Phil Pickin: the impact of the red sky at night

Wildlife writer Phil Pickin explains how the weather changes the wildlife that we see through the changing seasons...

Nothing impacts on a walk more than the weather and, unsurprisingly, that self same weather has an bearing on the wildlife you are likely to encounter whilst walking. It sounds obvious but if you can read the weather, or at least get a bit of a hint from it, you may well have a better idea as to what you may see and what to look out for.

There is a wide range of weather services out there, from the usual weather forecast that follows most news bulletins to online services including apps on smartphones and tablets. All of these are good at providing detailed information on the conditions nationally and locally but they can’t always take into account local topography and micro climates. However wildlife can and does read these local climatic changes and having done so changes its behaviour. From insects, reptiles and fish to birds and mammals they all react to the changing weather, if not hibernating species wouldn’t survive.


How to read the weather

Even with all our technology there are still a few old sayings and beliefs that help us read the weather. For example, if you stand with your back to the wind and see clouds move directly away or towards you the weather is more likely to be stable. Clouds moving right to left can indicate improving weather and left to right shows deteriorating conditions.

This isn’t foolproof but it can provide an indication, and in the southern hemisphere the opposite directions apply. The old saying of ‘red sky at night, sailors delight’ or ‘red sky in the morning, sailors take warning’ has some basis in science. With sunlight at sunset and sunrise entering the atmosphere at a low angle the amount of moisture in the air will impact on the colour of the light, thus giving the sky a red glow. With the majority of our weather moving from west to east these predictions can be generally believed.

Hints in the home

In summer months sound travels better in moist conditions so this could indicate the increased likelihood of a storm. Moisture in the air can also be indicated by the clumping of salt, as mentioned in the saying‘When windows won't open, and the salt clogs the shaker, The weather will favour the umbrella maker.’ As few of us carry condiments with us, and as many homes are fitted with UPVC windows these days we are unlikely to notice, but if we do have problems with the salt we know what to expect.

Other information you can glean from the environment around you includes the fact that cows hate the wind blowing in their faces so tend to face away from the wind. If it’s west, the the weather has been generally settled chances are this will continue. Settled weather can also be predicted by calm conditions which indicates the dominance of high pressure. Having said that the saying ‘calm before the storm’ does come to mind and can be true. In the winter this calm usually means cold weather as the lack of cloud allows the land to loose it’s stored heat.

The sun breaking through winter clouds  Uffington England

Mind the moss

Other climatic indicators can also help with navigation. Many will have heard of the saying that moss only grows on the north sides of trees. Moss, in fact, doesn’t mind where it’s growing but it does like moisture, so if you are going to navigate by it look for moss that is on a near vertical area. If it’s not too close to the floor there is a chance that the side it’s growing on is staying wet longer and is therefore likely to be in a northerly direction. These and many other indicators can help you when you are out and about and will also help with seeing wildlife by simply observing wildlife itself.

If the weather is going to be stormy and wet most animals will head for cover. Sadly none of these indicators are perfect, but then neither is the weather forecast, but if a few indicators point in a similar direction it’s worth taking note. Enjoy the countryside and the wildlife that surrounds you, and by taking note of what’s telling you you could possibly gain much more from your walk.

Phil Pickin is a photograper, writer and campaigner, with a passion for wildlife and the environment. You can read his previous blogs, follow him on twitter @philpickin and visit his website

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