Cold Blows the Wind

Windmills. Useless without wind.

Windmills. Useless without wind.

I’ve always been fond of blustery days. And not just as part of the weather obsession that led me from youthful attempts to fashion a homemade Stevenson screen out of an ice cream carton, all the way to a degree in meteorology and subsequent swiftly aborted career in the same field.* I enjoy the way a bracing wind puts us in our place, reminding us that our dominion over the earth and her elements is not yet complete.

A stiff breeze brings drama, too; indeed, it can make it feel as though all the world really were quite literally a stage, and the shifting, creaking trees mere props, flimsy wooden frames that change with each scene and might come crashing down altogether at any moment. Leaves and branches are a swaying, swishing spectacle. Birds are flung hither and thither, displaying in their attempts to remain airborne a varying degree of mastery over the weather from unfazed kite to careening woodpigeon.

Flags. Rubbish without wind.

Flags. Rubbish without wind.

In its slightly untamed way, the wind must be quite beneficial for wildlife. It aids the dispersal of seeds and small insects. It rings the ecological changes by bringing down large branches, sometimes whole trees, which provide dead and rotting wood habitats for various invertebrates, fungi, and the creatures that feed on them. Back in the pre-modern British wildwoods a good storm would have been, alongside fire (and depending on which paleoecologists you listen to, herds of super-sized mammalian herbivores) about the only source of widespread tree felling, opening up ground for early successional vegetation.

But I wonder if the wind can be problematic for mid-sized flying animals, those that are too big to be carried far, or at least have no present need to disperse in an uncontrolled fashion, yet lack the power and agility of the rudder-equipped red kite. By way of example, earlier this year I stumbled across a French study which found a link, based on several decades’ worth of swallow nest records, between unusually windy summers and poor breeding productivity. Whether this is because swallows – which feed on the wing – find it more difficult to glean insects from a turbulent air mass, or because there are fewer insects actually flying about for them to catch, I couldn’t say.

Seawatching. Potentially dull without wind.

Seawatching. Potentially dull without wind.

And as a naturalist I’m as debilitated by strong winds as are hungry hirundines. Not only is it unkind enough to frequently carry in from the north or east air of such utter frigidity that my whole face, hands and feet are numb within minutes, a strong wind plays havoc with almost any form of survey I can think of. Scudding by on a gust, birds may look spectacular, but they’re a lot harder to hear, and often harder to see in a world that’s suddenly all in motion. The movement of invertebrates is similarly obscured by the restless vegetation around them, and funnily enough this makes plants hard to look at closely too. Windy weather can leave carefully planned fieldwork schedules as useless as a broken umbrella.

All this serves to temper my ‘ventophilia’, to coin a word. These days I’m cursing the wind as often as I’m praising it. Still, if I ever moved somewhere with a calmer climate I’d miss the protracted blowy spells we get in the British Isles; the ones which make it feel as though, as I often say, we’re ‘living at sea’. Keen as I am to see plenty of settled conditions over the next few months, such that my scope is steady and the birds sharply in view, I’m also looking forward to days where there’s nothing to do but go out, spread my arms wide, and go wherever the wind takes me


*When I say swiftly, I mean as in never actually got so far as securing a job! Perhaps ‘career’ is too strong a word!


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