Saturday, April 08, 2006

Sunday, April 2: The big twitch

Day two began at a more civilised time. For every except Johan, anyway: he spent the first hour of daylight driving to a couple of birding spots, only to find that he couldn't see anything through the fog. So he gave up and went back to sleep for a couple of hours.

Raggna and Carl-Gustav joined us for a walk in a nearby forest. They meet friends there for a walk most weeks, and it's one of their favourite places on the island. The soft ground was covered with several layers of last year's leaves and frequent deposits from the fallow deer. The deer pellets can be as much as six months old, since their decay is suspended by the winter snow cover. The rocks and bases of the trees were covered in lichen and bright green moss. The lichen also spread over most of the leafless grey trees in a strange parody of the snow that was there a few months ago. Again, my photos haven't done the landscape justice, I think I messed up the light and shade. If adjusting the camera setting to 'landscape', auto-focussing and pushing the big button won't do the trick then I'm out of ideas.

Right after I took this picture, Johan said "Don't worry about it, I won't tell anyone" and pointed to a sign on the wire fence behind me. Naturally I couldn't read the text, but the picture of a camera with a red line through it was clear enough. Turns out I was next to a military base. Whoops. Scour these pictures for anything suspicious, patriots!
After we'd been there about 20 minutes, Johan's phone sent the alert he'd been waiting for: a king eider had been spotted further south, and would probably take 45-60 minutes to reach the west coast of Öland.

I continued to enjoy the quiet forest for the next 20 or so minutes, but eventually I noticed that Johan was getting edgy. He wanted to get going for that king eider. We said good-bye to Raggna and Carl-Gustav, and Johanna spent some time coaxing soggy Astrid away from the puddles and into the car.

We headed to a small and not-so-picturesque industrial harbour. The birding scene was in full swing:

Before I'd even walked to the boot of the car and decided whether or not to climb into my borrowed ski pants, I twitched a new call: flock of birders spotting a rarity. The king eider was here! Johan was hastily setting up his 'scope, I grabbed my bins, jogged over and set them on the flock everyone else was looking at. It had just passed and any identifiable markings were diminishing with distance every second. In the excitement, Johanna kindly translated the directions from the others into English. "It's about half-way along the line, a bit smaller than the others. Can you see it, the one that's smaller?" Already they were too far away for me to distinguish between the male and female common eiders (not usually a difficult task: the males are black and white, the females are brown), so I had no chance of seeing the pretty green patch around the king eider's eye. I thought I picked the one that was a little smaller than the others, but I couldn't be sure.

We stayed for about another hour. The eiders were passing closer to the shore here and the sunny weather allowed me to see their plumage more clearly, so I didn't tire of it as quickly as I expected to. I also sampled some Swedish licorice. I had heard several times before arriving in Sweden that the licorice here is different. Salty. Not good. Don't try it. I don't even like sweet licorice. It just appears in my life on special occasions when my mum or I make a birthday cake from the Women's Weekly cookbook and then I pick it off to eat the icing. But I did try the Swedish licorice and of course I hated it. Read it again, people: stay away from the Swedish licorice. The other 'typically Swedish' lollies were fine: peppermint-flavoured boiled lollies with red stripes. They looked and tasted like solid pieces of Macleans toothpaste. Maybe they were developed to eliminate the after-taste of the licorice?

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Saturday, April 1: Let the twitching begin

Day one started at 6am, and we drove north and west to Johan's chosen spot for our first dose of eiders. Although I was short of sleep, the landscape passing by kept me alert: it wasn't like anything I'd seen before. Johan translated the name Öland thus: "Ö means island, land means land. Island land!" It's about 150 km long but only about 10km wide. Ölanders typically live in "linear villages", where all buildings open onto the main road around the island and there is nothing more to be seen on the side streets. Most of the southern half of the island is world heritage listed. The agricultural landscape has not changed much since the stone age, and cattle grazing has had a huge influence in that time. While there are a lot of modern white windmills to be seen, some ancient wooden ones can also be found. Öland is a popular destination for summer holidays but it was difficult for me to imagine. Many of the brown fields were flooded with murky, melted snow and were bordered by knee-high fences constructed with flat rocks. The sky was grey and the temperature hovered around freezing. The trees were gnarled and leafless. To me it seemed grimly beautiful, like a scene of poverty from a fairytale or maybe a Tim Burton movie.

We arrived at the chosen spot at about 7am, and there were already a couple of other birders with their telescopes set up on tripods. I spent most of the next hour and a half looking in this direction:

Hmmm, that horizon's not looking too straight: those binoculars must have been messing with my eyes. The darker strip on the horizon is mainland Sweden. This picture hints at the sheer drop to the water, probably about two floors in height. In the time we were there, I think about 3000 eiders passed. I liked watching fluid changes in the shape of the flocks. It seemed to be a special combination of individual and synchronised behaviour. Some mute swans swam below us and I found them more interesting than any of the other birders did.

