Here’s a selection of assorted pics from trips during the fantastic weather of the last ten days:
Don’t try to tell me that SW England is not a world class sort of place.
Here’s a selection of assorted pics from trips during the fantastic weather of the last ten days:
Don’t try to tell me that SW England is not a world class sort of place.
The weather gods were in a considerate mood when we were planning a bit of a post-Christmas, calorie-burning, fustiness-removing paddle.
Light winds meant a coastal trip was on the cards so Brixham seemed like a good bet. This of course means a quick snoop at the superbly action-packed (in terms of wildlife) waters off Berry Head, so Jake and I cornered the end of the breakwater and made straight for the end of the headland.
There were a lot of Gannets cruising about, including a large extended fishing flock in the heart of Torbay. The last of the incoming tide was flowing north past the headland and the tideline between the offshore current and the static water of the bay formed a focus for a handful of circling Gannets and, I hoped, some cetaceans.
We nudged out towards the birds and sure enough a couple of porpoises surfaced nearby with a puff. These were the first cetaceans Jake had seen in the UK so we hung around hoping for a better view. Although porpoises are not attracted to boats and tend to be a bit haphazard in their movements, there were enough around (approximately ten) to make the chance of one surfacing nearby quite high.
One did indeed surface with a loud puff only a few metres away from Jake’s kayak. Perfect. This porpoise had a distinctive notch at the back of its dorsal fin, and looks like the same one I photographed a few weeks ago.
I think I photographed the same porpoise in the same place on 4 Dec.You might think that this is not that remarkable because porpoises seem to be resident at Berry Head, but they are difficult to spot because they are so small and inconspicuous, and very difficult to photograph, and of all the porpoises around Berry Head (approx 15-20?) I was unlikely to snap the same one twice in two visits.
This is the first cetacean that I have ever re-photographed, as far as I am aware.
After half an hour watching porpoises, and chasing after distant unexplained splashes which appeared to be jumping porpoises although could have been tuna or dolphins (porpoises only jump when they are really fired up and chasing fish, and these splashes seemed a bit ‘big’ for that), we headed back into Torbay.
The gannets were thumping in all over the place and put on a great show as we passed the centre of Torbay. There were a few Loons dotted about as we neared the shore. I don’t know why I find these birds so charismatic as their plumage is not particularly remarkable, but they are big and robust and knowledge of how far they have come to spend the winter here, and how they transform into one of the most beautifully marked of all seabirds in the Spring, no doubt adds to their appeal.
We followed the coast back to Brixham and were spotted by some of the rest of the family (and chums, and pets) who were on the end of the breakwater.
The Torbay lifeboat looked impressive in the winter sun as it sped back to its base, and was appallingly photobombed by a jetski.
Fortunately I had time for an uncluttered pic before it eased off on the throttle.
It was a bit of a surprise to hear Brixham harbour echoing to the bawl of seals , who turned out to be resting on a pontoon on the edge of the marina, all ten of them!
We finished with a tour of the inner harbour.
We calculated the ten miles paddled was the calorie equivalent of about a third of a mince pie. Looks like we’ll just have to go out more often to burn off the rest of the packet (and half a tin of Quality Street). Tough.
My day of kayaking started off like any other….absolutely fantastic. Cunning scrutiny of the weather forecast led me to the picture-perfect Percuil creek near St.Mawes, where, as I had planned, the wind fell light and the sun came out just as I arrived at 8am.(more like sheer luck, in reality)
Slicing across a sheet of glass-smooth water in absolute silence in this sort of place is kayaking at its best. Nothing to hear but the piping of Oystercatchers, Green- and Redshanks, the kraark of Herons, the whistle of a speeding Kingfisher and cackling chatter of Shelduck. Even the seven-note call of an unseasonal Whimbrel.
This Greenshank seemed to be as thrilled as I was with a bit of December sun.
Paddling back down the creek towards St.Mawes was directly into the sun but very scenic in a monochrome sort of a way.
Just before I came round the final bend in the river I heard a snort and saw a disturbance on the smooth surface. I assumed it was a seal but to my incredulity a couple of dolphins surfaced. In over 21,000 miles of paddling I have never seen dolphins this far up a creek.
I sat tight in an effort not to disturb them, and watched.
I was even more surprised to see the yellow patch on the side which showed that these were Common Dolphins, and not Bottlenose as I had initially thought. Bottlenose Dolphins are at home in shallow water as they sometimes like to eat shellfish and crabs, whereas Common Dolphins are creatures of the open sea, and probably not wired-up for navigation along a narrow creek which was rapidly getting narrower as the tide went out.
However they seemed to be quite happy and swimming strongly, although when |I left them they were heading upstream which was not a good plan.
To make my trip complete I intended to paddle out around Black Rock in the middle of Carrick Roads where it opens up into the sea, and although there was quite a swell running, and the tide was going out, the wind remained light and the sun was still out so the sea looked pretty benign.
Of course I was hoping to see some ‘open sea’ wildlife, and was rewarded with a couple of Loons out near Black Rock.
