Cardigan Bay Jumpers

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The Lone Kayaker is on a mission to bring you the best of the UK’s water-based wildlife, as seen from his kayak, and is quietly smug about his latest adventure. Put Love Island on pause. See what is going on in the REAL world.

The relentlessly tropical weather was continuing although a stiff easterly breeze was forecast for SW England (which didn’t actually materialise). On the spur of the moment I shoved a load of camping stuff in the car and headed off to a  tiny beach  in the middle of Cardigan Bay in west Wales. It was supposed to be still, sunny, and hot.

My main aim was to see some of the Cardigan Bay Bottlenose Dolphins. It was unlikely to happen as an encounter with dolphins is always hit-and-miss, but it was worth a go.

It was indeed blisteringly hot and the sky a deep blue upon arrival and I was soon on the water (lots of people on beach and overwhelming stench of perfume mixed with suncream,  with whiff of barbecued sausage). Disappointingly there was quite a surface chop  and combined with a stiff tidal flow this made for quite a lumpy ride, especially going past a huge Guillemot colony on the cliff.

The adult Guillemots had their wings partly open to protect their downy offspring from the heat.

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Guillemots crammed onto the ledges at Bird Rock
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Hot Guillemots keeping their chicks cool

The scale of the colony is not only an assault on the eyeballs but the eardrums as well. Quite a cacophony. Take a listen to this: (video)

 

 

I unfortunately witnessed one of those incidents which always upsets people watching programs like Blue Planet, even though we know it all happens and is a normal part of nature at this kind of place.

A Herring Gull swiped an unguarded Guillemot chick from the ledge and proceeded to try to swallow it whole on the rocks below. I certainly wasn’t too happy about the (understandably) distressed noise coming from the chick. I tried to man up but I wished I hadn’t seen it and the gull had stolen someone’s pasty instead.

Skip this next pic if you don’t like this kind of stuff:                                     (I certainly don’t)

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Gull with Guillemot chick

The sea was a lot calmer around the corner in the bay and I glimpsed a pod of about eight dolphins in the distance. One jumped high out of the water, just once, and then they were gone. So I paddled back to the car and admired the sunset while chatting to a Welsh chap who used to be a coalminer in the Rhondda. We both boiled up our coffee on the wall at the back of the carpark, me using my jetboil, him and his wife using his Kelly Kettle. (Jetboil faster, Kelly Kettle bigger)

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Cardigan Bay sunset

I slept like a log stretched out in the back of the car, until 3.05am, precisely. That is when a very noisy diesel car pulled up beside mine, containing a man with a  loud and sonorous voice, and a woman who easily outclassed him in words per minute and volume. They were parked very close and their windows were open, and at one stage man said to wife, so boomingly that it made the upholstery shake, that someone appeared to be asleep in the car next door because the windows were down. In the car…yes. Asleep….you’ve got to be joking.

They chatted non stop till I turfed out at about 6, when I bid them good morning and asked if they ever bothered with sleep. The man looked at me like I was the weird one.

Needless to say I was on the water good and early and heading back up the coast full of expectation because the sea was super-smooth, the sky was clear blue, and it was already hot. In the even smoother waters of the bay I spotted the prominent fin and surprisingly large bulk of a Bottlenose Dolphin quite close to the shore. I approached cautiously and waited, some distance away, very careful not to cause any disturbance.

Soon the dolphin surfaced, breathed three times, flipped up its tail, and headed for the bottom again. And even better it had a calf with it, sticking to its side like glue.

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Bottlenose Dolphin and calf

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The next couple of hours were pretty magical. Sitting in my kayak in shorts and vest and PFD (lifejacket) under a cloudless sky in twenty-five degrees, with no wind and no tidal current to move me around. I watched the pair surfacing, taking one to four breaths and then disappearing for three or four minutes.

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Bottlenose Dolphin and calf

I just happened to be sitting in the epicentre of their feeding activity and they kept appearing so close that the blast of their exhalation gave me quite a jump. |I’m sure they were hunting shellfish in the sand below because any school of fish with any sort of brains would move away from the area pretty smartish. The dolphins stayed more or less in the same place for the whole time.

