progress of spring at 70*N

Subject: progress of spring at 70*N
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Mon, 21 May 2001 11:38:47 +0200

                                        WHAT A DIFFERENCE A FEW DAYS MAKE!

In May the Red Knots stop over for a few weeks in Balsfjorden, S. of my
hometown Tromsø in N.Norway (70*N), fattening themselves on Macoma-shells
for some weeks before crossing the Atlantic to the breeding areas in E.
Greenland and N.Canada. They are a wonderful sight, swirling in their
thousands as a red cloud over the highwater areas, and I always try to go
and see them every spring, if I can. Also, this time a year, Dippers may
concentrate at a certain point near the outlet of Sagelvvannet, where they
are a feast to watch; I have written about this before.
Yesterday, however, I dipped on The Dippers, and saw not a single Knot! But
the great thing with birding is, there is (almost) always plenty of
compensation, especially in this season, when every day brings new arrivals.

This last week we have had a few fine calm and partly sunny days, with weak
SE winds and temperatures above 10*C (We are quite content with that:  on
17 May, our national day, often marred by snow showers, this year everybody
was strolling with big smiles, showing off their various national Norwegian
and Saami costumes, most years hidden below overcoats), before a slight
relapse into drizzle, rain and lower temperatures yesterday and today. In
my garden the last snow disappeared and outside Tromsø Museum we went from
a spow heap to flowering Scylla and daffodils within two weeks! In the
fields the first green is apparent now, although virtually all trees still
are completely bare. But helped by the perpetual daylight (Tromsø has
officially already midnight sun, although hills to the north prevent us
from seeing it at midnight for another three days or so) many plants are
now springing out quickly, and the first horsetails Equisetum are 'in
flower' already. Our famous Tromsø palm, a large exotic Angelika, that
dominates all waste ground in town, has just started on its yearly tour de
force, growing from scratch to ca 4 m high in the course of some 40
days---one can almost see them grow!!

SE winds are optimal for arrival of esp. passerine migrants here, as most
of those apparently fly up through the Bothnian Gulf and come to N.Norway
across the river valleys of N.Sweden. So on the morning of 16 May I heard
the enthousiastic song-strophe of the Pied Flycatcher for the first time,
and that same afternoon the male in my garden also returned, so that I can
once more enjoy his dapper and unafraid black-and-white presence around the
house; he now sings constantly, and next week or so will have to persuade
one of the somewhat later arriving females, that both he himself, and the
nestbox in the rowan-tree, are first-class, and worth investing a season
in. The next day, 17 May, there were already at least five flycatchers in
Folkeparken, and that afternoon I also heard the melancholy song strophe of
the Willow Warbler, Norway's most numerous bird, and one of our better
songsters. And now, three days later, these two species dominate the bird
chorus in Folkeparken!

On Saturday we had a wonderful sunny day (15*C!!), and I took the
opportunity to visit several old haunts on the island of Kvaløya, between
us and the open sea. On the wetland of Tisnes the road is now again quite
passable, and most of the ice has gone from the wetland meadows. The
various dabbling ducks (Pintail, Mallard, Wigeon, Teal, Shoveler) have
returned, and the Ruffs have started their first tournaments, this year
unfortunately seemingly choosing a field somewhat further from the road.
The Common Gulls are copulating---easily recognizable because of the
special monotonous repeated call that always goes with it--, but the Arctic
Terns were still absent. In the intertidal Turnstone, Ringed Plover and
Dunlin had returned; they probably all will nest here, but the local
farmers have closed off the area from 1 May to 1 August ( 'Birds nest here'
say their signs.)

Another traditional walk is around the little cemetery at Håkøybotn, where
I often hear Bluethroats (not this time, though), and where every spring
the Common Sandpipers return and display along the little river----and yes,
they were back also now, as was the Song Thrush of the neglected pine
plantation, a bird with an uncommonly varied song repertoire. Redpolls,
still very scarce in Folkeparken, were very common here, and I also came
across the first Tree Pipits of the year, although these did not sing as yet.

