SUNNY SATURDAY IN TROMSØ (70*N)
Since I returned from my S.African adventure, three weeks ago, N.Norway has
been blessed with wonderful winter weather: day after day of clear skies,
sunny vistas and moderate temperatures (varying from just below freezing to
ca -10*C), and night after night of spectacular displays of Northern
Lights. Two feet of snow on the ground is enough for the skiers, but not so
much that it creates a lot of extra work. And yesterday even the usual
chilly "Balsfjord wind", blowing out the fjord from the much colder inland,
relented, so the fjord was calm and bird-watching much easier.
I walked along the fjord to the airport, and saw nothing special, as is
usual in winter. But the light was wonderful, and as soon as I came down to
the shore, I could admire a loose flock of Oldsquaws (Long-tailed-Ducks
here in Europe), their dark wings and brown and white bodies gleaming in
the sun. These birds are very lively and fly around more than most ducks.
But today I did not see any signs of display, nor did I hear their
devil-may-care defiant calls, that warm our hearts in the dark period of
The Common Eiders, on the other hand, resplendent in their spring finery,
did feel the first stirrings of spring, and many of the drakes in the small
flocks regularly "stood up" in the water and gave their cooing display
call. The ducks did not react all that much as yet, and I saw little
inciting going on.
Dark flocks of quite sedate-looking birds a bit further out on the fjord
usually turn out to be Scoters; both Black and Velvet Scoters are present.
These birds "are not here for frivolities" as display etc; it is winter and
one needs to dive and feed to survive! And that is what they do all day
long--- business-like series of dives, interspersed with short periods of
The Red-breasted Mergansers operate alone or in pairs, and hunt by eye.
They look attentively down in the water, and probably only dive when they
see something worth-while down there. The Cormorants are pretty much the
same, but they loaf not on the water, but in groups on the skerries,
stretching their wings out in heraldic poses.
Closest inshore are the Mallards. In fact most of them sit on the
ice-covered shore, mostly busy with preening and grooming. A single drake
Pintail has stayed here north this winter (has not read the books!); he
seems to be quite happy together with the mallards.
Large gulls fly over and keep a sharp watch on the ducks---there is a lot
of klepto-parasitism going on, with especially the eiders common victims of
robberies. Today I only see Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls; the
Common Gulls have not yet returned.
In the intertidal itself large stretches are now covered by ice, and many
of the organisms that are the usual prey of the shore-birds, e.g. the
amphipods, have retracted into a bit deeper water. Still, the Hooded Crows
patrol the shore daily, and small flocks of Purple Sandpipers comb every
nook and cranny in the lower intertidal for periwinkles and other food.
These sandpipers also look very business-like and well-adapted to cold
weather. They are rotund small birds, with short legs and an amazingly
effective protective colour-- when a flock of 100 birds circles and lands,
they somehow suddenly completely disappear against the stones and algae of
the background. And when they fly up again, there are always many more than
one had discovered on the shore.
What about land birds? For almost an hour I only saw and heard Hooded Crows
and Black-billed magpies. Then a single pair of House Sparrows increased
the diversity with 50%, and afterwards the tally long remained at 3
species, until a Great Tit sang unseen near the end of the walk. So land
birds there are very few this winter, although this time I was extra unlucky.
Usually there will also be greenfinches, Willow tits and maybe even
Bullfinches, while I have also seen a few flocks of Redpolls and even a
single Fieldfare, during the last weeks.
In the coming few weeks the Oystercatchers , Common Gulls and Starlings
will return, and a bit later the large flocks of Snow Buntings, the birds
are earlier harbingers of springs than the plants here in the high north.
The snow will be with us in 2-3 months more!
Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
9037 Tromsø, Norway
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