Spring has sprung in Tromsx

Subject: Spring has sprung in Tromsx
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Mon, 26 Apr 2004 12:37:51 +0200

                        SPRING HAS SPRUNG IN TROMSØ, N.NORWAY, AT 70*N

Since I returned from my two weeks in the UAE, last Sunday, the weather
here in Tromsø has been almost unbelievable for April at 70*N. I have
scarcely seen a single cloud as yet, and we have had day after day of blue
skies, 20 hrs of sun and quite pleasant temperatures, a little bit of night
frost and  warming up during the days, a few days even into the double
digits (Celcius, that is). Winds have been easterly throughout, quite
chilly and strong a few days, but very weak and pleasant on a day like
yesterday. Most of the snow---and we had less than normal to begin with
this winter--- now has disappeared, and in the lowlands most fields are
completely snow free, while the hills 'show their ribs', jutting through
the snow cover, and making the scenery even more impressive than usual. The
snow free fields, on the other hand, are somewhat unlovely to watch, as the
growing season has hardly begun, and there are almost no fresh green
colours in the grass or undergrowth; everything is a faded brownish or
yellowish, only relieved by the thousands of yellow stars of the Coltsfoot
Tussilago farfara, growing on the road verges and other disturbed areas of
open ground. On a day like yesterday there also were small butterflies,
Vanessa urticae, everywhere you looked; these winter as adults and are
ready to fly as soon as temperatures become high enough during the day. Few
bumblebees as yet, however, another harbinger of spring here; but then the
willow catkins had only just opened in a few trees, so there was little to
feast on as yet for the bumblebees.

At home, where my garden is now ca 50% snow free (but a little of a desert,
after last year's after isolation of the house destroyed most of the
garden), the birds have finally discovered my new bird feeder: Great Tits
and Greenfinches are the most common customers, Willow Tits and Bullfinches
come in more occasionally, and last friday I had a visit of a roving troup
of 10-15 Siskins, who clearly already had experience with such feeders and
lowered the sunflower-seed level quite a bit in the course of an hour or
two. The magpies in the neighbours garden fly with sticks, and a pair of
Common Gulls is (re?)establishing its territory by prolonged day and night
calling from our lampposts. (These gulls have become so numerous and
forward in town, that the local newspapers are full of remedies against
'the gull problem'---of course the real cause of the problem is our
scattering edibles around at an amazing rate in town)

On Saturday I drove out to the wetlands at Rakfjord, on the Kvalsund, where
as I expected most small lakes (tarns, fens, I never know to hit the right
name for water bodies in English) were still wholly or largely covered by
melting ice. The numerous Red-breasted Mergansers that nest in this area,
therefore still are on salt water nearby, and I did not see the local pair
of Whooper Swans as yet. But a White Wagtail tripped along the causeway, a
single Whimbrel had arrived and joined the local Curlews, and the Greylag
Geese also had returned and taken up their territories in the adjoining
fields. An almost adult Glaucous Gull still lingered, but there were no
Cormorants to be seen anymore, and neither did I find the King Eiders, that
always winter here in the Kvalsund. A single Razorbill flew past, and Black
Guillemots were displaying in the sound. But the Saturday was quite chilly,
and I did not linger overlong.

Sunday, however, there was much less wind, and therefore a much more
pleasant ambiance, and everywhere there were picnicking families in the
intertidal; people here are quick to profit of favourable weather---you
never know how long it will last and how long we will have to wait for the
next such chance. So this Sunday I decided to drive the 250 km 'round the
Balsfjord' trip, that I try to make as consistenly the same every time as I
can, so that the results are comparable. Therefore always the same 3 walks
along the Balsfjord, the same detour around the Sagvatn, and the same visit
to Tisnes at the end of the trip, coming from the ferry across from Vikran
to Kvaløya.

The first observation was a negative sign of spring; the wreck in Tromsø
harbour that all winter is festooned with Cormorants, now is entirely empty
again; the birds have gone to nest elsewhere. Otherwise the first 60 km are
mostly 'transport', first 40 km along the main road out of Tromsø, along
the Balsfjord and its much more arctic sidefjord the Ramfjord---the inner
half of Ramfjord is still ice-covered, but the ice looks now rotten and
unreliable , and I saw no longer any ice-fishermen, so common here in
winter. Then I double back along the other shore of Ramfjorden along a
secondary road, rather full of potholes and 'is-svull' (places where the
ground has buckled up under the pressure of the ice); this road is often
closed because of avalanches in winter, and at that place (Isbergan)  thick
beards of ice still hang from the rocks alongside. The first stop is
Andersdalen, at the mouth of the Ramfjord, and where a river runs out into
the Balsfjord; but there is as yet not all that much to see here beyond the
normal gulls, Öystercatchers, Eiders and Curlews; a lone Shelduck is
bathing in a pool, and I spot a single King Eider among the eiders, the
last of the season?

 Shortly after comes the first walk, where the road crossed a mixed forest
on steep slopes, birch, alder, mountain ash, willows and a few poplar, with
only the willows showing that spring is around the corner. From the steep
cliffs higher up sound the conversational croaks of the resident Ravens,
from the fjord below the spring sounds of the gulls and oystercatchers and
the cooing of the amorous eiders. No spring chorus here worth mentioning as
yet, but still, prolonged listening betrays several Chaffinches (with the
Great Tits the dominant voice this morning), a faraway Wood Pigeon and the
thin jingle of a Dunnock. A European Blackbird flees scolding from the
undergrowth, and the first Fieldfare of the season 'chacks' up in a birch tree.

