Above the polar circle – skua’s and buttercups

Mountain ecologist Jonas Lembrechts spent ten intense fieldwork days above the polar circle in Sweden and Norway, where he follows non-native plant species and their spread in the mountains. This post is the last one in a serie on this expedition. The story appears simultaneously in Dutch on Scilogs.be and in English on this website.

‘If they don’t go home on their own, I’ll make them!’ Probably the exact thoughts of the Arctic skua as it prepared in the distance for a new attack. His eyes were talking about murder…

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Arctic skua preparing for the attack

We accidentally stumbled upon the territory of this very inhospitable arctic hunter gull, and we had no other choice than bending to its will. The birds are known for their merciless attacks on unwelcome guests, in order to protect their eggs against potential danger, and our experience was the very proof.

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Hiding for the wrath of the skua

I have to admit these merciless tactics are not unnecessary, as their eggs are lying unprotected in the middle of the open tundra, an easy catch for all interested hunters (if they managed to get past the fierce dives). We did not mean the bird any harm, but we cannot blame the skua for the brave defence of its offspring.

Arctic skua in Lapland

Luckily it did not get dirtier than some dazzling dives, inches above our heads. As soon as it realised we were harmless and just accidentally passing by on our way to the top, the bird landed on a strategic rock to watch us with the same murderous look in its eyes. We knew what it was capable of, so we did not feel any need to trigger it more.

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Skua on its favourite look-out

It was our last climb before I would temporarily head back to Belgium, and it was a beautiful day. We had one more hike up to a thousand meters elevation and at the end of that hike, my favourite plots were waiting.

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A plot with a view

Undisputed number one due to their unrivalled views, of course. But also because of their ideal location: a small meadow on the north-facing slope of the valley of  Låktatjåkka, almost horizontally and virtually not flooded in spring. Moreover, the plot has a near perfect orientation and matches vegetation-wise very well with its counterpart at the other side of the valley. A dream scenario for our experiment, but that much luck is rarely offered to an ecologist that left the safety of campus greenhouses.

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Counting plants

On the north facing slope, summer days are far from endless. It takes a lot of time before the first sun ray hits our plots in spring, and even in midsummer, sunlight is limited. Surprisingly, our plots will get the most direct sunlight in the middle of the night. It is then that sun passes in the north: over the mountains on the horizon in the previous picture.

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Meadow buttercup aiming high

Plants do feel the burden of this short summer. We were almost in the middle of July, and spring was not even truly on its way here. Between the dry brown sedges of last year’s growth, we could however find some brave progressive individuals. Determined to leave no ray of sun unused, they produced flowers in the metaphorical blink of an eye. 

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Hurrying however is not an unnecessary luxury here. Growing, flowering ànd producing seeds, all in one growing season, it is not an easy task in this little meadow. The end of august is already on its way again, and then I will be back for the next harvest. The flowers from the pictures will probably face the early winter without worries, as they started their work in time. Our teeny tiny experimental plants, however, are used to the long and mild Belgian summers and thus far from ready. I assume first snowfall will catch them totally by surprise!

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4 Responses to Above the polar circle – skua’s and buttercups

  1. Pingback: Boven de poolcirkel – jagers en boterbloemen › On Top of the World

  2. iosatel says:

    Beautiful series!

  3. Klarinet says:

    The story is very melodious.

  4. Amy says:

    Beautiful post! Great captures of the bird. Thank you so much for taking us along. 🙂

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