Summer at 70*N; a trip to the coast

To: "birding-aus" <>, <>
Subject: Summer at 70*N; a trip to the coast
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Sun, 29 Jun 2008 22:59:43 +0200


Today we finally had a beautiful sunny day, after several weeks of wet and
cool weather. But today we get almost 24 hrs of sunshine, and the
temperature , for the first time in weeks, increased to real double digits,
17-18*C in Tromsø, a few less on the outer coast. So I decided to grasp the

Tromsø town lies on an island, Tromsøya, that is surrounded by two sounds,
that together constitute the sill in the Balsfjord, a c 100km long
north-south-oriented fjord. Between Tromsø and the outer coast lies the
large and very hilly island of Kvaløya; this island, with many steep
mountains which make it a paradise for mountaineers, is  moreover deeply
indented by many smaller fjords, so that for a long time there were no roads
across the island, and one had to follow the contours in order to get to the
sea. But now there is a shorter road, which reduced the distance from Tromsø
to the outer village of Sommarøy from 70 km to 50 km. I wish I could show
you pictures from that road, as it is quite a varied and in parts
spectacular route (And no, I have no functioning camera just now).

Our area now is quite colourful in the sunshine: you have the large symphony
of green hills, blue sea and dark hills, white-streaked with snow, you have
more colour in the woodlands, as both the Rowans (Mountain ash, Sorbus) and
the Bird Cherry Prunus padus, both common in our woodlands, are in full
flower, and all the meadows and road verges are butter yellow, with
Dandelions and Birdsfoot Trefoil Lotus corniculatus dominating the road
verges (as far as these are mowed now and then, otherwise Cow Parsley
Anthriscus takes over and forms large stands) and buttercups Ranunculus the
meadows. As soon as there is some woodland, albeit only low birch scrub,
yellow gives way to white, and Chickweed Wintergreen Trientalis and Dwarf
Cornel Cornus suecica take over en masse.

The road goes from our island across a long bridge across the Sandnessund to
Kvaløya, and then for a while along now almost suburban country along the
sound to Eidskjosen. Here we cross a low 'eide' (the Norwegian name for a
passable area connecting two fjords or sounds), and after no more than 2 km
we get to the next fjord, Kaldfjorden (the cold fjord), which cuts into
Kvaløya from the NW. One can follow this fjord for some 40 km to the village
of Tromvika near its mouth, but today we veer left after some 5 km, and
climb Kattfjordeidet, the much higher traverse to the next fjord ,
Kattfjorden (yes indeed, the cat fjord). Kattfjordeidet is no more than
maybe 300 m a.s.l., but as the tree line is so low here and the surroundimgs
hills so steep, one gets the impression of being in the mountains: low heath
vegetation, with marshy areas, a few brooks and tarns,  low stunted birches,
and lots of dwarf birch Betula nana.

Driving down from Kattfjordeidet, a sign warns for crossing moose, but in
fact the only critter crossing is a small vole (I will see more of those
later today; maybe the rodent population here is on its way up this
summer?). But 15 km later, after having driven through the fjord fishing
village of Sjøtun, I suddenly have to brake sharply; a reindeer crosses the
road, seemingly well aware of its right of way. After Sjøtun the landscape
suddenly changes from fjord to coast: the hills get lower and not quite as
dramatic, the vegetation gets less luxuriant, the small farms have smaller
barns, but much larger boathouses, and the fjord opens up, with a view out
to sea and some spectacularly shaped steep outer islands. This road used to
deadend at the fishing village of Sandvikhamn, but now there is a tunnel
from there, and a bit of new road, connecting with the old coastal road to
Sommarøy. That road looks still more typically 'coastal, the granitic rocks
are hard and clearly difficult to master for the vegetation, and the shore
gets that typical outer coast smell, with a less luxuriant algal coverage
and a much better developed barnacle belt, also with limpets Patella (here
only on the outer coast) (NB. there are two pictures of the fjord landscape
and of the island of Sommarøy on my website
<>  ; click on Tromsø)

The islands of Sommarøy and Hillesøy are connected to Kvaløya with a narrow
bridge; a traffic light prevents two cars meeting on the bridge. Sommarøy is
quite low and houses the village itself, a lively fishing port of a few
hundred people, while the outlying Hillesøy is much higher (maybe 350m), and
still has much nature. The hill can be climbed along a quite steep track
with a rope, and Riet and I did that the last time last summer (There are
lots of Cloudberries to be picked there); but usually I walk along the lower
area, a rather flattish lying peatland, with small hills and granite bluffs
along the waterside; a small outlying island houses a largish colony of
Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. It is a beautiful place, but sadly
there are being built more and more houses on Hillesøy---nature slowly
looses out everywhere.

