the vagaries of spring at 70*N

Subject: the vagaries of spring at 70*N
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Mon, 10 May 2004 16:35:19 +0200

                                THE VAGARIES OF SPRING AT 70*N

Last week was the warmest week ever for early May in Northern Norway, and
on the Friday the maximum temperature of 22.7*C here in Tromsø  means a new
temperature record for the first half of May. Now, three days later, the
maximum temperature was ca 5*C and intense sleet showers reminded us that
we live far to the north; and for tomorrow the weather forecast foretells
sinking temperatures and maybe even snow.

But what a difference this week has made!! I was at sea with our research
vessel all week, collecting my beloved amphipods, and experienced the most
quiet and warm week at sea up here ever, regardless of the seasons.
Saturday was the last warm day (the temp dropped precipitously 10-15* in
the evening), and I used the opportunity to drive to my well-known haunts
around the Balsfjord. Now all the snow is gone most places, and on the
island even the 'brøytestikker', the sticks showing the snow ploughs where
the road verges are, had been collected for the summer (In Balsfjord people
are less optimistic and there all the sticks still were in place). Most
cars have changed to summer tyres, bicycles are out in force and in all the
gardens people were at work preparing for the summer, the men in shorts,
the women not rarely in bikini---- we grasp the chances when they are
there, this may have been the summer already!  On south slopes the forest
has definitely turned green in one week: the Rowans are in full leaf, the
alders and birches are leafing, and the willows drop their catkins and are
also sprouting leaves.  Many fields have turned green too, on the road
verges the abundant wild raspberry shoots are full of fresh leaves (with a
very special colour; spring is the time of hundreds of different greens!),
and in the undergrowth of the forest the serried ranks ot
the  Struthiopteris ferns are unfurling their bishop staves at high speed.
In the ditches the first Caltha takes over from the Coltsfoot, here and
there already in seed.

All this is on south slopes, as the differences are very great this time a
year. On north slopes or a bit higher up, the forest is still leafless ,
wintery and brown, the fields yellow, and the Coltsfoot reigns supreme. But
even in the arctic Ramsfjord all the ice has been swept out, and in the
large flocks of Eider ducks the males now definitely predominate, so that I
suspect many females of already sitting tight on the nests.

In the bird world the differences are less enormous than in the vegetation.
At my first fixed stop at Andersdalen I still see a Yellow-billed Loon in
the fjord---they will soon be off--, and the Chaffinches are still
co-dominant in the bird chorus, although now sharing place of honour with
the Redwings. Also the other singers are basically the same: Fieldfare,
Great Tit, Dunnock, Eur. Robin, Wood Pigeon, croaking Ravens in the
background. But the tired soundings rasps of the Bramblings are new since
last week, and gradually I also isolate two Pied Flycatchers with their
always positive statements, that fit so well with their black-and-white
dapper presence. In the intertidal changes are minimal. Shelducks dabble in
the freshwater outrun, wagtails poke in the floodline, Redshanks and
Oystercatchers dominate the mudflat, and a lone Grey Heron fishes quietly.

I continue to the 'bottom of the fjord', only stopping for the first
Wheatear of the year along the main road. The large and so impressive
flocks of ducks and the various grebes of last week are now virtually all
gone, and the only flock of Scoters I see here now are Commons, not Velvets
(I later see 2 of the latter elsewhere). So this area does not bring much
this time, and I press on to the inland. At Heia at 250m a.s.l. there are
already some rifts in the ice, but no water birds to be seen as yet, and
also Sagvatnet is, a bit to my surprise, still largely ice-covered,
although the ice is dark, rotten and unhealthy looking. Also here
surprisingly few birds in the few open areas: a pair of Mallards, probably
the same Goldeneye pair as last week, and the resident Horned Grebes of the
river mouth have returned and are in full display; wonderfully beautiful
and spectacular birds.

On the Sunday the temp has dropped to ca 7*C and there is a very grim NE
wind. Nevertheless I decide in the afternoon to drop in to my favourite
wetland of Tisnes, where it is anyway best to watch from the car, as the
birds are much tamer that way. The wetland area is somewhat hard to view
well, so that the best tactics is to sit quietly for a while (I usually
bring my newspaper), and now and then sweep the pools to see what is
visible. This time I see, besides the many Common Gulls---now often
copulating, with the so characteristic monotonous call, that they only seem
to use for this special occasion---and the fervently displaying Lapwings,
no less than three splendid male Pintails, all trying to impress the same
female, a quietly expensive Gadwall drake, maybe the same I saw elsewhere
last week,  the normal Mallards and Teals (no wigeon this time, otherwise
often the most common dusk here), and a lone Tufted Duck. The first seven
Ruffs of the year also are back, but they sit 'with their heads in their
shoulders', clearly wishing they had waited yet a while. Surprisingly a
small flock of Pinkfeet  contains a lone Canada Goose, the first one I have
ever seen here.

When I was a boy, I had a popular Dutch nature book, written by Kees Hana,
and called 'Van dier en plant, water en land' (Of animals and plants, water
and land'). The first chapters of this book were entitled : 'kijken,
luisteren, genieten*, which means "watch, listen, enjoy"! During my drives
and walks this weekend, seeing and hearing nothing spectacular, just
enjoying the progress of spring, in its leaps, bounds and sudden retreats
here up north, this motto came into my head all the time. I think it
characterizes my approach to nature very well.

                                                                Wim Vader, 
Tromsø Museum
                                                                9037 Tromsø, 

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