Late spring in Tromsø

To: "birding-aus" <>
Subject: Late spring in Tromsø
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Wed, 11 Jun 2008 13:22:22 +0200

                                                        LATE SPRING IN

As many of you know by now, I live in Tromsø, the main town of N.Norway (65
000 people), and at 69*50'N further north than most of you will ever have
been. I have reported on birds and seasons here for almost a decade now and
please let me know, if this is getting too repetitive, as I increasingly
fear. I have been employed as a curator in the zoology department of Tromsø
Museum, a regional museum founded as long ago as 1872, but now part of the
young University of Tromsø (where I also held a professorate in zoology).
But from 1 January 2008 I am officially retired (I am 71), even though I
still have a desk at the museum and continue working on my beloved

Still, this spring I have celebrated my newfound freedom by traveling a lot,
i.a. almost a month to Bhutan, a wonderful experience (Thank you, Dion!).
When I left for my last trip (with Riet to S.Spain)in mid May we had an
unseasonally heavy snowfall, with c 30 cm of snow in one day, but it melted
rather quickly, and my son-in-law tells me that the last snow in the garden
disappeared on 24 May. Last year this was already on 29 April, but in 1997
not before 22 June! This last week the weather has been clear and sunny, but
the winds have been northerly or northeasterly, and here at 70*N this means
Arctic air. So even though S. Norway last week was the hottest place in
Europe, with temperatures above 30*C, here the thermometer usually hovered
around 10*C in the middle of the day, and consequently spring is late this
year. But everything grows quickly now, once it starts up, as we have 24
hours of sunlight, and the sun won't set again until late july! (So don't
tell your kids to 'come home when it gets dark'; you won't see them again
for two months!)

The best gradestock for the progress of spring are the birches, the dominant
trees here at the coast; Tromsø lies on a small island in a fjord (bridges
and tunnels to the mainland and to Kvaløya), some 40 km from the open sea,
separated from it by the large and very hilly island of Kvaløya. Our island
is not very high (less than 100m; my house is at 45m, but still close to the
shore) and between my house and the museum where I work is Folkeparken (the
peoples park) , a remnant birch forest, with quite extensive spruce
plantations a few places, and many Rowans Sorbus and willows in addition to
the dominant birches. The ground is chalk-rich and the undergrowth therefore
quite luxuriant later in the year. But the birches aretoday still not fully
leafed, although it won't be many days now; the Rowans and willows are
earlier, and the ground is full of willow-catkins that have fallen off. The
ground is very rapidly  getting overgrown; in a few weeks we'll have a
wall-to-wall carpet of  large Storksbills Geranium, interspersed with large
patches of ferns, just now these are all coming up like crooked bishop
staves, in the case of Struthiopteris standing in serried ranks like
soldiers on parade. Horsetails are everywhere, mostly Equisetum ramosissimum
(from which my late mother-in-law boiled tea against rheumatism), and many
places the inverted umbrellas of Paris quadrifolia peep out; they will soon
get overgrown. The dominant flowers so early in the season are white in the
forest and yellow along the verges. In the forest Oxalis is everywhere, and
usually the first flower to be found here in spring, but the last days there
are more and more anemones (A. nemorosa), this plant is not completely
indigenous here, but was introduced in the 19th century from further south,
and is spreading now year after year. When I first came to Tromsø, in the
1970s, there were only one or two clones, and every year I went to pick some
and offer them to an elderly Swiss lady, who yearned for her homeland's
anemones, and did not know there were any here; she got tears in her eyes.

