from your antipodes

Subject: from your antipodes
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Sun, 29 Nov 1998 12:28:24 +0100

                                                THREE NOVEMBER GARDENS

Late November.  In Tromsø, northern Norway, the sun has just disappeared
below the horizon for the last time this year, and at 70*N we won't see it
again until late January. When I left Tromsø in mid-November, there still
was some daylight left, and the weather was crisp, cold a
d calm, with
temperatures around -5 to -10*C (ca 15-20*F). Little snow as yet, only a
few inches; but that is enough to reflect available light and to make it
possible to walk to work along the forest path, even though it is dark when
I go to work and dark when I return.

My garden is large, with many trees, and -as is the habit in Tromsø-,
without any clear demarcation from the neighbouring gardens. I have just
restarted feeding sunflower seeds in a hanging feeder, but there are few
takers as yet. Great Tits Parus major only used a day to rediscover the
feeder, and I suspect by now also the Willow Tits P. montanus will be
regular visitors again.
But otherwise my garden is strangely empty: the only birds regularly
present are the ubiquitous Black-billed Magpies Pica pica that are so much
a feature of suburban Tromsø, where their large stick nests decorate many
street and garden trees. They even know the schedule of the garbage cars,
and wait on Friday morning when we put out the garbage bags early, so that
they can steal a little before the car arrives. Hooded Crows are almost as
common as the Magpies, but they are still more crafty and careful, and
probably visit my garden more frequently when I am not around.
But apart from large gulls and the odd Raven passing overhead, that is
about it! Very few land birds winter in Tromsø, except when we are blessed
with bumper crops of rowanberries (Mountain Ash) Sorbus aucuparia, or birch
or pine seeds.

These last ten days I have visited my girlfriend Riet in Odijk, a little
village just South of Utrecht in Holland (54*N). After days of typical
autumn the weather turned earlier this week, and now it is crisp, cold and
calm here too, in fact quite similar to what I left in Tromsø, although
maybe not quite as cold: temp. around the freezing point in the middle of
the day. No snow here, but a lot of rime every morning gives almost the
same effect. The sun sets via beautiful sunsets around 4 30 pm, and there
is a steady movement of falling leaves, killed by the sudden frost.

Riet lives, as I have told before, "in a house in a row in a street" within
the village. There is a lot of greenery around, and some quite sizeable
trees, but the gardens are small,  Riet's back garden may be 6x10 m.sq.
Also, these gardens are, in contradistinction to the situation in Tromsø,
very carefully divided from the neighbour's garden, usually with high
hedges, fences or walls. This has the consequence that large birds rarely
dare to land in these walled-in spaces. So although the grassy field on the
little square in front of the house regularly attracts the local flocks of
Jackdaws Corvus monedula and gulls (mostly Black-headed Gulls Larus
ridibundus, but also Mew L. canus and a few Herring L. argentatus), as well
as the resident Carrion Crows Corvus corone, Wood Pigeons Columba palumbus,
and Collared Doves Streptopelia decaocto, and some of these may call from
the roof of the house, they very rarely venture to land in the garden and
feed on the apples, nuts and quaker oats that Riet serves up on the garden
The smaller birds therefore have a good time. The resident Blackbird male
Turdus merula has declared himself king of the garden (Almost every little
garden here has its resident pair of Blackbirds, a bird that occurs in
amazing densities in Dutch suburbia, and has become very tame). Although he
himself only feeds of the small apples that are laid out almost every day,
and the other birds mainly are interested in different offerings, the
Blackbird somewhat clumsily tries to chase them away all. He is dominant to
all the smaller birds, though not to the Starlings. Fortunately for him
these are not all that interested for some reason; they prefer to sit on
the roof and sing, that wonderful saucy Starling medley of mimicking,
fluting and "noise" that I always interpret as "I know the weather is cold
and the spring far away, but I don't care, I sing anyway!".
The most common bird in the back garden just now is the Chaffinch Fringilla
coelebs, a dapper and colourful finch, that is very fond of the nuts on the
table, and therefore comes again and again, in spite of being steadily
chased by the Blackbird. The Blackbird then makes the mistake of pursuing
its adversary all the way to the roof of the outhouse at the bottom of the
garden, with the result that two other Chaffinches--- or the House Sparrows
that are also common, although happily less so than the Chaffinches---
seize their chance and some delicious morsels of nut, with which they
abscond in the neighbour's garden.
The tits also like nuts, although I have as yet only seen the Great Tit,
the least arboreal of the lot, on the garden table; they alight, pick a
nut, and are off before the Blackbird has started his attack. The tits fly
into the Amelanchier outside the kitchen window--always a haven for birds--
and hammer the nuts like they were juicy insects.
 The smaller, but even feistier Blue Tits Parus caeruleus prefer to cling
to the baskets with peanuts, or find natural food in the garden. There are
a few Blue Tits present most of the time, though. Nor is this all! For some
reason the local Robin Erithacus rubecula, most uncharacteristically, is
rarely to be seen.  Usually these birds are quite dominant and aggressive
around the feeding table; now we only catch a glimpse of him (her?) now and
then. But the pair of Dunnocks Prunella modularis, though not exactly
flamboyant characters, are almost always present  (they nested in this
small garden this summer); most of the time they keep to the ground, but
they are fond of the oatmeal and snatch tidbits while the Blackbird is
otherwise occupied.
 There is also a (Winter) Wren Troglodytes troglodytes in the garden, but
it disdains all human food and fends for itself;  in return we now and then
hear his jubilant little song-trill. The Goldfinches Carduelis carduelis do
not come to the feeder either---their favourite small seeds are not on
offer---, but they now and then gather in the tallish American Oak in the
back of the garden, and give us the benefit of their bright colours and
cozy twittering.

