Does it really matter that our present-day way of life does away with a few birds or bird species here and there? It is just birds!
I see it differently. Essentially I cannot se that they have any less right to life than us.
But why am I going on and on about this? I am after all hiking on the Finnmark heath in North Norway, a sub-arctic terrain at the northernmost edge of Europe with morraine ridges and dwarf-birch moors and bogs and waterways and birdlife as far as the eye can see. Such a natural setting must surely be exempt from the environmental problems afflicting regions further south?
There are many good reasons for holding on to this illusion: The heath is situated far away from densely populated areas; the wetlands here are not drained; the waterways are not dammed (with the exception of the great Alta River); here development, industry, and agriculture are negligible (reindeer husbandry is instead the main livelihood); and disturbances in the summer are far and few between.
And the final proof: Here is a more abundant animal life, particularly with regards to birds and fish, than elsewhere in inland Norway. Surely everything must be fine and dandy here? Think of the grayling, for instance. The rivers and lakes on the heath teem with grayling! And think of the wood sandpipers – these slender, small waders that constantly turn up at the small bog ponds throughout the moors of Iešjávri. Surely they are alive and kicking and doing fine?
Yes, certainly: In the course of my more than thirty years of hiking, this terrain has appeared as a perpetual cornucopia of grayling and wood sandpipers. And some other animals too, especially in peak lemming years.
But no, unfortunately – everything is nevertheless not fine and dandy here. Other species struggle. Human activity on this planet has a detrimental effect on innumerable living organisms, including many that are found far away from urban and industrial areas. This is also true of the Iešjávri area. The Finnmark heath – and the air above it – is regrettably not protected by its very own membrane that keeps all pests and plagues from the rest of the world at a distance.
A striking illustration of this is found in a recent survey in which a group of ornithologists (in the period 2002–2012) monitored some of the most common bird species in Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish mountain areas. The study encompassed an area that stretched 1600 kilometers from northeast to southwest in Fennoscandia. 9 of the 14 species that the scientists studied, manifested a significant decline in the course of this ten-year period. The redpoll and the Lapland longspur (see the photo) were among the passerine birds that were most negatively – affected.
No species among the fourteen showed any population increase. A striking feature in this study was moreover that the short-distance trekkers (and the resident birds) revealed a greater decline than the long-distance trekkers. This suggests that detrimental conditions in the wintering regions in the South (e.g. Africa), although an important cause of the population decline in the north, by no means is the only determinant. The study suggests that the conditions on the nesting grounds in the alpine moors also play an important role for the reduction of bird populations. We have to pay serious attention to this.
Weather and wind and temperature (and access to food) on the nesting grounds have always been the predominant cause of the fluctuations in bird populations on alpine moors. Now it also looks as if the birds’ breeding capacity has been negatively affected by the changing weather conditions in Fennoscandia in the period since the turn of the new millennia. These years have been dominated by milder springs, increased precipitation, and sudden shifts between warm and cold weather in the vulnerable brooding season. And because birds in the montane moors nest in the open, they are extra susceptible to abnormal weather and wind conditions. Since the bird life furthermore is affected by predators’ supply of small rodents in the summer, the increasingly fluctuating snow- and temperature conditions in the winter are also a factor.
Climate change may thus be one of several reasons for the decline among our sub-arctic and alpine bird species. (Recent surveys in the Far North of the American continent furthermore suggest that changing weather conditions may be one of the main reasons for a similar, radical decline of many birds also in Alaska and northern Canada.)
Norwegian national studies also point to a negative development among many of our birds. A study between 1996 and 2013 (with country-wide representative coverage since 2005) showed a significant decline for 19 out of 55 species, including several of the above-mentioned birds that brood in the mountains, among others heipiplerke, Lapland longspur, redpoll, and bluethroat.
As to the last-mentioned species, the bluethroat, I have not personally noted that it has become less numerous over the last thirty-five years that I have been hiking on the heath around Iešjávri. I still come across its splash of color and its melodious artistry in most of the places where I have encountered it before. And thank goodness for that. It is a relief to see its bright colors and hear its beautiful jingling warbles when I walk the boundary terrain between the birch zone and the tree-less moors:
Other species, however, fare worse. It should be pointed out that the time span for these recent Norwegian and Scandinavian-Finnish studies are too short to warrant too massive conclusions. We need systematic observations over a longer period of time. These Nordic studies nonetheless reveal a negative tendency that has been thoroughly documented over half a century in other parts of Western Europe. With regard to present-day Norway, it seems that about 2/3 of all bird species evince a decline of larger or smaller scope that cannot quite be attributed to the periodical fluctuations that we are familiar with from before. Some few species are also in danger of becoming extinct.
