warm and cold at 70*N

To: "birdchat" <>
Subject: warm and cold at 70*N
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Sat, 13 May 2006 15:07:13 +0200

Winter 2005-2006 in Tromsø, N.Norway has been 'easy': not too much snow, not 
too many periods of Atlantic mild weather, and a comparatively early thaw, so 
that we had a record-early snow-free date this year: the last snow at the 
metereological institute was registered on 27 April. April was on the average 
almost 3*C warmer than the 30-year average, and in the first week of May 
temperatures surpassed 20*C at several localities in all three northern 
provinces of Norway. Nevertheless, the returning summer guests among the birds 
were not particularly early this year, no doubt because, while we here north 
had a period of nice warm spring weather, spring was cool and wet many other 
places in NW Europe. Now, 13 May, the Rowan trees are in leaf, but the Birches, 
the dominant trees here north, still have not fully leafed, even though it 
won't be many days now.

I returned from a most successful birding trip to Spain with Sunbird on 30 
April, and for that reason my normal 'Balsfjord round' trip , which I usually 
make on 1 May ( a free day in Norway) was this year postponed to 4 May. There 
were many signs of spring now: the ice on the Ramfjord had completely 
disappeared, the yellow stars of Coltsfoot twinkled everywhere along the road 
verges, and many willows were also in bloom, attracting fat bumblebee queens. 
But the bird morning chorus was still on the meagre side: Redwings and 
Chaffinches dominated, with the frequent gruff voices of scolding Fieldfares 
also conspicuous, but otherwise the only singers were a few Dunnocks and of 
course the always present Greenfinches. No Bramblings or Willow Warblers as 
yet, no Pied Flycatchers either. And no Black Grouse display sounds wafting 
down from the higher slopes.

Also in the intertidal there were as yet fewer actors than I had expected. The 
Oystercatchers and Common Gulls were back in force, but I saw few Redshanks, 
Curlews or Dunlins, and as yet no Red Knots at all. The flocks of Velvet 
Scoters were still there, with  this time a few more Slavonian Grebes , as well 
as a single  Red-necked Grebe (There are some here every spring, but they 
seemingly fly to Sweden to nest). At Tisnes wetlands there were a few 
Pinkfooted Geese, on their way to Svalbard, and the Saxifraga oppositifolia was 
blooming, for me the official start of spring.

On the Sunday after (7 May) I visited the wetlands at Rakfjord along the 
Kvalsund, and also here the main impression was one of 'almost spring'. The 
Common Gulls had returned to their territories in the wetland marshes, but were 
as yet mostly silent (they become bothersomely loud later on), and the Golden 
Plovers were just sitting there, and clearly still had no display in mind as 
yet. Also the Whimbrels, that nest in numbers here, were back, and here and 
there I heard the first distant strophes of their bronze display flutings, but 
again, nothing like the constant chorus of a few weeks later on. Lapwings 
displayed constantly, though, and also the first Snipe had returned, although 
again, no whinnying as yet, only the metronomic tuck a tuck a tuck.A single 
Meadow Pipit sang and parachuted over the marshes; no Wheatears as yet. Most of 
the lower lakes are almost ice-free, and the usual pair of Black-throated Loons 
had returned to their traditional tarn; but they seemed fast asleep, floating 
as far from the shore as possible. A few other ducks were also back: 
Red-throated Mergansers, Tufted Ducks, Teal, Wigeons and of course Mallards, 
and Grey Herons fished from the lake shores.

This last week I have had my annual trip with our research vessel Johan Ruud, 
and this time we had elected, probably somewhat stupidly, to collect in the 
Varangerfjord, the northeasternmost fjord in Norway, close to the Russian 
border. Stupidly, bcause this is really too far away for a one week trip: from 
Tromsø to Vadsø in the Varangerfjord, the Johan Ruud used 36 hrs! And that is 
one way, so that we only had 26 hours of the five day trip available for 
actually collecting amphipods (Varanger is a most interesting area, with a 
number of coldwater species that occur only here in  Norwegian waters). In 
addition, the weather changed radically just this Monday morning, and 
temperatures dropped c 20*C overnight, so that we had strong winds (causing 
seasickness; much of the trip is off the coast through the Barents Sea), sleet 
and temperatures just above freezing this week. But much weather often also 
causes the seabirds to be more conspicuous. On the way north on Monday and 
Tuesday we were constantly surrounded by large numbers of Fulmars, both on 
Lopphavet west of the North Cape , and on the Barents Sea. There were also many 
Puffins, usually in pairs, and here and there small flocks of Guillemots 
(Murres) and Razorbills, but far less Kittiwakes than I had expected. 
Exceptions were when we passed fishing boats; they had a cloud of fulmars and 
kittiwakes around them, and usually also some larger gulls: Herring Gulls, 
Great Black-backed Gulls, and the odd Glaucous Gull. Oxccasionally single 
Gannets flew past; there are a few small colonies on the  Barents Sea coasts.

After c 30 hours we passed the town of Vardø, the most easterly town in Norway 
(E. of Istanbul and Moskva, in fact!!). here the ship passes through the narrow 
and shallow Bussesund, and as always, there were lots of birds there.  Large 
flocks of Common Eiders (I saw no King Eiders, but a few Steller's Eiders), 
many Cormorants, Shags and Black Guillemots, a few Brunnich's Guillemots among 
the other auks here: the local colony of Hornøya has quite a number of these 
Thick-billed Murres, more than any other norwegian rookery. There were also 
surprisingly many flocks of Long-tailed Ducks---- and this situation would last 
all the six hours between Vardø and Vadsø--- and a few loons which were too far 
away to identify..

On the Wednesday we collected mostly on the open Varangerfjord, where there are 
much fewer birds, but late in the evening, when the wind again increased, we 
collected a few samples in the narrow and deep Bøkfjord, a southern side fjord 
of the Varangerfjord (The town of Kirkenes is situated on this fjord), and in 
some shallower bights close by. Here there were again loons, unmistakable 
Black-throated Loons this time, and at midnight--it does not get dark anymore 
at these latitudes this time a year--- We surprised three skuas (jaegers), the 
first of the year for me; 2 Arctic Skuas (Parasitic Jaegers) and one 
Long-tailed Skua.

On the way back we had easterly winds, which had the effect of a somewhat 
easier sea, and consequently (??) fewer Fulmars around the ship. But it was 
easier to see birds on the water now, and the first hours after Vardø I was 
very much surprised to find several pairs of large loons on the water (in open 
sea); in all three cases where the birds came close enough , they were to my 
great surprise Common Loons (Great Northern Divers), and not the expected 
Yellow-billed Loons (White-billed Divers), in winter the far commoner of the 
two in Troms and Finnmark.

Among the rocky islands in the North Cape area we came across large numbers of 
Black Guillemots (hundreds could be seen near a single island), in addition to 
the species we also had seen on the way out. One rocky island, where the snow 
had already melted, sported a number of still immaculately white Snow Hares, 
while at another one I found a pair of Rough-legged Buzzards, also just 
returned from their winter quarters.

Both the warm first week of May, and the chilly second week are quite normal 
here. The weather this time a year is even more unpredicatble than in other 
seasons, and the differences with the situation further soiuth, where it is now 
full spring are enormous, even in a year as this with little snow.

    Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
    9037 Tromsø, Norway

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