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):
A bird in full breeding plumage with two winter birds:
And just to top it off a very rare Black-throated Diver in Summer plumage, in the company of a Great Northern.
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,
as will this rare Red-necked Grebe,
and these Avocets that brighten up the dreary muddy scenes of some of the southwest’s estuaries.
More Common seabirds also undergo a very rapid change of outfit. Guillemots overwinter like this:
Then go through a quick moult when they look a bit flea-bitten,
before emerging in their smart summer look:
Manx Shearwaters clear off to warmer places in the winter and have only just returned.
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.
Even birds as common and as overlooked as Shags, sporting snappy-looking quiffs and brilliant green eyes , can impress at this time of year.
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.
Lighter winds and an easing of the Atlantic groundswell lured Paul and myself down to Penzance for a tour around Mount’s Bay.
It’s one of my favourite circuits: from Penzance harbour along the coast to slingshot around St. Michael’s Mount, then three plus miles of open sea across to Mousehole and then back along the coast to Penzance with a nose around Newlyn harbour on the way.
St. Michael’s Mount was looking even more impressive than I was expecting….it always does even though I have paddled past it dozens of times.
Although there was more of a rolling swell than I was expecting for the sea crossing to Mousehole, the wind was light and the sun was trying to appear so Paul and I didn’t feel uneasy about the level of exposure. He did however intermittently disappear behind the swells.
I was a bit disappointed not to see any sea mammals on the way over. I have encountered several species of dolphin and a whale around here and was expecting a porpoise at the very least but it wasn’t to be.
We ventured a little way down the coast past Mousehole but the current combined with increasing wind and steady swell made it feel a bit less safe so we headed for the extreme cosiness of Mousehole harbour. Always a few seals hanging around St. Clements Isle just offshore.
Around the corner in Newlyn there was a lot going on as usual with a constant movement of fishing boats. Tucked in behind the harbour wall out of the wind it, at last, felt really quite warm as the strong sun emerged from behind a cloud.
Half a dozen chattering Sandwich Terns floated past along Penzance promenade to confirm that Spring really had arrived. Yaroo.
GERRAN’S BAY, ROSELAND PENINSULAR
Next day took me to Gerran’s Bay and a launch from the stunning Carne beach. Even better that there is no parking charge here (unlike £8.50 for the day at Penzance….blooming heck!).
I swung offshore at Nare Head where I caught a microglimpse of a Chough after drew attention to itself with its animated call before disappearing. I checked out the Guillemot colony on Gull Rock before a long looping circuit out to sea, after reporting my journey plan over the radio to Portscatho NCI.
Wandering Gannets passed and the occasional Porpoise puffed, as well as a scattering of Guillemots, Razorbills and a few passing shearwaters.
Fifteen miles later I arrived back at Carne beach which was now buzzing with activity and echoing to the shriek of holidaymakers finding out how cold the water still is.
Just offshore was a handful of loons (the ornithological ones, not the Paddleboarders), and I was extremely pleased to see some of these spectacular birds had moulted into their stunning breeding plumage, making them even more impressive to look at.
I could hardly believe that another day of light winds was in prospect, especially as we were in the middle of a low pressure system so the weather was far from settled.
This time I paddled out from a small side creek of Carrick Roads at Percuil (another absolutely excellent launch location) and out across glassy waters past St.Mawes and the lighthouse at St. Anthony and into the open sea. This time I was really hopeful of a BIG cetacean sighting as the water was completely smooth.
I could hear the Gannets hitting the water with a ‘thoomph’ from half-a-mile away, but when I came upon the mini-feeding frenzy which also involved a load of Manx Shearwaters, the only cetacean involved in the show was a single Porpoise, which was however unusually animated and surged at the surface while on the hunt.
Although I had registered my offshore paddle with Nare Point NCI, a couple of fishing boats came over to see if I was OK, which I suppose was quite understandable as a kayak bobbing about motionless (as I was eating a cheese ‘n pickle sandwich at the time, and cheese ‘n onion crisps with a handful of cherry tomatoes to provide the healthy bit) a couple of miles from the shore, is a bit weird.
