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

 

Beating the Beast

Before the ‘Beast from the East’ weather system snarled in, brandishing its Siberian temperatures, snow and savage wind, I managed a handful of very pleasant trips. The first was a bit of an offshore paddle in St.Austell Bay from Fowey , and to my complete jaw-dropping amazement (and entertainment), I yet again stumbled upon a pod of Common Dolphins.

It’s always a thrill to see them because it really doesn’t happen very often. Over the last fifteen years I have only seen dolphins about once every 500 miles paddled, but in the last four months have come across ten pods. Maybe this is random chance but maybe it means that there are more dolphins, and more dolphin food, about. If this is the case it is excellent news considering it is the polluted and littered nature of the sea that usually makes the headlines. It is possible I am getting to know the best places to see them but their highly mobile nature makes sightings extremely unpredictable, which for me is all part of the fun, and challenge. Success in spotting dolphins is a reflection of the number of miles paddled.

The Cornish Riviera, like its Devon counterpart in Torbay, is east-facing and so fairly protected  from the winter swells that usually come from the west. It’s more attractive than Torbay and a lot less built-up and generally more of a wilderness experience, with much less chance of running into, or being mown down by, a jetski.

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Fowey
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Fowey

As I emerged from the shelter of Fowey estuary I was a bit disappointed the sea was so lumpy, and took a few waves over the front. No danger but just not so much fun as carving over flat water. I was hoping it was a residual chop from the southerly wind that had now changed direction but it was looking like offshore paddling was out. However I stuck with it and hugged the shore, stopping for breakfast onboard (bowlful of muesli) in the shelter of Gribbin Head.

As I crunched granola, I caught sight of a load of Gannets plunging vertically into the sea just round the corner of the headland. I couldn’t resist sticking my nose in, so rounded Gribbin Head and followed the circling pack of Gannets as it headed out across the bay towards Mevagissey. And hey presto, the sea had miraculously smoothed off.

I was back in my comfort zone and powered after the gannets although stupidly, in all the excitement, forgot to ‘check in’ with Polruan or Charlestown NCI (coastwatch) which I usually do. My radio batteries were flat anyway…oops.

Suddenly a dolphin surfaced a few yards in front of me and gave me quite a jump. It looked very big. Nothing else happened for a minute and just when I thought that was all I was going to see, a whole load more appeared and started to splash, puff, snort and surge all around the place.

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Common Dolphin first encounter

Twelve to fifteen in total and at least one juvenile amongst them.

Yet another fantastic dolphin experience and only the second time I have seen them in February, the first being a couple of weeks ago!

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Common Dolphins ,Gribbin Head behind
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Common Dolphins, Dodman Point behind

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After half an hour in their company I took a big swing around Gribbin Head  before heading back to Fowey and was rewarded with the brief sight of four ‘Puffing Pigs’ (porpoises), a pair and two singletons, that were hunting beneath a circling gannet. Always incredibly elusive and difficult to see because they are so small, but a speciality from a kayak because you can hear their loud ‘piff’ from quite a disatnce, which you would never hear above the engine if a boat (or even the ‘noise’ of a yacht).

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Gannet
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Harbour Porpoise

I completed my day at Fowey with a quick blast up the river to admire the Class 66 loco heading the China Clay train up to Lostwithiel, and a well-earned cup of tea at Penquite Quay. As they say: once a trainspotter always a trainspotter. I might add: once a tea-drinker always a tea-drinker. The two seem to go together quite nicely.

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Fowey China Clay Train passing Golant
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Penquite Quay

There are quite a few Little Grebes (aka Dabchicks) wintering up these sheltered creeks at the minute; their numbers increase further during cold snaps when their freshwater haunts freeze over.

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Little Grebe

The Herons are sporting a fancy array of plumes around their necks in preparation for creating a bit of an impression for the start of the breeding season.

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Grey Heron

 

My next little jaunt was to the Cornish coast at Mevagissey (the other side of the bay from where I saw the dolphins) where I was very pleased to observe half a dozen rare gulls visiting from the arctic. It’s unusual to see just one of these ‘white-winged’ gulls, but to see four Glaucous and two Iceland Gulls in one trip is, for me, unprecedented.

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Glaucous Gull
Iceland Gull
Iceland Gull

Glaucous Gulls are great big bruisers the size of the more familiar Great Black-backs, Iceland Gulls are smaller and finer but telling them apart requires a bit of ornithological expertise, because their plumage is almost identical.

Finally I managed a paddle up the beautiful Camel estuary from Rock with Dave before the weather became too kayak unfriendly. It was only a couple of degrees above freezing and there was a bit of a sneaky wind from the east but the winter sun made our trip feel a little warmer.

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Dave and Rock

As usual there was lots of birdlife to admire, including a handful of perfectly camouflaged Ringed Plovers roosting amongst the pebbles on the tideline.

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Ringed Plover

It’s now time to ‘batten down the hatches’ till the Beast has blown itself out.

