Tromsø, at 70*N

Subject: Tromsø, at 70*N
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Sun, 20 Jul 2003 15:14:49 +0200

                        TROMSØ, N. NORWAY, 70*N, FAR  NORTH, BUT NOT ARCTIC

Since 1998 I have sent in short reports on the seasons and the bird life in
Tromsø, N.Norway; shortly after starting out, I think I included a short
report on the town and its surroundings, but now many of the subscribers
will be new since then, and several people have asked me questions about
'my town', so I have decided to furnish some general information once more.

To begin with, Tromsø is not really 'my town': I did not grow up here. I
moved from my native Holland to Norway (in first instance Bergen) in 1965,
when I married a Bergen marine biologist, Sunniva Lønning, whom I had met
during an excursion to Norway and Sweden of Leiden University students in
1961. We (by that time we had three children) moved to Tromsø in 1973, and
to my present house near Tromsø Museum, on the south end of the island of
Tromsøya, late in 1974 and we have lived there ever since.(Sadly, Sunniva
died in 1985). Also from 1973, I have worked as the Curator of 'everything
except the insects' at Tromsø Museum, the regional museum for N.Norway and
the Norwegian Arctic, that has existed in Tromsø since as early as 1871. In
1976, the museum was incorporated in the then new University of Tromsø, and
since 1990 I am a full professor of zoology at the university (A personal
professorate, not a teaching appointment). I also no longer have the
responsibility for most of the vertebrate collections; these have been
taken over by colleagues, and I am now  'only' curator of fishes and marine
invertebrates.  I am still a Dutch citizen, and since 1992, I also have a
Dutch partner; but Riet continues to live in Holland, so we meet only
during mutual visits or holidays.

The town of Tromsø is the capital of the province of Troms, the middle one
of the three provinces in N.Norway: Nordland, Troms, and Finnmark. When I
arrived in 1973, the town had ca 40 000 inhabitants, and was 'primus inter
pares' among N.Norwegian towns. But Tromsø has grown very quickly, and we
have now passed 60 000 inhabitants, and are clearly the largest center of
population in N.Norway and indeed in all of N.Scandinavia (excepting
Murmansk on the Kola peninsula, with its 500 000 people in a different
league altogether.) Tromsø is not a very old town; although there are
remains of a mediaeval fort on the island, the town recently celebrated its
200 years as a township. The town has grown because of its situation along
the shipping lead along the Norwegian coast; as I said it lies on an
island, Tromsøya, surrounded by two sounds, that together form the sill of
the Balsfjord, one of the many justly famous Norwegian fjords. Most ships
that steam (or sailed) north along the Norwegain coast, follow a route that
as as much as possible  leads through fjords and sounds, as the climate up
here is often stormy and the seas perilous. In addition to its position as
a centre for shipping, Tromsø has also become 'the gateway to the Arctic':
All the ships, and also nowadays all the planes to Svalbard, start out from
Tromsø, and the town is also one of the main fishing ports in Norway. Take
in addition its importance as a school and administrative centre for all of
N.Norway, and it is no wonder that Tromsø is the fastest growing town in
the country. Unfortunately!

Tromsø is not a beautiful town as such: the centre burned down several
times, the last time ca 40 years ago, and rebuilding was often done quickly
and economically rather than with an eye on beauty and architecture. But
the town is very beautifully situated on its teardrop-shaped quite low
island (highest point maybe 150-200m), surrounded by the ca 1km broad
sounds and by the high and usually snowclad hills of the mainland and of
the outlying large island of Kvaløya. The nearest hills are ca 500m high,
but behind them loom higher mountains, up to 1200m, in a spectacular and
thinly-populated area; no wonder than hill-walking, mountaineering and
skiing all are very popular with the inhabitants. Tromsø also has a
reputation as a very lively town, with a spectacular number of cafes,
restaurants and night clubs, much helped in summer by the two months that
the sun never sets; while the two months in winter that the sun never rises
above the horizon are a further good reason for indoors revelries!!

Although we live at 70*N (and please look at a globus, and you will see
that everywhere else this means ice fields, or at the best bleak tundra),
we do not have an Arctic climate, and as everybody knows this is due to the
Gulf Stream, and the North Atlantic Current, that brings warm water (all is
relative, it gets never warmer than 14*C here, and we all swim very
quickly) up to these coast (and even to Svalbard) and cause our coasts to
be ice free and our climate to be boreal -atlantic rather than
arctic.  Winters are long here---it may snow in every month of the year---,
but they are not unduly harsh, and the minimum temp. ever recorded is in
fact not below -20*C, which does occur also in Holland now and then.
Winters may also be very snowy, although, just as everything connected with
the weather up here, conditions are most variable: this year all snow was
gone on 28 April, while 5 years ago  we set a new snow record, with 2.43m
snow on the ground, on 29 April and that year the last snow in my garden
melted 22 June!

But we do have plenty of forest here, puny though it may be by the
standards of many other people. Here at the coast the natural vegetation is
birch forest, with Alder,  various Willows, Rowan and Aspen, while in the
inland Pines dominate. None of the trees get much higher than maybe 5m,
though, and the tree line in the hills here around Tromsø lies at ca
250-300m. Above there heath dominates,with a lot of edible berries, and
with the only 'trees' small creeping willows and the horizontal Dwarf Birch
Betula nana.

