For traditionalists, February 1st, St Brigid’s Day, marks the beginning of spring but this year the usual indicators, such as returning migratory birds, plentiful insects and warmer weather, have only just started to become apparent.
Irish weather is mostly influenced by an Atlantic regime which keeps the country mild and allows spring to start a little earlier here than it does on the Continent. This year, however, high atmospheric pressure over Scandinavia had a chilling effect, blocking warmer westerly winds and bringing in cold weather from the east.
Delayed springs are not unusual, but 2013 has been an exceptionally cold one. Northern Ireland got hit particularly badly, with young lambs perishing in unseasonable snowfalls, but the effect has been felt by wildlife throughout the island.
The bitter March and early April delayed the arrival of migratory birds from Africa, halting their progress as they reached northern France. Birds like the wheatear should have started arriving here in significant numbers about a month ago but "they're still very thin on the ground", according to Birdwatch Ireland development officer Niall Hatch.
Given the inclement weather, any birds that did make it all the way to Ireland would have struggled to find food on arrival. Because cold conditions tend to prolong the pupal stage of insect transformation, the usual emergence of flies, mosquitoes and other creatures was well behind schedule this year. Survival for the few unfortunate swallows that touched down in early March would have been “almost impossible”, Hatch says.
The Irish Wildlife Trust reports similar observations. "There seems to be very few bumble bees around this spring," says campaign officer Padraic Fogarty.
“Normally you’d have lots of bumble bees around this time of year but they don’t seem to have made an appearance . . . everything seems to be quite slow.”
Fogarty says the trust even received reports of bats emerging from their roosts during the day to look for food. “If they are flying around during the daytime it means they’re very hungry,” he says.
But he's not too worried. "Our wildlife is very resilient," he points out.
“It’s been around for hundreds of thousands of years . . . once the temperatures rise we’ll see lots of insects in the air and things will get back to normal.”
And in the past week it seems as if things have indeed started to get back to normal. Hatch has been keeping a close eye on springactive.net, a website that tracks the progress of swallows, cuckoos, and swifts across Europe and Africa. He says last Saturday saw a “big spike” in arrivals in Ireland, especially on southern coastal counties.
That coincided with the declining influence of that stubborn area of high pressure over Scandinavia, clearing the way for milder air to reach Ireland.
"We're back into a nice westerly flow now," says Met Éireann meteorologist Joanna Donnelly. "The Atlantic influence is well and truly back in action."