The next walk is at Stornes, in much more open terrain---with an amazing
amount of butterflies, which in Norway we call sommerfugl = summer birds.
All the fields here are snow free, but there are not all that many birds on
them as yet. (When the snow goes early, as this year, you more or less
unconsciously expect spring to be further along than it actually is). The
flocks of Snow Buntings have clearly come and gone already, and I see not a
single one all day. The Golden Plovers have not yet arrived, and this day
there are no mallards or Wood Pigeons on the fields either, just gulls,
oystercatchers and starlings. Also here there are Shelducks (a steadily
increasing species in our area), and in the just budding willows I discover
another newcomer, a pair of Blue Tits, among the Greenfinches and Great
Tits that abound here. The third walk is amazingly completely free of any
birds at all this time, apart from a single White Wagtail, so I press on to
the south shores of the Balsfjord, the area bewteen Nordkjosbotn and

Here the old road  is close to the shore at many points, affording the
chance to watch the birds on the fjord in wonderful light now in the middle
of the day. And today there are very many birds collected here, hundreds of
both Long-tailed Ducks (most still in full winter plumage, and the males
almost as white as Smews) and of Velvet Scoters. I hardly ever have seen
these species so well and in such wonderful light as today, so I sit
mesmerized for a long time and watch them forage and display before my
eyes. I think I know  what causes these concentrations just here: the
Balsfjord has a local population of Capelin Mallotus villosus, and these
spawn here in these inner reaches of the fjord in spring; the eggs are
demersal and much loved as food by these sea ducks. Interestingly enough,
all the scoters I see here are Velvet (White-winged) Scoters, while I
earlier this day have seen several flocks of Common Scoters further out in
the fjord. Among the scoters, but usually keeping a bit closer to the shore
when undisturbed, are also some grebes; mostly they are Horned (Slavonian)
Grebes with their spectacular orangy-plumed faces, but I also find a single
Red-necked Grebe---this species does not, or at least not often, nest
locally, but every spring there are a few in Balsfjord. Also this bird is
already in full summer plumage.

As always I take the detour inland around the shallow and productive
Sagvatnet. The landscape changes dramatically as soon as one gets away fro
the fjord, with pines dominating the woods in these marshy flat areas.
Sagvannet is still completely ice-covered, with ice fishermen in easy
chairs on the ice many places (trying for trout); in the single small open
area a pair of Goldeneyes , a tree nesting species, reenforces the inland
character of this area  Back to the fjord, at Storsteinnes, where I add
Black-headed Gull (not for the first time here) and Grey Heron, and where
additional Horned Grebes wait for open fresh water.

There is no road along the entire Balsfjord, so I have to cross to the next
fjord south, Malangen. This fjord has a somewhat different character than
Balsfjord, more protected and with the hills around giving more of an
inland impression, with their  pines,a dn their undergrowth of Juniperus
and Vaccinium vitis-idaea, the berries of which (tyttebær) are so widely
used in the norwegianna kitchen. A short stop confirms the changes: Willow
Tits are the most prominent singers here, and I also  hear the silvery
cadences of the European Robin. Malangen is also an area of many many
Greylag geese, but the afternoon goes on, and I have no time to linger here
anymore, however tempting this may be.

The ferry from Vikran brings me back to Kvaløya and the last delight of the
day, the Tisnes wetlands, amazingly for late April now entirely snow free
and with the pools and puddles even icefree. I look at them from my car on
the road---now in the afternoon again in perfect backlight---with the
exotic foreground of 8 serenely grazing reindeer, who are not much bothered
by the car, as long as I stay inside. The spring feelings here are enhanced
by an ecstatic stream of song form the skies, for the first time in several
years a Skylark has clearly chosen territory again at Tisnes.  The colony
of Common Gulls in the wetlands is already in full swing, and several
Lapwings dive, roll and call in their acrobatic display flights, and still
attack all the gulls in sight; they will gradually learn to tolerate their
nearest neighbours. Not too many ducks as yet, apart from the many hundreds
of eiders in the sound outside: Shelducks of course, a very few Mallards,
and one pair each of Teal and Wigeon, the first of the year for here for
both species. The same goes for the four Redshanks that forage in the
wetlands,  for the single Meadow Pipit, and for the lone Pink-footed Goose
that keeps aloof from the local Greylags. The last bird of the day is a
Cormorant on a stake; finally!! (I had already prepared to write how
typical it was that these birds, so common here in winter, now were missing
altogether.) And, what for me is the real starting point of local spring
and every year anew a small miracle, the ground hugging flowers of the
purple saxifrage S. oppositifolia have suddenly appeared on the seemingly
sterile ground of the banks of the Tisnes lagoon. So now it is spring also
at 70*N

Today is Monday, another gloriously sunny day, and clearly there has been a
considerable influx of migrants last night. And suddenly there is a real
morning chorus in Folkeparken, with 10-15 Redwings singing their heart out,
where yesterday there still were none. I also hear the three first Dunnocks
for this area, and a single Song Thrush shouts spring close to the museum,
probably the same bird we hear every year here.

Never mind that my garden is still half snow covered, and that as yet only
the 'Tromsø palms, the giant hogwood Heracleum that needs to grow to 4-5 m
in the course of a few months, have sprouted on the road verges. Spring has
sprung in Tromsø!!

                                                Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
                                                9037 Tromsø, Norway

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