Cod, Seal, Beaver

Before we get to the REALLY exciting wildlife encounters here’s a selection of other stuff I have observed recently while paddling silently along.

The first was actually on the end of a fishing line. I havn’t done any kayak-fishing for a few years but my plan for later in the summer to lure some Blue Sharks within range of my Gopro meant I had to catch some mackerel for ‘bait’. My rod nearly got jerked out my hand when ten pounds of fish, consisting of two Pollack and a Cod, pounced upon the mackerel feathers simultaneously. I released the Pollack and was tempted to take the Cod home for tea, but it somehow managed to read my thoughts and with a mighty effort leaped overboard.


Next to the beautiful Avon estuary in south Devon,

Bantham cottage
Avon Estuary at Bantham

where I came upon the largest brood of Shelduck I have seen this spring/summer.

Fifteen Ducklings!


I was very pleased to see that the swans which were nesting beside the upper reaches of my local estuary, the Torridge, had successfully hatched out five cygnets. It’s always better when it’s on your local ‘patch’.

Torridge cygnets

Charlie L and I had a superb peregrine encounter off a particularly dramatic cliffy bit of South Devon. 20190621_082115

A female peregrine came labouring in off the sea carrying a large prey item, followed casually by the male bird. It landed on a small headland and as it plucked the victim the feathers drifted off downwind. We assumed the prospective meal was dead, but in a sudden flurry of wings the pigeon escaped and sprinted off around the corner, hotly pursued by the hungry falcon.

Peregrine (male)

It apparently didn’t get far because the peregrine and meal (half eaten) flew past again later. Nice try though.

Looe island never disappoints because it is private and so free from wandering dogs, which can terrify wildlife. It was great to see a couple of fledgling oystercatchers dozing on the beach. They are usually very difficult to observe because on the approach of anything remotely resembling a threat, including an ageing kayaker, the parents pipe a warning call and the youngsters immediately rush into a dark corner and hide.

Fledgling Oystercatchers

Oystercatcher adults are very vocal and as usual there was a lot of shouting going on:


For the first time I can recall I saw an Oystercatcher swimming in the sea. This is very unusual and I think it was probably a tactic to lure a walker away from their youngsters who were probably hunkered down on the beach where they had hatched. You can see the interloper in the video:

Swimming Oystercatcher


I was expecting to see Willis the resident Whimbrel as I paddle along the beach, but instead was very surprised to come across this Bar-tailed Godwit. A bit drab to look at but legendary amongst bird enthusiasts because of its huge migration feats, with a non-stop flight in excess of 6,800 miles being the longest recorded of any bird. Was this bird late onn its way north to arctic breeding grounds, or an early departer for the south. Who knows?

Bar-tailed Godwit

I did indeed come across Willis the Whimbrel later, similar in plumage, but not in beak, to the Godwit.

Willis the Whimbrel

On the same reef was Eric the resident Eider. Both of these species should migrate north in the summer but have clearly decided that life at Looe is just too pleasant to desert for half the year.

eric the eider
Eric the Eider taking a nap

As usual I was investigated by a couple of inquisitive seals, one of which looked remarkably like Nudger, a young male Grey Seal who clambered out onto my kayak deck last year. Here he is in August (ignore the date stamp which is wrong):


Today’s seal was bit darker and appeared to have different markings to Nudger, but his behaviour and apparent enjoyment of draping seaweed over his head, and swimming upside down, were identical to Nudger.P1320643



It was, as usual, great to see this creature which is very ungainly out of the water, wafting about with effortless ease.




Tremendously exciting, but this experience was eclipsed by my first ever sighting of a Beaver, not only in the UK but anywhere in the world. My ultra early start paid off, although I was hoping to see an otter.

This clip was taken just after 5am, in Southwest England!























£3 Billion Boat

Destination Eddystone, but I didn’t get there. I set off from Cawsand in thick mist, so followed the coast round to Rame Head to review my plans, hoping the visiblity would clear. It did, but only slowly, as I breakfasted on the tiny beach.

A big gnarled old bull seal watched me munch.

Bull Grey Seal

It had a huge scar on its back which must have been a very nasty injury when it happened, probably from a boat propeller.


