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Report from Tromsø, Norway, 70° North

May 29, 2020
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Subscribers to the BirdChat ListServe are very familiar with the always interesting slice-of-Nordic-life postings of Wim Vader. Wim loves watching birds and sharing his observations, and his messages from the far north are always lovely to read, as you will see below.

Tromsø, Norway

He tells his own story better than I and if you enjoy it, subscribe to the BirdChat ListServe. It’s nationwide, free, always has interesting and informative postings such as Wim’s, and you can consolidate postings from them to one email per day.   [Chuck Almdale]

Date:    Tue, 26 May 2020
From:    Willem Jan Marinus Vader <wim.vader@UIT.NO>
Subject: Birding in the dark – Tromsø in winter

Since a few days, we have got back the midnight sun again in Tromsø, N. Norway, where I have lived since 1973. But spring is late this year: our garden is still 3/4 snow-covered, the birches are still bare and I have not yet heard the Willow Warbler, our most numerous song bird.

As several people has asked me how birds and birding are in winter in Tromsø, when it is mostly dark, I’ll give an impression here. Please let me know, if I mail too often these days; being more or less isolated gives one more time for such activities.

Tromsø, is at c 70* N, and with c 75,000 inhabitants the largest town in N. Scandinavia. Because of the Gulf Stream, we have a forest of mainly birch trees (and pines in the inland), instead of ice or bleak tundra, as everywhere else at this latitude. The town is situated on the island of Tromsøya, and the sounds surrounding the island form the sill of the large Balsfjord. Between us and the open sea there is the large and high island of Kvaløya, so that by road it is c 50 km to the outer coast. The island itself is not very high, maybe 100 m, but the surrounding hills on the mainland and Kvaløya reach 1200 m. My house is at the south end of the island, at c 45 m o.s.l., and close to a remnant birch forest with much planted spruce, Folkeparken; I walk through Folkeparken on my way to Tromsø Museum, where I worked for 40 years and still have a desk and do research on my specialty, the amphipod crustaceans. I am now 83.

Being so far north, we have a long winter, and snow half the year (snow depth, now, 26 May, is 80 cm(!), but this is a late year), but because of the open water around, the winters are not very severe, with temperatures rarely falling below – 17*C (in the inland it easily can get – 40*C). All the cars here have summer and winter wheels, and they shift to winter wheels, usually with studded tires, in October, shifting back in May. I also use ‘brodder’ under my shoes for most of winter; they are especially useful in the increasingly frequent periods of Atlantic depressions with milder temperatures, leading to very slippery and icy roads and paths (Without these periods, we would have had almost 4 m of snow this winter!).

Another major factor between our winters and yours is the absence of daylight in mid winter here; the sun is not visible from late November to late January. With the reflecting snow on the ground it is usually possible to walk the unlighted paths in Folkeparken during the day, but birding in winter is no easy task: the icy roads are hard to drive (in fact, I don’t drive at all in winter anymore) and there is very little daylight.

So how do the birds cope with all this? Most simply by doing what a popular song here says: ‘The birds come to their senses and fly south’: they leave us in autumn and come back in spring. Some, like the Arctic Terns, almost overdo this by flying all the way to the Antarctic, and swallows, cuckoos and Willow Warblers winter in S. Africa, but many species do not migrate further than South or even Western Europe. The species that do stay here in winter I have divided into several categories:

1.  Seabirds. For them there are no problems of ice and snow, as the water remains open.  On the other hand, the dark may well be a problem for species such as terns that hunt by sight, making it impossible to remain here in winter. We won’t talk about them further, just remark that in winter we have here several species that nest even further north, and only can be found here in winter. Good examples are the King Eider and the Yellow-billed Loon (White-billed Diver for some).

2.  Shore birds. There is often ice on the shores in winter, and many if the intertidal invertebrates also migrate to deeper water in winter, so the shore is a difficult environment in that season, and most shore birds leave us. A few of the hardier gulls, such as the Herring Gull and the Great Black-backed Gull can be seen here all year (But it looks like as if ours migrate and the winter birds are breeders from NW Russia). And there is a single shorebird that apparently has overcome all these problems; that is the roly-poly Purple Sandpiper, that seems impervious to the cold and always able to find the periwinkles they feed on.