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For long periods the calf stayed absolutely tight to the side of its mother (I’m presuming that) but just occasionally during a prolonged dive had to come up for an extra breath of air, and just occasionally went off on a bit of a solo exploration.P1120686

But these forays never lasted long and it was soon back in the security of Mum’s side:dolphin2

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I took a breakfast break on the adjacent beach and when I paddled back they were still feeding strong. Another couple of dolphins cam over to join them for a brief while.

(video)

 

At last I dragged myself away and started to paddle back down the coast, further offshore this time. I admired the fishing Guillemots and Razorbills as I went past. There was so much going on that I didn’t have time to admire the ghostly shape of a couple of Barrel jellyfish just beneath the surface, or my first Compass jellyfish of the the year with their very long tentacles.

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Guillemot
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Razorbill

After such a fantastic couple of hours I could hardly believe my luck when I saw another group of dolphins heading directly towards me. I stopped paddling and waited to see what would happen, hardly expecting an improvement on what I had already seen. And then a pretty hefty dolphin jumped clean out of the water.P1130019

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Could it oblige and do one more leap for me with camera in movie mode? No, it couldn’t.

It did four instead. (video)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gems on the Thames

The Lone Kayaker has always loved the River Thames. On a hot June day it is buzzing with wildlife and  paddling along the smooth backwaters around Oxford is effortless because there is so much to look at and take in.

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Oxford backwater

Everything , apart from earwigs and pale creatures with no eyes that live in caves, seems to love the sun. Mother and offspring Mallard relax on a sun-drenched bank:

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Mallard

and the strong light brings out the colours on the beak of a Moorhen. Although it’s a common bird  its attractive colour scheme is often overlooked as it creeps about in dense riverside vegetation. Its beak is complemented by a pair of bright green legs and feet.

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Moorhen

Even the centre of oxford was looking smart today.

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Thames through Oxford

Red Kites floated overhead, right in the middle of Town.

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Kite

Godstow meadow was a melee of Greylag geese which are feral, and noisy, and messy, but likeable nonetheless. Of course everyone loves a tiny gosling.

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Greylag Geese
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Its exhausting being a tiny goose with all that noisy eating going on all around.

At a muddy shore there were a load of Housemartins zipping about collecting mud for their nests. I used to very much take these birds for granted but not any more. Virtually all avian insect-eating summer visitors have crashed in numbers over the last couple of decades so to hear the cheerful ‘dreep’ of a Housemartin, the classic sound of a summers day in a town, is something to be savoured.

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Housemartins
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Housemartin with mud for nest

The best wildlife action of the day was saved till I was nearly back at the car. I saw a stooped grey bundle of feathers near the bank and a concerned couple on the other side of the river asked me to investigate. They thought that it was a Heron that was caught up in some fishing line or suchlike.

Fortunately it turned out to be a perfectly healthy Heron building up the energy to have a bit of a bath, with some major ruffling of feathers. It was also very tame so I could get some good pics, although I looked away politely every so often when it gave me a bit of a glare.

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Heron having a ruffle and a shuffle
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Getting stuck in

video (complete with urban sounds e.g helicopter)

 

Scotland 2018 part 3: The Scenery

P1110435Whilst scouring the coastline and surface of the sea with my eyeballs looking for those magical sea creatures, it is very easy to overlook what most kayakers are there to see: the sensational scenery.

I never do take it for granted, because when paddling alone there is plenty of time to take in the surroundings as well as sharpen up your eyes and ears for those nuggets of natural history. There is actually more chance of missing out if you are in company, because you may be engrossed in discussing who said what to who and why. Here’s a good example:

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Yakking on the Yaks (and not noticeing the Eider)

After five or six days in the wilderness I do find that all the senses are sharpened. This is great with regard to eyes and ears, but not so good, after five warm and sweaty days of paddling, when it comes to smell.

From a mile away I can hear the constant yelling of Oystercatchers, Wrens and the occasional Yellowhammer singing form the hillside, song flights of the Rock pipits  the call of Cuckoos carrying even further. The only human-made sound is the far distant chuffing of the Jacobite steam train as it climbs out of Arisaig, and the odd Dreamliner six miles overhead.