The yellows are of course Coltsfoot Tussilago, often growing up through the
snow, and always the first harbinger of spring here; today only the last
flowers are still yellow, the rest have become white seedheads. As
everywhere in the world we have Dandelions Taraxacum, and all ditches are
gloriously yellow with Caltha palustris. Yesterday I walked along the main
coastal road, Kvaløyveien, on my way to my shop, and found not only the very
first Lotus clover in flower, but also nice patches of Potentilla crantzii
and the first buttercups Ranunculus, all yellow flowers. But to my surprise
there were also many many small violet primroses, Primula finmarchica, which
I had never seen in that particular ditch before. There are also here and
there yellow primroses in the forest, but they are garden escapees, I think
Primula sibirica or some such; all our gardens are full of them this time a
year, and they escape very easily and thrive here on the island

The birds were also later than normal this spring, but now most of them have
arrived, and in Folkeparken, as most places, the Big Four dominate; they are
two thrushes, Fieldfare and Redwing, one finch, the Brambling and one
warbler, the Willow Warbler with its most melodious and somewhat melancholy
cadences. Yesterday I saw already a fledged Fieldfare juvenile, and the
parents vehemently attack all crows, magpies and gulls around---these are
all very common here, so the Fieldfares can be heard scolding all day. There
are also other birds still in Folkeparken, although fewer than thirty years
before: far too many people, dogs and cats! But a few Chiffchaffs sound
their metronomes, Pied Flycatchers sing their enthousiastic song strophes
(these nest in nest boxes and are also common garden birds, fighting with
the Great Tits for the nest boxes and often winning out), Dunnocks sound
their somewhat mechanic-sounding song jingle, and Great and Willow tits are
also quite common. Bullfinches also nest here, but these calm and beautiful
finches, so conspicuous in winter, manage to almost 'disappear' in the
nesting season, so unobtrusive they are now. The last years some birds have
disappeared from Folkeparken. Woodcocks no longer rode here, it is years
since I have heard the neverending song of the Garden Warbler, and this year
also the Song Thrush seems to be absent. Instead we have got Woodpigeons and
European Robins, Blue Tits (in my garden even!) and this spring also
Chaffinches, a first for me in Folkeparken. All these are southern birds
that slowly slowly penetrate further north (as does also the Jay)

On Sunday I drove out to the Rakfjord wetlands, situated on Kvaløya along
the Kvalsund, the sound separating Kvaløya from the next large island north,
Ringvassøya. here the rocks are hard and acid and the vegetation therefore
completely different. The low hills are covered with heath, consisting of a
mixture of heathers and berry-bearing plants, and spring here looks still
earlier, with the dwarf birches betula nana only just starting to leaf, and
hardly any flowers at all as yet. Because of the many evergreen Empetrum
bushes, the hill area looks green anyway, while the wetlands themselves
still are dull greyish green. I found the first flowers on a southerly
sun-exposed slope: Andromeda serpyllifolia, one of the heather species, with
not very conspicuous small pink bells, and I also found the first two white
cloudberry flowers. There was a very chilly wind here on Sunday, and very
little display activity among the many shorebirds of this area. I neither
saw nor heard any Snipe and only heard a single displaying Whimbrel,
normally the dominant voices here, together with the Golden Plovers. These
latter were present in numbers, but hunkered down in the grasslands, and
looked as if they, just as I, thought : 'wish I had brought mittens!' On the
waterside Redshanks teetered and called as usual, there were Curlews here
too, lots of Red-breasted Mergansers, the dominant ducks of this area (of
course together with the eiders in the sound), and a small flock of
Pink-footed Geese still had not crossed to their breeding grounds on
Svalbard. The local breeding goose is the Greylag and they are always
present, together with Mallards, Wigeons, Teal and Tufted Ducks. Also the
usual pair of Black-throated Loons had returned to their nesting tarn, but I
did not see the Whooper Swans, that also nest here most years, nor the
phalaropes, that I am so fond of. Their pool now only held a few Ruffs, two
pairs of Tufted Ducks, and the usual Common Gulls and Arctic Skuas
(Parasitic Jaegers) that nest here. Small birds there are quite few here,
although both Meadow Pipits and Northern Wheatears abound, and there are
several pairs of White Wagtails close to shore. I'll have to come back here
one day, when it is less chilly.

And in my garden I've got House Sparrows, another novelty!

Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
9037 Tromsø, Norway

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