Once moee around the Balsfjord, a month late

Once more around the Balsfjord, a month late
Every year, in the first half of May,  I drive the c 250 km long drive ‘around the Balsfjord’, the big and typically Norwegian fjord that stretches c 100 km south from Tromsø (N. Norway) and of which the sounds around Tromsøya constitute the sill. In N. Norway the fjords are more open than in W. Norway, and give a somewhat less forbidden impression, but the Balsfjord  still is a mighty sight, with high snow-clad mountains around, and now all the rivers and streamlets full of melt water. So I would advise this trip for everybody, regardless of birding interests: the views are fantastic, both along the shores of the fjord, in the inland area around Lake Sagelvvatnet, some 100m a.s.l., and on the lonely moors when we drive twice across the Malangen peninsula, necessary because there is no through road on the west side of the Balsfjord. Earlier the Malangen part of the trip ended with a  scarce ferry across Straumsfjorden to get to Kvaløya, the large island outside Tromsø, but now there is a toll tunnel underneath this fjord and we can cross whenever we want.
This winter has been, as I have told you earlier, quite snow rich and late, and the last snow in our garden did not melt before 4. June. Afterwards I had some trouble to get my trusty old 2004 car running again–a new battery solved the problem for now–, and mainly therefore my round the Balsfjord trip this year is more than a month later than in most years, and did not take place until 13 June. This was a glorious day, sunny and calm, and with an afternoon temperature up to 20*C, the first time this year we reached that marker (We are back at 12* today)
This time a year one of the interesting features of a trip like this is that one in a way drives through different stages of spring. Here on Tromsøya close to the shores , as well as along the shores of the Balsfjord, the Coltsfoot Tussilago, the absolute dominant early spring flower had now faded into the well-known fruit-‘clocks’, and the Dandelions has taken over in almost as large numbers, while higher-up the Coltsfoot still reigns supreme. Everywhere the Marsh Marigold Caltha flowers in profusion, but on the south-exposed slopes of the Balsfjord there are now also many other flowers already: my favourites, the yellow violets Viola biflora, clear blue patches of Forget-me-nots Myosotis, and the  inconspicuous white stars of Cerastium and Stellaria. At the bottom of the Balsfjord, at Nordkjosbotn the Cow Parsley Anthriscus, which will become co-dominant on many fields, had its first flowers out, but on Lake Sagelvvatnet there are still patches of rotten ice, and many areas of snow in the fields.
For birding May is a better time than mid June, especially with such a superficial visit as a 250 km day trip. There is much less bird song (early nesters don’t sing at all now, and this became a day without a single tit), and all the migrants have moved on. No flocks of ducks feasting on Capelin eggs in the inner Balsfjord anymore. In addition I was unlucky with the tides, as there was a low ebb at the most interesting intertidal areas and I saw few shorebirds, except the ubiquitous Oystercatchers. The day list added only up to 36, some 10 species less than on the earlier Balsfjord trips.
I start out at home, where the last week suddenly my hanging sun flower seed feeder has become popular again. I filled it in February, had finally to refill it last week, and twice sine! The main reason is that it was discovered by the area’s House Sparrows; these usually keep a few houses down the road and never come to our garden, but now the whole flock (10-15 birds, with fledged young present) almost camped in the garden a few days. Still, they were not the only visitors, I also had regular Greenfinches, Chaffinches, Bramblings and even some dapper Redpolls. 