But there is still a lot left here, and it was not all that difficult to
climb across the ditch ,dug no doubt for still more new houses' septic
systems.  The peaty flats are covered by heath:  Crowberry Empetrum,
Bearberry and Arctic Bearberry Arctostaphylos, and flat dwarf Junipers
Juniperus. Walking on this peatground gives one a spring in one's step, and
also here there are flowers everywhere; I started out by visiting a
chalk-rich slope I know about, and indeed here were large patches of
flowering Mountain Avens Dryas octopetala, one of the many mountain flowers
that can be found at sea level here north. Here I also found the first
orchid of the day, a small white species which I know as Leucorchis, but
which the book calls Pseudorchis albida, Small White orchid. Globe flowers
Trollius (which we locally call eggeplommer, egg yolks) abound, as do the
hanging red bells of Water Avens, Geum rivale. I could go on and on, but
this is a bird list

I tend to get carried away a bit, sorry; but I usually get to this area
primarily because of the flowers. That does not mean that there are no
birds! This year there is a larger colony of Arctic terns than I have seen
here for many years, several hundreds of pairs, I guess. When I arrive
there, they are in panic, and I soon find out why; the local Arctic Skuas
(Parasitic Jaegers), that also nest here, apparently are hungry and chase
the terns. The Great Black-backed Gulls do not bother about the skuas, but
instead harrass a passing sea eagle, who completely ignores them. Now I have
to decide which path to take---the left one will bring me into the
territories of the skuas, who can be pretty fierce in nest defense, the
right close to the tern colony, Scylla and Charybdis! I tried to steer in
between, and there I had mostly to content with the Common Gulls; they
scream and divebomb a lot, but do not usually actually hit you

On the outer shore several pairs of Rock Pipits nest, one of them has been
so unfortunate to choose the only good place to cross a large crevice across
the whole peninsula. I had hoped to find some seabirds here, but the sea was
too rough, so I had to be content with a single Black Guillemot. On the way
back I had more or less to cross the outskirts of the tern colony, but the
birds were not yet extremely aggressive, not really connecting with my cap;
all the nests I saw still had eggs. Over the top of the hill two sea eagles
played, but neither of them were fully adult.

On the way back  (more reindeer crossing) I visited Tisnes, the locally
famous wetland, on a paninsula stretching into the fjord. here were the
usual subjects: Ruffs, Shelducks, Wigeons, and a large colony of Common
Gulls; the tern colony here seems to have been deserted the last few years.
I always walk a bit here along a chalk-rich field---most of the area has
been put under protection by the local farmers, who have put up a sign:
'Nesting birds. No access from 15 May to 1 August.'

Here too there is a very colourful flower show, with a most interesting
'colour line': yellow in the open field (Lotus, Potentilla, Ranunculus),
white where there are small birches (Cornus, Trientalis, Vaccinium
vitis-idaea). In addition there were any number of  violet Butterwort
Pinguicula vulgaris, and blue violets, and some very dark purplish-violet
orchids (Dactylorchis) with heavily spotted leaves. A Curlew and some
Oystercatchers scolded me all the time I was there; the oystercatchers had
half-grown young.

The last stop, at the cemetery, was in a very different area, where I hoped
to find singing Bluethroats and displaying Common Sandpipers, no luck,
though. I had to content myself with Redpolls and some snatches of
Songthrush song this time.

We may have good weather a few days ahead, according to the forecast, so
maybe we'll even pass the 20*C mark!
                                                     Wim Vader, Tromsø
                                                     9037 Tromsø, Norway

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