The third area I visited this sunny Saturday was the marshy valleys near
Rakfjorden along the Kvalsund (no sea eagle here today), where three
reindeer were browsing almost in one of the just ice-free tarns. In another
tarn ice still covered most of the surface, but the resident pair of
Black-throated Loons had returned nevertheless---I wondered how they could
start off from this small  ice-free corner, but did not put this to the
test. Golden Plovers and Whimbrels had already returned to their nesting
areas on the heather-covered low hills around, and the stuttering song of
the Northern Wheatear sounded all around. Just when I was leaving, a dark
shape materialized in the air overhead: the first returning Parasitic Skua
(I hope this is an acceptable compromise: this is the least arctic of the
small skuas, and I prefer the Scandinavian Skua to the German and not all
that apt Jaeger) of the several pairs that nest here every summer, and an
entirely dark morph.

On the Sunday I planned, as I said, to do a Knot-Dipper trip around the
Balsfjord, but half-ways the chilly drizzle turned to more persistent rain,
so I decided to return along the main road, and leave the Malangen part of
the trip to some other day. This is otherwise a most traditional trip
(200-250km, distances are largish here), where I walk the same stretches
every time and more or less expect the same birds to turn up (I am still
checking every time one particular tree for the sea-eagle I saw there once
last year, and clearly the 'dipper-spot' may well be similar, a lucky
coincidence once or twice rather than a certainty).

The first stop, after having driven around the Ramfjord, which now suddenly
was again entirely ice-free, was along the road near Andersdalen, in a
forest on a steep slope; along the road there are mainly alder, higher up
birches, willows and some poplars. Only the willows show spring, with some
catkins already out (and the first queen Bumblebees as visitors), the rest
is still bare, although the alders will soon flower too. Not too much of a
bird chorus in the cool drizzle (I must admit I also had overslept, and was
two hours later than planned), but gradually all the usual suspects turned
up nevertheless: Redwing, Willow Warbler, Brambling, Great Tit, Chaffinch,
Pied Flycatcher, and everywhere the Fieldfares, always chasing each other
and the crows, magpies and even Common Gulls; they are really highly
strung, and even their disjointed song, often in hurried flight, sounds to
me more like a harangue than a love song! As always the Ravens croak from
above---they nest in the cliffside here---, and the sound of displaying
Black Grouse drifts down from the higher slopes.

The next 'walking stop' is in a more varied area, with many working farms,
with small corners of woodland in between, and with a view of the nearby
fjord (full of scoters in this season, mostly Velvet) and several muddy
bights. This is always an area with rich pickings: Starlings occupy the
nest boxes and forage with the Golden Plovers that here still await the
thawing out of their nesting areas in the hills (The snow line now lies at
50-100m), Lapwings and Curlews display, and several pairs of Shelducks
share the intertidal with the ubiquitous Oystercatchers and Common Gulls
and the nervous Redshanks. Two (a pair?) Bar-tailed Godwits are probably
only passing through, on their way to their nesting areas further north and
east. A completely unknown birdsong had me stumped for a long time, until I
succeeded in tracking down the singer, a Great Tit!! (I wonder where he
learned that; it did not sound like any tit I ever heard before!).  This
area also completed the suite of local songsters, with Meadow Pipit,
Dunnock (I have trouble changing that to the so much more pompous sounding
Hedge Accentor, now the official name), Chiffchaff, Greenfinch and
Siskin---only the European Robin (present in Folkeparken, though), and the
newcomers Blue Tit and Wood Pigeon were missing today.

It was getting a bit late, so I pushed through all the way to the shallow
and productive lake Sagelvvatn 'inside the bottom of Balsfjorden'; here
most of the like was still ice-covered, although the ice now looked
exceedingly rotten, but there were largish leads where small rivers empty
into the lake, and here several ducks were awaiting further developments:
Tufted Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, Teal, Wigeon, and several pairs of
the now spectacularly beautiful Horned (Slavonian) Grebes, that often will
nest in the areas where the ice goes earliest and that can be watched here
from close by, as they are quite unafraid. Along the shore many Redshanks
also here, a few Greenshanks (I heard their display song), and regularly
the sharp whistles of  Common Sandpipers, all returned during the last few
weeks. At a farm where horses were fed outdoors, this bonanza was
discovered by House Sparrows (the only ones I saw all weekend) and White
Wagtails, while a beautiful yellow Yellowhammer sat shining on the roof; a
most welcome sight, as this species is decreasing a lot also here in the
north. In the willows along the lakeside a small stumpy bird played hide
and seek with me for a long time, until I excitedly could watch the blue
throat and red 'medal' of the first Bluethroat of the year; the bird itself
also got clearly excited by the chase and finally burst out in a muttered
version of its glorious song, my favourite bird song of the north.