The most surprising wildlife sighting of the day was a lone Puffin that was squadron leader at the front of a V-formation of Guillemots.
There is alot of hardware in and around Falmouth Bay but I was much more interested in the natural history which was made even more photogenic by the exceptionally smooth conditions.
The North coast usually looks like this:
So it was nice for it to ease off for a day or two to allow sea kayak access.
This was my first decent paddle trip on the North Cornwall Coast since last Autumn. I set off from Rock which is another of my favourite launch sites. Unfortunately the excitement of the day was a little bit soured by the slipway attendant who first told me I wasn’t allowed to use that particular slipway (which left me struggling for words as I had trolleyed my kayak down the water from the carpark and there was absolutely nobody else in sight), and then informed me I had to pay a £3 launching fee. It would be the same price if I was to slide the QE2 down the slipway. Someone hasn’t quite thought this through, methinks.
My clenched teeth slowly relaxed as I slipped out silently into the watery wilderness, serenaded by squadron of Sandwich Terns and their ‘kirrick’ calls.
Out of the mouth of the Camel Estuary I crossed over to Pentire head and then into the more swirly water of Rump’s Point.
A ghostly white shape below my kayak was my first Barrel Jellyfish of the year, quickly followed by two more.
As I watched the seals and Auk colony on the Mouls island I was joined by a couple of huge RIBs bristling with tourists on a Wildlife cruise. They sped off North while I followed a smooth patch of water, along which the Shearwaters tracked, back to Newlands island and then back to the Camel.
These sheltered waters reverberated to the sound of boat engines as people enjoyed the last few days of the Easter holidays.
Noisiest is the ‘Jaws’ speedboat which looks like it has been lifted from a scene from a James Bond movie from the seventies (or possibly sixties). A bit of a contrast to the stealth of a kayak.
100 along Rivers in England (Thames and two Avons)
500+ miles of offshore paddling (more than a mile from the coast) in Devon and Cornwall.
6 trips out to the Eddystone Lighthouse
1 Interception by the UK Border Force
Wildlife seen from my kayak in 2017:
1 Humpback whale seen. Horace, aka Doris, hung around the sheltered waters of Slapton sands in South Devon for an incredible six weeks in the Spring. I saw him (her) twice from my kayak, although the first time shouldn’t really count because he (she) was tangled up in a lobster pot rope.
33 days with Harbour Porpoises seen, a total of approx 177 individuals. Porpoises are very small and very unsplashy and easily overlooked unless the sea is flat calm. For every one I saw, I missed an equal number when all I heard was there ‘piff’ as they breathed, the sound of their breathing carrying long distances over the water.
11 days with Common Dolphins, totally approx 171 individuals. Another 175ish in Spain. Several fantastic close encounters with groups bow riding when I could muster up the power to paddle at top speed. I need to eat more pasties.
Seeing Common Dolphins is extremely unpredictable and random as they range far and wide and usually keep well offshore. However the pods in Torbay around Brixham at the end of the year and running into early 2018, were the closest in, and most regular, I have known.
3 days with Bottlenose Dolphins, totalling 50-80 individuals. Plus 8-10 at Chanonry point in the Moray Firth in Scotland, probably the best dolphin watching location in the UK.
A huge thrill on 18 Dec a couple of miles off Lamorna Cove when a proper ‘stampede’ of 30+ Bottlenosers charged directly towards me in a line all jumping out of the water simultaneously. An unforgettable image.
2017 was by far my best year yet for number of dolphin sightings.
7 Giant Bluefin Tuna sightings, all after 13 Nov. Amazing. I have glimpsed them on occasion before and seen the odd random splash but there seems to have been an invasion of them this autumn. Hopefully it means the baitfish are making a bit of a comeback which will mean more mega sightings of large fish-eating sea creatures.
