birding-aus from your antipodes

Subject: birding-aus from your antipodes
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Wed, 21 Jul 1999 11:00:48 +0200


Last week I indulged in what best can be called ornithological sight-seeing
with my sister and a friend, in the northernmost province of Norway,
Finnmark. We drove ca 3100 km, mostly in order to see as many of the
different landscapes and scenery as possible, so we scratched the surface
of both mountains and fjords, inland and coast; circumstances precluded
long walks. The weather was mostly fair to spectacular, with more than 30
degrees C at Lakselv as the hottest day, and the next night a rare
"tropical night", in which the temp. stays above 20°C. (And considerably
higher inside the camping-cabins, where the ubiquitous mosquitoes make
opening too many windows counterproductive.

Birdwise this is not a fantastic time to visit. The ducks have young and
hide in the vegetation, the shorebirds have stopped displaying, and most of
the passerines do not sing any more. A common and conspicuous bird as the
Great Tit for example was still missing from our list at the end of the
week, and so were e.g. Dunnocks, Spotted and Pied Flycatchers and
Bullfinches. So in the following I rather give a few glimpses of what we
actually did see and enjoy, than striving for any sort of completeness,
that we anyhow neither achieved nor tried for.


Skibotn in inland Troms is an amazing place, as it is almost always sunny,
reason why the university has built its astronomical facility there. Also
this time it stopped raining as we neared the village at the "bottom" of
Storfjord, and the sun came out just as we prepared to take a look at this
big pond in the middle of a pine-forest, that I have described for you in
an earlier snapshot.

A large colony of Black-headed Gulls Larus ridibundus, not all that common
around Tromsø,  again absolutely dominated the scene here, but there were
this time much fewer ducks around than in June: just a bunch of Tufted
Ducks Aythya fuligula, a few Wigeons Anas penelope, and the ubiquitous
Mallards. We even had to search a bit before we found a few of the
beautiful Horned grebes Podiceps auritus, several with already half-grown
young. Also the Bank Swallows Riparia riparia were missing today. We were
to see these brown sand-burrowing swallows and hear their dry trills many
times during the week; they are by far the most common swallows in Finnmark.
In the dry pine forest around the lake the trees were full of recently
fledged Willow and Coal Tits Parus ater and P. montanus.  Northern Yellow
Wagtails Motacilla (flava) thunbergi flitted around and perched in nearby
tree tops with  raucous alarm calls; it always strikes me how totally
different a habitat this dry forest bird prefers, compared to the wet
agricultural land biotope of the Dutch yellow wagtails. Of course, as
virtually everywhere, there were Fieldfares and Redwings, as well as
Redpolls Acanthis flammea and Bramblings  Fringilla montifringilla. Also
the Tree Pipits Anthus trivialis clearly had young, and had virtually
stopped singing.


The Tana river is the largest river in Norway (with the largest salmon
too), although admittedly for most of its length it flows through Finland.
At the mouth of the river a small secondary road in sad disrepair traverses
the sand flats and low dunes to end at the small dune island of Høyholmen,
where the people of Lavonjarg, the small road-less village on the other
side of the sound keep their boats. The Tana river mouth is world famous
for the enormous numbers (up to 27 000) of moulting Common Mergansers
Mergus merganser that concentrate in this area in August; now there were
only smaller groups here,  and also elsewhere along the coast and in the
fjords, most of them still able to fly.

Along the sandy verges of the road Arctic terns nest everywhere, now mostly
with late eggs or small chicks. They do so absolutely not suffer intruding
fools gladly, even if they arrive in a car; as long as the car moves, they
attack it vehemently and persistently, hovering close in front of the front
glass in an almost kamikaze manner. (And in fact I found a dead one, that
probably had underestimated the speed of a passing car). When you stop,
however, and kill the engine, comparative peace falls quite quickly, one
more sign of the excellence of a car as a hide. Should one, however, stick
one's head out of the window a little to see better, the terns are there in
a flash, ready to draw blood.
Apart from the terns this road and its verges has nesting oystercatchers,
all bluster and no bite, nervously teetering Redshanks Tringa totanus, and
trilling  diminutive Temmincks Stints Calidris temmincki, as well as a few
Common Gulls, already with largish young. In the sound Arctic Skuas
(Parasitic Jaegers) Stercorarius parasiticus pass by regularly, and on
far-away sand banks Harbour Seals Phoca vitulina drowse.
The dunes are full of Marram Grass Ammophila arenaria and Beach Lathyrus
Lathyrus maritimus; more detailed studies are strongly discouraged by the