 

 

 

 

 

Camel Otter

A sparkling, still, clear morning lured me down to the River Camel for a predawn start. It had to be that early so I could get up to Wadebridge for the turn of the tide, and although my kayak was encrusted in frost I was hopeful, as usual, to have some special wildlife encounters as the sun peeped up.

The beach at Rock was deserted apart from a few slavering mongrels dashing about with their owners frantically blowing whistles and the dogs taking absolutely no notice at all.P1040396

It was superb to head off up the estuary with my kayak silently knifing across the glass-calm surface.

The soundtrack to my trip was classic winter wetland birds: the rippling call of Curlew, piping of Oystercatchers, clear call of Redshank and a handful of Greenshank, and mewing of Lapwing.

I kept away from the shore to avoid disturbing the roosting flock of over a hundred oystercatchers at the foot of Cant Hill, and as I approached Cant Cove saw a disturbance on the completely smooth water a hundred yards ahead that didn’t look like a duck.

I engaged ‘stealth mode’ and paddled on in absolute silence and soon realised the ‘v’ on the surface was caused by an otter. It was heading straight towards me so I readied my camera and sat absolutely still. It dived a couple of times but continued on its collision course before glancing off at the last second, passing without apparently being too alarmed by my presence (or smell). Actually it seemed most concerned about the noise my camera made as the ‘burst mode’ clattered away.

A fantastic view in the post-dawn sun, smooth water and nice green backdrop to the image from the reflection of the trees behind.P1040386

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Camel River Otter

I followed it along the shore as it continued to hunt, leaving a tell-tale trail of bubbles every time it dived. One dive was long and it covered a surprisingly long distance underwater,  before getting out into a mini cave for a bit of a sniff around. I was expecting another good view when it took to the water again but it inexplicably completely  disappeared even though there was apparently very few places for it to hide along the open shore.

This is only the third time I have seen an otter in salt water from my kayak in an open estuarine location around SW England. I saw one close to this same spot on the Camel last year, and one on the Fowey estuary many years ago. All the rest have been in the rivers.

There was a lot of waterbird action around the Amble Marshes a bit further upstream and the wind remained non-existent to make the paddling experience as good as it could be on a chilly winter morning. The sun ensured all the birds were looking at their best.

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Upper Camel Estuary

As I quietly slipped along I heard the plinking of a load of pebbles being flipped over along the shoreline and came upon a busy little gang of Turnstones doing just what their name suggests they ought to do. Interestingly I noticed that they flip the stones over by opening their beaks to act like a lever.

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Turnstones

The best sighting was a pair of Whooper Swans far off across the saltmarsh but the supporting cast wasn’t to be sneezed at:

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Shelduck
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Goosander (2 ducks and a drake)
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Wigeon

After sticking the nose of my kayak beneath the A39 flyover, I sped back down to Padstow on the outgoing tide and my morning of excellent wildlife watching was nicely rounded off by a thumping great Glaucous Gull, a rare winter visitor from the arctic, taking a rest on the sandbar in the middle of the river.P1040572

Glaucous Gull
Glaucous Gull

I arrived back at Rock and just about escaped from the car park before I was hemmed in by a convoy of shiny 4x4s with personal numberplates.

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Padstow (complete with slavering mongrel)

Brace of White-winged Gulls

Rare gulls of a bit of a birdwatching speciality, and a lot of them I wouldn’t recognise. However after thousands of miles of coastal paddling I am steadily getting my eye in.

Mediterranean gulls used to be an unusual sight but are now regular around the southwest. They appear in late summer and there are quite a few still around now. I think they disappear off to breed on the continent in the Spring.

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Mediterranean Gull

They look like a large Black-headed gull but with very white wings. And very bright red feet.

More exciting gull encounters occurred during a paddle along the coast to Mevagissey last week. (Threshold of ‘excitement’ is certainly lowered in the winter……gulls get overlooked for much more exciting stuff in the summer).

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Mevagissey

I was pretty pleased to see fifteen Great Northern Divers and a Slavonian Grebe in the open sea of Mevagissey bay, and then took a circuit around super-quaint Mevagissey harbour before the two hour paddle back to Porthpean.

Sitting on a moored boat in the outer harbour was the considerable bulk of a Glaucous Gull. The same size as a Great Black-backed but completely creamy white. Terrific….I have only seen one of these from my kayak before and only a handful ever. They breed in the arctic and  a few stragglers arrive in UK in late winter, usually after Christmas.

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Glaucous Gull

I would say quite a charismatic bird but others might say it is only a seagull, which it is.

Much more remarkable is that about two minutes later , just outside the harbour, was a virtually identical pale gull, but a bit smaller, equal in size to a young Herring Gull it was chummy with. This was an Iceland Gull, a fare bit more unusual than a Glaucous. But in appearance virtually identical.

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Iceland Gull

Either one of these would be pretty exciting on its own but to see both within a few minutes of each other was about as good as gulls can get.

Two ‘white-wingers’ in as many minutes.

Despite their name Iceland gulls only breed in Greenland.