Jelly, Babies

 

20190521_123817

Above the surface the open sea remains very quiet with hardly a circling Gannet in sight. There are just a few Guillemots, which nest on the local cliffs,  sitting about doing a bit of fishing.  They are sometimes very inquisitive about kayaks and paddle right up close for a bit of a look.

P1300303
Guillemot

This one all but climbed in my kayak. So close you can see the refection of me (plus boat) in its eyeball!P1300308-1

Below the surface it’s a different story, with large numbers of Barrel Jellyfish still wafting about, concentrating along the tidelines. They always give me a bit of a start when they are close to the surface because not only are they a bit ghostly but they are very BIG.

 

 

The marine wildlife has been so thin on the ground I have even had to resort to looking at the scenery, like a normal person. Tough.

Gorran Haven
Gorran Haven
20190521_075140
St. Michael’s Mount

Along the shore I came across an ornithological treat near Marazion….this little pack of Sanderlings, rushing in and out with the waves, which is what Sanderlings do. You can see why; this one has just caught a snack-sized sand shrimp exposed by the waves:

Sanderling plus shrimp
Sanderling with Shrimp

This is them in action:

 

 

These Sanderlings were sporting a variety of colours because they were in transit from grey winter plumage to very smart buff breeding plumage. Although you might think it was getting a bit late in the season for this, they nest above the arctic circle so are not in any particular rush because their nesting area is still probably frozen solid.

P1300024
Sanderlings (and Dunlin, back left))

Although these little birds are only on the cusp of smartening themselves up for the breeding season in the land of the summer sun, birds local to Devon and Cornwall are in full swing.

I did a bit of a double-take when I saw this Shelduck on the river Torridge. I assumed it was an adult because it could fly well and had classic Shelduck plumage apart from a bit of a white face, although it was significantly smaller than its parent.

P1300162
Shelduck adult and juvenile

It must have been this year’s chick and a combination of cunning sleuth and smart mathematical calculation (incubation is 28 days and the young fly at 45 days) would suggest that it was the abnormally mild weather in late February that prompted the duck to lay her eggs three months earlier than usual.

P1300156
juv Shelduck

 

A more seasonal brood of Shelduck was a bit further upstream:

P1300173
Shelduck family

All along the coast as well New life is bursting forth. These are the first Herring gull chicks I have seen this year.

herring gull chicks
Herring Gull Family

And nearby the nestling Shags are swaying about in the nest in a very reptilian way.

shag family 2
Family Shag

 

 

Similar to the Shag the parent Canada Goose has a ‘yellow alert’ warning to its offspring (and me) when they perceive I am a bit close for comfort. The Goose does a bit of head-bobbing as well.

 

The youngsters don’t tend to take much notice of their parents (not a surprise) and anyway I always back away because it is unfair to worry them.

P1300204
Unphased goslings
P1300072
Large and Little

The Swans on the Torridge are still sitting on eggs. Although swans on the water cut a classic image of grace, elegance, and whiteness, they are quite cumbersome when on land. And a bit clumsy…this one makes a bit of a horlicks of the housework and actually falls out of the nest. The husband, no doubt.

 

The breeding cycle for birds is challenged by problems and threatened by danger from start to finish. These Housemartins from Bideford, like the ones down at Looe, have been forced to use estuarine mud to build their nests because there is no freshwater alternative as all the puddles have dried up due to lack of rain. I have never seen them using this source before, and hope the salty mud from brackish water is a good enough building brick.

P1300252
Housemartin plus nest material

Lovely to see, but suddenly the whole lot took off at speed amid a clamour of trilling alarm notes as a Hobby falcon (which catch and eat Housemartins) raked overhead.

 

Life as a family of Mallard isn’t all fun and games either, as both mother and newly-hatched ducklings seem to attract unwanted attention. This little posse are lucky not to end up as dinner for a crow as they are left exposed when their mother is nearly mugged by a group of lairy males, and takes a while to get back to protect them.

mallard chicks

You can clearly hear (and see) the angst from Mrs.Mallard as the family are pursued by unwanted suitors, and the casual-looking crow on the bank which is thinking of a duckling-sized lunch.