As the murk cleared a great grey shape merged out of the mist. HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Queen Elizabeth Aircraft Carrier

I opted not to paddle all the way out to Eddystone, but craftily reconfigured my route to include a close pass of the mighty ship. I paddled five miles offshore to the Halfway Reef marker buoy to check out the offshore wildlife scene. It was still a bit disappointing with hardly a Gannet to be seen, no fins and only a handful of shearwaters and a single Bonxie to liven things up.

The most interesting creature was floating motionless on the surface, four miles from the shore. A Painted Lady butterfly which had clearly failed to make the crossing from France. I scooped it up and to my astonishment it was still alive.

Lucky Painted Lady

It spent a couple of hours drying out on my deck and then (amazingly) it flew on its way. About a dozen of its compatriates flew past during the morning, miles out to sea. Remarkable because it was a cloudy morning, and also because I know that this little army of winged invaders started their journey in the deserts of the Middle East earlier in the year…..because I saw them there, in their thousands. They swarm northwards and  a few months later they (or their immediate offspring) are flying across the English channel to arrive in the UK, providing the weather conditions are favourable. Hopefully these immigrants will give rise to a good number of offspring which will be flitting round our gardens in six week’s time.

My focus then shifted from back from wildlife to hardware.

I looped around the Half-Way Buoy and headed east to slingshot around the Mew Stone, swinging back west towards the carrier that was at anchor outside Plymouth breakwater.

HMS Queen Elizabeth and Rame Head


HMS Queen Elizabeth   

My approach precipitated an interception by the prowling police launch. I don’t think the Merlin helicopter was scrambled as my presence was detected, it just happened to be going for a bit of a jaunt as I passed.

As I completed the final leg of my 22 mile paddle back to Cawsand the helicopters continued to buzz.


And even as I trolleyed my kayak back up the ramp at Cawsand, the hefty ship completely dominated the view.



Stream in the Sky

Pontcysyllite aqueduct

We were venturing to the other side of Offa’s Dyke to attend Guy and Lynn’s wedding, so decided to check out the Llangollen canal the day before. It had qualified for Unesco World Heritage status so must be worth a visit, and from a kayaking point of view the lure of paddling over the highest aqueduct in the world was hard to resist.

All the local rivers were in flood anyway so there wasn’t a lot of option.

We started off at Chirk, which is actually in England.

LLangollen canal at Chirk

Becky walked as I paddled along. Fortunately our cruising speeds were just about the same. It was all pleasantly scenic and quiet and peaceful, and very green.

Llangollen canal at Chirk

First up, on the remarkable feats of canal engineering, was the Chirk aqueduct, which at only seventy foot high was trifling compared to what was to come.

chirk aqueduct
Chirk aqueduct and Railway viaduct


Chirk tunnel followed immediately after the aqueduct. 460 yards long and a bit creepy in the middle where it is so dark you can’t even see your paddle.chirk tunnel.jpg

Although I had a pathetic little torch I wouldn’t trust a narrowboat entering the other end to notice it. Fortunately one didn’t appear.

Tunnel exit

Not surprisingly because of all the boat activity wildlife was a bit thin on the ground today, but it was great to see several families of Mandarin duck on the canal.

Mandarin duck

My timing for the passage past a swing bridge was perfect because a narrowboat was approaching and a very cheerful Canadian gentleman was working the hand winch.


The increasing number of sightseers bulging out of the canal boats hinted that something remarkable was just around the corner.P1320173

Of course they would all have preferred to be travelling by kayak, or at least that’s what they said.20190613_102540

It was time for the BIG viaduct. Pontcysyllite…..the Stream in the Sky. With less than a foot of parapet to protect you from a 126 foot drop it is not for the faint-hearted. Peering over giddy ledges usually makes my head spin but if I’m sitting in the seat of a kayak it doesn’t seem to be a problem. And if  Thomas Telford’s creation had stood firm without losing a drop of water for 214 years then it was probable it would see me to the other side and back (twice, because I couldn’t resist going over it again).20190613_103415P1320283




The canal somehow managed to maintain a very high level of visual appeal over the next five miles to Llangollen.