The geology of the area is very varied, and there is in fact a large fault
straight across Tromsøya and the surrounding hill-country. To the south of
it, and that includes the southern half of the island, and thus also the
terrain around the museum and my house, the ground is chalk-rich and the
vegetation luxuriant; the hills to the south of Tromsdalen on the mainland,
accessible by cable car to Storsteinen at ca 400m, are very famous in
botanical circles for their rich flora and they also look very colourful in
summer when the fields of white Dryas bloom. While the area further north
has much harder and more acid rocks and consequently a much poorer
vegetation; the marshes at Rakfjord, one of the better birding areas, lie
in this region.

The houses in Tromsø, outside the very centre downtown, are mostly wooden
free standing houses (An own house and own garden is the dream of every
Norwegian), while, characteristic for this area. most people do not fence
in their gardens, so that the different gardens just kind of merge into
each other, which gives a very pleasant effect indeed. The houses, most of
them well-known models from one of the leading house factories, are
moreover painted in all possible colours (and some that hardly seem
possible) and also that helps giving our suburbia a very colourful and
appealing image. (Outside the town, of course, people do fence in their
gardens, as there free-roamin sheep and reindeer otherwise would eat
everything. But on the island we do not have this problem).
The fact that everybody aspires to his own house has also the consequence
that the tone spreads like an oil stain over the landscape, as it grows.
When I arrived in 1974, I hardly saw any lights across the sound on the
shores of Kvaløya in the evening, and now that whole area is also built
full with villas, as is the corresponding area on the mainland. Recently,
the town fathers have realized the problem, and now there are several
schemes with larger buildings containing flats, mainly along the sound,
where the areas were mainly small-industrial before (There is no large
industry in Tromsø); one of these schemes also has been built along the
shore down the street from where I live, on the slope maybe 50m above sea
level, with a beautiful view across the sound.

This growth, although very good in many ways, of course has had clear
negative consequences for the nature and birdlife in the area. When I
arrived in Vesterli---where I live now--- in 1974, and walked through the
remnant birch forest patch called Folkeparken---  a bit of a holy cow for
the people of Tromsø, so it has remained largely unscathed for the building
boom---, I regularly saw and heard Willow Grouse, even in my garden, while
Snipe and Redshanks nested on the grassland adjoining the Folkeparken, and
Bluethroats were heard here regularly. Now all that has gone, and only the
Oystercatchers remain  ; these adaptable birds now nest on the flat roof of
the TV studios and music conservatorium, built where earlier the grassy
meadows were. And in Folkeparken not only the Bluethroats are gone, but
also the Garden Warblers, the Sedge Warblers, and since two years also the
Woodcock that miraculously hung on to its old haunts in the area is not
seen displaying anymore here. All these birds have of course not
disappeared from Tromsø altogether; Willow Grouse  f.ex. often gladdened my
heart on the university campus when I lectured there, and also Bluethroats
and Sedge Warblers are common enough in the marshy areas on the
less-densely populated northern half of the island. But the Temminck's
Stints that used to nest near the airport, and that were disturbed by the
road works there a few years ago, were the last ones on the island, I
think. We now boast a 4-lane road here, but no longer have nesting
Temminck's Stints. (There is little doubt, what most people also here,
judge to be the greater good!).

Folkeparken is thus a remnant birch forest on very rich soil, and thus also
with an extremely luxuriant undergrowth. There are conifer plantations in
the 'park', mostly fir, but also some pine and even larch, and they
increase diversity, and attract inland birds on their periodic invasions to
the coast, to a degree that they even now and then stay to nest the
following year(s): we have seen thus with Crossbills, Coal Tits and
Goldcrests, and  in recent years (but not in 2003) we also had the pleasure
of singing European Robins in Folkeparken, while also the Wood Pigeon is
seen here regularly. But the mainstay remains the big five of the birch
forests: Fieldfare, Redwing, Willow Warbler, Brambling and Redpoll.

This brings me to the subject of the dynamics of our avifauna. There have
been an amazing number of changes in our Tromsø bird world since 1973. The
first wave of newcomers, or rather 'my first wave', in the seventies (House
Sparrows, Great Tits and Pied Flycatchers had invaded earlier) were the
Greenfinch (now one of the most numerous birds not only in Tromsø, but al
the way to the Russian border), the Chiffchaff (now also quite common) and
the Blackcap (which has not made it and is now heard only occasionally).
Then, and no doubt by an entirely different mechanism, came the rise of the
Gray Heron, now also a common nesting bird even on the island, and a
integral part of the vistas along the fjord intertidals)----I vividly
remember the first flight I saw here: a perfect V of nine birds, which to
my great surprise were not geese or cormorants , but herons.  During the
last years, as I said the Wood Pigeon and the European Robin, previously
typical inland birds, are gradually spreading to the coast, while we
already  possibly see the forerunners of the next invasion: both the Blue
Tit and the Jay (neither of them migrant birds) are being reported more and
more frequently in mid Troms, although both are still rare birds, certainly
here on the island.  And some other birds, such as the Wood Warbler and the
Icterine Warbler are being heard and seen in the inland, and may later on
also extend their area to the coast here.

Finally, I want to stress the fact that the density as well as the
diversity of birds here is much lower than at lower latitudes. In other
words, you will not only see fewer species of birds, but also much fewer
individuals when you come here (Of course our famous seabird cliffs are an
exception to this rule, and it is anyhow more clear for terrestrial birds
than for waterbirds). I have written earlier about the differences between
Riet's little village garden full of birds in Holland, and my much larger
garden, with many trees, where there are no birds at all for long periods
at a time, apart from the 'house magpie family' and the roaming Common
Gulls in summer, and the Great Tits and Willow Tits on the feeder in
winter. There is nothing particularly wrong with my garden, this is just
the difference between 50 and 70*N.

                                                        Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
                                                        9037 Tromsø, Norway

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