So this small garden, maybe only one tenth the size of mine, helds  five
times as many birds as  mine, a good example both of the steadily
diminishing biodiversity of land birds with latitude, and in addition of
the amazingly rich birdlife of Holland in general, and of Dutch suburbia in
During this week of visiting friends, short walks and bicycle trips mostly
to admire the scenery, we got up a birdlist of 60 species "without really
trying" and without visiting the coast, an impossible  feat in winter
Norway.  A wonderful highlight was the female Black Woodpecker Dryocopus
martius, that worked over a dead tree, and that we could watch while she
looked at the tree from different angles before deciding where to continue:
with her fierce yellow eye and white bill this looked doubly impressive.
The most unexpected observation was a lone Swallow Hirundo rustica,
foraging in the village of Muiderberg, albeit before the frost set in;
something must have gone awry with his "migration clock".
Postscript. On my last morning in Odijk the Robin was present on the table
almost all the time, feeding mostly on the oats, the Blue tits came to
steal nuts, and at one moment Blackbird and Chaffinch  peaceably shared the
table, the finch pecking the pips out of the half-frozen apple-halves, and
the Blackbird feeding on the Quaker-oats! That ?ll teach me to draw
conclusions from too few observations!!

The third November garden of the title is that of my good friends Traudl
and Franz  in Adendorf near Bonn, a few hundred km SE of Odijk, and again
in a village, though here both the houses and the gardens are a bit larger
than in Riet's street in Odijk. In addition, Adendorf boasts a large
forest, and this starts not too far from the house, so that forest birds,
like woodpeckers, now and then roam the gardens around here. Franz's garden
is maybe 15x15 sq.m., with a lawn, a small pond (now frozen) and some
sizeable trees, i.a. conifers. The fences to the neighbouring gardens exist
also here, but they are in this case less high, and on one side only
consist only of a wire fence.
Franz tells me that only the Dunnocks and the House Sparrows are able to
"fly through the wire" , i.e. to fly in and sit down halfway down the
fence; the other birds, i.e. the Chaffinches and Robins, always sit on top
of the fence! He does not feed the birds in the garden, but the neighbour
does (with sun-flower seeds).
During my three days stay here in Adendorf 22-25 November my amphipod work
with Traudl has prevented me from spending much time watching the garden
birds. But a few differences with Odijk are nevertheless obvious (though
once more based on insufficient data!). Firstly, because the garden is more
open and the  trees are bigger larger birds dare to land here: Carrion
Crows (There are no Jackdaws here: German cleanliness and orderliness
apparently leaves few suitable nesting places in either hollow trees or
chimneys), pigeons, though not so many gulls as Adendorf lies away from the
Rhine.   Secondly, the proximity of the forest allows regular visits of
birds like Great Spotted Woodpecker Picoides major and Jay Garrulus
glandarius, rarely even a Green Woodpecker Picus viridis. And thirdly, the
number of birds is somewhat lower, probably mainly because no feeding takes
place, but maybe also part of a general downward gradient of bird numbers
from the coast to the inland. For the rest the general picture is much as
in Odijk. Chaffinches and Great and Blue Tits dominate the picture,
sparrows and starlings are common, and Robins, Dunnocks and Wrens are
invariably present. Collared Doves sing from the roofs, even now in winter,
 and Carrion Crows sit sentinel in the taller trees. Blackbirds are common
also here, but in this case cluster around berry-bearing bushes in the
front garden.

A long story once again, about few and common birds, but maybe still with
some kind of exotic interest in other parts of the world. In January I may
get the chance to see some exotic birds myself, as it now looks likely that
the amphipods will lead me to Cape Town. One does not get rich as an
amphipod biologist, but one sure gets around!

Nov. 1998
                                                        Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
                                                        9037 Tromsø, Norway

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