Birds on the Breakwater


After the excitement of seeing the dolphin close to Plymouth, I repeated my circuit of the Sound in the hopes of a similar encounter.

Plymouth Sound, even in mid December, is a very busy place. There are naval craft constantly on the move, such as the patrol ship HMS Mersey:

HMS Mersey

These larger boats are surrounded by a flurry of support vessels including the maritime police.

Then there is the cross channel ferry:

Brittany Ferries Armorique

and probably most ubiquitous of all are the Princess Motor Yachts being taken out for sea trials all round the Sound. I could see six of them at any one time.

Princess Motor Yacht

Crossing the main shipping lane out of the Sound is not straightforward because of the constant movement of boats, and on my way to the breakwater I had to wait to let two ships pass.

But despite all this boat traffic, or maybe in spite of it, I came across a Porpoise hunting in the strong tidal surge around the western end of the breakwater (no photo).

Plymouth Breakwater

The breakwater itself is a satisfactorily remote and mysterious place. It is about a mile from natural dry land and also about a mile long. With its old structures and a fort dotted along its length, it is also a bit spooky (especially if you used to have nightmares about Sea Devils after watching Dr. Who, like me).

So it is a fantastic place for wading birds, which feed along the shore of the Tamar when the water is low, to rest when their feeding grounds are flooded at high tide. Well away from human disturbance, and more importantly, dogs.

But as I approached the middle of the breakwater near the old fort, I was taken aback by the sheer numbers of birds dotted along the wall. Many, many hundreds of them.They were concentrated on this section because it was about the only bit that was not constantly sloshed by the swell surging against the other side of the barrage.

I was very pleased to see a large number of Purple Sandpipers, which are my favourite coastal ‘wader’. They are winter visitors and inhabit rocky coast that is battered by waves, so this was perfect for them! And they are very tame which makes them even more endearing. It was great to hear them chattering as they jostled for position on the steep slope. They don’t seem to be happy on the flat, they are only at home on a steep barnacle-encrusted rock being splashed by the surf.

Purple Sandpiper


I counted a total of forty-three Purple Sandpipers, which I think is exceptional for Devon. It was actually more than this because there were a few dotted about in amongst the Dunlin flock.

I don’t suppose many other birdwatchers come out here during the winter, not least because it doesn’t look that welcoming (or interesting) from afar.

Amongst the throng were five slightly larger waders….Knot. Winter visitors from the high arctic.

Pair of Knot

But the really remarkable sight were the hordes of Dunlin, at a rough guess over 650. Yes, they are the UK’s most abundant winter-visiting wader and not a particularly noteworthy sight when they are scattered over acres of mud on a grey winter’s day. But lined up along the breakwater they were a spectacle.


Excuse the shaky camera work, but conditions were, as usual, not favourable for photography. A sneaky little north wind was throwing up a chop which bounced back of the wall and lurched me about all over the place, and every so often the biggest of the swells on the ocean side of the wall would break over the top with a boom and a surge of white water and cause the birds to scatter (and my heart miss a beat).


The best ornithological spectacle was yet to come. As the tide dropped the Dunlin became restless in preparation for flying off to their feeding grounds a few miles away. They gave a display almost as impressive as a Starling murmuration.


A(nother) top wildlife day.


Watch this last video clip closely. This is a perfect example of what is so good about watching wildlife from a kayak. It is so quiet and unobtrusive it allows a close-up and personal insight into the daily mini-dramas that usually go unnoticed.

This extraordinary incident definitely wouldn’t have been noticed by anyone else.

What on earth sparked this little Dunlin into this particular act of unprompted aggression?. It was in the middle of a flock in excess of five hundred and the rest were completely stationary and rested.

A long-standing grudge, or did it just have an eye on what it consider to be the best perch around.? Who knows?

Here it is again:

Merry Christmas

2 thoughts on “Birds on the Breakwater

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