 

The drakes force the mother to leave the little family vulnerable to attack from the prowling corvid.

 

 

Fortunately she soon returned and managed to guide them away from the aggressors and they found somewhere to chillax and process in the Spring sunshine. Happy ending. Phew.

P1290377

Everywhere you look is a baby bird-fest at the minute. And drifting along in complete unobtrusive silence in a kayak is the best way to enjoy it.

P1300129
Robin plus fledgling (photo taken from kayak, of course)

 

 

 

 

Start and Prawle Point

These two exposed headlands on the south Devon coast spend much of their time being battered by wind and waves, so are no-go to kayaks for long periods.

Our convoy of five, Dave, Simon, Richard, Martin and myself, chose our day carefully, and although we knew it would be almost windless all day we hadn’t expected 100% sunshine as well.

20190519_115136
Richard, Dave, Martin and Simon

We set off from the ghost village of Hallsands and were soon being zipped around the tip of Start Point by the ebbing tide, which was more like paddling in a river.

This is a great place for a kayaker and has a wild and remote feel about it. Because it is.

20190519_105058
Start Point

A handful of seals watched us paddle past and they gave the impression that they don’t come across many kayaks.

P1290815
Start Point Grey Seal

I was not surprised to see seals but I was taken aback when I saw three tiny newly-hatched Shelduck chicks bobbing about along the open coast just half-a-mile past the point. Tiny little balls of fluff in a BIG BIG place. Probably the most exposed spot in the whole of Devon….most Shelducks nest up a sheltered estuary which would seem like a more sensible place to me.

Their  parents were around but very spooky which is typical of all Shelduck. They are over-wary of people.

Shelduck chicks
Shelduck chicks

The section of coast along to Prawle is excellent, with some great cliffy bits interspersed with sandy beaches.

20190519_110923
Martin in his Nordkapp
20190519_110549
Rockhopping
P1290834
Dramatic stuff (including the skyscape)

Prawle Point is Devon’s most southerly bit of land and we could feel the binoculared eyeballs of the coastwatch volunteers in their little hut at the top of the cliff staring down at us. I hope they were impressed with our professional paddling style and olympic rate of progress, and not hovering their fingers over the speeddial button for the helicopter.

Prawle Point
Prawle Point

Macely Cove was the perfect place to stop for lunch. It was about as idyllic as it could possibly have been for the middle of May.

20190519_130445

We swung into the entrance of the Kingsbridge estuary just as the incoming tide was kicking in…perfect. We just HAD to stop for an icecream to celebrate. There were (quite) a few raised eyebrows as we slapped along the narrow streets in full kayaking gear, brushing past designer fashion and wafts of hairspray (or whatever the fancy smell was). It reinforced my plan to give my drysuit a bit of a rinse out anyway, which I have been meaning to do since Christmas.

Salcombe
Salcombe

It was a leisurely lope up the flat waters of the estuary to Kingsbridge. The Shags seemed used to a lot of boat traffic and didn’t bat an eyelid as we slipped past:

P1290872
Relaxed-looking Shag

Our arrival at the slipway at Kingsbridge after a fifteen mile paddle was likewise timed to perfection, just as the water was covering the shoe-slurping mud. Just a case of a taxi ride back to Hallsands to get the cars.

20190519_162527
Arrival in Kingsbridge

 

 

Looe Delivers the Wildlife (again)

It had to be Looe. Friends Krysia and Stefan were down to stay and I spent a long time ruminating where would be the best place to take them kayaking, with wildlife sightings top of the wish list.

P1290626
Stefan and Krysia

Of course if the nature was a bit thin on the ground it would be helpful to find somewhere with jaw-dropping scenery and a sandy beach on which to take lunch. So it had to be Looe.

20190517_171852
Krysia, Stefan and Becky

Oh yes, it would be helpful if the weather was in a cooperative mood as well.