Four days with tuna at Fowey, with one extraordinary day with scores of splashes and fish jumping right out, one at Mevagissey (double splash), one at Berry Head (double splash), and brief intense feeding frenzy off Lamorna Cove near Penzance.
Loads of seals. All Grey seals in SW England apart from one Harbour Seal near Portscatho.
11 Otters in Devon and Cornwall, plus 6 (before 6am on one day!) in Shetland. A poor year overall for otter sightings; there don’t seem to be so many on the River Torridge. ???
I saw otters on the Rivers Tamar, Taw, Camel and Torridge.
2 Mink. Nasty, nasty little creatures which have almost exterminated Water Voles. Maybe this is a bit unfair because if you are a Mink you do what Minks do and can’t really help it (although leaving Water Voles off the menu would help the public image).
One on the Torridge, one beside the Thames in Marlow!
1 Sunfish at Fowey. There were quite a lot around this year, I just didn’t seem to bump into many by shear random luck (or lack of).
Also one off Gibraltar (also from kayak) on 10 March. A real whopper.
5 days with Portugese Man-of-War sightings, totalling over 50. A good year for jellyfish in general with nine or ten species seen, including the not so common, and unpleasantly named, Mauve Stingers.
Technically Portugese Man o’Wars are not jellyfish, they are Siphonophores. Likewise By-the-wind Sailors (another excellent name) are not jellyfish, they are Hydrozoa. However because I am a bit of a simpleton it seems sensible to lump them all together in one group because they are all jellylike and do what is expected of a jellyfish (i.e. float about and look like they might give you a bit of a sting).
6 Sooty Shearwaters, on four days. A true ocean-wandering seabird which nests on islands in the Southern Ocean. My first ever kayak-seen Sooty ‘Shears’ were the result of my concentrated efforts to paddle offshore this year. 5 seen near Eddystone, 1 near Land’s End.
37 Balearic Shearwaters, on six days. Scattered amongst the much more common Manx Shearwater, usually well offshore.
43 Storm Petrels, on six days from mid June to the end of August. 29 at Eddystone, 1 at Porthcurno and 13, several very close, on a rainy but fortunately fairly windless day off Fowey.
Storm Petrels are probably my favourite pelagic seabird I have seen from my kayak because they look impossibly small and vulnerable when fluttering low over the waves, yet spend all their time when not involved with nesting at sea scattered over the oceans of the world.
They are indeed vulnerable because they seem to be a favourite snack of Peregrines. I have seen a Peregrine snatch a Storm Petrel from just above the surface of a stormy sea off Hartland Point (not from my kayak). Probably a good reason why they usually keep well offshore.
5 ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas. Another of my favourites, and a sensational encounter with one off Fowey on a calm and sunny day, only a few feet from my kayak. By far my best view in SW England.
6 Arctic Skuas . All near Torbay and no decent photos.
6 Puffins. All around Eddystone. The usual gang of dirty-faced immature birds in late Spring , and one (very unusual sighting, I think) juvenile on 21 Aug. A Puffling.
1 Black Tern In Mevagissey Bay with a load of Common Terns. Only my second ever from a kayak, and first ever half decent pic.
8 Long-tailed Ducks. An exceptionally good year and (yet) another of my favourites. The males are one of the most attractive sea ducks. This year I was treated not only to a superb pair at Porthpean, but also a hugely unusual drake in summer plumage on the Taw estuary on 29 Sept.
1 Pink-footed Goose Another kayaking first , and actually I can’t remember the last time I saw a ‘Pink-foot’, even from dry land. Superb close view, in amongst some Canada Geese, on the upper reaches of the Fowey River.
Several pairs of Black-throated Divers in Scotland. The most beautifully marked UK bird?
Kingfishers on 21 days. Everybody’s favourite waterbird.
