Much is changing in the seabird department at this time of year, in terms of departures, arrivals and alterations of appearance.
It’s a very prolonged process as I have recently observed whilst paddling along various sections of coast. Many Cormorant nests already contain chicks whose wobbly heads wave above the edge of their nests as they demand food in a weird gurgling way, whereas the overwintering Great Northern Divers (Loons) are not only still around in force, many are still in winter plumage and several thousand miles away from their breeding grounds.
Like many seabirds their winter outfit is unremarkable and essentially dark above and white below, and gives no hint of the amazing transformation into stunning breeding plumage.
I observed Loons in all states of transformation in South Cornwall recently.
A quartet still in winter plumage (or starting to moult):
A bird in full breeding plumage with two winter birds:
And just to top it off a very rare Black-throated Diver in Summer plumage, in the company of a Great Northern.
These divers nest in the arctic so are in no hurry to depart as it is probably still quite snowy up there, and a few could be around until June.
Other winter visitors will soon be heading north. This juvenile Glaucous Gull I came across in Newlyn Harbour will be off,
as will this rare Red-necked Grebe,
and these Avocets that brighten up the dreary muddy scenes of some of the southwest’s estuaries.
More Common seabirds also undergo a very rapid change of outfit. Guillemots overwinter like this:
Then go through a quick moult when they look a bit flea-bitten,
before emerging in their smart summer look:
Manx Shearwaters clear off to warmer places in the winter and have only just returned.
Everbody’s favourite bird of the Summer is the Swallow, and I have seen just a handful of these coming in off the open sea over the last week. Almost a match for these in terms of floatiness and liveliness are the ‘Swallows of the Sea’……Terns.
Although no Terns nest in Devon or Cornwall (I’m pretty sure), a lot migrate past during Spring and Autumn and I was thrilled to see fifteen or so Sandwich Terns fishing in the Camel estuary at Rock a few days ago. A fantastic sight in the bright sunshine with the air full of their excited chatter. They love sitting on mooring buoys so were quite easy to photograph.
Even birds as common and as overlooked as Shags, sporting snappy-looking quiffs and brilliant green eyes , can impress at this time of year.
Curiously there are a handful of Eider ducks, which really ought to move north during the summer for breeding, that seemingly can’t be bothered and spend the entire year in the same place. I suppose it’s a lot easier not to go, but looks like you might get a bit of a belly.
Lighter winds and an easing of the Atlantic groundswell lured Paul and myself down to Penzance for a tour around Mount’s Bay.
It’s one of my favourite circuits: from Penzance harbour along the coast to slingshot around St. Michael’s Mount, then three plus miles of open sea across to Mousehole and then back along the coast to Penzance with a nose around Newlyn harbour on the way.
St. Michael’s Mount was looking even more impressive than I was expecting….it always does even though I have paddled past it dozens of times.
Although there was more of a rolling swell than I was expecting for the sea crossing to Mousehole, the wind was light and the sun was trying to appear so Paul and I didn’t feel uneasy about the level of exposure. He did however intermittently disappear behind the swells.
I was a bit disappointed not to see any sea mammals on the way over. I have encountered several species of dolphin and a whale around here and was expecting a porpoise at the very least but it wasn’t to be.
We ventured a little way down the coast past Mousehole but the current combined with increasing wind and steady swell made it feel a bit less safe so we headed for the extreme cosiness of Mousehole harbour. Always a few seals hanging around St. Clements Isle just offshore.
Around the corner in Newlyn there was a lot going on as usual with a constant movement of fishing boats. Tucked in behind the harbour wall out of the wind it, at last, felt really quite warm as the strong sun emerged from behind a cloud.
Half a dozen chattering Sandwich Terns floated past along Penzance promenade to confirm that Spring really had arrived. Yaroo.
GERRAN’S BAY, ROSELAND PENINSULAR
Next day took me to Gerran’s Bay and a launch from the stunning Carne beach. Even better that there is no parking charge here (unlike £8.50 for the day at Penzance….blooming heck!).
I swung offshore at Nare Head where I caught a microglimpse of a Chough after drew attention to itself with its animated call before disappearing. I checked out the Guillemot colony on Gull Rock before a long looping circuit out to sea, after reporting my journey plan over the radio to Portscatho NCI.
Wandering Gannets passed and the occasional Porpoise puffed, as well as a scattering of Guillemots, Razorbills and a few passing shearwaters.
Fifteen miles later I arrived back at Carne beach which was now buzzing with activity and echoing to the shriek of holidaymakers finding out how cold the water still is.
Just offshore was a handful of loons (the ornithological ones, not the Paddleboarders), and I was extremely pleased to see some of these spectacular birds had moulted into their stunning breeding plumage, making them even more impressive to look at.
