A winter’s day in Stavanger

by Endre Harvold Kvangraven, PhD researcher in environmental humanities, University of Stavanger

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I’ve come to Stavanger to study relations between humans and birds in Nordic literature from the 2000s, and on one of my first days I go out to have a look at the local bird life. It’s early January, and the grass is glazed with frost, the temperature hovering at or perhaps just below freezing point. The sky overhead is cloudy and grey, but there’s sunshine on the snow-capped mountains across the fjord. Hooded Crows are perched on the bare birch trees along the path up the hillside to Ullandhaug.

A view across Hafrsfjord in the winter with a yellow boathouse in the middle ground and the water frozen in the foreground.
Hafrsfjord in the winter (c) Endre Harvold Kvangraven (2020)

The terrain levels out towards the top, where walkers gather at the viewpoint by the antenna tower, the surrounding woods a scraggly mixture of native and exotic trees. Most of the visitors seem to have come for view, one group has lit a fire and is preparing for a barbecue, while kids play in the woods. In the dim afternoon light, I catch my first views of Hafrsfjord down below, and descend through Stavanger botanic garden, ticking off common species such as Blackbird and Robin. Past the lawns and hedges of a residential area, I count a flock of fifteen Greenfinches gathered in a treetop, with Tree Sparrows and a Blue Tit mixed in. A Common Wood-Pigeon flies past, a flock of Starlings, a Magpie, and a Grey Heron as I approach the shoreline. Nothing rare or spectacular, but not bad for a more or less random walk in a Norwegian city in winter, a roughly representative sample of what one might expect to see in urban areas.

Hafrsfjord is almost frozen over, a vast icy expanse shining in hues of orange and purple as the sun sinks low in the sky. A lone Herring Gull stands motionless at the edge of a rooftop beside the fjord. Past Sverd i fjell, a monument commemorating the Battle of Hafrsfjord, which is said to have taken place here in the late ninth century, I reach the sheltered Møllebukta, which hasn’t frozen yet. Mew Gulls and Mallards are plentiful, and there are also some Goldeneyes. Kids toss food to a pair of Mute Swans, while a Grey Heron, perhaps the same one I saw earlier, sits hunched among the rocks at the edge of the pier. People continually move past, walking their dogs, or sit chatting by the picnic tables down by the water.

A female Velvet Scoter on the water.
A female Velvet Scoter (c) Endre Harvold Kvangraven (2021)

Beyond the pier, a Red-breasted Merganser is diving for fish, and things get more interesting when I spot a species I’m unfamiliar with, some large dark ducks with white spots on their heads. They’re Velvet Scoters, males and females, at least ten of them, a species listed as vulnerable both nationally and globally. In summer, they breed high above sea level, by lakes near the tree line, but in winter they gather by the coast, where they dive for molluscs and crustaceans. I haven’t seen them before, simply haven’t spent much time in the areas where they’re usually found, so they’re definitely the highlight of the trip, a lifer.

At four in the afternoon, it’s quickly getting dark. Hopefully I’ll soon get to explore some of the more secluded birding hotspots in Stavanger and surrounding Jæren.

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