Sweeping through green fields,


past a cliffy bit,


and through neatly pruned gardens. As a bonus at one stage the sun almost threatened to come out, but then it started drizzling again.


We stopped for lunch at Llangollen wharf and consumed tuna and sweetcorn sandwiches. Unfortunately they were a bit fizzy because I had made them yesterday morning before we left Devon.

The canal side was busy with tourists spilling out of the town for a boat trip. Both conventional and horse-drawn were on offer.

Llangollen wharf
Horse drawn canal boat

Following refuelling ( on the high octane sandwiches) the nine mile paddle back was relatively easy for me because there was a significant flow of water in the canal, but not so easy for Becky because the towpath remained motionless.

The Mandarin family attracted admirers;20190613_160702

and the afternoon swelled the number of visitors to the viaduct, many of whom were more interested in phone screens than the staggering view or mindboggling feat of engineering.P1320247

Time for one last sweep of the Gopro to take in the dizzying height.


For the final four miles to Chirk I was sucked along in the wake of a narrowboat. 20190613_104320





Blinking Cold

Blooming heck. It was warmer in February! Relentless rain and cold is not only hard work for a kayaker who was looking forward to easing in to a nicely ironed (Joke) pair of swimming shorts, it is also very bad news for nesting birds. The Sand Martins and Kingfishers that I saw beside the river Wye a couple of weeks ago will have had their nest holes flooded by the exceptionally high water  levels.

This little family of Mallard can at least find their own food as they paddle along, but they are very vulnerable to the cold and wet. They definitely know the best pace to avoid the rain, although getting there isn’t so straightforward.


Further down the Fowey estuary I witnessed what was nearly a family catastrophe as a mother Mallard was leading her brood down to the water for the first time. The nest had been in the foliage at the top of the bank, far above high tide level. An opportunist crow had spotted the posse and was looking to take advantage of their exposure as they made for the (relative) safety of the water. Only the awareness and courage of the mother saves the duckling that ends up momentarily floundering on its back, which the crow was just about to whisk away.


On this particular day I nosed out of the estuary for a good look at the open sea, but once again their didn’t seem to be a lot going on so I reverted to watching the wildlife of the creek. Even Lantic Bay beach, one of the best strands in Cornwall, didn’t look particularly welcoming. It was steely and grey. Not only did it look cold, it WAS cold.

lantic bay
Lantic Bay

Back up the estuary Herons were doing their thing:


and I got the impression that this Gull had ‘dealt’ with crabs of this size before. It avoids the (very large) claws and knows how to flip the crab over to expose the underside before hammering it with its beak.


The rain has eased and the temperature is getting back to where it should be for mid June. Time to get moving…..



Mission: Otter and Water Vole on the River Thames


Failure of this  mission was almost certain because otters, although increasing in numbers, are still extraordinarily elusive (and mainly nocturnal), and water voles are now very rare thanks to predation by Mink, and also shy and difficult to observe.

The key to success, I felt, was an early start. I set my alarm for no particular reason for 0410, but was already half way through my first cup of tea by then courtesy of a dawn duet by a Song Thrush and a Cuckoo which had started twenty minutes earlier.

It was surprisingly cold on the water as I paddled through the mist and my fingers went numb. Hard to believe it was early June.

Thames dawn
June dawn on the Thames



The appallingly early start was worth it for the birdsong alone. The dense waterside vegetation was full of reeling Reed and Sedge warblers. This one is so excited about the appearance of the sun it can’t help interrupting its preening with bursts of song:



It then really got going when it had spruced itself up.



It was great to hear a few cuckoos. They undoubtedly had their eyes on the nests of the Reed Warblers, one of their favourite places to lay their egg(s). We just don’t here them in West Devon anymore, apart from on the moors.



It was still well before six o’clock when I saw the flat profile of  a water vole swimming across the river ten yards ahead of me. It had disappeared into the reeds long before I had scrambled my camera out of its drybag, fumbling with chilly fingers. So no photo but a thrill nonetheless. As I paddled up the river in complete silence I heard several more water voles….they make an absolutely characteristic ‘plop’ as they dive into the water when you pass.

