Tell the air to hold me in the rushing heart of it
And keep its paths straight
Away from home let there be a land that
Flows with fish and flies
And let it taste like it tasted at home
Home take this salty scent of home from my head
Cut away the memory of its last ultraviolet
Flash beautiful beneath me
Don’t turn me to a twist of salt to fall to
Sea’s saltiness if I look back at my home
Let me look back just once let me
The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 23, #2: There’s No Room to Share
Bonus Sunday Nature Call this week. My walk just got me inspired, I had to write.
There’s No Room to Share
A hen Goldeneye flew low and fast upstream, I was now on the downhill part of my walk on the upper reach of Akerselv, the river that flows from Maridalsvannet. Marisdalsvannet is a special lake and off-limits because it is a source of drinking water for Oslo. I volunteered to take #2 son to a nearby birthday party. One, maybe I could passively-aggressively use it as leverage at a later date. Two, I could walk the river in hopes of seeing some new birds. The latter point being more important than the former.
Moments later the duck had reversed course and landed with a unusually loud splash about 50 meters ahead. I would expect a female duck to be far more furtive. It took until the next bend in the river for me to understand the cause for such a scene.
Akerselv is a thoroughly modern river. I say that because it was used by early Oslo citizens for water and simple economic uses. During the Industrial Revolution, the river was put to task in a form of wage slavery that surly matched the working conditions of the laborers. As the factories took in raw products they created finished goods for profit, and waste. The profits went up to the villas and corporate offices, the waste was left to stew in the river.
As the factories were ultimately abandoned it seemed like the Akerselv was as well. A tired and worn relic from an older time. Yet today, the river is a prized public possession and in quite good health.
Thankfully the Akerselv had one thing going for it, it was in Norway. In particular it was in Oslo where there was an existing movement and mindset for conservation and public use. The banks, once denuded, are vegetated. The water, formally filthy and devoid of most life, is vibrant. The people, historically exhausted, now walk its lengths for salubrious effects.
The river source is 149 meters above sea level, the length is 8.2 kilometers. Walking to the fjord on the additionally meandering paths will take you longer. If you only measure your life in quantifiable distances, then you’ll have know idea how far you’ve gone.
As a modern river this river is neither wild nor enslaved. The water volume is managed to prevent flooding. The streams sides are naturalized, landscaped, and hardscaped. Its lower watershed is urban run-off. But there are wild creatures, some of which are local and other migratory. Some of the migratory beasts come from the fjord, others from West Africa. They are people from all corners of the earth enjoying its riparian charms.
All this use means sharing. There are beaches for people, and turtles if they’re reckless. There are pools for fishing but with limits. Most of the banks have paths, but not all. Some sharing is difficult if not intolerable. Beavers are present but only with the overt toleration of the management. Moose, as amazing as they are, are not welcome.
Despite the lifetime of lessons in Kindergarten, sharing is a tough thing to practice. To share is to trust, to empathize, and to take a risk. I think I need to go back to my little country schoolhouse and get some more lessons from Mrs. Fritz.
Aldo Leopold wrote that our time of an Abrahamic view of the world must end. That own-consume-destroy-relocate zeitgeist must be replaced with an acknowledgement of the permanent damage that people can do to the world. Instead of owning the world we need to share it, with the living and the unborn. His words came in the afterglow of the atomic flash. I can think of no more profound genesis.
Extant American conservation champion E.O. Wilson recently published words calling for a radical idea that will not be considered that radical in the future. Wilson believes that we need to set aside half the earth for nature. The half that remains needs to be shared with other life as well. For Wilson, like Leopold, sharing is necessary, hard, and probably an unachievable goal in full but one that must be pursued.
Reserving space for wild creatures is an easily appreciated sentiment and a difficult practice, consider the moose of the Upper Midwest. PreColumbian Wisconsin had moose, pre-settlement Wisconsin had moose. For a period in the 20th century moose were absent. Today a handful inhabit the state. Unlike Whitetail Deer, moose do poorly around people and disturbance.
Sure, the climate of the last generation is now warmer than the past 500 year, the heat is hard on moose. Of course there is far less unbroken cover in the Great Northwoods, everybody wants a cabin and a couple of acres, moose don’t like neighbors. The Fish and Wildlife Service just accepted a petition to initiate a study for the moose of the Upper Midwest (Acles access anderson) to see if they qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The moose are strong candidates for protection, how hard could it be? Here is where it gets really hard really fast. I thought about what habitat is most endangered and vital for the moose, especially in a warming world: water. Moose need unmolested access to shallow lakes and bays on larger lakes to feed and especially to lounge and “beat the heat.” But the lakes of Badger state are developed, unfettered recreation is a god. Would people be willing to share access to the lakes with moose? Could society tolerate retarding the develop of remaining tracts? Moose are cool, but if you don’t know them, then it’s hard to share.
