We Irish really are poor when it comes to cold weather and snow. All it takes is for a single flake of snow to fall and motorways are jammed for hours, schools are closed down and people shut themselves in with enough food to last them a year. This is the scenario that faces Ireland this week as warm temperatures have reached the Arctic Circle and displaced the ‘Polar Vortex’ (a large area of polar low pressure that keeps the Arctic cold) further south. As a result, the forecasters are predicting a week of bitingly cold easterly winds and snow in Ireland. This is further complicated by the imminent arrival of Storm Emma later in the week. This will track up from the Bay of Biscay carrying moisture that, when meeting the polar conditions, is forecast to dump large amounts of snow in blizzard-like conditions.
While we can somehow manage such unexpected freezing weather, how do birds cope with these conditions?
The truth is that birds find such weather conditions really difficult, especially at this time of the year when natural food supplies like berries and wild seeds are now depleted. By this time of the year, there is little food left for them out there. Birds need to constantly eat to maintain their body weight. They need to pack on enough calories each day to sustain them through freezing nights…and the temperatures are forecast to drop as low as minus 10 this week. Some birds require to eat as much as one third of their body weight each day just to survive.
In such weather conditions, birds in Europe can survive for reasonable periods of time provided there is enough food but, with those food supplies now gone and Europe gripped by the polar conditions, birds may be forced to sweep westwards in search of food and milder conditions. Normally they will find these conditions if they arrive into Britain but it too is now gripped by freezing conditions. So the birds may continue pouring out of Europe and Britain, and began arriving into Ireland. Our climate is dominated by the warm Gulf Stream so, despite our high northern latitudinal position, we usually enjoy mild, damp temperate winters. However, if birds arrive into Ireland this week, they will find that, along the east coast at least, we will also be suffering severe weather.
In my own garden here in Wicklow, I can already see a big increase in the number of finches and it seems there are more Song Thrushes around. Are these birds that are moving in ahead of the polar weather, or simply birds that have come into the garden in search of the food I’ve put out? At this stage it’s hard to be 100% sure but I suspect that this week we will witness a big arrival of birds along the east coast.
Thankfully, it seems that this will be a short-lived extreme weather system. When such events are prolonged, the impacts on birds can be very dramatic and the ‘big chills’ during the winters of 2009/10 and 2010/11 will be long remembered for the toll they took on our birds. In those winters, the whole of Europe was in the grasp of unprecedented winter weather and, as snow began falling in Ireland, ‘winter thrushes’ like Fieldfares and Redwings were pouring into the country. Song Thrushes, and Blackbirds seemed to be everywhere. It seemed that thousands of birds were arriving along the east coast of Ireland and moving away from the freezing conditions in Europe. It was obvious that the European weather was driving enormous numbers of birds westwards.
My bird feeding stations were heavy with Siskins, Goldfinches and Redpolls. These finches were arriving in bigger and bigger numbers as the days passed. Even the shy and retiring Bullfinches seemed to be in every tree. They too were European birds and were fleeing the terrible weather that now had the whole of Europe paralysed. During those winter’s nights, I stood at my door and listened to the calls of Redwings and other thrushes migrating overhead. They were still arriving in thousands. Even during daylight hours flocks of thrushes were constantly flying over, many were not even stopping but heading further inland. I could only imagine how hungry and weakened these birds might be.
While many snowy revellers built snowmen and enjoyed the fun of the snow, I became more and more aware of a great bird tragedy beginning to unfold. In Kerry, I encountered thousands of birds in such a weakened state after weeks of freezing weather, that I was lifting them out of the way of cars in the car parks around Killarney. These birds were unable to fly. They had used up all of their reserves.
Others reported seeing tens of thousands of thrushes, desperate to find food, actually flying out into the Atlantic Ocean from headlands along the Cork and Kerry coasts. These birds, having crossed the whole country in the hope of finding food and respite from the weather, felt they had no option but to continue westward. They stood no chance…they were doomed as they headed out into the vastness of the Atlantic. These suicidal flights were witnessed off many headlands. Just how many birds died during those winters we will never know but it had to have been in the hundreds of thousands.
Such scenes of absolute desperation in birds are rare events but the scenes I witnessed during those winters are embedded in my mind as a stark reminder that so many of our birds are vulnerable in so many ways. While I don’t expect the ‘Beast from the East’ is going to have such a dramatic impact, I will make sure that I do my bit. My feeders will be full, seed will out on the ground, apples stuck on the trees and fresh water put out each morning.
If such simple acts make a difference to just one weakened, hungry and exhausted bird fleeing the extreme European polar weather, then that is a difference worth making.