These quiet upper reaches of the Thames, with no disturbance from boats with engines, must be perfect for the voles.

Upper Thames
Upper Thames

I knew that seeing an otter was going to be highly improbable, and as the day brightened it was more likely to be impossible. Never mind, there was plenty to maintain the attention. Mallard ducklings:

Mallard duckling



And this extraordinarily brightly-coloured Coot chick just out of the egg.

coot chick 2
Coot chick

Surprise of the morning was this Red-crested Pochard, probably escaped from a collection.

Red-crested Pochard
Red-crested Pochard

So no otters when I reached my turnaround point, but I found the remains of their supper. A couple of crayfish claws left on the foot of a bridge:

Crayfish claws.

On the way back the sun really got to work and I started to get a bit humid in my drysuit. Huge numbers of insects awoke and buzzed, bumbled, flapped and hummed. Most obvious were the Banded Demoiselle damselflies, thousands of them.



There are few other pastimes with more feelgood factor than sitting on a clear-running river drifting along watching the natural world being busy around you, skylarks and yellowhammers singing, and warm sun on your back. Bees on the comfrey;

bee on comfrey
Busy bee

And a late Orange Tip, looking a tad tatty. Most Orange Tip butterflies are ‘finished’ by the beginning of June:



The family of swans I had passed in the mist earlier put on a bit of a show for me on the way back. Initially only one cygnet took a ride on Mum’s back, then the others clearly thought it was a great idea so they tried to climb aboard as well.






The Sedge Warbler was in a bit of a strop when I passed for a second time, probably because I was drifting too close to its nest. You can clearly hear the irritation in its voice.



After lunch I took a leisurely paddle down the more typical section of Thames downstream from Lechlade, with chugging canal boats and beautifully maintained lock-keepers houses.

Buscot Lock
lock 2
Buscot Lock


Paddling downstream as I was making my way back up, was seventy-one year old Philip Sowden, He was within a day of completing the 862 mile Bliss Canoe trail, a route around the country following inland waterways. He told tales of hundreds of portages, camping en route, and a capsize on the River Severn. It had taken him two years on and off, and he is one of the few ever to complete it. Wow. Good effort!

Philip Sowden
Philip Sowden

Late May/early June is the perfect time to visit the rivers. There is an explosion of life, a cacophony of birdsong and the foliage on the trees is still a vibrant yellowy-green. It’s not too busy with other river users,either.

Incidentally, if you want to know why paddling along silently in a kayak is better than any craft with an engine, take a look at this clip.



Time to go home, farewell to the Thames for the time-being.

Thames early




It’s Tough being Little

Cygnets chilling

There’s more to being a recently hatched waterbird than sitting about with your siblings looking fluffy. Just keeping up with the gang can be a problem.


Weather conditions in blazing June can be challenging. Not good if you have no waterproof coat, or feathers.


The nearest shelter is underneath Mum’s tum:sheltering ducklings 1

sheltering ducklings 2
Mallard chicks in under

For an impressively large brood of eight cygnets, the broad wing of mother’s wing is about the only umbrella large enough, but it’s still a bit of a squeeze.


It would appear that there’s only room for seven. Lucky it was only a passing shower.


Goslings are insatiable lawnmowers and are so intent on their task that they run the risk of being trampled underfoot by fellow pasture-grazers:


Cygnets have bold and protective mothers who make it absolutely clear how they would deal with thelonekayaker if he should venture too close. I get the impression it would be more than just stealing his ham sandwiches and eating his custard creams.


Not all parents stand their ground, however. In fact this newly hatched Moorhen’s parents were absolutely nowhere to be seen, leaving junior stranded on the bank like a…er…sitting duck (or more like a miniature penguin). It looked a bit unsure about things.

Moorhen chick
Moorhen chick


However it’s not all bad.





River Wye: Watery Wildlife Wonderland

Extreme paddlers (yours truly and Roge)

I was expecting the Upper Wye to be like a motorway of canoes and kayaks and to be a bit light on wildlife. But I was 100% wrong on both counts.