3.  Freshwater birds. All freshwater here freezes over for many months on end, so these birds all have to leave, unless they can change over to the open shore, as the Grey Herons and some few Mallards do. Another small exception is our national bird, the Dipper, where part of the population survives the winter up here at some rapids, that never freeze completely over.

4.  Ground feeders. Just as with the freshwater birds, they all have to leave in winter, as the ground is snow covered for months on end. A few Woodcocks try to winter on the outer islands, but they often are found dead.

5. Bulk feeders. In this category the grouse are most important. Willow Grouse and Ptarmigan feed on willow buds and shoots, Black Grouse on birch, and the large Capercaillie (more an inland bird here) on pine needles. We have few woodpeckers here, but some winters there is an influx from the east of Great Spotted Woodpeckers, and they feed mostly on pine seeds in winter.

6. Insect feeders. The large majority of these of course migrate south in winter, or switch to other food, as do the tits, the woodpeckers and to a certain degree also the Tree Creeper (which also habitually robs the caches that the Willow Tits make in autumn). Strangely enough the smallest of them all, the Goldcrest, seems to stay with insect food all winter, and in severe winters many die.

7. Fruit feeders. Northern Norway is a country very rich in wild berries, feasted on by both birds, mammals and man. And many of them tolerate frost well. However, most of them grow on or near the ground and are therefore very hard to get to in winter. An exception is the Rowan (Mountain Ash, Sorbus aucuparia), a tree that yields large amounts of orange edible berries (which make a good jam!). The berry crop varies a lot from year to year, but some years we have a bumper crop, and in those years the thrushes (Fieldfare and Redwing) that otherwise fly south in October, linger till January and feast on the rowan berries. Another fruit eater, that arrives in time for the rowan feast, is the beautiful Bohemian Waxwing, and in top years there may be many hundreds of them even in my garden. Some years also Pine Grosbeak join in the feast, as tame here as they are everywhere.

8. ‘Seed eaters *feeder birds’. Lots of people here feed the birds all winter, and for most of them sun flower seeds are the favourite food offered. The most common birds at the feeders are Great Tits and the last years also the newcomer Blue Tit, as well as here and there pairs of Willow Tits. The latter hoards food in autumn, and is therefore less dependent on kind people than Great and Blue Tits, which do not hoard. Greenfinches, also a newcomer here far north (still absent when I came here in 1973, but now almost the most numerous winter bird), greedily feed at the feeders, and have a tendency to try to monopolize them, and there are often also Bullfinches, these large, calm and beautiful finches, that here north have even taken over for European Robins on the Christmas cards. Where there are House Sparrows, they of course also participate, but this species is quite patchily distributed here and also very resident: there is a small colony at a house 50 m down the road, but I never see them in our garden. Many of these feeders are close to lighted windows and at such places one can find feeding birds virtually at any hour of day or night. Clearly, there is too little daylight to allow the birds to confine their activities to the 2-3 hours of twilight.

9. Omnivores. Here the crows come in, and they are the most conspicuous land birds in winter Tromsø. Our garden, as very many, has a resident pairs of Magpies (not the Aussie ones, but the long-tailed black and white crow of that name), and one of hooded Crows, while in winter Northern Ravens also venture into town, although they are much more circumspect. The magpies often succeed to raid the feeders, with some acrobatics (as our many feral pigeons now and down also manage), while the crows don’t even try. Also the large gulls are omnivorous, but in winter they mostly keep to the shores.

10. Predators. Somewhat surprisingly, given the lack of ‘good hunting light’ there are quite a number of  predators around, mostly hunters of birds rather than small mammals. White-tailed Sea Eagles are common, but they scavenge almost as much as catch their own prey in winter. More active hunters are the Sparrow Hawk, often causing panic at the feeders, and the Northern Goshawk, mostly a winter visitor here. I have also once or twice seen a Gyrfalcon, usually a hunter of  grouse, in town, no doubt looking for a meal among our town flock of feral pigeons, as so much else here ‘the northernmost in the world.’

If this sounds like a lot of birds, I have given the wrong impression. In reality land birds, except for the crows, the greenfinches and the tits, are very thin on the ground here in winter, and a walk through town will usually not get you into the double digits of bird species numbers this time a year, even at mid day. Nevertheless, we are very fond of our winter birds: they add colour and movement to an otherwise largely black and white landscape. A very beautiful and often spectacular landscape, by the way. Come and see for yourself, when such will once again be feasible!
Wim Vader, Tromsø, Norway

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