It seems the media has created some of its own climate words and uses superlatives somewhat carelessly; worst storm ever, highest rainfall ever, greatest flood ever, and what the heck is a Polar Vortex? A Washington Post Reader’s Poll coined the phrase Snowmageddon, but it has no meaning in meteorological terms, yet it is quoted in the papers. With all the news about changing weather, I thought I would share some unusual weather terms I discovered.
So let’s start with an easy one: Mare’s Tails are simply cirrus clouds, which mariners and farmers believed pointed towards fine weather. Those are the wispy, filamentous clouds you see on perfect sunny days, miles high in the sky that look like horses’ tails. These are the ones we often stared at as youth, imaging we could see a unicorn or a pony. Asperatus clouds are very dark and gloomy and appear threatening, but despite their ominous appearance, they usually dissipate without causing a storm. An odd feature you might encounter is Mammatus clouds, uniquely shaped, they often accompany severe thunder storms, manifesting themselves as “pouches” hanging below thick, continuous cloud banks. The size of the pouch varies with the amount of moisture in the air, the higher the humidity, the bigger the pouch. Some can even appear differently coloured than the parent cloud, due to light reflection and juxtaposition. Sometimes words are developed to describe how the clouds move, rather than what they look like. Derived from a Scottish word, cairy; cairies are simply swiftly moving clouds.
Moke is an old northern English word that over time morphed into the word mokey; meaning dull, dark, or hazy; and was subsequently applied to describe weather conditions of the same ilk. Foxy weather is sunny, clear and bright, but very cold, while armoganous conditions represent perfect traveling weather. For those who like to air dry their laundry; drouth, an old British word, represents clear dry conditions, perfect for drying your clothes outdoors. Eventually, this word became the familiar word drought.
Haboobs are a worldwide phenomenon, associated with rapidly forming and intense dust storms causing risk, due to the small particulate matter they carry and the speed at which they form.
Words to describe the effects of the sun and moon are equally odd. Heat haze can be called a halta-haze; which means to run frantically around. This derivation is a bit hard to understand and may simply refer to the swirling effects we think we see as the air seems to shimmer under these conditions. Another term for summer’s heat haze has been known as a Lawrence, after the Roman martyr Saint Lawrence, but no one is sure why. A Monkey’s Wedding is, simply stated, a sun shower, but its origins are obscure and may have derived from Portuguese roots. A sunwade is an old Yorkshire word for a haze of cloud around the sun, while a moonbrooch refers to a hazy halo ringing the moon. Moonbrooch originates from an old Scottish word foretelling of impending bad weather.
Many words are associated with weather predictions. Hen-scartins, from the Old English, refer to thin streaky clouds suggesting rain is imminent. Sugar weather is a 19th century Canadian word for a period of warm days and cold nights. These conditions are perfect to start the sap flowing in maple trees. A swullocking sky, from the Old English, is one carrying high humidity, and foretells a thunderstorm is on its way. Ever wonder what you call it when the thunder breaks the silence during a snow storm? Well, according to an article in Newsweek, it’s thundersnow of course!
There are thousands of words people use to describe weather patterns and events. Some arise from folk lore, others from historical inferences and still others from superstitious events and interpretations. Whatever the reason, they are fascinating and fun to learn. Wait is that a brinicle, an underwater icicle forming below sea ice? Join me next time for more nifty words.
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.
Sigh … winter is upon us and the lovely greens of summer are but a faint memory. Amidst this however, some plants keep their greenery and add a splash of colour to the grays of winter. These are the conifers. This is a large group of trees that include spruces, firs, junipers, pines, hemlocks, cedars and yews.
First of all, let’s clarify the difference between deciduous and coniferous trees. Conifers are classed as Gymnosperms. This large group of trees includes the typical conifers listed above and a few unusual species (not found in Durham Region) such as Gynko, Cycads and a bizarre shrub called Clap-weed. All of these have characteristics in common, all are woody, their seeds develop in a structure borne on the branches of the trees (e.g. pine cones), and most contain aromatic resins, to discourage insects and animals from eating them and fungi from infecting these reproductive organs.
Hardwoods or deciduous trees and shrubs have leaves that are generally discarded annually (all at once in the north and periodically for southern species). They are classed as Angiosperms and their seeds develop within a closed ovary. Seems a bit complicated, but suffice to say – if it’s green in winter it’s a conifer! Oh yes, the anomaly is the Larch or Tamarac. This is a conifer, with needles for leaves, that annually sheds all of them just like a deciduous tree would. One type of Larch is the northernmost species of tree in the world.
Now, what about those needles? Are they really leaves and what purpose do they serve? Well yes they are leaves and they serve the same purpose as any leaf. They are responsible for helping the tree make food. They also provide protection to the tree by blocking sun, wind, ice, rain and more from damaging the cones and bark of the tree.
