There is nothing like a low winter sun to transform the drab browns and greys of a Cornish estuary into a smorgasbord of colours. As a bonus today’s little jaunt started off with super-smooth water as well.
There was the usual entertaining waterside action as I paddled silently along. A Greater Black-backed Gull worrying a dead conger eel:
And a Herring Gull tackling a lively lunch that very nearly effects a crafty (although apparently unplanned) escape.
Every colour of the rainbow was on show today because there was a rainbow.
The birds were doing their best to join in with the colourfest and shrug off their national reputation of being dull and brown and boring, although this Curlew has got a bit of work to do because it is basically buff.
The legs of the roosting Redshank show a touch of tangerine:
and Cormorants and Shags, which at long range looking unremarkable (and reptilian), have a bit to boast about when you take a closer look.
This Mandarin Duck makes a good effort with a highly varied colour scheme but they don’t really ‘count’ because, although this bird appeared to be quite wild, they are essentially a feral species which have originated from escapees from collections.
Some of the hardware on show was bright today:
It was appropriately at the most scenic part of today’s paddle that I had the most spectacular view of the UK’s most spectacularly-coloured bird.
I had already seen a couple of Kingfishers zipping along the shore, attracting attention with their loud and piercing whistle. Despite being absurdly brightly-coloured they are very difficult to spot when perched, sitting dead still amongst the branches of waterside trees and bushes, and usually flying off long before you get close, because they are quite shy. Typically all you see is a turquoise flash.
However I saw this particular bird splosh into the water to catch a little fish and then fly up to consume its snack. The gentle current was moving me towards it so I didn’t twitch a muscle as I drifted closer. By good fortune (or highly skillful anticipation) I had my camera all set up and ready, and the sun was directly behind. The Kingfisher’s irridescence was further enhanced by the shimmer of sunlight reflected from the water. Wow.
Even better, I drifted right past without the bird getting spooked and flying off. Couldn’t have been better.
Today’s most drably turned-out creature would have also been the most interesting interaction had it not turned out to be made of plastic.
My second series of assorted images taken from the kayak seat from all around Devon and Cornwall.
Am I getting paranoid or did this Newlyn trawler really pile on the power as it approached me to throw up as big a wash as possible for me to negotiate? It certainly throttled right back after it had gone past:
A few offshore seabirds for the serious ornithologists:
….listen to the electrifying call of the fastest creature on the planet, the Peregrine Falcon.
Autumn is definitely upon us, so offshore paddling is replaced by exploration of the rivers. Tough.
I’m starting to head back up the creeks now the open sea is becoming more disturbed with autumn storms not far away.
I had actually planned an offshore trip out of Fowey but when I nosed my kayak out of the mouth of the estuary I didn’t like the look of the surface which was more chopped up than I thought it would be by combination of moderate swell and light wind. I knew I could be paddling up the estuary on glass-calm waters and have guaranteed enjoyment, so turned round and did precisely that.
As usual I was soon completely absorbed in the sensurround sound of calling flocks of small birds in the waterside trees, and waterbirds scattered about on the banks and in the water. Sensurround sight as well, of course.
Quite a few Little Grebes had arrived for the winter.
The upper estuary echoed to the piping of Redshank and a handful of Greenshank.
I was paddling upstream against an ebbing tide so tucked in close to the bank to keep out of the current as much as possible. I disturbed a Kingfisher which had been sitting on an overhanging branch, but it resumed its hunting on another branch a hundred yards ahead. As I drifted closer I was hopeful that this was going to provide me with my first decent kingfisher pic, but my efforts were messed up by a badly positioned branch;
Its next hunting spot was a post out in the estuary. I knew it would not allow me to get too close before it flew off ( and I didn’t want to keep disturbing it) but the bright autumn sunshine made for a very pleasing scene anyway.
