spring has sprung at 70*N (for now)

Subject: spring has sprung at 70*N (for now)
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Wed, 02 May 2001 14:09:15 +0200


In Tromsø, N. Norway (69*50'N) we have had large changes during this last
week. Snow depth has decreased from ca 1 m  to less than half, with large
bare areas near the shore and almost no snow at all on the outer coast and
on south-exposed slopes. Melt water is running everywhere, creating large
puddles and ponds, and the minor roads are hard to drive through because of
frost damage and the soft spots and deformations caused by the thawing of
the underground. Temperatures during the day have been up to 10*C (I know
that won't impress you all that much, but it is by far the warmest we have
had until now this year!),  with light night frost at night, and outside
the doorstock of my neighbourhood grocery a whole row of Coltsfoot,
Tussilago farfara, has stuck up their most welcome yellow heads, the first
flowers of the year. Otherwise nothing is green as yet, and the fields
reappear brown, untidy and unlovely from underneath the snow cover.
The weather forecast is for a temporary return to wintery conditions from
this afternoon: a change towards northerly winds, up to storm force and
snow showers, so we have been warned not yet to change to 'summer tires' on
our cars, as winter is almost sure to return once or twice still, here at
70*N (Where in fact it has been known to snow in every month of the year,
just as it has been know to rain in every month of the year).

But this week of mild weather and first SE, then SW winds has made a very
large difference bird-wise. The Common Gulls, which had arrived but kept
themselves along the shore earlier, now have returned to their territories
everywhere in town (One pair has a territory that includes my garden) and
their at first most welcome, but soon a bit too frequent and too loud cries
can now be heard day and night everywhere. I stopped at several colonies,
that are still snow-covered, and there the birds sit pair-wise on the snow
'above' last years nestsite, and defend their area against all newcomers.

In the birch forest between my house and the museum the path becomes more
treacherous and soft every day, and today for the first time I saw the bare
ground beneath the snow at one particular open sunny spot, while the
rivulets of melting snow have dug small trenches through the path here and
there. Finally we can almost talk about a real morning chorus too: it is
still gathering and tuning up , rather than in full fettle, but the
Greenfinches have got competition of fresh and better songsters. On Friday
a European Robin played its crystal flute from a spruce thicket, yesterday
morning I heard the first jingle of the Dunnock for this year, and today
the first few Redwings were back and fluted, and a Chaffinch added his
exuberant positive statement.

On Sunday my nephew Joel, over from Holland for a few weeks, and I , after
finally digging my car out of the decreasing snow heap in my driveway,
drove out to the coast and walked on the almost snow-free peaty island
Hillesøy, where the Curlews were bugling (and I also saw the first Whimbrel
of the year), a few Greylag Geese flew overhead, and Snow Buntings and the
first Rock Pipits searched the intertidal for titbits. The Willow Grouse,
very conspicuous just now, still largely white with only the head in summer
brown already, displayed noisily, and the Herring and Great Black-backed
gulls already had started their nesting season---they are always 1-2 weeks
ahead of the Common Gulls. At sea large groups of eiders foraged and
displayed, and Cormorants and Shags flew back and forth, while a pair of
Black Guillemots unexpectedly was still largely in winter plumage.
Oystercatchers are everywhere; they dot the entire shore line of N.Norway ,
with a pair every few hunderd meters. Overhead White-tailed Eagles are
common here this time a year, mostly immatures; this species, common in
this area, does not nest on Hillesøy, but in winter there are always a
number hanging around on the island.

On 1 May, a free day in Norway, Joel accompanied me on my yearly 1. May
trip 'around the Balsfjord', a trip of some 250 km mostly inland from
Tromsø. I try to follow the same programme every year, with the same stops
and the same short walks, so that the results are more or less comparable.
This time the weather was already starting to change, and sunny periods
with maybe +5*C were followed by chilly showers and low clouds without the
beautiful mountain views I had promised Joel. But although the trip did not
quite live up to its reputation as a tourist route, it did show that spring
clearly is on its way also here: at the first stop, in a hill forest of
mainly alder and birch with some spruce plantations, we first heard only a
single Willow Tit sing, but gradually other birds followed suit, a European
Robin, some Greenfinches, Great Tits (maybe even a Long-tailed tit, but I
never saw that one),  twice a Blue Tit (a newcomer to this area of the last
few years), and suddenly the metronomic chiff chaff chiff chaff of the
first (you guessed it!) Chiffchaff of the year. While we searched for the
bird itself, I also found the first Redwing, although that one still kept
silent. Above the Ravens croaked and displayed as they do every year here,
but we did not hear the Black Grouse display 'bubbles' yet, that also often
sound down from these steep cliffy hills.

