slow march of spring at 70*N

Subject: slow march of spring at 70*N
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Mon, 13 May 2002 12:27:54 +0200

                                THE SLOW MARCH OF SPRING IN TROMSØ, N.NORWAY

The above title 'jumped out of my subconscience',  and this is also
definitely the way that it has felt to me these last two weeks. But looking
at it more dispassionately, that title is perhaps not altogether
felicitously chosen. Spring in these northerly climates (and
light-climates, not least) is in fact notoriously fast: one has to wait for
it for a long time, and then it suddenly explodes and before you realize,
it is already summer.

 So why does it feel differently just this one year? Is it maybe because I
get steadily older and look forward to spring, more pleasant temperatures
and no longer slippery streets, even more than I did before? Maybe, but I
think this year another factor also plays a major role, viz. the early
disappearance of the snow, giving the false impression that spring has come
longer than it in reality has. For the first time since I moved to Tromsø
in 1973 (and in fact the first time since somewhere in the twenties) all
snow in town had disappeared before the end of April, and now there are
only scattered patches of snow left also on the lower hills, only in shaded
gullies and as the white tongues left by the avalanches of winter.
Ramfjord, the paradise of the ice-fishermen in winter, is completely
ice-free already, and even at Sagvatn at least half of the surface of the
lake was ice-free on Saturday. One automatically assumes, maybe, that
nature will be at the same stage as usually when the snow and ice
disappear, but that is not the case---especially the migrant birds of May
keep to their more or less fixed dates of arrival. And that is maybe what
gives this spring this slight tinge of disappointment. No terns as yet on
the shore, no Willow Warblers dominating the bird chorus, and no Pied
Flycatchers in the gardens taking over the nestboxes from the resident
Great Tits after fierce skirmishes. If you look on the calendar, all this
is as it should be, but if you look outside, one gets the impression that
all those birds 'should have arrived already'.

That is not to say that there are no signs of spring. Especially the
vegetation reacts of course to the disappearance of the snow, and the road
verges and fields are rapidly turning green, while the 'Tromsø palms' (the
big alien Heracleum) already have managed to become several feet high in
the two weeks since they first sprouted.  The Coltsfoot still absolutely
dominates the  scene as a flowering plant, and this weekend I only saw a
single Caltha-plant in flower---they will soon take over the yellow
dominance of spring. On the still brown and mostly lifeless-looking heaths
there is in fact another flower, if you look carefully, but the somewhat
wrinkled small white bells of Arctostaphylos alpina, the Black Bearberry,
do not exactly shout spring all too exuberantly.

In the forest the willows are in full bloom, and some are now also leafing,
and the Rowans have come in leaf, while the alders and birches still are in
bud, so as a whole the forest still looks wintery. Along the road the wild
Raspberries are sprouting and on the forest floor here and there the bishop
staffs of the various large ferns are unrolling, while the slender pagodas
of the forest horsetail stand in serried ranks. Here Bramblings have now
returned in force, and  their tired-sounding rasps dominate the morning
chorus, together with the querulous squeaks and mutterings of the
Fieldfares, and the more musical contributions of the Redwings. Chiffchaffs
keep time, and here and there the metallic jingle of the Dunnocks is heard.

One place there was a commotion, and I stopped and watched because a pair
of Redwings were scolding fiercely (and these are great scolders indeed).
This attracted birds from near and far, and in a short while Willow Tits,
Fieldfares, Bramblings, Greenfinches, a pair of Chaffinches, and even two
male Bullfinches all had joined the fracas, all in their own way, the
Bullfinches saying: 'Would you mind moving away', many of the others: 'Buzz
off', and the Redwings and Willow Tits &#"&**&!!!. After ten minutes or so
of this, the fracas gradually died down, and all the birds disappeared to
their own nearby territories.  I never found out what occasioned the scolding.

At Heia, at 250m a.s.l. south of the Balsfjord, spring had not really
arrived as yet: the first Coltsfoot were in bloom, and there were many
patches of snow left, while the tarns were mostly still ice-covered. But
even here a pair of White Wagtails had taken up territory at the kiosk,
where later all the tourists will stop for coffee ( thus showing good
foresight), while a pair of Wigeons swam in a small icefree crack. At
Sagvatnet, some 150m lower down, most of the ice had gone, and many of the
ducks that nest in this quite shallow and productive lake had returned and
were displaying for full: Red-breasted Mergansers, Tufted Ducks,
Long-tailed Ducks and Goldeneyes, together with Wigeons, Mallards and Teal,
while also the resident Horned (Slavonian) Grebes now are back. A Reed
Bunting sang its stuttering love song from the willows along the lake.

Yesterday I drove out in drizzly, but still mild weather, to Rakfjord, the
wonderful area of marshes and tarns along the Kvalsund, some 30 km NW of
Tromsø. Here once more the ice had gone off the tarns, and in fact the
resident Red-throated Loon already was sitting on its nest, while also the
pair of Whooper Swans, that nest in the area each year, is back on
territory. Many displaying ducks also here, once more with Tufted Ducks and
Red-breasted Mergansers much to the fore, but here also a pair of Pintails,
the male very elegant as always (I saw another male later that day on
Tisnes). The air was full of displaying waders, for which Rakfjord is
always a special place. As usual, the two dominant voices were the Golden
Plover and the Whimbrel, both local nesters on the surrounding heathy
hills, and both extremely evocative voices of the wild. In addition, a trio
of Common Snipe were frenetically flying around, uttering the chookachooka
metronomic call that Snipes often use on the ground; they were at it all
the time, and only now and then one  switched to the more normal 'heavenly
bleating'. Curlews and Redshanks completed a nice slew of waders, while
Meadow Pipits parachuted all around, and I also flushed a small flock of
Twites. No Wheatears as yet, and I missed the resident Arctic Skua
(Parasitic Jaeger), that other birders had seen this day for the first time
this year. Oh well, as all birders know only too well, you can't win them all!

Altogether the two days yielded 51 different birds, 'without really
trying'. Had I continued to the outer coast, I would certainly have added
Shag, Black Guillemot, Willow Grouse, Greylag Goose, Arctic Skua and Rock
Pipit, and maybe a few others. And somehow I also missed the large flocks
of Red Knots that should have arrived in the Balsfjord for their staging
stop, fattening themselves on Macoma balthica shells, before continuing to
Greenland to nest.

                                                                        Wim Vader, 
Tromsø Museum
Tromsø, Norway

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