Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Smoke That Flutters....

Nordic Adventures Part Two:

What is recounted below all happened while I was waiting for these….

There is a rather hushed and subdued atmosphere hanging over this little fjord that I have come to know and love so well.

Some weather has just drifted over us, I say drifted, perhaps steamrollered is more appropriate.

When the weather hits you in this neck of the woods it really kicks you in the ass. The cloud that now hangs like a low grey ceiling has just deposited a new layer of snow on the hills that flank the fjord. Everything is now black and white or a grey in between these two opposites. The wind has dropped from squally gasps to breathless. All is still on Lille Porsanger.

You might expect the next line to read “there wasn’t a sound” and true, the cloud is muffling things, but the fjord is by no means silent.

Behind me the river that is carrying melt water from the flanking hills gently gurgles away as it flows through a narrow neck. As it reaches the wide, shallow fjord it slows and quietens like an excited theatre crowd hushed as the curtain goes up. To my right there is the metronomic drip, drip, drip of melting ice that I am standing next to on the edge of the marsh that fringes the mudflats.

The soft dove-grey coloured mudflats, dotted with boulders and matted with deep brown patches of bladder wrack are starting to be covered by a slow, silent tide.

The atmosphere in the Porsanger Expedition team mirrors this greyness. We are waiting for Knots to survey and they are late. We have been in country for 5 days and despite much scouring of this fjord and the much larger Porsangerfjord we haven’t found big numbers of our shorebird quarry. Our notebooks are sparsely scribbled in, not much data can be collected if there aren’t any birds. I think doubts that they are going to turn up at all are starting to creep into some of the minds in the team.

I shuffle around on the spot, trying to keep warm. I push pebbles around with my shoes; the squelchy rasp of wet stone on wet stone is quite loud in this muted monochrome. All we can do is wait.

A White-tailed Eagle soars silently over the fjord. On the marsh a lone Redshank calls once then falls silent. I look around. A defiant birch sapling is poking through the just fallen snow.

The grey cloud seems to be lifting slightly. A huge powdery “crump” sound from the northward mountain breaks the quiet. Another avalanche. Spring is coming and that means melting snow which triggers regular big falls of fresh powder.

We wait. We wait. We wait. We wait.


Fresh from the Waddensea they drop from the thinning clouds. They cut through the greyness and Lille Porsanger turns red.

They bring with them the sun, they must have been riding the coat tails of the weather front that just blasted through and dusted us with snow.

Thousands and thousands pour in, squawking and spiraling to the fjord. Swirling like bonfire smoke, 34,000 wings louder than the avalanches, as loud as a waterfall, as loud as Victoria Falls - the smoke that thunders. It is a truly magical sight. We should never have doubted them. The mental email I was quietly drafting to our sponsors explaining that the birds simply didn’t arrive is quickly deleted. I look around, the team is beaming. Smiles turn to wide mouthed astonishment as 17,000 Red Knot appear before us. The birds are noisy but we are stunned into silence.
Description of this spectacle is beyond me.

We can go to work. Over the next few days we follow the flock, careful not to disturb it, recording its size, location behaviour and collecting sightings of colour ringed individuals. This is important for our research but it is also the most enjoyable pursuit. I get to spend time in close quarters with Calidris canutus. Watching, recording, photographing. Thousands and thousands of them in the Porsanger flock….

…the smoke that flutters.

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