1 WILSON’S PETREL. I can still hardly believe this. The chances of seeing one of these from a kayak in England are as remote as Captain Sensible becoming Prime Minister. Ironically they are one of the most numerous birds in the world, nesting in the Southern Hemisphere and visiting the northern oceans in our summer. A lot of birdwatchers spend a lot of time staring out to sea through telescopes hoping to see one but hardly any ever do. It’s only during storms that they are likely to be driven close enough to the shore to be seen, so when the sea is calm enough to venture far out in a kayak the petrels will usually be long gone.
So I was pretty lucky to see one a couple of miles from the Eddystone lighthouse, bringing back memories of the first one I ever saw with my father from the deck of the RMS St.Helena off the coast of South Africa, in 1989.
Finally, 3 Favourite Scenes from the year. All great to look at from the depths of winter and give prospective kayakers hope that at least a few days next year might be warm, sunny and still.
It had to happen sooner or later. After many years of being incredibly lucky with the weather during my Spring trips to Scotland, mid May 2017 looked as though it was going to let me down. The forecast was stiff winds from the west and intermittent rain. The west coast would have been no fun. I still can’t believe I was so fortunate with my two month expedition round the west coast and islands three years ago when I only lost one or two days to strong winds.
Plan B was to paddle in the relative shelter of various freshwater lochs, and ideally the ones with no roads along the sides to maximise the chance of wildlife encounters.
I drove the 650 miles from Holsworthy to Taynuilt beside Loch Etive near Oban in one very long day, and during the night as I was curled up in my sleeping bag the car was rocked by a gusty wind coming down from the mountains. Loch Etive was definitely no-go for a kayak so I sought the quieter waters of Loch Awe a few miles away.
It was windy and quite warm and dry so pretty reasonable. I drifted close enough to a Dipper for a reasonable photograph, always difficult because they are generally not that tame and are usually amongst dark rocks which makes getting the exposure right difficult.
In a sheltered bay on the north bank I was very surprised to come across a Great Northern Diver, still in its winter plumage (although it was 12 May). This looked like a juvenile from last years brood.
I was very keen not to frighten it by getting too close but it allowed me to drift to about twenty yards away while it continued to dive. I got what I thought were some great images but noticed that every so often it would ‘gag’ slightly in a unnatural manner.
Upon reviewing the images I fell into an instant gloom when I saw the fishing line wrapped around its bottom mandible and trailing out behind it. Poor blooming thing. It’s flown all the way from Iceland or further to grace the UK with its amazing presence, just to get tangled up in discarded fishing tackle.
There wasn’t a hope of being able to help it as it seemed to be swimming and diving quite normally (and probably catching some fish) but I think its long term outlook is pretty hopeless.
I was lured into one of the lochside Bluebell woods for lunch by the dazzling colour.
Just as I was completing my twenty mile circuit and trying to avoid the many fishing speedboats around a marina on the southern side of the Loch, I had a superb view of a couple of Black-throated Divers, these ones in full breeding plumage. They are exciting enough to see when dressed in their two-tone winter outfit around the bays of SW England, but in their breeding plumage they are arguably the UK’s most beautifully marked bird. This is definitely the case if you are photographing in black-and-white.
I was very careful not to approach too close to cause them distress, but they seemed relatively happy with several small fishing boats plying past and me floating about in my kayak, and continued to look for fish by dipping their heads underwater.
Black-throated Divers at their nest sites are super-sensitive to disturbance which includes photographers getting too close for that perfect photo.
I spent the weekend with son Henry who was working in Stirling, and the wildlife action continued, now focused around his enormous telephoto lens rather than my kayak. While sitting in his hide at 6am it was a thrill to hear,simultaneously, a cuckoo calling on a distant hillside, a snipe drumming overhead (sounding more like a mosquito), the bubbling call of a dozen Blackcocks which were ‘lekking’ (displaying) nearby, and the honking call of a pair of divers (Red-throats I think) flying overhead. Tremendous, and well worth the effort of turfing out of bed early. And we saw a Hen Harrier.
