Migratory bird mystery solved

Researcher says bird crash in 1940 can help predict bad weather today

Kerry Finley at last year’s All Buffleheads Day event. The local researcher says he has solved a mystery dating back to 1940.

Kerry Finley believes he has solved a mystery that dates back to the 1940s and involved the disappearance of Bufflehead ducks on a large scale.

The Sidney researcher and observer of Buffleheads for the last 16 years, Finley has linked an unusual weather pattern noted in 1940 with the crash in the population of the birds at that same time.

Finley is a biologist who spent 14 years at Isabella Bay on Baffin Island, sponsored by World Wildlife Fund, National Geographic and the Canadian government, developing links between the area’s British whaling history and the role of oceanography and climate in biological productivity. He now lives in Sidney and monitors Buffleheads and their migration to Roberts Bay.

Finley said his research — which began with his own father telling him tales about what happened at the time when the family lived in Saskatchewan — led him to weather reports around the time of the Second World War. It also brought him back to Saskatchewan to interview people who witnessed an extreme weather event that killed off many of the ducks.

“It happened at night,” he explained, “and became part of local legend along the Yellowhead corridor. In my interviews, I found that people noticed that the weather had changed drastically and caused the crash.”

In researching the weather patterns at the time, he came across a paper published by Swiss meteorologists who had studied German weather documents from the 1940s.

“They found that (the Germans) had discovered a stratospheric event in 1940 that hit the atmosphere … and manifested in strange weather patterns around the world,” Finley said.

It occurred abruptly, ferociously on the prairies in Canada, he continued, causing temperatures to plunge. His thesis is that the Bufflehead were in a migration at that time and were hit by the extreme drop in temperature.

Finley has postulated that Bufflehead, not unlike other migratory birds, make their massive annual movements based, in part, on the changing weather.

“Last year’s early influx of Bufflehead on a very large scale foretold weather events of an extreme nature on the coast,” he said.

“They make use of the weather patterns and they are the most punctual in the world due to physiological aspects,” Finley said, noting the birds also react to light, air pressure and temperature — which kicks them out of their summer habitat very abruptly.

Based on what he found in weather patterns in Saskatchewan in 1940, Finley said he’s better able to understand what happened and to better predict today when the Bufflehead arrive — and the weather they bring along with them.

It’s the basis of an algorithm he has developed which he said has application in terms of forecasting large-scale weather systems in the Northern Hemisphere. Such a finding could have, he said, potential to impact aviation (weather and migratory bird conflicts) and climate research.

The Bufflehead, he said “are really good indicators of climate patterns.”