I could hardly believe that another day of light winds was in prospect, especially as we were in the middle of a low pressure system so the weather was far from settled.
This time I paddled out from a small side creek of Carrick Roads at Percuil (another absolutely excellent launch location) and out across glassy waters past St.Mawes and the lighthouse at St. Anthony and into the open sea. This time I was really hopeful of a BIG cetacean sighting as the water was completely smooth.
I could hear the Gannets hitting the water with a ‘thoomph’ from half-a-mile away, but when I came upon the mini-feeding frenzy which also involved a load of Manx Shearwaters, the only cetacean involved in the show was a single Porpoise, which was however unusually animated and surged at the surface while on the hunt.
Although I had registered my offshore paddle with Nare Point NCI, a couple of fishing boats came over to see if I was OK, which I suppose was quite understandable as a kayak bobbing about motionless (as I was eating a cheese ‘n pickle sandwich at the time, and cheese ‘n onion crisps with a handful of cherry tomatoes to provide the healthy bit) a couple of miles from the shore, is a bit weird.
The most surprising wildlife sighting of the day was a lone Puffin that was squadron leader at the front of a V-formation of Guillemots.
There is alot of hardware in and around Falmouth Bay but I was much more interested in the natural history which was made even more photogenic by the exceptionally smooth conditions.
The North coast usually looks like this:
So it was nice for it to ease off for a day or two to allow sea kayak access.
This was my first decent paddle trip on the North Cornwall Coast since last Autumn. I set off from Rock which is another of my favourite launch sites. Unfortunately the excitement of the day was a little bit soured by the slipway attendant who first told me I wasn’t allowed to use that particular slipway (which left me struggling for words as I had trolleyed my kayak down the water from the carpark and there was absolutely nobody else in sight), and then informed me I had to pay a £3 launching fee. It would be the same price if I was to slide the QE2 down the slipway. Someone hasn’t quite thought this through, methinks.
My clenched teeth slowly relaxed as I slipped out silently into the watery wilderness, serenaded by squadron of Sandwich Terns and their ‘kirrick’ calls.
Out of the mouth of the Camel Estuary I crossed over to Pentire head and then into the more swirly water of Rump’s Point.
A ghostly white shape below my kayak was my first Barrel Jellyfish of the year, quickly followed by two more.
As I watched the seals and Auk colony on the Mouls island I was joined by a couple of huge RIBs bristling with tourists on a Wildlife cruise. They sped off North while I followed a smooth patch of water, along which the Shearwaters tracked, back to Newlands island and then back to the Camel.
These sheltered waters reverberated to the sound of boat engines as people enjoyed the last few days of the Easter holidays.
Noisiest is the ‘Jaws’ speedboat which looks like it has been lifted from a scene from a James Bond movie from the seventies (or possibly sixties). A bit of a contrast to the stealth of a kayak.
I really like Porpoises, and have named both my inflatable kayaks after their Newfoundland name ‘Puffing Pig’. Their Old English name of ‘Herring Hog’ is equally as offbeat and excellent, and in my view only adds to their personality.
I feel they are very much a speciality of kayaking, because the complete silence as you paddle along makes the characteristic ‘puff’ of a porpoise easy to hear. On a calm day it carries far over the water and is usually the first hint a porpoise is around. They are so unobtrusive and small that they must be hugely overlooked by people like me (and other observers in ‘normal’ boats) , but even so are by far the most common cetacean around the southwest coast and the one I encounter most regularly during offshore jaunts.
Gannet behaviour can also be a help if you are on the lookout for porpoises. All a wandering Gannet has to do is circle around just once, and more often than not there will be a porpoise fishing below. I know this may sound completely daft and exaggerated, but the last four times I have seen a hunting Gannet circle around while cruising in my kayak, there has been a Porpoise below (and presumably a few fish suitable for a Gannet snack).
Porpoises are very aloof and unlike most cetaceans are not inclined to come over to a kayak to investigate. They just carry on with going about their daily business. This makes porpoise photography quite challenging, and it is further complicated by their constant change of direction and only rare appearances of anything more than back and fin above the surface.
So up till now all my porpoise photos consist of a body and fin rolling at the surface. probably my best so far is this atmospheric-style arty-type shot.
So I was very pleased to be in the epicentre of a group of eight very busy and active porpoises in perfect calm conditions off Berry Head with the early morning April sun behind me. Absolutely excellent, all the more so because calm offshore conditions are so rare. And at last a photo of a porpoise’s head and eye (which actually looks a bit weird without a dolphin’s ‘beak’). Definitely my best porpoise image yet.
There were similar sort of conditions in Falmouth Bay a few days later, very flukey because the light winds were right in the centre of a low pressure system. I half expected to see dolphins (or possibly a whale) because viewing conditions were so good, but had to settle for half a dozen porpoises instead. Not too much of a hardship.