A little further on I spotted another Kingfisher sat amongst a cluster of autumnal oak leaves. Nearly always the first you know of a kingfisher’s presence is the turquoise flash as it speeds off, or its monotone whistle which is far-carrying. So I was pretty pleased to see this one in hunting mode before I spooked it and my camera has never been so quickly, or quietly, removed from its dry bag.
On the way back down the estuary there were plenty of other feathered fish-hunters loitering with intent on the mooring buoys.
Two days of light winds were forecast so it was time to head offshore again. The first trip was to Penzance with Dave and I was under pressure to deliver some cetacean sightings. We had a good thirteen mile paddle out of Mount’s Bay and along the coast to Lamorna, and managed fifteen porpoises which put on a very good puffing show, but I was just a little disappointed (and surprised) that we didn’t see any dolphins because spotting conditions were ideal.
There was a nice scattering of seabirds however: Razorbills, Guillemots, Eddie the Eider, a passing Great Northern Diver (my first of the autumn), and lots of Kittiwakes.
The next day was a stunner with clear blue skies and virtually no wind. I was on the water at Fowey as the sun had just peeped over the horizon, and paddled directly out to sea once out of the estuary.
Almost immediately I saw a large milling mass of seabirds circling low over the surface about a mile out, with a dozen Gannets intermittently dropping in. A very active ‘work up’ and there was going to be some big fish-eaters beneath, for sure. As I steamed at full speed towards the action I could see dolphins jumping clear of the water, but as usual the frenzy had tempered a bit when I eventually rolled up. The gannets had moved on but there seemed to be plenty of fish left over for the dolphins, and gulls,to pick off at a leisurely pace.
I just sat still in my kayak taking in the scene. Dolphins passed within inches.
I was sure my attempt at underwater footage with the GoPro would be a success, but the clarity of the water wasn’t great so the result was a bit disappointing. However it’s interesting to hear the dolphin clicks and squeaks in this video clip:
Suddenly all twenty-five (ish) dolphins were off at top speed, lured away by a China Clay ship which had emerged from Fowey docks and was starting to crank up the speed. The dolphins sprinted towards it and I could just see them leaping out of its bow wave as it receded into the distance.
A good start to the morning….and it wasn’t even nine o’clock.
I was just settling into my usual breakfast of 50% muesli, 50% Jordans Country Crisp (with raspberries), when I caught sight on an even bigger ‘work up’ at the limits of vision with hundreds of circling white dots of Gannets which every so often plunged into the sea en masse. Wow, this was a biggy.
Putting my muesli/country crisp on hold I paddled hard towards the action, but knew it was going to take at least twenty minutes to get there as it was probably two miles away, and knew I was going to be on the point of meltdown because I was already hot in my waterproof coat in the windless and sunny conditions. However if this was going to be my first big Gannet feeding frenzy I had observed up close, being a liquefied sack of sweat was the price I was willing to pay.
From long distance I could once again see large creatures jumping clean out of the water. I got the impression that some of these looked a bit like giant Tuna as I fancied I saw some spiky fins, but it was just too far away to tell and they might have been dolphins.
From what I have observed, these feeding frenzies evolve very rapidly. A pod of dolphins herds fish into a baitball and pins it against the surface, reducing the fish’s options of escape. Passing Gannets don’t hesitate to seize the chance of a meal and dive in onto the larger baitfish (probably mackerel). The flash of white wings draws in other Gannets from afar, while below the surface the dolphins strike the baitball from below and frequently burst from the surface, as do the Tuna (if they were there!).
One reliable feature of these events is that the main action finishes just before I arrive on the scene. I think the Gannets (and maybe Tuna) move off when all the bigger fish have been eaten, leaving the dolphins and gulls to concentrate on the bits and pieces. Such was the case, again, as I rolled up with temperature gauge well into the red.