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Oystercatcher at full volume

Finely-tuned long vision isn’t necessarily all good. On my final day I was paddling towards my car on the lochside a good mile away. I could see a figure walking along the road beside the water with two large dogs racing about, one of which halted beside my car and I could tell by its aura, even at that range, precisely what it was doing. The owner assumed a sheepish and guilty sort of body language and glanced up and down the road to make sure nobody was in sight to observe what his canine companion was depositing. He then looked directly at me but quickly decided I was far too far away to have noticed what his dog was up to.

By the time I arrived by the quay he, and his enlightened dogs, were long gone, but I had to be very careful where I stood.

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Loch Sunart dawn

I had an early start on a twenty mile day trip around Lochs Sunart and Teacuis, so I had to take breakfast on board.

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Muesli and Moo Milk

I stopped for a coffee break on a pink carpet of Thrift beside loch Teacuis.

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Carpet of Sea Pink

Next day I paddled Loch Moidart. I got to know it well because I had to backtrack a couple of miles when I discovered that the ‘North Channel’ around Eilean Shona island dried out at low tide. I should have known this because this is the access route to the handful of houses on the island. It was worth the diversion however, because I briefly saw another otter.

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Loch Moidart

So I exited into the sea using the South Channel and had a brief chat with kayak guide Ali Mcghee and his group from Ocean Alba. Out into the open sea a Loon was in the process of swallowing a small flatfish:

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Loon with lunch

with a fine backdrop of the hills of Moidart.P1110421

By great good fortune it was exactly lunchtime when I arrived at the unbelievably stunning white sands of Smirisary, backed by an area of short turf perfect for a bit of a lounge about and a cup of tea. (video)

 

Not surprisingly, the Ocean Alba group thought the same and soon arrived as well.

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Fellow Paddlers

I spent three days paddling around the Arisaig and Ardnish peninsulars, finding a couple of decent places to camp above sandy beaches.

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Camp 1
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Camp 3 (Peanmeanach)

There was a tremendous all-round scene because out to sea were the Small Isles providing an impressive distant backdrop.

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Rum (background). Eigg (middle)

And the vista inland wasn’t to be sniffed at either.P1110012

Progress was slow as there is no way I was going to paddle past a beach like this without a bit of investigation on foot.P1110106

It wasn’t just the views that were Caribbean. The weather was largely sunny with temperature up to the low twenties. And not a drop of rain for the whole week. Not bad for Western Scotland.

 

 

 

 

Scotland 2018 part 2: The Supporting Cast

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Otter plus crab lunch

Although the otter catching and eating the crab was by far my best wildlife encounter during my five days in the Arisaig area of Western Scotland, there was plenty else going on in the natural history section.

Not least the five trillion midges that came over to pester me one still and warm evening. What sort of a creature is it that deliberately flies into your eyeball and voluntarily gets blinked to death? In their thousands. Their friends in the itch depatment are ticks several of which, despite my best efforts to avoid them, managed to find their way into various cracks and crevices about my person.

More of a threat to wildlife was the two Mink I briefly saw. Despite being very fluffy and floating high on the water they are adept swimmers and seem to dive as well as an otter.

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Mink

I would have been disappointed not to see an Eagle and ended up with two. Sea Eagles are so incredibly huge that if one is around you really have to be pretty daft not to see it (or eyes down on your phone…..again). One was being pestered by Gulls on the south side of the Arisaig peninsular, the second sat in a tree at loch Moidart.

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White-tailed (Sea) Eagle

The half dozen or so Great Northern Divers I saw were all nearly in full summer plumage. I’m not sure whether these are non-breeding birds that spend the summer here or that they are winter visitors that still havn’t headed north. I suspect most will soon depart.

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Great Northern Diver

A pair of Red-throated Divers were fishing in the sea in front of my tent at Peanmeanach beach and flew back to their loch in the hills calling in classic, honking, ‘Rain Goose’ (their Shetland name) style. There was no rain in the forecast however, and I suspect they got this name in Shetland because it rains much of the time and there are a lot of breeding Red-throats there.