Not only was the trip perfect climatologically, Looe seemed to do its absolute utmost to deliver a constant stream of wildlife nuggets, which started only a few yards from the slipway with a Little Egret stalking minnows,

P1290503
Little Egret

and the local Housemartins collecting mud from the estuary (at low tide) for their nests. It’s been very dry so their usual freshwater collection sites will be dried out and rock hard.

P1290487
Housemartins
P1290496
Housemartin

Looe island is a really excellent place, maintained as a nature reserve by Cornwall Wildlife trust. This means restricted access to people and much, much, much more importantly no dogs. No dogs means ground nesting birds are not disturbed.

That doesn’t mean to say there is no harassment:

 

Everybody loves watching the seals (thanks for the video clip, Stefan):

 

 

This one was ‘bottling’, resting vertically in the water.

 

 

This smaller female seal came over to check us out and then sat on the seabed and studied us from a different angle.P1290668

20190517_150722

While going through my pics later I saw it had a tag in its tail. Tag

I sent my pics  to Sue Sayer from Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust and she very excitedly replied that this was Prudie aka Freckles. Prudie was rescued by the BDMLR (British Diver Marine Life Rescue) as a storm-battered three day-old pup from Boscastle harbour on 4 September 2017. She was fed and nursed back to health at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary in Gweek, and then released along with six other rehabilitated seals at Porthtowan on the north Cornwall coast on 18 Dec 2017. (thanks for the detailed info, Sue)

P1290583
Prudie

A fantastic success story. Confirmation that the enormous efforts of the Cornish Seal Sanctuary at returning abandoned and malnourished seals to the wild is successful.

Prudie was looking to be in perfect health.

One of the bull Grey Seals appeared to have been in a bit of a bust-up, with a healing scar on his shoulder. Unless it was caused by a boat eg jetski.

seal 6
Scarred bull seal

Next up on the action list was a bit of peregrine spotting along the coast, before a well-earned nutrition break on a flat calm beach. More seals, a handful of tittering Whimbrels, and plenty of Oystercatchers on the way back.

P1290661
Oystercatcher.

We completed our day out with a jaunt up the West Looe river estuary to get a bit of a broad-leaved woodland type view of things.

P1290790
West Looe River

 

Out to Sea and Up the Creek

The open sea has gone quiet. During a couple of offshore paddle trips I have noticed that the few passing seabirds such as Gannets and Shearwaters do not deviate from their flight path because there is nothing to distract them. In other words no fish or sprats near the surface for them to dive upon.

In fact the only thing that does seem to distract them is me, with most Gannets cruising overhead to check me out, and Fulmars taking a high speed circuit around me before carrying on their way. Anything that breaks up the monotony of the sea surface might mean fish, as far as they are concerned.

P1280806
Fulmar

Floating seabirds are few and far between as well…just a few Razorbills and Guillemots.

Guillemot
Guillemot

A couple of days have been absolutely flat and calm and I have been surprised at how few times I have heard the puff of a porpoise…they seem to have almost completely disappeared. In the autumn on days like this it is actually unusual not to hear the blow of a porpoise virtually every time you stop paddling.

Fortunately they haven’t all gone. I saw four off Coverack near Lizard point, and just to further investigate I went to the ultra reliable porpoise venue of Berry Head, and saw at least seven.

trio of porpoises
Berry Head Porpoise Trio

Rather than some disaster I think this is all fairly normal. I have noticed in previous years that when the sea is thick with plankton during May, the visible activity seems to decline. Apart from the record numbers of Barrel Jellyfish that is. They are still very much in evidence:

 

 

If someone could get the message out to the Basking Sharks that the food parlour is stuffed full and all they have to do is swim along with mouths agape , it would be great to see them again. I havn’t seen one in SW England for five years.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Basking shark (photo taken in 2009!)

