City loons at 70*N

To: <>
Subject: City loons at 70*N
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Sat, 4 Jun 2005 15:31:50 +0200

                                        CITY LOONS IN TROMSØ, NORTHERN NORWAY

On the island of Tromsøya there is a little lake called Prestvannet, 'the 
priest's lake'. It has been created about 150 years ago, by damming some 
brooks, so that a quite shallow lake was formed in a marshy area. Earlier, 
before freezers and refrigerators, this lake was used as a source of ice in 
winter. It is situated just west of the city centre, maybe 70-80m above sea 
level, and it is surrounded by marshy areas and a ring of birch forest, outside 
of which there are main roads, the meteorological intstitute, the Northern 
Lights Research Institute, and a number of flats, some for students, some for 
the general public. There is a footpath around the lake of exactly one mile 
long, and this is very much used by joggers, and families and old people 
walking, sitting on the benches, and 'feeding the ducks' (plus feral pigeons, 
Hooded Crows, and lots of Common Gulls). The ducks are mostly Mallards, but 
there also nest many pairs of Tufted Ducks on the lake, and they have become 
very tame and come as close as the mallards, although they usually do not climb 
ashore. The Common Gulls  have a nesting colony on the marsh on one side of the 
lake (closed for public access from 1 May to 31 July, but anyway so marshy that 
it almost protects itself), and the gulls share it with a lively colony of 
Arctic terns (also very well able to protect themselves), most years with a few 
Pairs of Common Terns thrown in. As I said the lake is quite shallow, and it is 
frozen over for ca half the year. Nevertheless there are some fish; 
Sticklebacks Gasterosteus and interestingly enough Crucian Carp Carassius, no 
doubt set out when the lake was formed and surviving here far north of their 
normal distributiion area already for almost two centuries. In the birches 
around the lake the normal 'big four' of N.Norwegian songbirds dominate: Willow 
Warbler, Fieldfare, Redwing, and Brambling, while there are also Pied 
Flycatchers, Great Tits, and Starlings in the marsh. No typical reed birds, 
except one or two pairs of Reed Buntings most years. Bank Swallows and a few 
Barn Swallows hunt over the lake, and there usually are some Redshanks around, 
and other shorebirds and ducks visit. 

But the crowning glowry of this city lake are its Red-throated Loons! These 
usually shy denizens of lonely lakes discovered Prestvannet some years ago, and 
one pair nested successfully. Since then it looks like there has been word of 
mouth advertisement of the place among loons, and this year there are an 
amazing five territorial pairs on the lake, which gives one full opportunity to 
follow their spectacular courtship rituals and dances, and the altercations 
between pairs, at close hand.(I never seen such a dense population of loons 
anywhere) The birds nest on small mud islands in the lake, and the closest one 
of those is not more than maybe 15 m from the nearest bench! (And these benches 
are in almost constant use especialy in the weekends). So our loons have 
clearly become convinced that the inhabitants of Tromsø are thoroughly 
loon-friendly ( can see many possible puns here) and don's care at all anymore 
about all the people close by. Are there other city loons elsewhere? Although 
there is, as I said, some fish in the lake, we think that the loons collect 
most of thier fish elsewhere, mainly in the sounds around the island; the young 
have grown up well the last years.

Today was only the second day this year that the temperature crept above 10*C, 
so I drove to Rakfjord and walked the normal track, with an extra detour to 
'the phalarope lake'a bit off the road. I felt extremely tired somehow today 
and had to drag myself along; clearly this heat (all of 12*C!!) was almost too 
much and we shall need a time of acclimatization. Spring is really late this 
year here: the birches are still not fully out even in the lowland, and around 
Prestvannet and the paharope lake they were still almost leafless. But on the 
road verges the Coltsfoot has now been exchanged for Dandelions, yellow 
splashes of Caltha grow in all ditches and brooks; and in the still dull brown 
marshes there are white somewhat floppy flowers here and there: the first 
Cloudberries are in bloom. Their fate will be followed with argus-eyes by the 
people here, as their fruits are the most eagerly sought of all wild berries in 
the area.

Ar Rakfjord the Golden Plovers were still standing around in the fields, in 
very loose flocks, and clearly not quite ready yet for nesting, while their 
close cousins the Lapwings already have small young. Also otherwise things were 
much as last week; Whimbrels displayed, Redshanks scolded, Ruffs farged along 
the lakeside in their varicoloured ruffs, and Snipe jumped up from the marshes 
along the road. A second pair of Arctic Skuas had arrived, there were two pairs 
of Greylag geese on the marsh (I wonder when these ever breed; I always see the 
pairs together), and besides the Meadow Pipits now also the Northern Wheatears 
have returned and occupied territories. And as always here in summer, Cuckoos 
cuckood in the background. But there were no phalaropes (as yet?) at the 
phalarope lake, and I still have not figured out where the whooper swans nest 
this season. Everywhere along the Kvalsund families occupied protected coves 
and sandy beaches, for picnicking, loafing and fishing---not much swimming, as 
the water temp has not yet reached double digits; there are lambs in the 
fields, and near the Tromsø bridge an impressive flock of some twenty majestic 
reindeer in velvet antlers; let's hope they are still there next week, when 
we'll have the big Mandela 46664 concerto in town. (I shall be in Germany by 
then, though; more amphipods to work on).

I made a last stop near the airport at Langnes, where the young Starlings 
clamoured in their nest boxes (Yes, we have starling boxes, and they have 
helped a locally threatened species!), the nesting pair of Turnstones scolded 
picturesquely and most of the  samll cabins now had people, curtailing my 
rounds. Here I was very pleasantly surprised, nevertheless,  as 2005 turns out 
to have become a bumper year for the vulnerable local population of the 
beautiful little dark violet primrose Primula finmarchica. Last years I have 
found only a few flowers in bloom, now there were at least 200, although at a 
quite vulnerable place, directly outside a german bunker and almost on the 
path. Still, it was a wonderful and hope- giving sight. And among all the dark 
violet flowerheads there was one almost white mutant.

                                                                Wim Vader, 
Tromsø Museum
                                                                9037 Tromsø, 
 (NB changed address)

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