Trying hard to compete with the divers for snappiness of plumage were the Black Guillemots. I really like these busy little birds (although their movements verge on frantic) and unlike their southern cousins they have an extraordinary high-pitched whistle as a call note. A good sound for carrying distance on a windy day. In the video the second bird hasn’t quite finished moulting out of its winter plumage. (video)

 

The islands in Loch na Ceal near Arisaig hosted a lot of birds and the still and sunny weather enhanced the atmosphere. The main soundtrack came from the Oystercatchers. If they didn’t have such charisma I might be tempted to say what an appalling din. (video)

 

 

A pair of Common Terns looked like they were checking out somewhere to nest,

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Common Tern

and a rather smart looking Common Gull was busy incubating her eggs beside a bouquet of Sea Pink. (could be a ‘he’ I suppose). Incidentally ‘Common Gull’ is a very bad name for what is NOT the most Common gull and is in fact an extremely neat and attractive bird.

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Common Gull

I know it’s ‘only’ a seagull but I had to insert this video because I love the way the Gull settles back down to incubate its eggs so proudly and cosily with a contented shuffle and waggle of its tail. (video)

 

 

A pair of Ringed Plovers were a bit agitated as I passed so I guess they were nesting as well. They got a lot more stressed when a Great Black-backed Gull turned up with bird’s eggs on the menu for lunch.

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Ringed plover

Arisaig’s most prominent residents are the Harbour Seals. There are a lot of them and they drape themselves about on low flat islets and their bawls and grunts carry far over the water. They enjoy nothing more than following kayakers in large numbers and diving with a splash. They are rather more photogenic than Cornwall’s Grey Seals, and have a more dished cat-like face. (video)

 

 

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Heap of Harbour Seals
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Posse of Harbour Seals

I saw one Grey Seal in amongst a colony at the mouth of Loch Moidart. It had a whitish blaze across its head.

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Grey Seal

A trip to Scotland would not be complete without a Red Deer and I would have been surprised not to see one…..

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but I certainly wasn’t expecting to see quite so many (tens of thousands)  Moon jellyfish wafting about in the clear waters of Loch Sunart. Accompanied by a few Lion’s mane and small white jellies with very long tentacles.

The other wildlife highlight of my early morning paddle on the smooth waters of Lochs Sunart and Teacuis was the sound of birds with the songs of Blackcaps, Willow and Wood Warblers drifting down from the deciduous woods on the bank. Plus the occasional Tree Pipit and ‘zip, zip’ of a Spotted Flycatcher. Didn’t see any of them . Plus the odd Cuckoo, which I did see. I could hear one calling from over a mile away.

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Moon Jellyfish
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Moon Jellyfish

The rarest bird I saw was not the most glamorous and a bit specialist to the ornithologist. This iceland Gull was hanging around the fish farm on Sunart.

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Iceland Gull

It was so still most of the time that I could here the ‘coos’ of these Eiders long before I could see them.

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Line of Drake Eiders.

It was time to head for home, a mere 650 miles away.

The seals waved me off:

Harbour Seal

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bude Puffin.

The first time I have EVER seen an adult Puffin off Bude. Technically it wasn’t off Bude itself, it was about three miles offshore from Widemouth Bay (which is a couple of miles south of Bude).

Very early morning, flat calm sea, very little about. A couple of Manx Shearwaters, one or two Guillemots and Razorbills and then this particular Puffin whirred past and pitched onto the water just behind my kayak. Perfect for a photo with the early morning sun behind.

I guess it is a foraging bird from the expanding Lundy population.

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Bude Puffin

Below the surface a few jellyfish. Blue Jellies, Comb Jellies and a single three foot long Barrel Jelly.

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Barrel Jelly

As usual, dredging myself out of bed predawn was worth it.

Scotland 2018 part 1: Otter vs Giant Crab

I could not resist the continuing fine weather for kayaking in the west of Scotland so set off armed with tent and provisions for several days of wild camping, but first I had to do battle with the roadworks on the M6.

My number one wildlife aim was to get a decent photograph of an otter. Most in southwest England are active in poor light at either end of the day and so difficult to photograph , whereas in Scotland I have seen them along the coast in full sunshine.

After two days of paddling I had glimpsed a single otter surface once and then disappear, and had a marginally longer view of a couple of Mink.

