reluctant spring at 70*N

Subject: reluctant spring at 70*N
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Sun, 13 May 2001 15:03:41 +0200


"Spring has sprung", I reported optimistically; a bit too optimistically,
in fact, for in the last week our weather has been anything else but
spring-like, with chilly grey weather, rain, sleet and hail (although, to
be fair, little or no frost, so that snow melting has continues, albeit at
a reduced pace); the feeling of being a bit cheated is further aggravated
by the fact that S. Norway had a taste of summer last week, with temp. in
the mid-twenties (centigrade, that is), and national TV (based in
Oslo)daily crowing on 'our wonderful spring weather'. This time a year the
differences in 'season' between N.and S. Norway are always at their greatest.

Of course the days lengthen daily anyhow and it is now only two weeks
before the midnight sun; in tune with that, the migrant birds arrive also
in spite of the chilly weather, and cope as best as they can with the
conditions. Yesterday a whole flock of Bramblings (the first I've seen this
year here, in fact, and all still in winter plumage) gathered under my
hanging sunflower-feeder to eat the spoils below ;the snow has disappeared
also there, and in fact there is only little left in my garden, so it will
all be gone earlier than average, that is if we get no further snowfalls.
This morning, when I listened to my self on the radio (nature programme; I
hate to hear myself, as I always feel my spoken Norwegian sounds still
awfully Dutch, even after 35 years!), I saw a Grey Heron fly over the
garden, a newcomer to my garden list---and also a relative newcomer to
Tromsøya island as a nesting bird.

In Folkeparken the Redwings sing now in numbers, but I have not yet heard
either Pied Flycatcher or Willow Warbler, the last main chorus-members to
arrive here. (Other people have seen the flycatchers, though). This seems
to be a good year for European Robins up here, and one also sang in the fir
plantations in Folkeparken; another 'inland' bird that erupted to the coast
this spring is the Siskin---many people phone the museum, and either ask
'what are these nice small yellow and black birds?', or say 'we have
Siskins around the house and my book says they should not be here'. Like
your Pine Siskins in America, also our Siskins are nomads, and we have had
these eruptions before, leading to nesting around here for a year or two
and then petering out again.

In the Folkeparken the path to the museum is now ca 50% snow-free, and very
muddy, and there are few signs as yet of the coming spring in the
vegetation. I wish I could describe our surroundings clearly to you, so you
could get a better idea of the mosaic of low birch forest---the stems
white, the branches slowly turning almost dark reddish, while the buds
start to stretch and grow--- and pastures---still brownish with puddles of
melt water and here and there still patches of snow, the edges of which are
beloved by the Fieldfares, which have now returned in numbers and keep up a
loud and conspicuous presence. The pastures are also dotted with pairs of
the neat and dapper Common Gulls (with just the right proportions for a
small gull!), and here and there Hooded Crows and magpies, the latter now
also invariable in pairs, as the males guard the females jealously in the
egg-laying period (at the same time both sexes keep an eye out for the odd
chance of giving out (or receiving )some quality genes to other magpies!).
Returning European Golden Plovers, resplendent in their golden and black
finery, use the pastures as waiting room, until the snow disappears from
their nesting areas in the hills above.

In the intertidal the Oystercatchers are now everywhere, and also Redshanks
display and call many places. here near town most gulls are Common Gulls,
but Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls are also quite regular, although
much less numerous than on the outer coast. Today I drove a bit along the
Kvalsund road, until the persistent hail and sleet squalls persuaded me
back, and here the raod parallels the sound, and is strewn with sea urchins
Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis, that the gulls fish up at low tide and
drop on the asphalt road in order to break them and meet the contents
available to the gulls. (I do not think that these gulls have the
intelligence to rely on the car traffic to squash the urchins, something I
have heard people maintain crows do now and then. In Norwegian sea urchins
are in fact called 'kråkeboller'=crow's balls---I don't know how to
translate this without hearing snickering--, because people have seen crows
collect and drop the urchins on rocks, breakwaters or hard roads).

Common Eiders are also still mostly in pairs and apparently have not
started nesting as yet, and a 'Sea Eagle' stands majestically on a rock on
the shore, dwarfing the hefty Great Black-backed Gulls alongside. These
eagles are very large birds indeed!

As usual in this season, I am regularly drawn to the Tisnes peninsula and
wetlands, where the dirt road now is over the worst thawing problems, so
that one can drive it with prudence. Snow ids mostly gone from the
peninsula, but some of the ditches are still ice bound. At sea eiders
dominate the scene here (There are now few cormorants left, they are much
more common in winter), but just this time a year there is always a fair
chance of finding the Yellow-billed Loons, that have wintered in our area,
and now prepare to leave for their nesting areas in N.Russia, and this
morning there were as many as four of these impressive large divers. In the
puddles, slowly receding from their maximum size after snow melt, the
resident dabbling ducks are gathering for the season. Tisnes is an
excellent area for southern ducks, and I have earlier writen about the
large diversity of ducks on the one small peninsula. Friday the local pair
of Shovelers had returned, and today there were three Pintails, two males
and a female, as well as a pair of Teals, and the normal Mallards, Tufted
Ducks and Shelducks. Golden Plovers also here, the first four Ruffs still
only occupied with foraging, a Black-tailed Godwit (another bird that
should not be here acc. to the books---these are of the Icelandic race,
that has colonized N.Norway some twenty years ago in small numbers) shares
the wetlands with many Redshanks, and Lapwings fly their  display rolls and
attack every Hooded Crow that crosses the area. The farms have Starlings,
magpies and White Wagtails, but it is a few years since I heard the
Skylarks sing here. Also the swallows were still absent (as are the Arctic
Terns, that also have a colony in the area), but I saw a single shivering
Barn Swallow on a telephone wire on Friday---it certainly has not made
summer here as yet!

But spring can not be stopped for long. Joel and I walked and checked the
chalk meadow on Tisnes last Friday, shivering in the chilly winds and
steady seeping rain. The meadow looks 'dead, yellow and with seemingly no
thought of the coming spring as yet. But at the end, on some well-drained
hummocks, the miracle of every spring has repeated itself. Low on the
ground patches of various violet colours 'leap in the eye' suddenly:
Saxifraga oppositifolia, the Purple Saxifrage, has defied the weather also
in 2001!!!

So spring will rush in sooner or later, and then it comes often very
quickly indeed!

                                                                        Wim Vader, 
Tromsø Museum
Tromsø, Norway

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