Roge and I set off from Glasbury for the ultra relaxed 10.8 mile paddle down to the Boat Inn at Whitney. Less than four hours paddling with a decent flow to help in many stretches. The river level was very low and the skeg of the Gumotex Seawave scrunched gravel on many occasions. We passed only a handful of other craft. Maybe the dodgy weather kept other water enthusiasts away.

River Wye near Glasbury

It was a permanent cacophony of bird song and calls, and there wasn’t very many moments when Roger and I were not focusing on something of natural history interest. It started with the sand martin colony in the sandy bank soon after we set off from Glasbury. The whole placed buzzed with the reeling chatter of the little birds.

Sand Martin nesting holes
Sand Martins chatting




A few paddle strokes after we left the martins we saw a couple of small plovers on the shingle shore….Little Ringed Plovers.

Little Ringed Plover

Like the Sand Martins the Plovers love to nest in sandy and gravelly areas (although in the open, not in a hole), so both are vulnerable to flooding. Big rainfall during June can swamp the lot.

Next on the excitement list was a yellow-coloured wagtail which at first I thought was a Grey, but its call made me do a double-take when I realised it was a much rarer Yellow Wagtail (Grey Wagtails are largely yellow too, confusingly). First was this male:

Grey Wagtail (male)

next was a female calling:

Yellow Wagtail giving it welly




Then it was the start of the duckling/gosling/cygnet fest. First up were the Goosanders. The first brood we saw consisted of a mere eight ducklings.

Goosander plus 8 ducklings
Goosander plus octet

The next brood consisted of nine ducklings, which were a bit younger, and one nearly missed the bus when it was time to leave.







The parent-of-the-day prize winner by a country mile was this Goosander duck who had, so far, successfully raised a staggering SEVENTEEN offspring. Just sitting on seventeen eggs for five weeks more or less non stop is a remarkable achievement in itself.




Not to be outdone was this little family of eight Mallard ducklings, just a few days old, who were keen to demonstrate their steeplechase credentials. Going round the end of the stick would surely have been a lot easier.




To cap off our day of baby waterbirds, we stopped to watch a brood of eight Mute Swan cygnets.P1310082








Being small is all pretty exhausting, so it was time to chill out.




The weather wasn’t great, in fact it was dismal for the end of May.

River Wye near Hay

The downy youngsters needed a bit of protection from the rain and cold:

Ducklings tucked in under

But the Mandarin ducks did their best to brighten things up:


The bushes and trees along the banks were bursting with the songs of many warblers (including the very loud Cetti’s Warbler), and there was also the constant chatter of fledgling Blue and Great Tits. Their breeding is always finely tuned to have the youngsters emerging from the nest-holes at the end of May all at the same time, presumably to take advantage of the feast of caterpillars available, especially the little green ones which they appear to favour. Some families hadn’t quite made it into the outside world however:




One or two Dippers bobbed about:




And a couple of Kingfishers were, as usual, very difficult to capture on film.


Representing the slithery stuff on this A* day of wildlife, was this weird looking Sea Lamprey which was (I was relieved to see because it was so creepy) dead on the shore. Its back end had been eaten away, probably the work of an otter. Even so, I was amazed at how big the fish was, probably a metre long when entire. It looked like a loose stitch together of a Dyson hoover, a Boeing 737 and a ghastly creature from the depths. That sucker on the bottom of its front end attaches it to sea fish as it casually eats the flesh of its live host.

Sea Lamprey

I was hopeful to see an otter on the second day on the river when I set off early and was paddling solo…..and I did! A smallish individual porpoised only about twenty metres in front of me, but unfortunately the wind was from directly behind so when it came up a second time, as I was sneaking off towards the bank so as not to alarm it, it scented me and floated log-like at the surface for a second or two before submerging….and I knew I wouldn’t see it again (so no pics).

Other mammals today were this chap:


and a slinking Grey Squirrel:

Grey Squirrel

There was so much to see at water level we/I didn’t have much time to look up. However it was difficult not to admire the screaming Swifts carving about that occasionally dropped to water level to feast on the profusion of insects. To add to the ornithological haul Buzzards circled, a Red Kite floated, a Peregrine cruised and a Hobby slashed past.


Smiles all round.


Upper River Wye