Sunday, 5 June 2016

Arctic Dream...

The cool waters of Lille Porsanger quietly engulf my position on the leading edge of a group of Knot flaggers. There are 8 of us with eyes pressed to the eyepieces of our telescopes searching the flock for colour ringed birds. The birds are feeding before us on a gently rising tide, resplendent in summer plumage.

I am back on the fjord, Lille Porsangerfjord. After a year off for paternity duties I am back on my off-Patch Patch. A place I have come to love, second only to the muddy banks of the Dee.

I have never seen it so green. I didn’t know the arctic could be this green. On my last visit here in 2014 spring was late and snow drifts and blizzards greeted flaggers on that occasion. Not so today. There is little snow cover on the mountains that flank the mudflats, it is strange to see these slopes naked, snowless. In shady nooks and crannies some pockets of pure white persist and the mountain tops still maintain a blanket of snow, but by and large the snow has gone. At lower levels the charcoal grey scree gives way to thin birch woodland. I’m used to this being leafless, with the buds only just starting to break during the time that I and the Knots visit the fjord for a couple of weeks in May. Today verdant new leaves are unfurling to catch and harness the 24-hour daylight.

The huge arcing sky above us is cloudless. It is pleasantly warm and I can feel the sun’s warmth on my back. The hood of my hoody is up, this time it is to protect me from the sunburn rather than the biting northerly wind of previous years.

And the light. The light. The light. The light.

It is getting towards evening and the sun is lowering, it will not set, but for a while there is a rich golden cast to everything it is illuminating. The gentlest of breezes hardly ripples the waters of the fjord as the steadily rise. The mirror like surface is tones of warm brown and fertile green, a reflection of the burgeoning woodland.

The Knots look beautiful. Their summer plumage glows in the delicious light like the embers of hot coals. Some are feeding in the inch-deep flood, probing at the potter’s-cley-grey mud. Here it is a sort of blue grey colour, back home on the Dee it is more of a brown grey. A variety of prey, none of it looking at all appetising, is deftly plucked from the gloop.

Others are full enough to take up roosting positions early, finding high spots on rocks to keep their feet dry. Their reflections double the number of birds in the flock.

I’m thrashing the camera a bit. Afterwards I work out I was taking a picture once every five seconds for just over an hour. The light is so good and the birds are cooperating so I just go for it. On several occasions I fill the cache of the camera, its RAM exhausted, its flashes “busy” warnings at me through the viewfinder and I have to wait for it to catch up, to burn the images to its memory card. These images are also being burned into my memory. I will the camera to keep up, I don’t want to miss a thing, I want to record it all.

By now the birds, as well as the water, surround me. I have Knot on all sides. Feeding in lines, marching in small groups in all directions.

Their metallic tinkling calls, like robot chicken clucks are the loudest sound on the fjord.

In the distance I can hear the rush of a waterfall, swollen with meltwater. I’m close enough to the shore to hear the buzz of a Brambling calling in the woods. Soft song of Willow Warbler drifts on the evening air, Bluethroat display over the birches. A Sea Eagle glides in to land on an enormous black rock in the middle of the fjord. Lille Posranger in the spring is quite stunning.

As the tide rises further some of the Knots fly off to the regular roost. They zip past me, mere feet from my position. I’m sprawled across a couple of large boulders, trying to stay low enough to get a good angle on the Knots and high enough to stay dry.

Once they have all flown I wade back to shore, the inch deep water when the session started is now over my knees and perilously close to the small puncture in my thigh waders. I make it back to the muddy bank dry and climb the slope to the road.

The roost has assembled at the head of the fjord, six, maybe seven thousand birds crammed on a rapidly shrinking sandbank.

A small flock, about 50 birds, takes flight. It spirals upwards, ragged, not a tight flock. It gains height, I press the binoculars hard to my eyes to keep on them. They are tricky to follow against the snow free slopes. A couple of times I lose them but soon find them again as they pass the white splodge of a small drift of un-melted snow. They are almost at the mountain top. Then they break the skyline and I see them against the clear blue. The spiral widens and gains more height. Then it breaks, the flock forms into a long line, the Knots evenly spaced. They fly away from us, over the mountain, slightly to the north of west.

A small and entirely insignificant circle is completed. I have seen them arrive from their wintering grounds, pouring from the clouds to feast on the fjord, but until now I hadn’t seen them leave. I had always returned south before they continued north. It means nothing to the Knots or anyone else but it was the missing piece in my Porsanger puzzle.

The flock is really high now and moving fast, diminishing in my field of view. Another small flock takes flight and does the same lose spiral up to the clear the mountain top. They too form a line and head off. Over the next hour group after group leave.

It is time for us to leave too. I watch my final flock go. Over the mountain.

Their course is set. Greenland awaits.

I follow them with the binoculars until they are lost from view.