The first part of the trip goes along the main road (E8) south, at first following the Balsfjord, then its major–and much more arctic –side fjord, the Ramfjord. At the bottom of the Ramfjord I leave the E8 and follow a secondary road, that follows the north bank of the Ramfjord—and here spring is almost 2 weeks later than on the other side–.  These secondary roads have suffered a lot from this hard winter, and in fact this very road was last week closed by an avalanche. The road rejoins the Balsfjord at Andersdalen, where I always have my first stop, but today see neither Lapwings nor Wagtails; there are many Red-throated Mergansers on the fjord, however, and I also see the only 3 Common Mergansers for the day. Only a few km’s further on is my traditional first walk; the road cuts through a birch forest here, and i always listen to the bird choir here. But now, a month late, there is no real choir anymore, just some voices here and there. Willow Warblers are of course dominant, and Bramblings regular, but only a few Redwings still sing (completely different from their song in Tromsø!), and I also have to wait a bit to hear Chaffinches and Chiffchaffs, while I miss the  Pied Flycatcher, the Song Thrush, and also the Blackbird that I have heard here in earlier years, completely. A babbling song stumps me; it probably is a Garden Warbler, but very atypical. Fieldfares there are everywhere; In fact all day they will fly up in front of the car.
The next stop is at Storneset, at a large farm, where the last years regularly a few pairs of Barn Swallows nest. I see nothing at all here at first, and go and do my walk, that yields nothing at all this time (Several houses here have nest boxes with Great and Blue Tits most years), only thousands upon thousands of Dandelions on those fields that have not been ‘modernized’ into smooth green sheets. But on the way back I spy some swallows over the intertidal, to my great surprise they turn out to be House Martins, the first time I find these here uncommon birds on this trip. I also hear the interrogative whistle of Ringed Plovers
Another transport etappe follows, first along the secondary road where I in May find the flocks of scoters and Long-tailed Ducks–there are now only eiders–, so some 30 km along E8–one of the few areas in N. Norway where one may drive 90 km/h–, then along the old main road along the bottom end of the Balsfjord– more ducks there in May, often also grebes–, and finally once more along the E8, inland away from the fjord. Here for some reason the dandelions along the road give way to buttercups Ranunculus and I also find the first Globeflowers Trollius in flower. The road around Sagelvvatnet (So named because there once was a sawmill along the river that drains the lake) is a slow and very curvy tertiary road; fortunately traffic here is very slight.
Most of the ice is gone from the lake and the water level is high, so there is now no room for shorebirds along its shores. But there are ducks, evenly divided between Red-throated Mergansers and Tufted Ducks, with a single, very unhappy looking male Wigeon, swimming around calling pitifully. At the spot where the river Sagelva starts, there is as every year a pair of Horned Grebes on their nest, and a Curlew yodels from a nearby field.
From Sagelvatn I drive along Sagelva, along a road meandering as much as the river, to regain the Balsjord at Storsteinnes, and after some 10 km along the fjord I have to cross Malangen peninsula (A large lake here is still more than half frozen over) to the next fjord west, Malangen. I now am getting tired, so don’t stop much anymore. Also the road along Malangen is especially curvy, and much trafficked by ours standards, so one needs to concentrate on the driving. At Meistervik I cross the peninsula once more, along lonely moors, to finish the Malangen part of the trip once more along the shores of the Balsfjord. The road here has been repaired and although narrow, is much easier to drive than before, and before I know, I arrive at the 3 km long tunnel to Kvaløya, adding only a Grey Heron and some Meadow Pipits to the list. I hate tunnels, but make it through without mishap—the bill will come in the mail–, and on Kvaløya of course I have to take a look at the wetlands of Tisnes. Low ebb here too however, and I only add Redshank, Ruff and Golden Plover. At the last stop, a small bight close to the bridge connecting Kvaløya with Tromsøya, I shoo up some 30 Greylag Geese, bird nr 36 for the day.4

The most common bird of this trip, in competition with the Fieldfare, is the aptly named Common Gull. They are literally everywhere, and one even nests just outside the door of our museum (closed until tomorrow because of the corona crisis). She had three eggs this morning, but I fear even for this house-broken bird species this may well become too much traffic when the museum reopens tomorrow. Other ubiquitous birds on a day like this are the Magpie, the Hooded Crow, Eider Ducks, and the larger gulls. Amazingly enough I did not see a single tern today, even though  know they have returned.
Too much info, maybe? I wish I could take you on such a trip, or at least show how beautiful  it is here.
Wim Vader, Tromsø, Norway

Leave a Reply