well, it all comes down to wind direction. The spring of 2013 was very chilly and along the east coast there were plenty of N/NE winds – this would have provided a head wind so the Swallows would preferentially not migrate up the east coast in those conditions but instead migrate up the west coast where there were southerlies.

So, the wind direction plays a key part in the migration of birds. If conditions are for a tailwind or very light winds the birds will migrate; otherwise they will stay put. However, headwinds can lead to some interesting phenomena associated with bird migration – ‘falls’.

A ‘fall’ occurs when there are a large number of migrants building up along the coastline at a departure point (so for the interest of UK bird watchers Northern France), as they cannot get to their destination. When the wind direction changes the birds will then migrate en masse and quite literally fall out of the sky.

It’s not all about the wind direction though; rain is also a key factor that bird watchers consider when looking at weather forecasts. Essentially, fronts and showers are great for bird watchers. On migration birds will often fly higher than they normally would. This means on a clear sunny day you could easily miss birds passing overhead as they are so high up. However, with the rain the birds will often fly lower, avoiding the in-cloud turbulence. For many of the summer migrants their food sources (insects) also fly lower in these conditions.

This means that a forecast of showers with a southerly wind is generally what I look for from mid-April onwards (particularly as an inland birder), as it means there is a good chance of migratory species turning up – also because then I can head out after work as the evenings are brighter. This is something that I did last year and ended up recording the first Sandwich Tern (photo below (not of the bird I saw)) of the year in Berkshire.

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Sandwich Tern

So in summary, it’s not as simple as just keeping an eye on the wind direction – there are other factors that can influence the birds’ migration and where they will end up. For more information about the impact of weather on bird sightings (considering both rare and common birds) check out my blog.

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