The duck took a long and low position on the water, fairly mimicking an alligator. It was a sight I’d never seen. Slowly and then with a burst of speed she rushed towards the bank and the shadows. I heard the commotion but still didn’t see the object of her ire.
Large fluffy balls scattered on the water. A hen mallard gave kurt quacks to her chicks. The Goldeneye approached again and snapped. I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if it wasn’t like an alligator attack!
She returned to the center of the river. Victorious and proud she dipped and flailed her wet wings. It was a display of authority, and in the low light a luscious sight. Topping off the exercise were fits of aggressive calling, something like a rolled “R” three times capped with short and hard “R!” “Rrrr, Rrrr, Rrrr, R!”
The Mallard made a beeline for me on the opposite shore and hauled out at my feet. I never imagined that a duck would ever see a safe harbor in me. I guess your enemy’s enemy is you friend, genus and species be damned.
I was perplexed. All this work, all this flying for a hen Goldeneye without young. Was she angry for loosing her clutch? A gull flew overheard. The Goldeney called with rage and display her wings. The gull flew back and the hen gave a stunted chase. And then I finally saw a small fluffy ball swim from the shadow of the bank to the hen, she was a mother.
I was heartened and saddened. The little guy was really cute, the marking with white and dark feathers were surprisingly conspicuous. Yet, she would have laid about 12 eggs. To think that only one survived to this point, maybe less than a week old: nature seems too cruel at times.
Her loud calling continued, though the tone was a little different. And then I saw a second chick, near the first. Ah, two, good. A chick needs a sibling. Wait, there’s number three!
Three is a reasonable number for survival in the city. With all the house cats on the prowl it’s a wonder she has any survivors. Happy, I left my vigil to continue downstream. But wait, here comes number four to the call, it was all the way on the other side. What an unexpected dispersement. And then I saw number five also swim out of its hiding spot on the far bank. Five, five is a good number, a prime number, I’m sure she can keep track of five.
The Goldeneye didn’t want to share the river with the Mallard, the Mallard didn’t mind me. I can’t help but think that maybe out of that 8.2 kilometers of river we couldn’t find a way to make a little more safe space for a duck. I think that in this relationship we’re the only ones who know how to share.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
The first four birds listed below are from Week 14. But you know, when it comes to gulls, they are just darn hard to tell apart. I had to spend a little more time than I wanted comparing my photos and notes to my books. Plus, gulls are not my thing.
New birds: 5, Journey to date: 64
Gråmåke (Larus argentatus)
Fiskemåke (Larus canus)
Polarmåke (Larus hyperboreus)
Krykkje (Rissa tridactyla)
Snøspurv (Plectrophenax nivalis)
There is a call in the wind
Back from my hike to the top of the island it was time to rest. I dropped my backpack at the birding shelter and contemplated my experiences. I recalled the old maxim, “Take only pictures, leave only memories.” Check, I even managed to take a couple pieces of trash. As I reached to rummage in my rucksack I noticed something else I would be taking with me, a healthy bird dropping on my bag. The dried remains will become a prized artifact of my visit to Hornøya.
I beg forgiveness because I know it’s a sin to covet, but I wanted a booking so bad to Varanger. And like something you covet, it is usually unattainable. I wanted to get to the end of Norway for many reasons. One, because it was possible given my job. Two, I really could say I had visited with Norwegian pupils from every corner of the kingdom. Three, it would be cool. And four, there was a rare duck that was predictably in the area. Feel free to speculate on my priorities.
My booking for teaching in Vardø was perfect. Mid April would be soaked with sun but still good light with shadow and richness. My target bird would still be in the area. I would get to meet a birding inspiration. And the pupils would still be far enough away from “Russ” time to pay attention in class.
Kautokeino was hard to get to last week, nobody goes there by mistake. Vardø is a little easier. Following my day at Samisk VGS I hopped the evening bus to Kirkenes by way of Finland. I saw a lot of trees and two wandering cariboo. Vardø has a commercial airport and is also a port of call for the Hurtigruten. But it is still an island in the far north so there is a balance between the exotic and the accessible
Vardø and the greater Varanger area are anomalies. Theirs is the only true arctic climate in Europe. Trees are rare, on Vardø there is only one, it is in the special protection of the Norwegian Army at the Fortress. Speaking with a resident who’s been to Nome, he said the places are very similar but that the water around Vardø doesn’t freeze shut. Snowmobiles appear to be a necessity.