Vadsø is the capital of Finnmark, with a bit below 10 000 people, rather
evenly divided between fishermen and bureaucrats; the town was originally
colonized from Finland, and still has a clear Finnish atmosphere,
especially in the names on the shops. It perches on the north shore of the
wide and open Varanger fjord, a bight rather than a true fjord. The
original settlement was on the island of Vadsøya just off-shore, but now
most of the town has retreated to the mainland, and half of that island is
now a nature area, populated by many hundreds of nesting Arctic terns (We
spinelessly avoided the largest concentrations, having prior experience
with angry terns). Otherwise the area is mostly heather and grassland, with
some wind-swept willow bushes and a round freshwater pond. A bridge crosses
the shallow sound between the island and the mainland, and on the mudflats
there tens of Redshanks forage, as well as gulls and oystercatchers, while
small flocks of Kittiwakes from nearby colonies constantly stream overhead.
Temminck's Stints Calidris temminckii nest near the snow-screens on the
island and can be watched and photographed from nearby, but all the
buntings of spring  have now completely disappeared, and the only
passerines are Hooded Crows Corvus corone cornix, White Wagtails Motacilla
alba, and the occasional Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe.
 In the pond gulls laze and terns swim around (always an unexpected sight)
to bathe, but the prime authors here are tens of Phalaropes Phalaropus
lobatus, daintily swimming and pirouetting. I think a number of them are
fledged young; the species is a common nester here.


Mountain pass sounds more grandiose than possibly correct, but as the
tree-line here in north-eastern Finnmark is as low as 250 m, one definitely
gets the impression of being in the mountains even at no more than 300 m
above sea level.
The ground here is mostly peaty and marshy, except for the hill tops, and a
pale yellow Lousewort more underlines than relieves the bleakness of the
hillsides. In the valleys globe-flowers Trollius europaeus stand marched up
in long lines and tight groups, and willows grow along the rivulets.

The bleak open ground is the favourite terrain of the Red-throated Pipits
Anthus cervinus, and their tinny pipit song can be usually heard from
several directions. The characteristic red throats are very variably
developed: some have an entirely brick-reddish chin, throat and upper
breast, while others only have the merest whiff of red. The alarm calls are
not very characteristic, but the call note is, and sounds to my ears as if
the bird is squeezed.
As common as the pipits, but concentrated in the willows are the Lapland
Buntings (Longspurs) Calcarius lapponicus, one of my favourite birds. Its
cheery little song jingle could still be heard here and there, although
possibly in a somewhat abbreviated form and without the song flight. But
mostly these beautiful birds with their warm reddish-brown necks perched in
the willows around us, and sounded their cozy-sounding calls: prrr-(looking
around)-dyuee-(short pause for introspection)-truee, the first whistle
ascending, the second descending. The birds are probably highly excited,
but they do not sound it.
The dry rattles of the Redpolls sound also here, above the tree-line; this
year seems to be a very productive one for Redpolls, as the whole week they
were hardly ever out of our hearing. The Arctic redpolls Acanthis
hornemanni are less common, and not always easy to recognize, neither on
sound or sight: redpolls rarely sit still to be admired, although they may
do so, when busily foraging on seeds in the birches or even on the dandelions.

A third characteristic bird of these areas is the master-flyer Long-tailed
Skua (Jaeger) Stercorarius longicauda. As this is a very poor summer for
rodents in this area, the birds may well not have nested, and they did not
show any signs of anxiety or aggression at all.

Altogether we noted less than 80 bird species during this one touristic
week, 25-30 less than if we had been one month earlier. But there were more
flowers--which was great--, as well as many more insects--which was not
quite as great. And it was a pleasure and a privilege to show "my country"
to people who have eye for its character and special beauty!

                                        Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
                                        9037 Tromsø, Norway

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