Canal Magic


I have always viewed canals as a last resort, to be used only when the sea isĀ  blown out by storms, the rivers are flooded and the creeks are inaccessible due to due to low tide. But they are always a pleasant surprise because they are a little strip of watery wilderness which act as a wildlife magnet.

And at this time of year they are particularly scenic.

The only problem is there are not a lot of canals to choose from.

Bude Canal

Bude Canal is the only canal in Cornwall (I think). I have visited quite a lot recently because the Atlantic depressions have been assaulting southwest England fairly relentlessly for the last two months.

Bude Canal Rainbow
Bude Canal Pirate

One benefit of the lashing rain is that the Kingfishers are forced to hunt along the canals (and estuaries) because the rivers are too muddy for them to spot their meals.


Bude canal is home to two of the tamest Herons I have ever encountered. They are so accustomed to walkers, dogs and dog-walkers sauntering past along the canal towpath, they now don’t even bother to move.

Hunting Heron

It’s great to stare into the beady eye of a hunting predator. It’s gaze is so intense it almost burns a hole in the water. It is not long before that dagger of a beak emerges with a fish-shaped meal.

Heron strike

There have been some unusual visitors to Bude Canal recently. Both are feral and not genuinely wild UK species, but both are exceptionally colourful and exotic.

Mandarin Duck…..

Mandarin Duck
mandarin 3

The second is a pair of Black Swans. Endemic to Australia and the nearest feral pair is breeding at Dawlish in south Devon. You never know, they might settle and raise a brood on the Bude canal.

Black Swan
Bude Black Swans

This Little Grebe is a genuinely wild species and on the limits of its tolerance in terms of people and dogs passing a few yards away (it doesn’t seem to mind kayakers too much).

Little Grebe (aka Dabchick)

The Grand Western Canal near Tiverton is superb. Eleven miles long and not a single lock! Some of it is super-scenic.

During my visit I heard an unfamiliar call coming from a dense patch of reeds. I drifted closer in absolute silence and was thrilled to see this Water Rail hiding amongst the waterside foliage. Water Rails are extreme skulkers and rarely seen in the open, and this is one of only a very few I have seen from my kayak.

water rail 2
Water Rail

During my visit, on a cold day with east wind, the winter thrushes from Scandinavia and Russia were busy stripping berries from the canalside bushes:


Moorhens are common and very understated,


but Kingfishers are hard to beat. They brighten up the dingiest of days.


Canal Magic.20191112_124818




Mickey’s Incredible Journey

Micky enjoying the sun

I came across Micky far, far up a Cornish creek, six miles from the open sea. In fact so far up he was resting beside fresh water, because he had swum up just about to the tidal limit of the estuary.

I did a bit of a double-take when I first caught sight of a golden-coloured creature the size of a large dog enjoying the warmth of the early November sun. I paddled quietly upstream beside the opposite bank to avoid giving it a fright, and was very surprised to see it was a small seal. I was even more surprised to see it was a Harbour seal (aka Common Seal), and still more (but now a bit confused as well) to see that it looked like a pup.

Micky enjoying the winter warmth of Cornwall

Harbour seals are rare in Cornwall (there are just a handful scattered around the coast), and they don’t breed in the county. In fact there are no breeding colonies within a hundred miles.

So it was all a bit puzzling, but excellent to watch this little seal stretching and snoozing, while keeping half-an -eye on what I was up to on the other side of the river.


I helped prolong his rest by ensuring, with a series of cunningly crafted gesticulations, that a fleet of canoeists passed by silently and at a respectful distance. They were only too happy to oblige, and thrilled to see the seal.

Just as I was about to paddle back downstream I noticed a yellow tag in the seal’s tail as he was waving it about. This was lucky because up till now it had been hidden by a fold of skin. My photo clearly showed the number: NL 672. From the Netherlands?….surely not.IMG_0300

Back at home I sent my photos to Sue Sayer of Cornwall Seal Group and she quickly, and very enthusiastically, replied that this seal was called Micky and that he had indeed come from the Netherlands.

He had been brought in to a rescue centreĀ  ( called ‘A Seal’) on 31 July when just a few days old and in a bit of a sorry state, weighing only 10.8kgs.