But the birds, Vardø is about the birds. Exotic arctic birds that might cost your life or fortune in other parts of the world are right here. You can fly in, take some pictures, spend some time in a peaceful and safe Norwegian village and then go home. Maybe it’s too easy?
As a birder I will admit to my sloth and idiosyncrasies. I would do my best but I wasn’t going to risk my life to see everything possible. Besides, I only needed to see one bird to be totally satisfied. Of course, a duck.
The key draw to Vardø is the amazing bird breeding island of Hornøya. It is a small rock located just northwest of Vardø, a boat ride of less than 10 minutes. But the moment you cross the breakwater in the harbor you are entering another world. A world of big cold waves. A world of rich marine life. And finally, a world colonized by multiple species of seabirds, theirs friends, and their predators: Hornøya.
The cliff face is visible from town but it gives you no sense of the density of birds living, flying, squawking, and crapping there. Walking up the gangplank the noise was the first tell, the smell was the second, this was a foreign country.
I was the only person on the island, the only noon rider on the ferry. I felt undeservedly proud of myself. The pilot would return in 3 hours. I was dressed for the weather, no worries.
Goal number one was to find a Lunde, a Puffin. 30 seconds, check. They are curious little birds, a color scheme designed by a kindergarten class and the terrestrial habits of prairie dogs. My camera is the best we have, the truth is I also covet a more powerful lens.
Across the cliff face were the species I had prepared to see, it was so hard to take it in because I could not focus. If there had been one special bird or one special nest in a distance spot, then it would have been easy, everything else would have faded into the background, the great blur of life.
But here everything seemed exciting and important. My eyes needed that special panoramic lens and a sharp memory to take it all in. Overwhelmed by stimulation I went for a walk.
The island has a restricted pedestrian area to ensure the welfare of the birds. I took the path that would lead me south along the cliff face to climb up and over the island to visit the lighthouse on the other side.
The walk afforded me the opportunity to move and change my perspective, as well as get scared to death. I heard an avian commotion to my left, but paid no mind. All these birds were in breeding mode. It was war on the cliff over mates and territory, like the worst of a honky-tonk getting visited by the battalion on the first night back from extended training.
And then they hit me. A pair of gulls in full tussle fell off the cliff on TO ME! More apologies to God for my language. Unfazed, the combatants continued their struggle down the hill. They found a moment of detente and then flew back to the nesting area only to begin the struggle again. I wasn’t going to wait for a repeat performance.
Ducks are my thing, and in Varanger one can safely predict seeing the rare Steller’s eider. It’s a color looking duck with a neat story. They spend winter in the area and then in May return to the melting lakes of Siberia to nest. It was almost noon on Sunday and I was waiting for the boat to take me to Hornøya when I noticed a raft of ducks in the harbor.
Ah, common eiders. Cool ducks in their own right but not too exotic; I saw this group yesterday. But what could some new pictures hurt, digital shots don’t cost nothing.
Click, click. what! I switched to my higher magnifying binoculars and saw it, a steller’s, no two, no three! Two drakes and a hen in the group of Commons. I know there was the grin of an 8-year-old boy on this middle-aged face.
I was more than satisfied with my time on the island. I got sun, I got snow, I got to see fantastic and unusual birds up close and personal. I think three hours would be the minimum a person would need on the rock if they had any abiding interest in birds. The raptors were absent, that was a small bummer but not a disappointment. My day had already be made.
Later in the week I tried different location on the islands. The firm Biotope designed birding blinds around the islands, they are the only architectural firm in the world devoted to birding. They have an international presence but their goal is to turn Varanger into a destination birding location. I think they are well on their way.
On my last day on Vardø, the sun was shining again on new snow. The sun rose at 3:52, I managed to stay in a bed a little longer. My morning stroll on this working island of fishermen was to the area called Skagen. I scored one new bird species, the Snow buntings were present but shy. Additionally, the striking scenery was just humbling. I took pictures of what I could but it would just be better if you paid this special place a visit. There is a call in the wind: take it!
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 6: Arctic Norway is Alive
A picture is worth a thousand words? Good, then I don’t feel so bad about being late with this installment. Enjoy all the words.
New birds: two
Havelle (Clangula hyemalis)
Gråsisik (Carduelis flammea)
Arctic Norway is Alive
Reindeer, extreme cold is not
Below are fitting closing words (from, http://poetrysociety.org.uk/poems/the-arctic-terns-prayer/)
Tell the air to hold me in the rushing heart of it