When paddling I very rarely get bored because not many minutes go by without something interesting to look at. However the open sea has been so quiet that I have noticed how numb my backside is getting. This happens on every trip but I am usually too engrossed to notice. Fortunately the beautiful Cornish backdrop helps ease the pain:

P1280784
South Penwith coast
P1280775
Yacht struggling for wind
P1280772
Tater Du

On this particular day what I really needed was a pod of dolphins to inject a zip into my stroke, and I found out later I missed a group of over fifty by minutes…..all part of the challenge of kayaking I suppose. It would be a lot easier if I had an engine.

Anyway…the inshore coast has been a bit more interesting. May is the month of Whimbrels, shorebirds which look like a small Curlew, but which have a far carrying ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti call. It’s nearly always seven syllables to the call, that’s why they are called ‘Seven Whistler’. Their call is one of the classic sounds of Spring along the coast. Which I wouldn’t hear if I had an engine so I’ll stick to kayaking for a bit.

whimbrel
Whimbrel

They are long distance migrants, wintering down to South Africa and breeding from the north of Scotland upwards.

whimbrel 2
Whimbrel

The cliffs are currently ablaze with Thrift (Sea Pink),

thrift
Thrift

and I always enjoy watching the gulls chasing each other about when one catches a starfish which is the gull equivalent to a Cadbury’s Creme Egg.

starfish lunch
Starfish Lunch

The sheltered creeks are looking super-scenic at the minute, with banks all yellowy-green with the new growth of leaves. with the new growth of leaves. It was great to paddle up the Fowey estuary to Lerryn with Rob and Sue Honey who have a broad range of knowledge about the area, including the history which is not one of my strong subjects, so it was very interesting. And enjoyable.

20190511_114228
Rob and Sue Honey

They are sharp-eyed as well, because it was Sue who spotted the brood of nine or ten Shelduck chicks along the shore, probably the first to hatch out in the whole of Cornwall.

 

 

Further down in Cornwall I paddled up the Truro river with Paul, searching for a bit of protection from the savage east wind.

20190512_123811
Truro River

The narrow tidal creek is an unusual place to store a redundant monster-ship.

20190512_150831
Paul and the beast

20190512_150853

 

Up the Fal River a couple of weeks before I was very surprised to see a couple of Fallow Deer wandering along the shore in a very casual manner.

P1280382
Fallow Deer

 

And was even more surprised to see a larger herd leg it over a riverside hill. Part of the Tregothnan estate herd, I presume. So not genuinely wild deer but still great to see them. And they certainly acted as if they were wild.

 

This IS a genuinely wild deer, a Roe Deer. Tucked in amongst the trees beside Roadford Lake, hoping I wouldn’t see it if it remained stock still. I very nearly didn’t.

skulking roe deer
Roe Deer

My favourite sighting over the last ten days is the Shelduck family. It’s great that these wild ducks can find somewhere quiet enough to sit on their eggs for an entire month, either down a rabbit or badger hole, or tucked deep in a thicket.

I notice on closer inspection of this pic that there are ten chicks. The fluffy top of a head can be seen just over the back of the mother duck.

shelduck family
Shelduck Family

 

Songbirds Champions League. A Surprise Winner.

 

I’ve been banging on for years about how the dawn chorus in the UK is one of the great natural wonders of the world, generally to members of my family, who generally ignore me. Although I think they’re coming round to it.

This year the nation seems to have caught on, with the single ‘Let Nature Sing’ consisting entirely of birdsong, getting to number 11 in the charts. That’s higher than the Buzzcocks ever got!

The current RSPB magazine states: ‘tuning into birdsong has been shown to be a brilliant mindfulness tool, a way of bringing yourself back into the present moment away from the worries of life’.

The simplicity is what I like. No cost and you don’t have to download anything or worry about a Wifi password. You just have to open a window or step outside and listen. At this time of year there’s a good chance you will hear the world’s greatest songster, the Blackbird, doing its thing. Just about every garden has one.

This Spring I am making a specific effort to experience and hopefully record the best of the Dawn Chorus from the kayak seat. As I glide along absolutely silently up (and down) a local estuary flanked by oak woods, I have been listening hard.

