Seabird Spring

Much is changing in the seabird department at this time of year, in terms of departures, arrivals and alterations of appearance.

It’s a very prolonged process as I have recently observed whilst paddling along various sections of coast. Many Cormorant nests already contain chicks whose wobbly heads wave above the edge of their nests as they demand food in a weird gurgling way, whereas the overwintering Great Northern Divers (Loons) are not only still around in force, many are still in winter plumage and several thousand miles away from their breeding grounds.

Like many seabirds their winter outfit is unremarkable and essentially dark above and white below, and gives no hint of the amazing transformation into stunning breeding plumage.

I observed Loons in all states of transformation in South Cornwall recently.

A quartet still in winter plumage (or starting to moult):

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Great Northern Divers

A bird in full breeding plumage with two winter birds:

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Great Northern Divers

And just to top it off a very rare Black-throated Diver in Summer plumage, in the company of a Great Northern.

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Black-throated Diver and Great Northern Diver

These divers nest in the arctic so are in no hurry to depart as it is probably still quite snowy up there, and a few could be around until June.

Other winter visitors will soon be heading north. This juvenile Glaucous Gull I came across in Newlyn Harbour will be off,

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Glaucous Gull

as will this rare Red-necked Grebe,

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Red-necked Grebe

and these Avocets that brighten up the dreary muddy scenes of some of the southwest’s estuaries.

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Avocets

More Common seabirds also undergo a very rapid change of outfit. Guillemots overwinter like this:

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Winter Guillemot

Then go through a quick moult when they look a bit flea-bitten,

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Moulting Guillemots

before emerging in their smart summer look:

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Summer Guillemots

Manx Shearwaters clear off to warmer places in the winter and have only just returned.

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Manx Shearwater

Everbody’s favourite bird of the Summer is the Swallow, and I have seen just a handful of these coming in off the open sea over the last week. Almost a match for these¬† in terms of floatiness and liveliness are the ‘Swallows of the Sea’……Terns.

Although no Terns nest in Devon or Cornwall (I’m pretty sure), a lot migrate past during Spring and Autumn and I was thrilled to see fifteen or so Sandwich Terns fishing in the Camel estuary at Rock a few days ago. A fantastic sight in the bright sunshine with the air full of their excited chatter. They love sitting on mooring buoys so were quite easy to photograph.

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Sandwich Terns
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Sandwich Tern
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Sandwich Tern

Even birds as common and as overlooked as Shags, sporting snappy-looking quiffs and brilliant green eyes , can impress at this time of year.

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Shag

Curiously there are a handful of Eider ducks, which really ought to move north during the summer for breeding, that seemingly can’t be bothered and spend the entire year in the same place. I suppose it’s a lot easier not to go, but looks like you might get a bit of a belly.

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Drake Eider Duck

 

Tamar Treats

p1060167I don’t paddle the ‘middle’ section of the River Tamar Estuary very often. It’s further for me to drive and doesn’t offer much more than the the upper bit between Calstock and Gunnislake, which is exceptional.

It’s also a bit less scenic than the upper bit, more exposed to the wind with its wider valley, and quite a lot more mud exposed as the tide drops. Mudflats aren’t everyone’s idea of a beautiful paddle.

However it was time for a change of scenery so we set off to do this stretch again, starting at the superb ‘all stage of the tide’ slipway at Weir Quay and paddling six miles upstream to Calstock, with careful tidal planning hopefully working in our favour. The tide really zips past at Weir Quay and I was relieved to see it heading in the right direction to give us a bit of a kick start.

My paddling companion Paul was trying out his recently purchased Prowler 13, I was in my super comfortable Gumotex Safari inflatable kayak, and vulnerable to guffaws from any other person afloat who thinks inflatables are not serious watercraft. I was pretty certain we were not going to meet any other paddlers, being January 7th and not a very pleasant day ,so I was probably safe.

The wide muddy shores made fertile by the billions of leaves and other organic matter that come down with the river are a waterfowl heaven. We were only just getting absorbed into the surroundings , being serenaded by piping Redshank and bubbling Curlew, when we put up a flight of Wigeon from the shore. As they circled back round over our heads a Peregrine knifed across the sky and attacked the little group. It was unsuccessful so then pursued an individual bird as it twisted and turned virtually down to water level, but departed empty-handed (-footed) and cruised back to an exposed bough of a tree high above the wide sweeping bend of the river.

Pity, I havn’t seen a successful Peregrine kill for many years.Plenty of near misses though.

That was our first treat of the day.

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Cotehele Quay

We had the tidal flow in our favour for the whole six miles to Calstock although it did seem to stop every so often, well before the tide was full. Cotehele Quay draws the eye as it is set in a very scenic bit of valley and seems to be beautifully well-preserved and groomed by the National Trust. Just round the corner is the familiar, but always astonishing (as it is so high), Calstock viaduct. We stopped for lunch on the slipway and had a chat with the Muscovy ducks.

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Calstock Viaduct

The tide turned and assisted our progress back down. Treat number two came in the elegant form of ten or so Avocets that were doing what they do on the mud on the Devon side of the river. I well remember the excitement of seeing my first Avocet at Arne in Dorset nearly half a century ago (!).

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Tamar Avocets

‘Peregrine’ corner was completely sheltered from the wind so we just drifted along with the current supping a cup of tea(me)/coffee(Paul). We watched a couple of Cormorants fishing the smooth water. Remarkably, both surfaced with flatfish in their beaks within a minute of each other. And both fish looked too big to swallow. The first was reluctantly ditched by its captor, the second looked as if it was going to be swallowed no matter what. The equivalent of a human downing a laptop whole. I think I got a bit too close in my efforts to take ‘that’ photo…the Cormorant dropped the fish and cleared off.p1060217

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Gulping Cormorant

Treat number two and-a-half, not quite qualifying for a whole.

A head just popping above the surface a hundred yards away lured us over to investigate…..although I thought it was a seal it just could have been an otter.

Just when I was beginning to think whatever-it-was was not going to surface, a seal appeared directly behind Paul’s kayak and then started to rub its nose, quite vigorously, on the plastic. We were both gob-smacked by its sudden appearance and apparent lack of bashfulness and watched as it swam about close to our kayaks before submerging and disappearing. Treat number three.

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Fearless Seal

The hugely hugely entertaining trip was soured somewhat when Paul discovered the hull of his e-bay purchased Prowler was sloshing with water. Lucky we hadn’t gone off to the Eddystone. It would have sunk.

The source of the leak was a worn through skid-plate from being dragged around too much by its previous owner.. This is a common problem with Prowlers as their hull tapers to quite a narrow point at the back of the boat, but easy to prevent if you don’t drag it around too much. Use a kayak trolley.

Yet another top trip.