Feeding the Ruffs at Prestvannet

Prestvannet in Tromsø, N. Norway

Prestvannet is a smallish, shallow, mostly artificial lake on top of our island of Tromsøya at 70*N in N. Norway, just north of and above the town center of Tromsø; I must have written about it several times before, as it is famous for its population of nesting Red-throated Loons. The path around it is exactly one English mile long and it is much used by strollers and joggers, and by families who want to feed the ducks, primarily Mallards.

The lake was formed two centuries ago by damming a few creeks in a marshy area, and originally it functioned primarily as source of ice, used to conserve corpses in the wintertime, when the ground is frozen stiff. The damming was done by the church, hence the name Prestvannet (=the priest’s lake). The monks also put out Crucian Carp in the lake, and this is still the northernmost population of this fish (Which has special physiological adaptations against freezing). The area around the lake is mostly birch forest and marshland, with a large colony of Common Gulls (so that feeding the ducks in summer in practice often becomes feeding the gulls), and also a mixed colony of Arctic and (fewer)Common Terns, and in addition to the abundant Mallards, there are also always several nesting pairs of Tufted Ducks, just as avid users of the feeding as the Mallards. And the great pride of the lake are the now 9-10 pairs of nesting Red-throated Loons, mostly nesting on small mud islands, and much less shy here than most other places—this number has steadily grown from 1-2 pairs 30 years ago,

When I first came to Tromsø in the early 1970’s, the town was only half its present size, and every year there were some displaying Ruffs and a few pairs of nesting Redshanks at Prestvannet. The Ruffs have sadly decreased slowly but steadily everywhere in our area. For example, on the wetlands of Tisnes, where there earlier were 45-50 displaying male Ruffs, there are now usually less than 10. But the species is still a common one further north, in Finnmark, and here in Tromsø it is one of the most common autumn migrants in August-September, often together with a few Spotted Redshanks and more in the marshy wetlands, than on the open coast, where Dunlins and Ringed Plovers dominate. This year there seem to be more than most years, and I have already two times seen a few on the parking place outside our museum.

Acting on a tip from a colleague, I went to walk around the Prestvann this morning. The weather was nice; calm and sunny, although with large banks of fog over the sounds, and 10*C. Prestvannet was most quieter than in summer: the terns and most of the gulls (some young of the year still here) are gone, as are the loons and the many Bank Swallows that usually forage over the lake. Also the Tufted Ducks appear to be gone south. Interestingly, no less than 15 Grey Herons were loafing in the middle of the lake, a few in the peculiar sunning position; this is a relative newcomer as a nesting bird on the island.

But the Mallards are here, all in eclipse plumage and a few still with half-grown pulli . As always there were a few people, often old men or families with small kids, who come specially to feed the ducks, and the ducks know that very well and come flying as soon as they see somebody with a large bag. But to my great surprise, also Ruffs came flying in, as soon as the man had sat down! They came one and one and from different directions, but very clearly they had learned the routine, and I saw this many times and at different localities around the lake. One place where I watched a while, there were at last 10-12 Ruffs (both sexes) walking around among the ducks, not at all shy and coming within a meter of the man who sat quietly on a bench (and who had no idea what kind of birds these were!). The ruffs did not interact at all with the ducks, but squabbled now and then a bit among themselves, and they seemed to enjoy the smaller bread bits. Another place there was a family with small kids, i.a. 2 girls of 3-4 years who delighted in running after the birds, as kids do; but even there the Ruffs did not go aside further than strictly necessary.

I have never seen anything like this before, and would love to hear if other have had similar experiences. I have seen Ruffs following the plow, but my only shore bird experience which comes close were the Ruddy Turnstones scavenging under the tables in a beach restaurant in Ostende, Belgium 2 years ago.

Wim Vader, Tromsø, Norway

wim.vader@uit.no



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