common birds in summer Tromsø

To: Willem Jan Marinus Vader <>, Birding-Aus <>, Birdchat <>, sabirdnet <>
Subject: common birds in summer Tromsø
From: Willem Jan Marinus Vader <>
Date: Thu, 20 Jun 2019 12:54:17 +0000


Common birds in summer Tromsø


Somebody, who is planning to visit Norway this summer, asked me recently  to give her lists of the ten most common birds at 6 different places in Norway. I am unable to do so, but  I ought to be able to say some more about the common birds in summer Tromsø, where I now have lived in 44 years.


The town of Tromsø (75000 people, 120 nationalities!) is situated at 69*50’N in Northern Norway, with its center on the island of Tromsøya. This island (c. 12 km long), and the quite shallow sounds on both sides, mark the sill of the long and deep Balsfjord, which stretches inland southwards for ca 100km, while between Tromsø and the open sea there are two large islands, Kvaløya and Ringvassøya, with up to 1200 m high mountains. The fjords around Tromsø never freeze over, but all freshwater is ice-bound for most of the winter half year, and the ground is usually snow covered for the same period, although in later years we have annoyingly and increasingly often had short periods with 'Atlantic weather': rain, melting snow and slippery, icy roads. Spring starts for full somewhere in May, and from 21 May we have two months of midnight sun, when the sun does not set (Of course, we pay for this with two months in winter, when the sun does not rise above the horizon). Summer weather here is most variable; the average temperature is around 7-8*C, but every summer we have a few periods with ‘Russian weather’: SE winds, sunny and warm days, and temperatures here in Tromsø up to 27-28*C, and in the inland often well above 30*C. Then there is no better place on earth to be! But it may snow in every month of the year, just as it may rain in every month.


The natural vegetation here north (below the tree line, which here is as low as 250 m a.s.l.), is low birch forest in the coastal areas, and pine forest in the inland (Tromsø is coastal); spruce is planted many places and grows well, but it had disappeared in N. Norway before the last ice age, and has not been able to recolonize the area naturally. Our most common birds in summer are therefore those that live in woodland. The ‘big four’ here are Fieldfare, Redwing, Brambling and Willow Warbler, this last the most numerous bird in Norway; all leave the area in winter, although the thrushes may linger for months in autumn in years with a bumper crop of  Sorbus berries (These also attract large flocks of Bohemian Waxwings and often some Pine Grosbeaks). Hooded Crows and Black-billed Magpies are very common both in town and generally, and conspicuous year round, as are the feral pigeons in town. In and around town there are year round many Great Tits and Greenfinches, that in winter profit from the extensive bird-feeding habits of the people here.  When I first came to Tromsø in 1973, there were as yet no Greenfinches there, the northernmost population was some 200 km south of here; now there are common and often numerous all over North Norway.


Other woodland birds are the Chaffinch, a relative newcomer and still much less numerous than the Brambling, the Chiffchaff (also a newcomer; this was still a very uncommon bird, when I arrived in Tromsø in 1973, but is now common), the Bullfinch (beautiful and quite conspicuous in winter, but so secretive in summer, that many people here believe it is not here then), the Song Thrush,  the  Dunnock, the Willow Tit and in very recent years also the Blue Tit. Another newcomer is the Woodpigeon, while the Eurasian Jay is on its way north and has been seen several times in the immediate surroundings. This is almost certainly a result of global warming (Or rather local warming); also the European Blackbird profits and I even had a few in the garden in winter. I hope very much that they succeed; I miss their wonderful song from my youth in the Netherlands. Some years we have some Coal Tits, Goldcrests or Crossbills, the remnants of winter invasions the year before.


