By Endre Harvold Kvangraven, PhD Candidate in Environmental Humanities, University of Stavanger
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Songbirds are gathered by the boat house at the edge of Tungevika – tree sparrow, house sparrow and linnet – but their colorful plumages look faded and worn. Breeding season is over, and they’re beginning to moult. Starlings, meadow pipits and white wagtails are scattered across the surrounding lawn, while barn swallows perch in a flock by the pier. Every now and then, one or another of them sallies out over the water, catching insects mid-air.
It’s August 20th, autumn migration has begun, and at Tungenes the shoreline is crawling with dunlin. They’re widely scattered, well-camouflaged and constantly in motion, hard to count, but there must be at least a hundred of them, a jumble of dunlin with common ringed plover, common redshank and ruddy turnstone tossed in. At Holmaviga, I spot a golden plover among them, and recall seeing a pair of golden plovers in this precise location the last time I was here, in late April. Then they would have been migrating north, now they’re headed south again.
It’s a tranquil scene, a variety of waders feeding side by side, but suddenly one and all take wing, as if startled by gunshot, and the rocks are swept clean of birds. The peregrine flashes into view, sets its sights on a flock of common ringed plover that it chases across the fields towards the lighthouse. It appears to be gaining on them, but reemerges empty-handed, alighting on a rock that pokes up from the grass. I’ve seen adult peregrines in this area, but with lateral chest stripes and a faint tinge of tawny-red, this one is juvenile, an inexperienced hunter.
Again I’m reminded of J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, a book that has accompanied me up and down the coast of Jæren, where he observes peregrines hunting dunlin and other waders along the Essex coast during the 1960s. Parallels are easily drawn between the English countryside and the rural landscapes of Jæren in south-west Norway, where intensive agriculture has led to drastic ecological changes. Many of the species Baker encounters, such as lapwing and curlew, are in fact characteristic of Jæren, but their populations are now in steep decline in Norway and England alike.
Soon, the peregrine is back on its wings, rising on choppy gusts of wind and sailing off. Will it stoop? No, it continues southward and upward, becomes a distant speck of ash against the sky, only visible through the binos, then gone.
On Sandestranda, a bar-tailed godwit is poking for worms in the sand. It flies up at my approach, lands further up ahead, then turns around and flies back the length of the beach, landing behind me where it continues its hunt. A common sandpiper flutters out over the water, sounding its high-pitched alarm call as it circles back to shore past mew gulls and lesser black-backed gulls. Alongside a flock of eighty or so mallards, a red-breasted merganser leads her brood of eleven young. At Bø harbor, a grey heron flies overhead while a pair of mute swans keep watch over their four cygnets.
The tide has come in, and the inlet at Børaunen is bigger than I’ve seen it before, almost merging with the surrounding ocean, from which it is separated by a narrow ridge tracing a vague semi-circle. Curlews take to the air, their plaintive whistles carried on the wind, while a great black-backed gull shouts coarsely. The inlet holds eiders, oystercatchers, cormorants and common shelducks, while flocks of starling follow the sheep on a nearby field.
A gannet looks out of place lying on a rock at the water’s edge, and I immediately suspect avian influenza. It watches with a razor-sharp eye as I approach, but only when I’m three or four metres away does it raise its head, stabbing at the air towards me with its dagger-like bill while emitting a low, angry, rumbling sound. Up close, a gannet is an awesome sight, feathers shiny white, eyes ocean blue, bill massive, its powerfully-built neck perfectly adapted for diving into water from great heights. Eventually it rises to its feet, stumbles down to the next rock and slips itself into the water. A wave slaps it against the shore, but it swims a little further out. For a moment it spreads its wings and flaps them, but is clearly in no state to fly and remains bobbing on the waves. I report it in Artsobservasjoner and notify the Norwegian Food Safety Authority, which is responsible for handling the avian influenza outbreak, but there’s little else that can be done.
Further south along the shore, past Bøstranda, there are still plenty of dunlin and common ringed plover, the occasional sanderling, some ruddy turnstones, a common snipe flushed on a hillside just north of Einarvika. I look up and the peregrine locks me in its gaze again, now perched on a boulder looking out over the kelp-strewn sands of Molviga and the stone burial mound on the hill above. It takes wing, traces a sweeping arc down through the bay and up again, leaving behind it a trail of fleeing waders as it disappears into the farmland.
Baker, J. A. 1967. The Peregrine. New York Review of Books.