I looped around Black Rock and let the current suck me out towards the lighthouse at St.Anthony Head before heading back up the shoreline.
All the time I was looking out for the pair of dolphins, hoping that they were making their way back out to open waters. I stopped for lunch overlooking Falmouth as a Merlin helicopter was being very noisy:
I wound my way back up the Percuil river between all the mooring buoys, and as I passed the entrance to Porth creek saw the fins of the dolphins zigzagging about like a couple of sharks. Not a good idea to be in such a shallow creek as low water was approaching. This is the domain of egrets, not dolphins.
I watched them from a safe distance for a good half-an-hour, and then things started to go wrong.
They moved close to the northern bank of the creek and the smaller dolphin halted, apparently grounded on a mud bank, but still submerged apart from fin and blowhole. The larger dolphin swam a hundred yards further up the creek and deliberately started to beach itself on the mud.
I paddled towards the scene as I saw members of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) (who had obviously been tipped off by an astute observer and had been watching from the shore), moving down to the water’s edge to help.
One heroic medic waded into the muddy water to try to divert the dolphin back into the channel:
This was temporarily successful but the dolphin swam round in a big loop and started to run aground again. I offered my assistance and attempted to steer the dolphin away from the shallow water.
Unfortunately my efforts too were only briefly successful and the dolphin ran itself aground.
This initiated a full rescue operation by the four BDMLR volunteers present, and for the next three plus hours they worked tirelessly to maintain the dolphins during the critical time they were out of the water.
Under the instruction of BDMLR vet Natalie, the dolphins were covered in sheets and/or seaweed and had seawater poured over them constantly to stop their skin from drying out. Natalie assessed their health and decided to move the dolphins together. Definitely a good idea but moving 100kg of struggling dolphin about on a plastic sheet over slippery seaweed is not a straightforward procedure. Fortunately another two BDMLR members arrived to ease the lumbago.
The initial plan was to put the dolphins onto a boat and take them a couple of miles out into the deeper water of Carrick Roads although failing light would have made this very challenging, so it was relief all round when the incoming tide came to the rescue and refloated the dolphins.
Unfortunately I had departed at this stage because it was nearly dark, but I hear that both dolphins were seen swimming strongly out into deeper water and hopefully made it safely back into their more familiar oceanic environment.
Their is a lot of mystery surrounding cetacean strandings but it seems likely that these pair had made a navigational error. Common Dolphins spend most of their time well offshore and range widely , and these may have ventured into the (exceptionally) deep water of the outer part of Carrick Roads, and accidentally headed into the mouth of the Percuil River when they meant to head east in the open sea. Maybe they were lured in by the easy feast of lots of Grey Mullet which I saw as I was paddling and which they seemed to be chasing.
And once into the very shallow water of Porth Creek it would be very easy to become disorientated and confused, especially with a dropping tide……but who knows???
Whatever, today was a triumph for the BDMLR volunteers. They responded quickly enough to be on hand when the dolphins beached and had all the expertise, experience and equipment (and muscle power) to deal with the situation and care for the dolphins and get them back into deep water. Good job!
A very brief lull in the winds followed on from days of wind and rain. The residual ten foot swell from the west sent me looking for shelter on an east facing bit of coast and Mevagissey Bay seemed to fit the bill nicely. It’s very scenic and varied and the sandy shore at Porthpean, just outside St.Austell, is one of the most protected of all open coast beaches in Cornwall when the weather and waves are coming from the west.
The ‘Cornish Riviera’ (as this bit of coast is known) rarely fails to deliver some interesting marine wildlife, and within five minutes of paddling out from the beach I came upon that most charismatic of all the diving birds to visit the UK, a Great Northern Diver.
I think I prefer the more characterful American name of Common Loon, although the ‘common’ bit doesn’t do this magnificent bird justice. It is the biggest diving ‘duck’ (although strictly speaking it’s not a duck, it’s a Diver), has a colossal spear of a beak, and spends longer underwater when it dives than any other UK species.
They are winter visitors to the UK and this bird probably could well come from Iceland or Greenland. Their winter plumage is a bit drab (certainly in comparison to their summer plumage). Compare and contrast today’s bird with a pic I took in May this year :
The call of the Loon is the sound of the wild and you are a heathen if this doesn’t send a shiver up your spine. Listen carefully:
As I rounded Black Head on the way to Mevagissey I could see a huge milling mass of Gulls a mile or to ahead, about a mile offshore. When I saw that they were not associated with a fishing boat I was very excited because I thought they were probably over feeding dolphins.
I engaged top gear which today wasn’t very fast as I was using my inflatable (Gumotex Safari) kayak. About four mph max. The Gulls were still active as I arrived amongst them, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many in one feeding group…every gull in eastern Cornwall must have been there.
I still hadn’t worked out what they were feeding on and was surprised I hadn’t seen a single fin at the surface. Then a Lesser Black-back flew past with a small fish…
I paddled further into the thick of the action and was staggered to see that what I had initially thought were patches of foam on the surface, were actually thousands of dead fish. Probably tens of thousands.
