Colourful birds herald winter

A handsome waxwing
A handsome waxwing

Written by Heather Elvidge

When waxwings arrive from Scandinavia, our thoughts turn to weather. Now the first of these colourful birds are here, will this be a waxwing winter?

In some years huge numbers of waxwings arrive, fleeing the deep chill of Norway’s forests.

The last time this happened was in 2010-11 when flocks were seen in high streets and supermarket car parks, devouring the 
berries of ornamental trees.

Meteorologists say that some signs point to a cold winter. Firstly, the Atlantic off Labrador is unusually warm, which normally leads to a bitter winter for northwest Europe.

They know this because robotic buoys measure ocean temperatures and send information back via satellites.

Second, they think that the shrinking Arctic ice cap is influencing our winters by altering the usual storm pattern, allowing cold air to flood down over Britain.

We’ve already had one Arctic blast. So does the old lore agree?

Taste of winter

Weather lore was based on observation by seafarers and workers on the land. Distilled over generations, it was passed on orally until almanacs set much of it in print.

It must be remembered that natural signs only 
apply to the area in which they are observed, and more than one sign is 
needed before a 
reasonable forecast can be made.

First we have to look back to St Michael’s Day on September 29, which gave the prevailing wind for the next three months.

That day, the wind was westerly.

However, a westerly can swing quickly to the northwest, bringing much colder temperatures.

This is most likely after St Martin’s Day, November 11. Because Martinmas was said to give a taste of winter, folk used to dread a northwesterly.

But the immediate outlook was good, for afterwards there’d be a few fine days known as “St Martin’s little summer.”

The other date is November 23, St Clement’s Day, which is supposed to confirm the general winter trend.

Then consider this: “For every October fog there’ll be snow in winter, heavy or light according to the fog.” Through the Vale of York to the coast we had four full days of heavy fog during October, so perhaps it is time to dust off the sledge.

Folklore says that a mild October means a wintry February, which is what has happened in recent years.

But after a mild start, last month’s temperatures dipped below average, so the real cold could set in earlier this winter.

St Catherine’s Day on November 25 offers a further clue to February’s weather.

Then there are numerous sayings, such as: “If the hare wears a thick coat in October, lay in a good stock of fuel.” This works with cats, dogs and horses too.

“If leaves fall not by Martinmas Day, a cruel winter is on the way.

“When ice in November will bear a duck, the rest of the winter is slush and muck.”

Turning back to science, Victorian meteorologist Alexander Buchan identified a “cold period” from November 6 to 13.

Finally, here’s one for those who grow their own onions. Are they sporting thicker skins this year? If so, that’s another sign of a tough winter.