The Zoologist/4th series, vol 1 (1897)/Issue 667/Notes from Norway

Notes from Norway (1897)
by John Cordeaux
4035134Notes from Norway1897John Cordeaux


By John Cordeaux.

These notes have reference to a tour made in August last from Bergen to Vadsö in the Varanger Fjord, in the Bergen Steamship Company's boat the 'Neptune,' to view the total eclipse of the sun on August 9th. In crossing the North Sea from Newcastle to Stavanger very few sea-birds were seen—some Gulls, Guillemots, and an occasional Skua. When about half-way across, two Dolphins (Delphinus delphis) approached the boat and then shot ahead.

We left Bergen on August 1st at 11 p.m., and until we had rounded the North Cape were seldom outside the island belt (Skjærgaard) which fringes the whole length of the mainland. Opportunities were given, both on the out and return journey, for spending several hours on shore at those places where the vessel called—such were Aalesund, lovely Molde, Christianssund, N. Trondhjem, Torghatten, Harstedhavn in the Lofotens, Svartisen glacier, Tromsö, Hammerfest, North Cape (Hornvoek Bay), Vardö, reaching Vadsö at 3 p.m. on August 7th.

The commonest Gulls on the coast are the Lesser Black-backed and the Herring Gull, mixed flights of both following in the wake of the steamer almost continuously on the chance of picking up any scraps thrown overboard. Other Gulls were the Great Black-backed, the Common, and the Kittiwake; the latter, north of the Arctic Circle, being the predominant species and increasing in numbers the farther we go north. A few miles south of the Bird-rock (Hjelmsö), near the North Cape, we passed through an enormous flock of Kittiwakes floating in long extended line, the birds in the rear constantly rising and flying over the heads of those before them to take a front place. All were so eagerly feeding that they took little notice of the passage of our boat, being much too busily engaged picking some small object from the water, probably some of those small crustaceans which form the food of the whales. A large proportion were birds of the previous year retaining the black markings on the neck. This also was the case at Hjelmsö, where two cannon were fired under the cliff, and instantly on all sides, and across our deck, the air was cut by the passage of countless birds all rushing out to sea; Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins, Black Guillemots, Cormorants, and thousands of Kittiwakes; high aloft, above the excited throng, floated a large Buzzard, probably Buteo lagopus, the only bird of prey I saw in Norway. The sea was covered with the young of Guillemots and Razorbills unable to fly, and our slowly revolving screw I thought must have destroyed several as we steamed at slow speed in front of the black mural precipices on whose ledges the little swimmers first saw the light of the arctic summer. On many of the low flat holms on the coast the Gulls of various species appeared to be nesting by hundreds, with swarms of young grey birds running about the rocks, but none able, as yet, to use their wings. In most cases probably the first eggs from two layings had been taken. The pretty Black Guillemot, in pairs, is one of the commonest sea-birds on the coast. I never saw a Gannet, the Fulmar, Great Skua, or a Shearwater. Several Pomatorhine Skuas, especially north of the Circle and in the Lofotens; Richardson's and Buffon's Skuas were both exceedingly plentiful. Much amusement was afforded on board the 'Neptune' by watching these pirates chasing and bullying their neighbours, descending swiftly and striking the unfortunate victim on the back till he had paid toll by disgorging his honestly-earned meal. I always thought a Gull on the water was safe from their attacks, but this was not the case. Two beautiful adult longtailed Buffon's Skuas made a most determined attack on a Lesser Black-back on the water. The Gull screamed his best, but the persecutors never desisted till they had gained their point. Both the smaller Skuas were very abundant between the Cape and Vardö in the Arctic Ocean, being constantly in sight on these wilderness waters. Both the Cormorant and Shag are common, the latter especially. I never saw so many Shags in one day as I saw in the Jarfjord east of the Varanger, and touching the Russian frontier. They sat on the rocks in lines and groups, slowly beating their expanded wings, like so many old ladies in dark shot-silk dresses fanning in a hot ball-room.

When running up the coast a few pairs of Grey-lag Geese were seen, also a considerable flock, presumably of this species, on a low grassy holm, before coming to the mountain peaks known as the "Seven Sisters of Alstenö." The Merganser was common in the land-locked sounds and fjords, sometimes with a string of downy mites inclose company; the Goosander I failed to identify. Ducks innumerable of many species and with crowds of young. From the deck of a steamer it was impossible to identify them, the males, too, being generally in the "eclipse" plumage. Those I succeeded beyond doubt in making out were the Hareld or Ice Duck, Common Pochard, Goldeneye, and Common Scoter. Eiders in immense numbers about the coast villages and fishing stations, semi-domesticated, and nesting in some cases at the foot of walls of houses. The Eiders are strictly preserved during the nesting season, and the "down-harvest" is a most important source of revenue to many who live on the coast and rent the various islands. I paid twenty shillings a pound (English weight) for eider-down at Bergen.