And it’s been pretty extraordinary. The birdsong seems to get better every year just as the new leaves on the trees seem to be even greener, but this is probably just my perception, because bird numbers are falling fast (down 40 million in 50 years).

wall of green
Greener than green

In three early morning trips, five miles up and five miles down, I have heard twenty-three species of bird which you could say were actually singing, and a further ten which are sort-of singing….calling, cooing, crowing or drumming.

Most of the songsters I didn’t actually see as they were well concealed in the foliage.

In this video (audio) you can hear some familiar garden-type birds: Song Thrush followed by Blackbird and then a Robin.

 

 

Here’s the tumbling song of a Willow Warbler and the trill of a Wren, being sound-bombed by a pheasant. It’s good to here the Willow Warbler because they are noticeably less common, having been abundant only a few years ago.

 

 

I heard a total of seven species of Warbler, all of which are migratory (although a handful now overwinter in the UK). Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Sedge Warbler and Reed Warbler.

The song of the Chiffchaff is a nice easy one to recognise:

 

I only saw a handful of them…one was this female Blackcap, sporting a chestnut beret, creeping amongst the foliage. Having said that, the female Blackcap doesn’t actually sing. I’m pleased with the pic, though.

female blackcap
female Blackcap

Its mate was singing his heart out from above. Its performance was supported by the melancholy verse of a Mistle Thrush (aka Stormcock) in the background.

 

All these videos, incidentally, are taken from the kayak seat.

Even the country’s smallest bird, the Goldcrest, was joining in with the chorus with its impossibly high-pitched short song .

 

Getting as far as the semi-final Songbird Champion’s League today was enormously challenging given the quality of the participants. I thought the winner would be a foregone conclusion but I took into account my individual experience of that bird in terms of whether I saw the singer, how close I was and, most importantly, how impressive was the song. Easy to eliminate was this very attractive, and very waggy, but not very vocal, Grey Wagtail.

 

Also relegated was this rather sheepish pheasant…

pheasant
Pheasant…..no better than Sunday league

and this charming and constantly calling, but not technically singing, Long-tailed Tit:

P1280145
Long-tailed tit

The Blackcap came head to head with the clear favourite, the Blackbird in semifinal number one, with the Blackbird just edging it with sheer lucidity and originality of song, although I didn’t see it.

 

This particular Blackbird would NOT have won, looking a bit scruffy and with a half-hearted song, but it would certainly have won the award for perch of the day.

 

Semi-final number two was between one of my absolute favourite birds, the swallow, which was checking out a waterside barn for a nest site, and a Reed Warbler which was a rank outsider (because I never expected to see one).

 

Because my view  of the swallow was so brief the Reed Warbler went through to meet the Blackbird in the final, and emerged triumphant. Although the song of the Blackbird is unquestionably the best, this little warbler was singing with every muscle, sinew and feather in its body. And I managed to get a front row seat to experience its performance at its best, by wedging my kayak into the riverside bushes.

A bit of a blurry video but I was very pleased to be able to see the bird at all, because they are frequently impossible to observe in the middle of a mass of reeds. And not a species I have seen very often.

So here it is, the surprise champ. Amazing to think that only a few weeks ago it was probably in tropical Africa, preparing for its trip to the UK.

 

Here’s the summary of the few days of ornithological audio overload.

Champions League Songsters: Blackbird, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Robin, Wren, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Blackcap, Garden warbler, Sedge Warbler, Reed Warbler, Swallow, Goldfinch, Chaffinch.

League 2 Songsters: Dunnock, Goldcrest, Reed Bunting, Lesser Whitethroat, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Coal Tit, Marsh Tit, Grey Wagtail.

Vanarama League ‘Songsters’: Nuthatch, Woodpigeon, Stock Dove, Greater Spotted Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker.

Just a call only: Kingfisher, Dipper, Buzzard, Kestrel, Heron, Carrion Crow, Jackdaw, Raven.

 

I have spent many decades feeling guilty that I should have been concentrating on the more important things in life rather than listening to birdsong drifting in through the open window.

