The Influence of the Weather on Bird Migration


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.

White Wagtail

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.

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.

Showers: How well can we predict them?


Showers are one of the many examples of convective events experienced in the UK, other such events include thunderstorms, supercells and squall lines. These type of events form most often in the summer but can also form over the sea in the winter. They form because the atmosphere is unstable, i.e. warm air over a cooler surface, this results in the creation of thermals. If there is enough water vapour in the air and the thermal reaches high enough the water vapour will condense and eventually form a convective cloud. Convective events produce intense, often very localised, rainfall, which can result in flash floods, e.g. Boscastle 2004.

Boscastle flood 2004 – BBC News

Flash floods are very difficult to predict, unlike flood events that happen from the autumnal and winter storms e.g. floods from Storms Desmond and Frank last winter, and the current floods (20-22 November). So often there is limited lead time for emergency services to react to flash flood events. One of the main reasons why flash floods are difficult to predict is the association with convective events because these events only last for a few hours (6 hours at the longest) and only affect a very small area.

One of the aspects of forecasting the weather that researchers look into is the predictability of certain events. My PhD considers the predictability of convective events within different situations in the UK.

The different situations I am considering are generally split into two regimes: convective quasi-equilibrium and non-equilibrium convection.

In convective quasi-equilibrium any production of instability in the atmosphere is balanced by its release (Arakawa and Schubert, 1974). This results in scattered showers, which could turn up anywhere in a region where there is large-scale ascent. This is typical of areas behind fronts and to the left of jet stream exit regions. Because there are no obvious triggers (like flow over mountains or cliffs) you can’t pin-point the exact location of a shower.  We often find ourselves in this sort of situation in April, hence April showers.

Classic convective quasi-equilibrium conditions in the UK – scattered showers on 20 April 2012 – Dundee Satellite Receiving Station

On the other hand in non-equilibrium convection the instability is blocked from being released so energy in the system builds-up over time. If this inhibiting factor is overcome all the instability can be released at once and will result in ‘explosive’ convection (Emanuel, 1994).  Overcoming the inhibiting factor usually takes place locally, such as a sea breeze or flow up mountains, etc. so these give distinct triggers and help tie the location of these events down. These are the type of situations that occur frequently over continents in the spring and often result in severe weather.

Non-equilibrium convection – convergence line along the North Cornish Coast, 2 August 2013 – Dundee Satellite Receiving Station

It’s useful having these regimes to categorise events to help determine what happens in the forecasts of different situations but only if we understand a little bit about their characteristics. For the initial part of my work I considered the regimes over the British Isles and found that  we mainly have convective events in convective quasi-equilibrium (showers) – on average roughly 85% of convective events in the summer are in this regime (Flack et al., 2016). Therefore it is pertinent to ask how well can we predict showers?

To see how well we can predict showers, and other types of convection, the forecast itself is examined. This is done by adding small-scale variability into the model, throughout the forecast, to determine what would happen if the starting conditions (or any other time in the model) changed. This is run a number of times to create an ensemble.

Deterministic forecast vs Ensemble forecast schematic, dotted lines represent model trajectories, the bright red represents the truth, darker red represents the forecast

Using ensembles we can determine the uncertainty in the weather forecast, this can either be in terms of spatial positioning, timing or intensity of the event. My work has mainly considered the spatial positioning and intensity of the convection, and is to be submitted shortly to Monthly Weather Review. The intensity in my ensemble shows similar variation in both regimes, suggesting that there are times when the amount of rainfall predicted can be spot on. Most of the interesting results appear to be linked to the location of the events. The ensembles for the non-equilibrium cases generally show agreement between location of the events, so we can be fairly confident about their location (so here your weather app would be very good). On the other hand, when it comes to showers there is no consistency between the different forecasts so they could occur anywhere  (so when your app suggests showers be careful – you may or may not get one).

So I’ll answer my question that I originally posed with another question: What do you want from a forecast? If the answer to this question is “I want to know if there is a chance of rain at my location” then yes we can predict that you might get caught by a shower. If on the other hand your answer is “I want exact details, for my exact location, e.g. is there going to be a shower at 15:01 on Saturday at Stonehenge yes or no?” Then the answer is, although we are improving forecasts, we can’t give that accurate a forecast when it comes to scattered showers, simply because of their very nature.

With forecasts improving all the time and the fact that they are looking more realistic it does not mean that every detail of a forecast is perfect. As with forecasting in all areas (from politics to economy) things can take an unexpected turn so caution is advised. When it comes to the original question of showers then it’s always best to be prepared.

This work has been funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council under the project Flooding From Intense Rainfall, for more project details and project specific blogs visit:


Arakawa, A. and W. H. Schubert, 1974: Interaction of a Cumulus Cloud Ensemble with the Large-Scale Environment, Part I. J. Atmos. Sci., 31, 674-701.

Emanuel, K. A., 1994: Atmospheric convection, Oxford University Press, 580 pp.

Flack, D. L. A., R. S. Plant, S.L. Gray, H. W. Lean, C. Keil and G. C. Craig, 2016: Characterisation of Convective Regimes over the British Isles. Quart. J. Roy. Meteorol. Soc., 142, 1541-1553.  


NERC Into the Blue – the Science We Live and Breathe


One of the key aspects of science is communicating our work, not only to other scientists but also to the public. As part of the Manchester Science Festival the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) have been holding a number of events and last week (25 – 29 Oct) Into the Blue (a science showcase) was held at the Runway Visitor Centre underneath the wings of a Concorde. Along with a fellow PhD student from Reading (Kieran Hunt, who helped out on a stand about the monsoon) I was privileged to help man a stand (on flash flooding).

The event was used to showcase all the science that NERC funds from the atmosphere through to ecology. There were 40 exhibits and the chance to take tours of Concorde and the FAAM aircraft.

Concorde (left) and FAAM aircraft (right)

Exhibits involved a variety of interactive activities from making clouds in a bottle, using Infra-red cameras, making rivers in sand boxes, meeting Boaty McBoatface and a virtual reality flash flood!

During the quieter moments at their stands the exhibitors were allowed to wander around the rest of the event (including getting tours on the planes). In doing this we were able to talk to a number of different scientists about their work and engage in all the activities.

Personal highlights for me were touring both the Concorde and the FAAM aircraft. Although the best bit was the interaction with the public and being able to give everyone (no matter the age, from kids to adults) a “wow moment”.

The stand I was helping run was called FlashFlood! This stall was run predominantly by the University of Hull on behalf of the Flooding From Intense Rainfall (FFIR) project. They had created a virtual reality flash flood that was based on a real event (Thinhope Burn, 17 July 2007) which enabled us to place the stand’s visitor into a river valley and take them through the process of flooding from intense rainfall and how floods can change the characteristics of the rivers. It also gave us the ability (because of the case we had chosen) to show people that just because its not raining heavily at your location does not mean you won’t get flooded.


Having virtual reality was a massive draw for people to come to our stand so we were always fairly busy, but the feedback we had was very positive with the most frequent comments being,

  • “It felt like I was really there”
  • “It really helps me to visualise the science”
  • “Wow, this is really amazing”.

Comments like this really make events such as Into the Blue worth while for us as scientists as we then realise we are getting our messages through to people, and it shows the usefulness of scientific research to the public.

Events like this can be exhausting, but they are definitely worth the effort as you get to see the delight of the public as they learn about different science and have fun at the same time.

A big thank you must be said to NERC and Manchester Runway Visitor Centre for organizing and hosting the event and to all the exhibitors who did a great job in communicating science to the public.