Screenshot (14)
Micky upon arrival at Dutch rescue centre

He had been nursed back to health and released onto a beach beside the North Sea on 3rd October, weighing 30kgs.

And exactly a month later (I first saw him on 3rd November), he has arrived in Cornwall over four hundred miles away!

Screenshot (15)
Micky’s mega journey

Thanks to Sue Sayer (Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust) and Vincent Serbruyns (A Seal, Holland) for the background information on Micky.


Spoon on the Teign

It was a surprisingly pleasant morning along the Teign. My timing was perfect ( i.e. complete luck). A band of showers had just passed over, and there was sunny gap of a couple of hours before the next arrived.


It was nearly high tide so the winter waders were scattered about the fringes of the estuary relaxing, waiting for the water to drop again to make their food accessible. They look for somewhere away from disturbance by people and, more importantly, dogs. They clearly don’t need somewhere which is quiet.

These Oystercatchers are hunkered down on an embankment beside the main SW railway line. perfect!

Oystercatchers and Hitachi hybrid
Oystecatchers asleep

There was a nice variety of other waterbirds resting beside the water…..

Curlew and Shelduck:

Curlew and Shelduck


and a scenic mix of winter waders. Here the Redshank’s legs are much more red than the Greenshank’s legs are green. Although actually they’re more orange than red.

Curlew, Redshank and Greenshank

I was very surprised to see a drake Common Scoter swimming strongly up the middle of the estuary. Scoters are proper sea ducks and are usually seen far out to sea or along the open coast. It’s not often that they venture into enclosed waters. This one clearly wan’t used to swimming in the proximity of a railway track, because every time a train went past it spooked, and dived.

Lovely to see it in the early morning sun…they are the classic ‘black duck’ and it”s exceptional to get close enough to see any colour (although there’s not alot to see)

Common Scoter

Right at the top of the estuary near the Newton Abbott road bridge, I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a Spoonbill in amongst a flock of roosting gulls. My closest view of one ever, by quite a long way. Too close in fact, and I paddled away as fast but as unsplashily as possible, because it looked like it was about to fly off.




It did, but it settled down again a hundred yards away.

It was excellent to observe this extraordinary and charismatic bird feeling relaxed enough to have a bit of a spruce up before tucking the spoon away for a snooze.

What a fab bird!

Teign Spoonbill

Halloween Otter

I was on the water EARLY. Just as there was the first glimmer of light in the sky. It had to be that time to coincide with the tide, and I always like early, because early gives you the best chance of seeing that most slinky and shy of the UK’s animals….Otter. Although I couldn’t really see anything at all for the first half-hour.

The superb autumn colours eventually appeared out of the gloom.



The estuaries with their steep and wooded banks are a perfect place to escape the wind , which was fairly buffeting the trees at the top of the hill.


Nearly five miles paddled, and I was approaching the tidal limit marked by the weir. I was in complete stealth mode and making sure I paddled without any splash at all. Tucked in close to the bank.

An otter surfaced in the middle of the river just far enough away for me not to frighten it. It was very busy diving down to the bottom, probably looking for their favourite crunchy snack…crayfish.







In this last clip you can see the otter looks at me and is probably aware of my presence. Their eyesight isn’t great but I know they have sharp hearing because it kept jerking its head around when it heard the clatter of tins from the recycling truck half-a-mile away.



So is this the same individual I saw five weeks ago, a mile downstream from here, which I nicknamed ‘Pinknose’ ? It was certainly about the same size, and seemed to do quite a lot of mouth-opening and gagging just like the one I saw before, almost like it had a sore tooth.

Otters quite often have a few white patches around their nose and throat, (especially further north) and this one has a pink patch in the middle of its nose. But is it the same both times? See for yourself. Excuse the appallingly blurry pics but light was very poor and the images are heavily cropped.

Today’s otter
‘Pinknose’ from 23 September

I think it’s the same individual. This maybe shouldn’t be a surprise as it is the same stretch of river and Otter’s are territorial, but it is very difficult to observe and record markings that are unique, and certainly the first time I have ever done so.