It now turns out that it IS one of the important things in life. I wish someone had told me sooner.

 

Update: I think I have changed my tune, how can this Blackbird not be the winner by a considerable margin…..?

Seabird Frenzy

Sitting amongst a flock of thousands of offshore seabirds as they sleep and preen and croon is a magical experience. I have mentioned before that creatures of the open sea, whether below or above the water, tend to show little fear so when you are in a kayak you literally can sit right in the middle of them and they just get on with what they are doing. Out in the open sea everyone and everything is equal and the animals seem to know that. Of course me in my little kayak is by far the most inept creature for miles around, but I do my best to act big.

 

 

I encountered this huge flock of Manx Shearwaters during a recent circuit of Mount’s Bay, setting out from Penzance. Where the tidal current starts to kick in between Mousehole and Lamorna the availability of fish or sandeels (or whatever is on the menu)  increases and the sea creatures gather.

I had an early start and was well offshore by the time the Scillonian III passed en route to St.Mary’s, Isles of Scilly.

P1280397
Scillonian III past Mousehole

Just about the first seabird I encountered was this solo Puffin, with another five zipping past my ear later.

puffin
Mousehole Puffin

The bird numbers steadily increased with cackling parties of Guillemots and Razorbills full of the joys of Spring.

P1280447
Guillemots
Razorbill pair
Razorbill pair (having a bit of a chat)

During a coffee break I saw what looked like a dark cloud in the distance further out, so I paddled over to investigate. The blurr eventually resolved into a milling mass of hundreds (probably thousands) of Manx Shearwaters. They would swirl about, large groups would shallow plunge into the water onto a shoal of sprats (or something similar) and then they would circle off and repeat the performance over a different patch of sea. And all around were further large groups just chilling out.

 

 

Manx Shearwaters aren’t particularly impressive to look at if you are a non-birder. Compared to a Puffin for example, although if you took away a Puffins brightly coloured beak it too would look rather more anonymous….like this juvenile I photographed a couple of years ago (near Eddystone).

IMG_8321_01
Juvenile Puffin

However their characters become very much more colourful if you know a bit about their natural history. They spend the winter off the coast of Brazil and in early Spring make the 7,000 mile journey back to their nesting burrows in islands off the coast of the UK. Today’s birds probably nest on the welsh islands of Skomer and Skokholm which are home to almost 100,000 pairs, or maybe from the increasing (thanks to rat eradication) number on Lundy, where several thousand pairs now nest.

They only return to their burrows under cover of darkness because if they came back during the day they might end up as lunch for a Great Black-backed Gull. They are so slow and ungainly on land they are a sitting duck.

At dawn they set off on a multi-hundred mile circuit which takes them down the north coast of Cornwall and to feeding grounds like the one where I was currently sitting.

The daily flypast of hundreds of thousands of these fantastic seabirds along the coast of southwest England is one of the UK’s greatest wildlife spectacles, but hardly anyone ever sees it. Probably because it occurs early in the morning and is usually miles out to sea. And who now bothers to make the effort to stare out to sea in the hope of seeing something which could well be out of sight (or at best a mass of tiny dots through binoculars) , when there is something much more here and now on  a screen in front of them?

P1280525
Manx Shearwater

If you want to get a proper insight into the character of this remarkable species, sitting amongst them and in a kayak, and just watching and listening, is the way to do it.

sleeping shearwater
Shearwater catching forty

I dropped in to Mousehole harbour to eat my catastrophically dull sandwiches. It’s desperately difficult to be creative during confectionary construction at 5am and taste buds are doomed to be disappointed. The struggle through the doorsteps of bread was offset by vista…Mousehole has got to be the most perfect mini-harbour in Cornwall.

20190428_124925
Mousehole

One more interesting item of trivia about Manx Shearwaters which could mean you avoid the wooden spoon at the next pub quiz ….their scientific name is Puffinus puffinus!

Mx Shear
Manx Shearwater… hugely overlooked and understated