The next stop, in more open farm terrain along the fjord, yielded
displaying Lapwings and Curlews, Starlings and White Wagtails on the
farmhouses, as well as the pair of Bullfinches near a house where the birds
are fed during winter and where I find them nearly every year. A lone
Golden Plover flew over and called his unmistakable melancholy contact
call, and a dense flock of ca 25 Wood Pigeons showed that also this
newcomer is going from strength to strength in this newly conquered area.
The fields here also yielded a few Fieldfares, tow days after I had seen
the first ones in fields near my house, as well as a few Meadow Pipits.

On the fjord there were less signs of spring as yet, and the Common Eiders
and scoters (both Black and Velvet) still dominated the picture, while the
only dabbling ducks I saw all day were the ubiquitous Mallards, often
waddling in pairs over the newly bare fields. The bird-rich shallow
Sagvannet lake was still completely ice-covered (and the outlet river too
high for the Dippers I often find here in spring), but I found a number of
Slavonian Grebes, Red-throated Mergansers and Long-tailed Ducks at the
'bottom of the fjord', no doubt waiting for the ice to disappear from the
freshwater lakes; in the same way both Red-throated and Arctic Loons hang
around these days on the fjords around Tromsøya.

Our last stop this day was at the wetlands of Tisnes, an area I have talked
about too many times already, no doubt. Here the dirt road through the
wetlands is now virtually impassable because of the thawing, so we had to
walk in, something that makes it more difficult to see many of the birds: a
car is an excellent blind, esp. if you are patient and wait for everything
to fall quiet. I do not know whether this was the reason we never saw any
other ducks as the Mallards (and the always present Eider Ducks and
Shelducks), and also missed all Snipe or small shorebirds present (except a
single Redshank). On Sunday I had the great surpirise here to see a small
flock of 5 Lesser White-fronted Geese, flying in from the west and circling
the area for a long time, before they decided that it was too unsafe and
moving on across the fjord; these are the first geese of this rare and
decreasing species that I ever saw here at Tisnes or in fact in Troms
province. In addition of course the resident Greylag Geese were present in
numbers and surprisingly unafraid of walkers. On Tuesday a dark male Merlin
hurtled through the area, attacking a starling without success; its further
progress could easily be followed by the angry protests of the Common gulls
in their territories on the different fields.

I'll give a list of the birds that we observed on the Sunday and Tuesday
trips, with an asterisk for the species that were new to the area this
year. (I know of many other birds that have been observed already, and it
is astonishing that we managed to miss e.g. twites, Teal, Wigeon, and
Ringed Plover.) But these were officially primarily sight-seeing trips with
a non-birder guest and should be seen in this light; also, I am a lousy
bird-spotter, when I drive myself on roads that are bumpy and 'holey' this
time a year.

Anyway, you will agree with me that there is an enormous difference between
the last time I reproted and this time. Spring has really sprung here in
Tromsø; we may have--will have-- backlashes, but the summer birds have come
to stay for this summer!!

*Red-throated Loon              Gavia stellata
*Black-throated Loon            G. arctica
*Slavonian (Horned) Grebe       Podiceps auritus
Cormorant                       Phalacocorax carbo
Shag                            Ph. aristotelis
Greylag Goose           Anser anser
*Lesser White-fr. Goose A. erythropus
Shelduck                        Tadorna tadorna
Mallard                 Anas platyrhynchos
Common Eider            Somateria mollissima
Black Scoter                    Melanitta nigra
Velvet Scoter                   M. fusca
Long-tailed Duck                Clangula hyemalis
Red-throated Merganser  Mergus serrator
White-tailed Eagle              Haliaeetus albicilla
*Merlin                 Falco columbarius
Willow Grouse                   Lagopus lagopus
Oystercatcher                   Haematopus ostralegus
*Northern Lapwing               Vanellus vanellus
*Redshank                       Tringa totanus
Curlew                  Numenius arquata
*Lesser Black-b. Gull           Larus f. fuscus
Herring Gull                    L. argentatus
Iceland Gull                    L. glaucoides (1 imm.Storsteinnes, late)
Great Black-backed Gull L. marinus
Common Gull                     L. canus
Black Guillemot         Cepphus grylle
*Wood pigeon                    Columba palumbus
Feral Pigeon                    C. livia        
*Rock Pipit                     Anthus petrosus
*Meadow Pipit                   A, pratensis
*White Wagtail          Motacilla alba
Starling                        Sturnus vulgaris
Black-billed Magpie             Pica pica
Hooded Crow                     Corvus (c.) cornix
Northern Raven          C. corax
*Dunnock                        Prunella modularis
*Chiffchaff                     Phylloscopus collybita
*European Robin         Erithacus rubecula
*Fieldfare                      Turdus pilaris
*Redwing                        T. iliacus
Willow Tit                      Parus montanus
Blue Tit                        P. caeruleus
Great Tit                       P. major
House Sparrow           Passer domesticus
*Chaffinch                      Fringilla coelebs
Greenfinch                      Chloris chloris
Bullfinch                       Pyrrhula pyrrhula
*Snow Bunting           Plectrophenax nivalis

                                                                Wim Vader, 
Tromsø Museum
                                                                9037 Tromsø, 

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