All conifers eventually shed their leaves, but they do it over a long period of time, not all at once like deciduous trees. Sometimes it’s quite dramatic, as in the White Pine. In late September into late October, many brown needles will be seen on the White Pines and it looks like the tree is in distress, but it is not. Under that brown hue of dead needles is a lush new crop that will carry the tree through the winter and into next spring. Cedars undergo a similar needle drop, where large areas in the outer branches are suddenly brown. A few good wind storms or rain help drop those to the ground and the new lush growth becomes evident.
The softwoods (conifers) have softer wood and generally are not good for building fine furniture or cabinetry, but if you need studding, framing or deck boards, they are ideal. Pine is well-known as a soft, but gorgeous wood, used to build lovely tables and cabinets, being softwood, the durability is much lower than maple or oak (e.g. hardwoods).
We’ve all seen the intricate cones that many trees produce, and long-time readers will recall a column I wrote, some months back that explained how to tell a female cone from a male!
Medicinal uses abound for conifer-derived products. White Pine has many traditional uses. The bark is used to make tea to treat colds, coughs, grippe, sore throats and backaches. The pitch was used as a poultice to treat boils, abscesses, rheumatism and inflammation. Our familiar White Cedar also has many uses, including: treatment of arthritis, rheumatism, congestion, headaches, gout, warts, piles, bed sores, fungal infections and urinary incontinence amongst myriad other uses.
Interested in reading more? Look up Princeton’s guide to the Trees of Eastern North America (https://press.princeton.edu). This is a great illustrated guide explaining everything about our eastern trees, both coniferous and deciduous.
So next time you’re feeling gloomy, look outside and enjoy the lovely green of our conifers, and marvel at the incredible life cycle they follow and the amazing uses and benefits they provide us.
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.
With winter on our doorstep, I thought it might be fun to recall some of the amazing birds that have shown up in Ontario this summer and fall. This is not a complete list, but certainly a nice sampling of what came to our province.
The spring migration was good, perhaps even great on some days. Lots of warblers, thrushes, flycatchers, ducks and hawks joined the surge north in April and May. Amongst them was a rare, but not unprecedented, Mississippi Kite. This southern hawk seems to show up annually, at Point Pelee National Park and occasionally elsewhere in the province. This was not a ‘chase-able’ species, meaning it showed up, was briefly seen, then immediately moved on and was not re-found.
Then came late summer and fall and things really picked up! The first mega-rarity was a Purple Gallinule, from the extreme southern USA and Central/South America. It showed up in a Phragmites patch (yes they do have some benefits!), west of Kingsville, and stayed for weeks, to the delight of birders who made the pilgrimage.
Later, in the same area, a first for Canada showed up at Rondeau Provincial Park. The Great Kiskadee is a Central and South American flycatcher that shouldn’t be any closer to us than Texas, yet here it was! It stayed for several days, then disappeared in early September, only to be re-found in early October, where it stayed well into December.
Not to be outdone, the herons put on a good show too, with all the rare ones making multiple appearances. Little Blue and Tri-colored Herons, Snowy and Cattle Egrets, and multiple Yellow-crowned Night-herons were scattered about the province for all to enjoy. These normally southern species come here from time to time, but never in the numbers we saw this year. The reason for the influx, likely has much to do with strong and persistent southerly winds that brought warm weather and exciting birds to us. But the best of the show turned out to be Reddish Egret, which has only been seen in Canada twice before, yet this year one showed up in the Bruce Peninsula and stayed for weeks. Its characteristic feeding behaviour, where it holds its wings over its head and back to create shade, was observed by hundreds of avid birders along the shore of Lake Huron near Oliphant.
And to add a bit of excitement, nearby, a Swallow-tailed Kite put on its own show for over a week, as it hunted for insects over soybean fields near Wasaga Beach. This gorgeous black and white hawk is found, again, in extreme southern USA and beyond.
Late in the season, a call came out about yet another rarity, this time it was a western species. Say’s Phoebe (kin to our Eastern Phoebe – a flycatcher) showed up near Rondeau Provincial Park, then promptly disappeared. Many looked for it to no avail, then in late September, another or the same, showed up at the Old Airfield, at Algonquin Provincial Park. This one was catching small insects, over a period of about 4 or 5 days, sometimes under blustery conditions. In early October, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, the third rare flycatcher this year, showed up near Barry’s Bay, but few got to see it as the bird moved on quickly. Another vagrant from the Arctic, the Northern Wheatear, only stayed a short time as well, near Timmins, was photographed and it too disappeared.
So what is going on? Is this climate change at its best? Well, really no one can say specifically why these birds showed up this year. We must remember, every year rare birds come here and many are seen, but most aren’t. An interesting anecdotal observation is, many of these super-rare birds were first identified by novice birders and reported on social media. Some were unknown to the observer, and they reached out for help in identifying the birds. What a boon for the rest of us! Many of these, in the past, would have gone unidentified and unreported. What a great year it’s been for birdwatchers!
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com, and on LinkedIn and Facebook.
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, ecotour guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.