But today there was a bit of a treat in store because a rather larger predator had been attracted in to all the commotion. As I sat still watching all the splashing action as dolphins criss-crossed around and the juvenile gulls were squealing, there was a big prolonged breath and a much larger fin appeared at the surface….a Minke Whale. It disappeared in towards Fowey and then turned to come back. I was hopeful of a very close pass but it came to no nearer than about a hundred metres, and as usual very difficult to photograph because you really don’t know where it is going to appear next, and they cover large distance between breaths. They are in fact very like a giant porpoise in that they roll surprisingly quietly at the surface, and keep changing direction.
Anyway, I was quite pleased to get this clip of it as it surfaced, with Fowey five miles away in the background.
Ironically the closest it surfaced was when I was struggling to take off my jacket and drop my core temperature out of the critical range, and my face was covered in sweaty goretex.
For a final push I paddled just a little bit further out, and was joined by another (or maybe the same ones as earlier) pod of dolphins as I headed into the sun. When they disappeared it went quiet enough for me to finish my breakfast which was not surprisingly quite soggy.
The paddle back in was moderately uneventful (in comparison to the paddle out) although the sea had smoothed off even further which allowed me to hear, and then observe, ten porpoises which were dotted about in ones and twos as they usually are.
My final ‘encounter’ was at the mouth of the estuary where I had a chat with a kayak fisherman who was in an extremely well-equipped craft.
The Fowey Estuary is good. It has clear water (unlike the Torridge and Tamar estuaries) and is packed full of scenic interest, and usually good wildlife.
On a cool, grey day in October it offers a very pleasant half-day paddle from Fowey to Lostwithiel and back. Flat water, well-sheltered from the wind and a bit of assistance from the current if you have bothered to look at the tide tables. About twelve miles in all.
If you like wading birds, it’s particularly good for ‘shanks’. The loud, piping calls of both Red and Greenshanks resound around the wooded valleys. Superb sensurround sound, better than any IMAX cinema.
Listen to the evocative ‘teu,teu,teu’ of these Greenshank. Rubbish video, I know, but it’s worth it for the calls.
Just a month or so ago these birds were probably nesting in some bogland far away from civilisation in the far north of Scotland.
At high tide the waders loaf about on dead branches waiting for a bit of mud containing their lunch to be exposed.
Today there was enough water in the river Fowey to enable me to paddle right through Lostwithiel and beyond , battling through a couple of sets of small rapids.
I then drifted back down, cup of coffee in hand, as Dippers and Kingfishers zipped past.
On the way back downstream I was surprised to see a couple of Mandarin ducks, the first I have observed here.
Then I saw a little posse of Mallard ducks close to the shore, acting very strangely. They kept swimming towards the bank and then suddenly turned away. My eyes came out on stalks when I saw a Stoat jumping about on the mud just beyond them. It was leaping about all over the place and lashing its tail around like a lure, and clearly trying to mesmerise the ducks in the same way it would for a rabbit, so it could nip into the shallows and grab one.
Its dance certainly seemed to be working because the ducks were enticed to within a couple of feet of the crafty carnivore. It is so wrapped up in the performance that at the end it even grabs a leaf in its mouth and rushes off with it. You can see that (just) in this video:
Now give yourself a bit of a slap to ensure you have not slipped into the Stoat’s hypnotic trance. Then look at this bit again in slomo. It’s a window into something that goes on all the time but that we hardly ever see (pity I didn’t have time to set the camera up to allow for the dark conditions. Good lesson….always be prepared).
Clever little devil!
It then took the branches of a tree. Another first for me, I didn’t know Stoat’s climbed trees.
For its finale it apparently just went berserk along the bank. I’m not entirely sure for whose benefit this was because there weren’t any ducks around that area. Maybe it was trying to catch something by surprise or perhaps it had just eaten an orange Smartie.
Action over…..a serene paddle/drift back to Fowey with wind and tide in my favour.
It’s a great place to go kayaking, and in my opinion the most scenic and paddle-friendly estuary/ria in SW England.