Back amongst the islands of Arisaig I had given up hope of meeting up with an Otter because it was midday, sunny and hot, and there were loads of seals around. Then I saw this: (this is a video)

 

 

 

Otters can look like a small seal at a distance but the tail whipping up when it dives can mean it’s nothing else!

When it came up I could hardly believe my luck…it had caught an enormous crab and I knew it would be heading to the nearest rock to consume it.

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I sneaked after it as quietly as I could and sure enough it hopped out on a rock, had a good shake, and prepared the crab for demolition, but the crab had other plans and kept trying to scuttle off:

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It then stared hard at me because I was at the absolute limit of frightening it, about twenty yards. Otters have pretty poor eyesight and fortunately the light wind was in my face. If it was blowing the other way the otter would still be on the way to the Isle of Skye as fast as it could swim (I hadn’t showered for a day or two). It had winkled off the carapace of the crab in one piece and still had it in its mouth as it stared.

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Otter eating crab

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Luckily I was blown back out out of its worry range and it got stuck in to crunching the crab’s legs. It made more noise than Rick Stein tucking in to a lobster.

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It really wolfed its way through its seafood lunch and made sure there was nothing left before exiting the scene with a perfect splashless racing dive.

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Absolutely excellent. This was exactly what I had hoped to witness on my paddle trip to Scotland but hadn’t expected quite such a perfect show.

Incidentally, this is the same species of otter that is found all over the UK. It is often thought, quite understandably, that these are Sea Otters because around Scotland they do most of their hunting in the sea. Sea Otters are a quite distinct species that live in the Pacific off North America.

Compared to rivers and lakes the sea is absolutely bursting with all the otter’s favourite foods. It’s chock full of crabs, anenomes and butterfish, so it’s no wonder that’s where these European River Otters like to hunt. Looking for food in the sea must be like walking into a well-stocked delicatessen, whereas trying to find food in a river or lake is very more challenging and like trying to locate the buffet car on a train.

Unlike Sea Otters, European Otters need a source of fresh water nearby in which to clean up, and always take larger prey items on to solid ground to devour them.

 

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Otter with crab

 

 

 

Puffins!

Thick mist with visibility of about a hundred yards looked like it was going to mess up my day of wildlife viewing around Veryan  Bay in South Cornwall. However I wasn’t going to be put off, so set off anyway,keeping close to the coast. The dog walkers on the beach gave me that ‘we think you’re barmy’ look. More worryingly, so did the dogs. But to my surprise, and relief, after a couple of hours the visibility slowly started to improve.

A peregrine was perched motionless at the top of the cliff, its mate nearby still on eggs probably.

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Peregrine Falcon

Closer to the shore an Oystercatcher was hunkered down. It too probably had a partner on a nest a bit further up the cliff.

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Oystercatcher

As if by magic the mist thinned out further and the wind dropped completely, making a bit of offshore paddling for the return trip irresistible. It was definitely worth the effort.

My first encounter was a Great Northern Diver (Great Northern Loon, Common Loon) which was still in winter plumage. Probably a youngster from last years brood. Even so a very imposing bird and I wouldn’t fancy being a fish within fifty metres of that dagger of a beak.

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Great Northern Diver

Out beyond the loon a couple of Manx Shearwaters were splashing about at the surface, shallow diving for sprats or sandeels.

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Manx Shearwaters

I passed multiple small groups of Guillemots which were cackling to each other, and the odd Razorbill, and then to my astonishment found myself paddling straight towards a group of a dozen Puffins.

I have never seen so many away from their breeding sites (the nearest of which, I think, is Scilly over sixty miles away). I have come across the odd immature bird out at sea at this time of year but this was quite a crowd. To make the scene even better the sun came out to brighten up the Puffin’s bills even further, and transform the sea from slate grey to vivid blue.

Craggy Gull island provided a suitably dramatic backdrop.

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Immature Puffins
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Adult and immature Puffins
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Adult Puffin
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Puffins in front of Gull island

Absolutely excellent…..so far the wildlife, and weather, this May has far exceeded my expectations.

To top off another top trip, a Sea Urchin exposed by the low tide on the way back to the beach. The (prickly) cherry on top of the cake.P1100781.JPG