from your antipodes

Subject: from your antipodes
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Sun, 08 Mar 1998 13:35:33 +0100

        Today the weather is grandiose: a beautiful calm, crisp, cold , sunny
winter day, with temp at ca -10*C. I have walked my normal winter island
walk, and saw exactly the same birds as earlier this winter. Only much
better, as there was little wind, so the ducks were easier to watch, and
the days get longer every day (Sun now from ca 7 am to 5 pm. There was a
single King Eider Somateria spectabilis among the eider flocks, and quite a
number of velvet scoters Melanitta fusca together with the Common Scoters
m. nigra, and last Friday a Great Spotted Woodpecker Picoides major came to
the feeder at the museum, but all these are not signs of spring.
The ducks are normal winter birds here, and the woodpecker a rest of the
small irruption of Great Spotted Woodpeckers of last autumn, no doubt from
the taiga forests further east. (Somebody phoned in an observation of the
lesser Spotted Woodpecker from Kvaløya, on the other side of the sound
here, the other day. There those Downy-lookalikes are resident, but live
very inconspicuous lifes; but I still have to see one on the island of
Tromsoeya itself.
So it looks as if nothing changes at all, except daylight, and of course we
must calculate with another two months at least of snow cover.there are as
yet few and somehow half-hearted cooings in the eider flocks; the
long-tailed ducks (Oldsquaws) yodel as ever, but that is a typical winter
sound here along the Tromsø shores.On land the Great Tits sing, but they
started alreay in January. No signs as yet of Oystercatchers, Common Gulls
or Starlings.

 And yet, and yet!! If you are an optimist and look around you with
spring-hungry eyes, there are subtle signs.
The magpies in the neighbour`s garden feel the lengthening days, and are
flying with sticks, for the first time this winter, as far as I have
noticed. The building process does not yet amount to much; but it looks
like they have tired of the view from the nest of the last years, and have
decided to build a new one. I´d like to know whether this means, that one
of or both of the pair are new birds since last year, but all adult magpies
look pretty much alike to me, so I am unable to find this out without a
much closer study. Magpies are extremely common in Tromsø, and I have seen
groups ("parliaments") of up to 40 birds in the time of year when they
gather in groups.

Yesterday I stood under a fir tree, where a male Bullfinch was glowing in
the afternoon sun (The sun goes down ca 16 45 now, just around the time I
usually walk home). This bird did indeed "sing", it turned out, but the
collection of very soft tentative whistle tones, often as strophes of
paired tones, did not carry far at all, so I wonder if the visual effect of
the red breasts glowing in the sun may not be as important a sign as the
song itself.
         Of course, Bullfinches may pair for life (They usually come to my 
as pairs), and are maybe not all that territorial either, so who knows song
is possibly less important than for many other song birds.

In my garden the Bullfinches and Great Tits still dominate, although I have
seen a few Greenfinches and have also heard them sing ("rasp") in the
forest, after having been almost entirely absent in my neighbourhood this
        A big surprise was a quick visit last weekend of no less than 6 House
Sparrows, more than I ever have seen in my garden in 25 years. They came,
ate and left, and they have not yet returned.(These House Sparrows, clean
and lean, are in fact quite beautiful birds, something that is very easy to
forget when one is overwhelmed by droves of sooty-dirty sparrows, who crowd
out the other birds.)

A still bigger surprise this morning was the first migrant, once more in my
garden. I had guessed that the first migrant in Tromsø would either be an
Oystercatcher, a Common Gull, or a Starling, so was not at all prepared for
the small perky sparrowy finch, with a beady eye and a stumpy yellow bill:
a Twite Carduelis flavirostris! Why so extremely early, I`ll never know;
maybe it was one from the little flock that stayed in my garden for several
weeks last winter, when we had the record snowfall; but that was a full
month later!
         You need to be an optimist to see certain signs of spring in these
anecdotes, I suppose. (I well remember my colleague in Newfoundland, also a
place with a late spring, who wrote to me in April: "The birds are flying
around with sticks, mistakenly thinking it will be spring soon. They are
fools!!" No optimist, he!). I prefer to count the sunny hours, and see
signs of coming spring wherever I can;  of course I know we are in for a
lot of snow still.

                Best greetings,

                                                Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
                                                9037 Tromsø, Norway

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