Red-throated Divers were frequently seen and the Blackthroated much less so. Altogether during the three weeks on the coast I may have seen half-a-dozen Colymbus glacialis, amongst them it is possible there may have been an example of the western-arctic C. adamsi, numerous examples of which now exist in some of the Norwegian museums; regarding this western species on the Norwegian coasts, see Prof. Collett's paper in 'The Ibis,' 1894, pp. 269–83, and plate. Of the Arctic Gulls I saw nothing, except a Glaucous Gull, a bird of the previous year on the wing, off the mouth of one of the northern harbours. When running up the coast and close in to the sides of the islands I often saw various waders on the rocks and shingle—Oystercatchers, Turnstones, Redshanks, Purple Sandpipers, Whimbrel, and Ringed Plover, were all identified. The only Tern was Sterna macrura, the Arctic Tern, very numerous in some localities. Magpies are plentiful inland, and very familiar and bold. The Grey Crow everywhere, old and young together; some of the Grey Crows in the north have the grey almost white, and in bright sunlight I I thought had a rosy tinge. Ravens were in great force about all the Arctic whaling stations. At Vadsö during the eclipse, and as the gloom thickened, a pair flew to and fro over the harbour, croaking most dismally. The Oystercatchers also got on wing calling incessantly "peep-peep."

When in the Varanger and Jar fjords I spent some time on the look-out for Steller's Eider, but never came across this duck; perhaps it was too early in the season. It is said to be not uncommon in winter in these waters.

One of the prettiest sights I have seen for many years was a flock of 150 to 200 Ruffs and Reeves in a small wet, recently cut meadow between Vadsö and the moors. A stream ran through the little enclosure fringed with arctic willow and Comarum palustre in flower. About one-third were Ruffs; these birds were excessively tame; they were running quickly, with the tibio-tarsal joints much bent, and all eagerly picking out some small object from the grass. Now and then a Ruff would raise himself to the utmost his legs and neck would permit, and look round as much as to say "What is your business here?" When the flock rose they merely circled round close to the ground, and all alighting at once resumed their search within a few yards of where I stood. It was beautiful to watch them, exhibiting as they did not the slightest fear of man. Another interesting sight was the numerous flocks of Phalarope in Vardö and Vadsö harbours; they sat on the water like small butter-bowls, each little head nodding incessantly as they paddled to and fro. They were very tame, keeping the water when only a few yards beyond the sweep of the oars of passing boats, and alighting amongst the shipping. I saw many also on the more open waters of the fjord and in rocky pools on the side of the Jarfjord, swimming very rapidly here and there and snapping at insects.

Of the smaller birds I found on the tundra north of Vadso and about the whaling station in the Jarfjord, Lapp Buntings, Bluethroats, Red-throated Pipits, White Wagtails, besides the Pipits already noticed by me in 'The Zoologist' (1896), p. 352. I saw the Hedgesparrow on the outskirts of Vadsö, great numbers of House Martins, but have no recollection of seeing any Swallow there, nor the common Sparrow. I never saw a Rook anywhere in Norway north of Bergen. The Willow Wren was common. I watched the Marsh Tit (Parus borealis) on some tall plants in the yard of the Marine Barracks at Trondhjem. This seems a very good species, if size and coloration are of any account. The Wagtails seen were old and young birds of the universal Motacilla alba, and once in the north the dark-headed Yellow Wagtail, M. borealis of Sundeval, with almost black crown and no eye-streak.

The only notice I have of Fieldfares, besides a few near Voss, was seeing a small flock flying over the birch wood on the hill-side leading up to the foot of the Svartisen glacier in the Holandsfjord. This I think must be the very same wood in which Messrs. Pearson and Bidwell found the Icterine Warbler's nest in June, 1894. It is a charming wilderness of birch, covering rocky ground, on the hill slope, and with a wealth of ferns, meadow-sweet, rose-bay, golden-rod, and aconite, all the flowering plants in full bloom, also the very finest and largest clusters of hairbells (Campanula rotundifolia) I have ever seen in any part of Europe. Through a canopy of golden-green foliage, lighted by a brilliant sunshine, you got upward glimpses of the great glacier, sweeping downwards from an ice-field of over forty miles in extent. The colour of the ice is a pale malachite-green and crossed with gaping crevasses of cobalt. On the terminal moraines of the glacier our party collected a large number of arctic plants. The Trout were rising everywhere along the shore of the fjord, and made one long for a trout-rod and handy boat.