Johan subscribes to an alerting service on his mobile phone, on which birders all over Sweden can text twitches of interest to all other subscribers. It beeped all weekend, sometimes with less than 10 minutes between alerts. But there were no alerts for king eiders on this morning. Gradually the birders got chatting, in Swedish of course. Johanna told me later that when things get quiet, birders typically exchange stories of memorable past twitches. At one point I think I caught a brief reference to my name alongside the words älg (moose) and matematik (it sticks out in polite conversation in any language, I think). They must have been wondering why the mute girl at the end was here fiddling uncertainly with a telescope. Particularly since Johanna and Astrid (the dog) were the only other females anyone had encountered that morning.

Here's a photo facing north-ish:

Unfortunately these pictures look a bit more drab than I remember it being: there should be a cute red cottage on that shoreline somewhere.

On the drive to the next birding spot, Johan pointed out a surfboard that had been set up as a sign at a crossroad. "Surfers' Paradise," he translated with a laugh. Apparently it's a popular location for windsurfers in the summer. I looked at the brown grass, the dirty patches of snow and the cold flat grey water. I reflected that it probably wasn't any less appealing to me than the skyscrapers, chunky gold jewellery and leathery skin of Queensland's namesake.

Our new location proved to be rather muddy, and there must have been a few dozen people out with their binoculars. (From now on, the hip term is 'bins'.) Females, even! I spotted a few middle-aged ladies wearing tweed and gumboots. If watching the eiders was like standing by a thoroughfare, this was more like sitting in the corner of a nightclub and observing the surrounding social rituals. A variety of ducks, geese and swans were hanging out, trying to impress each other. Here's a view, looking north, from the wooden platform we were on, about 4 floors high:

Next up was våfflor (waffles) for lunch! Apparently the previous Saturday (when I was listening to owls) was a special Swedish occasion necessitating the eating of waffles. There was some disagreement about the apppropriate translation of the name of the day, but it seemed to be about celebrating the arrival of spring. I was just watching my plate being heaped with fried batter, cloudberry jam and whipped cream, so I didn't quibble over the details.

The next item on the schedule, a nap, was postponed because the sun was still out. Johan, Johanna and I headed south to visit Långe Jan (Tall John), a lighthouse on the south coast. Johan described the area surrounding the lighthouse as the favourite birding spot of most Swedish enthusiasts. It was probably my favourite spot of the day, although the birds weren't the highlight for me (sorry, Johan). I twitched my first fallow deer, seeing four of them grazing in a field. Their antlers were amazing and, looking through the telescope, I felt as if I could reach out and stroke their velvety fur. Then, out to sea, were a few harbour seals playing in the water. Apparently there are a lot of adders around Långe Jan, but I was content not to add them to my twitch list.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Friday, March 31

Johan and Johanna invited me on an extended weekend away to Öland, an island off the South-East coast of Sweden. Originally Johan mentioned that they were going to visit his mother, but I later found out that there's actually some pretty good birding on Öland and that was what Johan was intending to do for three days. In particular a migratory species, the eider, was due to be passing between the island and the mainland in the thousands at this time of year. Johan pulled out one of his bird books and showed me some pictures, then pointed at the next one down. "This is the king eider, there's only one of these for every few thousand common eiders passing." He had an excited gleam in his eyes.

So far the only new thing I've knocked back has been a game of floorball so I accepted the invitation, thinking that this would make or break my fledgling interest in birding. Johanna vowed that whenever she got bored she would find something else for us to do. We set off at 3:30 on Friday afternoon for the 5 hour drive. Johan talked about Öland and the changing landscape, and eagerly pointed out every new bird we passed on the way. The highlight for me was seeing Canada geese for the first time. My trips to the US in 2004 and 2005 resulted in two research papers about the management of age-structured populations and of Canada geese in particular. I didn't see one in all of the time that I was there.

The other sight of note on the journey was the home of Astrid Lindgren, author of "Pippi Longstocking". It had been developed into a modest theme park, Astrid Lindgren's Värld. As we headed south the snow became thinner and thinner on the ground, and the forest was increasingly replaced by agricultural fields, partially submerged in melted snow. By the time we reached the 7km bridge from the mainland to Öland it was 9pm and dark. I would have to wait until the morning to see it.

Johan's mother Raggna and her husband Carl-Gustav welcomed me warmly when we arrived at their house and proved to be very generous hosts. Raggna fussed in the kitchen, presenting red wine, bread and five types of cheese for supper, and offered a huge tube of Tartex (vegetable pate) that she had bought especially for me. It looked like the tubes of Kaviar I've been seeing everywhere, but it was nice that she was so concerned about feeding me and I assured her that I'd try some for lunch the next day.

The kitchen was very cosy, like the few other Swedish kitchens I've been invited into, and was heated by a traditional wood-fueled stove. The house was built in 1906, actually as a railway station. One of the back rooms can still be recognised as the waiting area with a ticket window. The room upstairs where I stayed was of about the same area as my cabin at Grimsö, with its own bathroom and kitchenette. Johan told me that they rent it out to visiting birders. Later I noticed a "Birds of Öland" poster on the back of the door.