Providing you can clench your teeth hard enough to handle the savage price for parking your car, it provides quick access to the open sea via a very pleasant one-mile paddle between Polruan and Fowey.
I was surprised to see the small cruise ship ‘Hebridean Princess’ moored-up in mid river. My last encounter was on a very wet day in Loch Sunart in 2014 during my month-long kayak trip up the west coast of Scotland.
Once out of the mouth of the estuary I headed directly out to see but not before I heard a couple of Whimbrel ‘tittering’ on a rocky shore. They are migratory waders, very similar to Curlew but slightly smaller and with that distinctive monotone ‘seven-whistle’ call.
The sea was lovely and flat with little wind so it wasn’t long before I heard my first porpoise ‘piffing’, although it was minutes before I was actually close enough to see it.
I swung round a couple of miles off Gribbin Head and met up with two bigger pods of Porpoises, about ten in each. I just sat and watched as they surfaced all around, but always frustrating from a photography point of view because they constantly change direction and pop up where you least expect them to do so (like directly behind).
You can here the characteristic piff quite well in this video, as they pass in front of distant Mevagissey:
Porpoises are small and very easy to overlook and I’m pretty sure none of the many passing boats noticed this little posse going about its business.
There was at least one juvenile amongst the group which was probably only two foot long….no wonder they don’t get seen.
I think there must be a reef stretching out well offshore from Gribbin Head, because it does seem to focus the feeding activity of a mixture of sea creatures. A handful of tiny Storm Petrels, always a thrill to see from a kayak, (because they are only seen far offshore as well as being diminutive…the size of a sparrow) zipped past.
Their name is accurate because they always fly a bit closer to the shore during poor weather. Today was drizzly but fortunately not windy:
Also off Gribbin Head I saw the fin of a small Ocean Sunfish flopping at the surface. I was hoping to get close for an underwater shot but it spooked surprisingly early.
The grand wildlife finale was a mini feeding frenzy of Gannets off the headland. I could see little white dots circling and dropping into the sea a mile, possibly two, in front of me. They are big birds with a six foot wingspan so can be seen from a huge distance (a bit different to Storm petrels). I have learnt from (bitter) experience that even if I crank the kayak up to its top cruising speed of five to six mph, the feeding event will probably have finished by the time I roll up.
This nicely summarises the extreme challenge of trying to observe offshore wildlife from a kayak, and is probably the reason why nobody else does it. Another Gannet seeing the ‘work-up’ from afar (which is precisely what they look out for when cruising about) can cover the distance in a couple of minutes. They just dip a wing and disappear off at staggering speed. A wildlife-watching speedboat could cover the distance a little slower than a Gannet but in time to see what is going on. The Lone Kayaker generally arrives on scene when all that is left is a few fish scales rotating about in the swirled-up water.
Despite all this I stoked up a head of steam because the circling birds were on my way back anyway, and arrived twenty minutes later to just in time to witness the end of the action. In fact it was definitely the end because there was only one mackerel of the baitball left, and the last two Gannets to dive in ended up fighting over it. Both had their beaks locked around the same fish as they flapped about in a melee at the surface. See it for yourself in this video…..I’ve slowed down the action because it’s all a bit of a blurr otherwise. You will notice the porpoises are still busy looking for any escapee fish.
Here’s another pair of diving gannets at normal speed. It’s great to hear their cackles of excitement which they only utter when they are involved in feeding…they are completely silent the rest of the time.
Back nearer to Fowey the profusion of wildlife was replaced with a plethora of sailing boats as the annual regatta was in full swing. A tremendous sight despite the grey conditions.
The sea in front of the town was heaving with action and I had to weave amonst entrants of the gig race, which seemed very competitive.
The water around the slipway was similarly choc-a-bloc with water enthusiasts in the style of fellow kayakers.
For the lone kayaker the most impressive performance of the day was by the porpoises.