Nothing struck me more in Arctic Norway than the enormous extent of the birch forests, filling the valleys and clothing the sides of the mountains, till they give place to cold grey rock and a sparse vegetation, with long streaks and patches of pallid snow, carrying the eye forward and upward into the interminable ice-plateaux and the grey-blue shadow-lands of the higher ranges. There seems to be everywhere, both inland and on the bleak tundra, on the shore of the Arctic Ocean, room for all the birds in Europe to nest and enjoy the long summer day of those high latitudes. Unfortunately the time allotted to us did not permit much inland exploration.

Some other birds in my list are a flight of about fifty Greenshanks at Vadsö coming down from the tundra to the shore, some Golden Plover in the same place, and a good many Redshanks. At Voss, and between Bergen and Voss (where I was staying from Aug. 10th to 17th), I noted several Herons, quite a large flock of Woodlarks on some firs by the side of the river, and an Ortolan; Wheatears plentifully. At the Store-Lerfos, near Trondhjem, the Scandinavian Black-bellied Dipper (Cinclus melanogaster).

A sharp look-out on board our steamer was kept for cetaceans. At the whaling station on the Jarfjord two Whales were on the slips, and had been partly flensed and cut up. One was the Common Rorqual (Balænoptera musculus); the other, so far as I could make out from its long flippers, a Humpback (Megaptera longimana). These flippers are wholly white in living or recently captured specimens. On leaving the Jarfjord we were fortunate in seeing a Common Rorqual brought in towed alongside one of the steam whalers. This was about sixty feet in length, and some good photographs were taken of the animal alongside, our own steamer and the whaler stopping for that purpose. In the fjord near Christianssund N. were two species of Dolphin; one of these was dark coloured above and below, and probably referable to D. tursio; the other a beautiful black and white one. Two of these latter raced along the side of the ship; they reminded me of a pair of greyhounds in full stretch, now one and now the other making a sudden rush ahead, or diverging from its course to seize some surface-swimming fish (probably mackerel) disturbed by the passage of the steamer. These Dolphins were close to the surface in absolutely clear water; from their markings I have no doubt they were D. acutus and not albirostris.

On the return voyage to Newcastle, when about fifty miles from the Tyne, we passed through a fleet of Dutch boats, fishing with their masts down. A very large Whale was rolling slowly along, and showing little but his back. Species not determined. One feature of these northern seas is the enormous abundance of marine invertebrata—Scyphomedusæ. They may be seen suspended at all depths in the marvellous transparency of the water. The commonest form has four circular purple rings, like a double eye-glass, at the summit of the disc; others are like parasols—scalped heads, from the colour, somebody called them—with sheaves of long semitransparent tentacles streaming in their wake like the tail of a comet. Progression is a system of contraction and expansion. When the ship was stationary in the harbour, or from some wooden pier, we used to watch them, yawning and gaping their way along in a dilettante manner, much after the fashion that easy-going people pass through life—in a sort of jelly-fish existence.

There are excellent museums at Tromsö and Trondhjem, and a most interesting one at Bergen; and, from an ornithological point of view, particularly rich in game-birds, hybrids, and various plumages—one a hybrid between the Black Grouse and Capercailzie. I particularly noticed many most beautiful varieties of Turdus pilaris; a nest of Garrulus infaustus, built of twigs of fir and red hair-like lichens, exactly matching the colour of the sitting bird; a beautiful compact well-built nest and eggs of Hypolaïs icterina; a specimen of the Ruddy Sheldrake, labelled "Skudesnæs, 12 x.92"; the American Surf-scoter, Œdemia perspicillata, Hjellefjord, Sept. 23rd, 1893, a fine adult male. There is a good collection also of Viking remains and stone implements, which will well repay inspection.

The Bergen Fish-market is a great feature of the town, the smaller fish being kept alive in wooden tanks with a constant stream of salt water passing through; the fish are ladled out with hand-nets to purchasers. Here I saw examples of the Tadpole-fish or Lesser Fork-beard, about fourteen inches long, and of a deep brown colour; also two richly-coloured Wrasse—the Blue-striped and the Ballan Wrasse—and the brilliant Bergylt, the so-called Norway Haddock.

One, if not the chief, industry of Norway is the fishing trade. The Lofoten fishery employs 8000 boats and 30,000 men; the take in 1895 was thirty-nine millions of Cod, in 1896 about twenty-one millions.

As the ornithologist on board the 'Neptune,' I cannot think our voyage to the Arctic Seas was a very remarkable one, as few except marine and shore birds were observed. Botanically, however, considering the lateness of the season, we did very well, and brought back many interesting plants from the tundra north of Vadsö. Eight of these shrubs and plants of the tundra bear fruit in the greatest profusion; the berries remain sweet and uninjured below the snows of winter, and in the spring supply the migrating birds with an inexhaustible supply of food.

This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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