Just when I decided to call it a day, and turn around home from the
innermost parts of Balsford, I heard a familiar sound over the fjord; and
yes, a single Arctic Tern appeared, possibly just arrived. Time and again
it sat down on the water for a while before flying on. Maybe it was glad to
be back? I sure was glad to see it back; the single swallow I saw also this
weekend may still make no summer, but a tern will probably do much better!!

By then I had long forgotten the dipped Dippers and the not a single Knot.
There are always compensations!!

I add the list of birds seen this weekend. 'New arrivals' (at least new for
me, e.g. the Black Grouse have been here all winter) get once more an asterisk.

Black-throated Loon             Gavia arctica
Horned (Slavonian) Grebe        Podiceps auritus
Great Cormorant         Phalacrocorax carbo
Greylag Goose           Anser anser
Shelduck                        Tadorna tadorna
Eur. Wigeon                     Anas penelope
Mallard                 A. platyrhynchos
Northern Shoveler               A. clypeata
Teal                            A. crecca
Tufted Duck                     Aythya fuligula
Common Eider            Somateria mollissima
Common (Black) Scoter   Melanitta nigra
Velvet Scoter                   M. fusca
Red-br. Merganser               Mergus serrator
Willow Ptarmigan                Lagopus lagopus
*Black Grouse                   Tetrao tetrix
Oystercatcher                   Haematopus ostralegus
Ringed Plover                   Charadrius hiaticula
Eur. Golden Plover              Pluvialis apricaria
Northern Lapwing                Vanellus vanellus
*Turnstone                      Arenaria interpres
*Dunlin                 Calidris alpina
Ruff                            Philomachus pugnax
Curlew                  Numenius arquata
Whimbrel                        N. phaeopus
*Bar-tailed Godwit              Limosa lapponica
Redshank                        Tringa totanus
*Greenshank                     T. nebularia
*Common Sandpiper               Actitis hypoleucos
*Common Snipe           Gallinago gallinago
*Parasitic Skua         Stercorarius parasiticus
Common Gull                     Larus canus
Herring Gull                    L. argentatus
Glaucous Gull                   L. hyperboreus (single adult bird; forgotten to 
Great Black-b. Gull             L. marinus
*Lesser Black-b. Gull           L. f. fuscus
*Arctic Tern                    Sterna paradisaea
Barn Swallow                    Hirundo rustica
*Tree Pipit                     Anthus trivialis
Meadow Pipit                    A. pratensis
White Wagtail                   Motacilla alba
Dunnock                 Prunella modularis
Eur. Robin                      Erithacus rubecula
*Bluethroat                     Luscinia svecica
*Northern Wheatear              Oenanthe oenanthe
Fieldfare                       Turdus pilaris
Redwing                 T. iliacus
*Song Thrush                    T. philomelos
*Willow Warbler         Phylloscopus trochilus
Chiffchaff                      Ph. collybita
*Pied Flycatcher                Ficedula hypoleuca
Willow Tit                      Parus montanus
Great Tit                       P. major
Starling                        Sturnus vulgaris
Magpie                  Pica pica
Northern Raven          Corvus corax
Hooded Crow                     C. corone cornix
Chaffinch                       Fringilla coelebs
Brambling                       F. montifringilla
Greenfinch                      Chloris chloris
Siskin                          Carduelis spinus
Redpoll                 C. flammea
Twite                           C. flavirostris
*Yellowhammer           Emberiza citrinella
*Reed Bunting                   E. schoeniclus
                                                                Wim Vader, 
Tromsø Museum
                                                                9037 Tromsø, 

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