As far as my own experience is concerned, it has been impossible for me to avoid noticing a dwindling of numbers among some bird species in the course of the thirty-five years I have hiked around on the spring, or summer, or autumn heath by Iešjávri. Today when I trudge through the dwarf-birch brush on the moors, for instance, it seems to me that the meadow pipits do not flutter around me in the same great numbers that they used to do in the 1980s. And my presence, I think, makes fewer Lapland longspurs take off in fright from the shrubbery. It also seems that the strange, sheep-like bleating of the common snipe in the sky above my head appears more rarely these days. And I know for sure that I do not hear redshank cries from the bogs as often as before.
And when it comes to two particular bird species, the absence is glaring. The duck that in British-English is called the long-tailed duck and in American-English the oldsquaw, and the wader named ruff, have both practically disappeared. The long-tailed duck is a beautiful, small diver that I constantly came across in the 1980s in many of the small ponds on the bare heath. Today, some thirty-five years later, I only catch sight of a couple of female long-tailed ducks (with two–three surviving chicks) in the course of 10–12 day-long hikes. (That the municipality of Kautokeino in Finnmark permitted spring-time hunting of long-tailed ducks all the way up to 2013, has been a scandal.)
And the female ruff is a wader I no longer encounter on the summer heath. Scientists have noted a decline in the ruff population of about 60–80% many localities in Norway (some places even higher). Ornithologist who have observed the wetlands north of Iešjávri in the years between 1990 and the beginning of 2000, have detected a reduction of the ruff population of almost 90%.
This decline in birdlife is as mentioned a signal that something has begun to go deeply awry with our fellow creatures. Since we are the ones largely responsible for this disruption, the responsbility for mending it also falls on us.
In that case, it is not only birds we save, but also ourselves. By way of an extensive international cooperation we can stop our global pollution of land, oceans and atmosphere. And through large-scale investments we may prevent the escalation of unexpected natural catastrophes around the world – whether it involves storms, floods, and landslides in northern areas, or drought and food scarcity in southern regions of the world. The great expenditures that are required today will nonetheless be peanuts compared to the enormous economic and human costs that await us in the future if we continue our passive stance vis-à-vis climate change.
The negative development for many of our winged creatures is merely an early warning signal. To me it is nonetheless worth nagging about. Better now than later. Even right in the middle of my soon-to-come, enthused blogging about the teeming life of the Finnmark heath I find it imperative to harp, intermittently at least, on the increasing impoverishment of nature around us.
I only wish with my whole heart that we start doing something to halt this impoverishment! – so that our grandchildren will be able to take part in the biological richness that we – quite undeservedly – still have the great privilege of enjoying.
But when I now proceed to describe my hiking on the heath that surrounds the lake of Iešjávri, I want first and foremost to give expression to my great joy of encountering its great diversity of natural life.
My ensuing hiking blog will consist of a detailed description of a week´s walk on the heath in spring, from June 24 to June 30. It is based on the notes I made on a spring hike a few years ago, supplemented with some observations from earlier walks to the same exact places, at exactly the same time. To me, spring is the prelude to the whole shebang. The beginning of all the stuff about the birds and the bees, I mean – or more precisely, in alpine regions, about the birds and the bumblebees.
In the spring the buoyancy of life is formidable. This is the season when innumerable organisms – masses of animals and plants, indeed practically the whole landscape – pulsate with lust. Almost each and everyone out there is obsessed with the desire to pollinate, impregnate, propagate.
Spring is first and foremost the hour of lust: This will be the predominant theme of my upcoming series of heath-hiking posts.
SOURCES: About the reduction of the number of birds in the period 2002–2012 in populations typical for alpine regions (a Scandinavian-Finnish study): See A. Lehikoinen, M. Green, M. Husby, J. A. Kålås and Å. Lindström, “Common Montane Birds Are Declining in Northern Europe”, Avian Biology, 45.1 (January 2014): 3-14. About the decline in bird populations in Norway between 1996 and 2013: See John Atle Kålås, Magne Husby, Erlend B. Nilsen and Roald Vang, “Terrestriske fugler i Norge – bestandsendringer 1996–2013” [Terrestrial birds in Norway – population changes 1996–2013], Vår fuglefauna [“Our bird fauna”], 37.1 (Spring 2014): 14–20. About the ruff and the long-tailed duck: See Bjørn Harald Larsen, “Brushane – en kandidat til den nye rødlista” [“Ruff – a candidate for the list of endangered species”], Vår fuglefauna, [“Our bird fauna”], 29.2 (2006): 54-62; and Paul Shimmings & Oddvar Heggøy, “Havelle – tallrik i nord, fåtallig i sør,” “Long-tailed duck – many in the north, few in the south”], Vår fuglefauna [“Our bird fauna”], 39.1 (2016): 12-22.