The forecast was wet so when I left Henry on Monday morning I opted for a circuit around Loch Tummel clad in full waterproof gear. Exciting because I was paddling new shores but otherwise grey and damp.
I was determined to set up my tent for at least one night and although I was very aware that the further west I drove the wetter it would get, I had my eye on the southern shore of Loch Arkaig. It’s got no road access for ten miles along its shore so should feel nice and remote. I should have a decent paddle but not too far if things should ‘blow up’ (meteorologically speaking).
The first day started dry and quite still but gradually deteriorated into sheet rain with a fair old howling headwind. However I was not going to let it beat me so I dug in with the paddle and ploughed on, waves breaking over the deck, cheered up by the tumbling song of Willow Warblers and peep of numerous Common Sandpipers.
A lucky drier interlude allowed me to pitch my tent at the mouth of a small river a couple of miles before the end of the loch, and after a brew I paddled into an even stronger headwind to the sandy beach at the head of the loch. Typical, this camping spot was better as there was a large area of short-cropped flat grass with no-one in sight. Even better, a Greenshank was piping its slightly haunting and slightly mournful song somewhere upwind not very far away. To me it is the ornithological equivalent of bagpipes.
No way was I going to paddle back to my tent and bring it here in these conditions, so I enjoyed the downwind run back to my camp and settled in to read my book. I emptied out a tin of catfood I had brought to lure in the local Pine Martens but needless to say it hadn’t been touched by the time I departed in the morning.
And as usual I fell asleep within five minutes of starting to read. Fortunately a Hercules passing overhead about 5 foot (or so it seemed) above my tent woke me up. But then it was time to go to bed anyway.
The next day dawned sunny and I enjoyed the twelve mile paddle back to the car. A Merlin crossed the loch high above my head and I could hear the bubbling croon of Blackcocks coming from the patch of forest more than a mile away over the water.
My next loch was Loch Ness and I had a specific purpose. I had arranged a rendezvous with a friend who was pedalling (not paddling) from Land’s End to John O’Groats at at the pub in Dores at the eastern end of the loch. I had to be there at 1pm so I thought I should set off by 5am to allow for the odd break.
Lovely sunny day, light following wind, great paddle, but virtually zero wildlife apart from two floating (and smelling)deer carcases. And limited viewing and scenic surprises as the loch is dead straight. The trees at the end of the loch which were my destination, were over the horizon when I set off.
However it was great to see my chum Andrew plus cycling companions, and we were joined by my brother Tim who works nearby. Super pub in super location by nice beach.
The promise of lighter winds the following day lured me down to the sea at the Moray firth, with the hope of an encounter with some of its resident Bottlenose Dolphins.
I paddled out from Ardesier on the southern shore near Fort George in glassy conditions. On approaching Chanonry Point a distant splashing encouraged me to crank up the pace as it must have been dolphins. Sure enough they soon appeared, and as Bottlenose dolphins always do, they seemed big. This is because they are, and also because the individuals of the Moray Firth pod are reputed to be even bigger than normal as they are one of the furthest north groups in the world and need extra blubber to keep warm.
Two outliers swam past before a group of five came past satisfactorily slowly and close to allow me a few pics. Interestingly the photographs show a sort of crease below the forehead on some of the bigger dolphins giving them the appearance of a frown, confirming perhaps that they do indeed have more blubber than some of their species that inhabit warmer climes.
I paddled a few miles up the coast of the Black Isle for lunch then back past Rosehearty beach. It was great to hear the constant cheerful call of passing terns.
The dolphin watchers were out in force as I crossed back over to Ardesier. The dolphins obliged by fishing a few metres off the point for much of the afternoon….I could even see their fins through binoculars from two miles away when I got back to the car.
My final short paddle adventure was in the rain at Loch Insh, the highlight being a couple of broods of newly hatched Goldeneye, and an Osprey.
Although I did break the appallingly slow and traffic laden drive back to Devon with a quick ten miles on the River Avon at Tewkesbury. Perfect, warm ,still.