There are House Sparrows in Tromsø, but they are patchy and e.g. irregular on my feeders. The European Starling is here mostly a coastal bird; it is a popular harbinger of spring, and we have put out many nest boxes to combat the steady decrease in their population; this never ceases to surprise Americans and Australians. Another common and popular harbinger of spring is the White Wagtail, a most conspicuous bird along our roads. Swallows we have not so many, and the common one is the  Sand Martin or Bank Swallow (here called Sand Swallow!), while there are a few Barn Swallows at some farms. Swifts are almost absent, and only occur in some of the large inland valleys (Where also our only bats and our only lizards live).  Birds of prey are not very conspicuous in and around Tromsø, with the exception of the impressive White-tailed Eagles, that do well, having been protected the last 40 years. But there are also Sparrow Hawks, Merlins and Rough-legged Buzzards, and the odd Gyrfalcon. The only owl the general public is likely to see is the day-hunting Short-eared Owl, but we have as many as 9 owl species in the region.


Most of the shores along the fjords are stony , and the most numerous and characteristic birds here are the Common Gull (which absolutely lives up to its name here) and the Oystercatcher. Both make grateful use of the open nest boxes on poles that people traditionally put up; earlier their eggs were taken for consumption, but that is no longer the case for these species, while the eggs of Herring Gulls and Great Black backed Gulls—which do not use the boxes—are still a local delicacy. (The Baltic Gull has greatly decreased all over N. Norway and is now only now and then seen around Tromsø). Where there are sandy areas, Ringed Plovers often nest, and when there are marshy areas, one hears almost invariably the always nervous Redshanks. As noticed earlier, Starlings are coastal birds here, and also our Hooded Crows forage more often in the intertidal than most crows. The Common Eider, by far the most numerous duck here, often nests close to the shore, as do also the also common Red-breasted Mergansers. (Common Mergansers do not nest locally, but largish flocks of males often linger here a while, on their way to the moulting areas in Finnmark. I saw more than 100 last week on the outer coast).

When one moves from the town of Tromsø to the outer coast, one does not only sees the barns get gradually smaller and the boat-houses larger, but also the dominance of Common Gulls of near and in the town slowly change into dominance of the larger gulls on the outer coast. Our dominant tern is the Arctic Tern, which becomes very aggressive as the breeding season moves on; there also are a few Common Terns here and there, mostly along wetlands and small lakes. Also the Arctic Skua (Parasitic Jaeger), sadly a decreasing species in our area, gets spectacularly aggressive later in the nesting season, but in this species it is mostly bluff, while the Arctic Terns really  can pick holes in your head. Most of the auks are confined to a few large colonies, none of them really close to Tromsø, but Black Guillemots nest many places on the outer coast. Kittiwakes, on the other hand, have started to nest on buildings in town since 3-4 years ago.

Willow Grouse are fortunately still quite common around Tromsø, with Ptarmigan higher up in the hills and Black grouse in the birches. Here and there , if one knows where to look, one can also admire displaying Capercaillie. Woodpeckers we have few, on the other hand, with the inconspicuous Three-toed Woodpecker, and the small Lesser Spotted Woodpecker the only nesting species in the area, and neither is common.

There are many wetlands and small lakes in and around Tromsø. Prestvannet, on the island itself, is famous for its many nesting Red-throated loons (as many as 10 pairs on this small lake in town), while there are also many Mallards and Tufted >Ducks, both species common in all wetlands. The ones outside town (I have written often about Tisnes and the Rakfjord area), have also other ducks: Wigeons, Teal and now and then Pintails and Gadwalls, and the larger lakes may have nesting Arctic Loons and also Whooper Swans, while smaller, partly overgrown lakes have phalaropes. Snipe winnow many places, and the coastal wetlands have Curlews, while Greylag Geese seem to increase in numbers almost every year. The heathlands with Empetrum dominant are the favourite nesting place for Whimbrels and European Golden Plovers with their evocative ‘songs’, as well as for Meadow Pipits and Northern Wheatears, while the stunted birch trees in these drier areas often harbor flocks of Redpolls. High in the hills above town a few pairs of Dotterels nest every summer, and here one can also find Ravens and some Snow Buntings.

The total density of birds here is not particularly high, and the number of species present quite moderate compared to areas further south. A normal day's excursion in spring and summer yields maybe between 50 and 60 bird species and even this only after some distance driving. But the landscapes are fantastically beautiful, many areas are full of flowers, and I am glad to live here.

Wim Vader, Tromsø, Norway

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