These were pilchards. I’m sure they had just been dumped (either deliberately or accidentally)by a netting trawler, as they all looked fresh , and I could see a couple of big trawlers on the horizon. If you are a pilchard it was incredibly unfortunate for your well being that you were rebranded as a Cornish Sardine several years ago, but very good for the Cornish fishing industry.
Today’s pilchard carnage seemed a terrible waste as these fish would have been a meal or two (or ten) for a pod of dolphins or a Minke whale, or fed a load of loons for a year.
I sat around hoping for some larger sea creature to be attracted to the easy feast, but none appeared. I guess they prefer live fish. It was a consolation however to see all seven of the more common species of UK gull represented in the milling throng, including the neatly-plumaged Kittiwake,
and a single Mediterranean Gull. These used to be rare in the UK but are fast increasing.
I paddled over to Mevagissey for a quick tour around the harbour and then headed out to the gull frenzy again, just in case.
As I ate my cheese ‘n pickle sandwiches watching the gulls I noticed a police helicopter moving slowly along the coast, and both the inshore and offshore lifeboat from Fowey speeding across the bay. They started to ‘comb’ the coast starting at Black Head.
I suspected they might come over and see what on earth I was up to, and to check if I was in trouble. It must be quite unusual to see someone sitting in an inflatable kayak a mile out to sea in early December.
They did indeed come over and as I explained I was absolutely fine and was photographing the birds. They said they were looking for a missing person and saw me so came over to see if I was OK. I thanked them very much and looked closely at the crew to try to get an insight into what they REALLY thought of this idiot in his inflatable kayak. But needless to say they were totally professional and totally polite and objective.
A single small Grey Seal and a couple more Loons and a couple of paddleboarders provided a bit of interest on the paddle back to Porthpean.
I am always looking to paddle out into the open sea whenever there is a lull in the autumn winds, but this is currently very difficult because the quiet gaps between weather systems only last a couple of hours.
With the forecast of a morning of calm conditions I went scampering off down to Torbay hoping to find a smooth sea, and knowing that this east-facing bit of coast offers good shelter from the hefty swell which was thumping the bits which look out to the west.
I had planned to be on the water as the sun popped up and was quietly smug that it had only just surfaced as I rounded the end of Brixham breakwater, after a 90 minute drive including the traffic chaos of the Torbay hinterland (we don’t really ‘do’ traffic chaos in Holsworthy).
As I approached Berry Head I could see circling Gannets and the odd splash at the surface and glimpse of a dark sea creature, but I was too far off to see what was herding the baitball….dolphins, tuna, or porpoises.
As usual by the time I arrived on the scene the mini feeding-frenzy was over and the Gannets had completely disappeared. It always amazes me that although they are big birds with a six foot wingspan they can apparently disappear in an instant. They just dip a wing and they speed off.
All that was left of the action was a couple of porpoises rolling lazily at the surface, the first I had seen since the end of October.
Porpoises are small (four to five foot long) and very easy to overlook because they generally make no splash when they surface to breath, and tend to go around alone or very small groups. This is in contrast to dolphins that usually go around in a pod and do a lot of splashing and jumping.
There were actually a minimum of half-a-dozen porpoises off the headland, as usual hunting along the smooth line on the surface where the offshore tidal current shears against the static waters of Torbay.
I sat around and enjoyed a cup of coffee while watching, and listening to the porpoises. In this video clip it is quite obvious why the Newfoundland whalers used to call porpoises ‘Puffing Pigs’.
Today’s sideshow consisted of Fulmars zipping past a few feet away, a handful of flypast Great Northern Divers, a (probable) Red-throated Diver , and a pack of Common Scoter.
The tide was fairly rapidly sucking me down the coast towards Dartmouth so I tucked in close to the shore and paddled back into Torbay. Annoyingly the predicted ‘glass-off’ when the wind dropped away completely occurred when I was in the depths of Torbay, not out beyond Berry Head as I had planned. It would have made porpoise spotting even easier…and maybe something else.
I was pleased to see a rare Red-necked Grebe just round the corner from Brixham:
and a youngish-looking seal was taking time out on a quiet beach. I always steer well away from these resting seals to avoid frightening them into the water, because they may just have been on the go for a very long time and be in much need of a rest.
Brixham was buzzing with fishing boat activity (although it looks fairly sleepy in this pic).
So if it was the porpoise that was doing the puffing, what was doing the chuffing?…..
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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)
I saw one Grey Seal in amongst a colony at the mouth of Loch Moidart. It had a whitish blaze across its head.
A trip to Scotland would not be complete without a Red Deer and I would have been surprised not to see one…..
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.
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.
It was so still most of the time that I could here the ‘coos’ of these Eiders long before I could see them.
It was time to head for home, a mere 650 miles away.
The seals waved me off:
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.
Closer to the shore an Oystercatcher was hunkered down. It too probably had a partner on a nest a bit further up the cliff.
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.
Out beyond the loon a couple of Manx Shearwaters were splashing about at the surface, shallow diving for sprats or sandeels.
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.
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.