'Gulls in the harbour - storm at sea'

Published in Nature Watch

Birds as weather forecasters

Kingfisher - symbol of 'Halcyon Days' Kingfisher - symbol of 'Halcyon Days' Photo: Steve Jones

 Mankind has had an understanding of the weather and meteorology from time immemorial up to the present day, according to Marko Vučetić from Hvar, well known to the Croatian public for his work in the Agrometeorological Information Department at the Croatian Meteorological and Hydrological Service.. Marko and his wife Višnja are co-authors of the invaluable book 'Vrijeme na Jadranu, meteorologija za nautičare', a guide to meteorology for sailors published by Fabra d.o.o., 2013. Besides this, in the course of his long and distinguished career as a meteorologist Marko has published numerous professional and scientific works, covering not only the purely physical laws of the atmosphere, but also the human perceptions, experiences, traditions and popular expressions which have arisen from them.

Cranes over Dol, November 2016. Heralds of winter? Photo: Steve Jones

Hvar Island has several typical dialect sayings related to the weather and the seasons, such as 'Sv. Ivon - hod' iz poja von', which translates literally as 'St. John - come out of the fields', and means that from St. John the Baptist's feast day (24th June) farmers should take a break until it's time to harvest the lavender a few weeks later. 'Svieti Antuonij Opat – vazmi motiku i puoj kopat' - 'St. Anthony the Abbot - pick up your mattock and start digging': this means that from the saint's feast day on 17th January, the period of rest following the end of the olive harvest is now over and it's time to resume work in the fields, fertilizing, pruning and preparing the soil for the spring planting. 'Sv. Fabijon kreši uru don' - 'St. Fabian - the day has an extra hour': from the feast day on 20th January, work in the fields lasts longer.

'Kandelora - zima fora, svi kosići priko mora. Za njon gre svieti Blaž i govori da je to laž' means 'The feast of Candlemas (2nd February) marks winter's end, all the songbirds are arriving across the sea, but then comes St. Blaise (3rd February) who says it's all a lie'. There are various versions of this saying, warning that winter is not necessarily over at the beginning of February, the weather can suddenly still turn for the worse, however mild it seem at that point. The saying 'Poslije svietog Matija svaka ptica propiva' means 'After St. Matthew's feast day (24th February) all the birds burst into song', marking the start of spring.

Storks in Jelsa, September 2017, on their way south. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Birds, in their way, can be weather forecasters, sometimes foretelling cold weather, sometimes warmer.

We hear a lot about cranes (Grus grus), storks (Ciconia ciconia), swallows (Hirundo rustica) as heralds of changes in the seasons, and especially the coots' 'wedding dance' in the Neretva valley which marks the end of winter and the start of spring. So which birds does Marko Vučetić consider significant as weather forecasters on Hvar? These are the ones he highlighted.

Grey wagtail, wren, gull and kingfisher

Grey wagtail. Photo: Steve Jones

"As examples we can cite the grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea), wren (Troglodytes troglodytes), yellow-legged gull (Larus cacchinnans michahellis) and kingfisher (Alcedo otthis). When the grey wagtail and wren arrive on our islands from the mainland, they herald a cold spell with really bad weather.

Grey wagtail: bad weather on the way? Photo: Steve Jones

Similarly when the Eurasian woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) migrates to the islands, it's a sign of bad weather on the mainland, hence the folk saying: 'Šljuka na škoj sleti kad Zagora zaledi', 'The woodcock lands on the island when the hinterland turns icy'.

Wren. Photo: Steve Jones

Hvar islanders have their own weather-forecasting bird in the sea-gull.

Yellow-legged gull. Photo: Steve Jones

When this well-known bird settles on the acroterion of Hvar's historic Arsenal on the waterfront, it is a sure sign of imminent bad weather. There is a folk saying describing this: 'Kalebi u portu - nevera u kulfu', - 'Gulls in the harbour, storm at sea', but whether the accompanying wind will be a fierce south 'Yugo' or north 'Bura' remains to be seen."

Yellow-legged seagulls. Photo: Steve Jones

Marko Vučetić has described in detail the mythical saga of the kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) in his scholarly work 'Vrijeme i klima Jadrana u antičkih pisaca' - ['Weather and climate on the Adriatic in the writers of Antiquity'], linking this colourful bird with the winter maestral wind, or rather with the phenomenon known as 'Alcyone's days'. Kingfishers live close to water and feed on fish and small aquatic organisms. At the seaside they use their long beaks to batter little crabs, which has earned them the name of kovoc (blacksmith) on Brač and kovačić (little blacksmith) in Stari Grad on Hvar. In winter they nest in the ground on steep rocks, which has given rise to toponyms such as Punta kovača near Podstine in Hvar Town and near Soline on the islet of sveti Klement in the Pakleni Islands off Hvar.

So what are 'Alcyone's days'?

In Marko Vučetić's words: "In winter it is not often that the sea is totally calm and smooth as oil - known as bonaca k'o uje in local dialect - but it can happen. When it does, it is a marvel which from time immemorial has been attributed to the gods. In Ancient Greek mythology the leading role in this is attributed to Alcyone whose deep love for her husband Ceyx, King of Trachis, was shattered when he died in a shipwreck. When she heard Ceyx had died, in her grief she headed into the sea. The gods took pity on the enamoured couple and turned them into kingfishers, generously arranging that when the kingfishers were nesting, around the time of the winter solstice, the sea would become totally quiet, and could remain so for about two weeks. This is the link between kingfishers and the calm sea in winter, which the Ancient Greeks called 'Alcyone's days', [giving rise to the English name 'Halcyon days'].

Kingfisher, January 2018. Photo: Steve Jones

In our region, this winter calm weather is related to the experience of the winter maestral wind. Such weather does not usually last long - most often just three days - and it is in fact a sea breeze, a wind within the coastal ambit, which in this case circulates from the sea towards land when the weather is stable. As it cannot last in winter time, it is most often the precursor of the Jugo (south wind), bringing with it bad weather. Once upon a time the winter maestral had special significance for Dalmatian fishermen and seafarers, especially in the age of sailing boats, which would mean that careful research might reveal that we too may have our own links with the Alcyone Days."

Mirko Crnčević

 © Mirko Crnčević / Dobra Kob (no.259, April 2023)

Translation: Vivian Grisogono

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