Scotland 2018 part 2: The Supporting Cast

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Otter plus crab lunch

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.

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Mink

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.

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White-tailed (Sea) Eagle

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.

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Great Northern Diver

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,

Common Tern
Common Tern

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.

Common Gull
Common Gull

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.

Ringed Plover
Ringed plover

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)

 

 

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Heap of Harbour Seals
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Posse of Harbour Seals

I saw one Grey Seal in amongst a colony at the mouth of Loch Moidart. It had a whitish blaze across its head.

Grey Seal
Grey Seal

A trip to Scotland would not be complete without a Red Deer and I would have been surprised not to see one…..

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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.

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Moon Jellyfish
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Moon Jellyfish

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.

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Iceland Gull

It was so still most of the time that I could here the ‘coos’ of these Eiders long before I could see them.

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Line of Drake Eiders.

It was time to head for home, a mere 650 miles away.

The seals waved me off:

Harbour Seal

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lovely Looe Island

The most perfect late May day imaginable. Zero wind, sunny and temperature in the mid twenties. myself and Becky and friends Krysia and Stefan were keen to do some wildlife watching from kayaks and I hoped Looe island would deliver. Krysia and Stefan didn’t realise just how close up and personal the (very large) wildlife would come……

Seeting off from Millpool slipway gives an excellent opportunity to see the Little Egrets that appear to be nesting in the wood opposite the carpark.

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Little Egret

 

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Little Egret

We sped through the middle of Looe on the outgoing tide.

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Looe

We slid across the super smooth open sea to Looe island…….

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Looe island

and were soon admiring the seals that were draped about on the Ranneys reef enjoying a bit of sun.P1100362

 

We looped around the island and headed for the beach at Portnadler for lunch. Several other bank holiday revellers had the same idea but we managed to find a private mini beach all to ourselves.

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en route to lunch
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Portnadler side beach

It was such a cracking afternoon that we decided to loop back around the island for a second seal experience. The Cormorants in the colony on the island were panting hard, but the heat didn’t seem to moderate the appetite of the nestlings.

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Panting cormorants
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Cormorant nestlings eager for lunch

A couple of small waders resting on the reef turned out to be Sanderlings, on their way to nesting grounds way up north. Superb little birds, usually seen rushing in and out with the waves on a sandy beach during the winter.

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Sanderling

There were also  a handful of Dunlin that were hunkered down amongst the barnacles on the reef, taking a breather.

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Dunlin

We had an extraordinary prolonged encounter with a bull grey seal. He followed and examined both our kayaks and seemed to be formulating some kind of action plan.

 

 

 

After submerging we assumed he was going to do a bit of fishing, but to our amazement we could see him lying on the bottom amongst the weed beneath us, apparently asleep (as we could see his eyes were closed!)P1030516

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Snoozing seal

Then came the unexpected moment.

 

 

 

The message was obviously “clear off, you’re on my patch”, so we did. It was easy to understand his frustration. There were a lot of kayaks and paddleboards around today because the sea looked so inviting and he was just a bit tired of all the attention. You might argue that we were too close and causing disturbance, but even when you are some distance away in a kayak seals will come over and seek you out and follow, seemingly just for curiosity’s sake (or maybe just the fun of it).

Back to the car at Millpool creek and finish the day off with a swim.P1100573

It was such a lovely day that everything looked impressive and grand, even the commoner birds such as Greater Black-backed Gulls.

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Greater Black-backed Gulls

 

The Laugh of the Loon

The sensational wildlife encounter just keep on coming as I just keep on paddling.

Today it was my best-ever sightings of one of my favourite seabirds, The Great Northern Diver. Across the pond it is known by the very much less ‘text-booky’ name of Common Loon.

They are not uncommon around the coast of Cornwall during winter, but have now transformed from there drabbish winter plumage into absolutely stunning breeding plumage.

I will let the movies do the talking, and listen out for that loon laugh. It is a genuine sound of the wilderness and makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck every time.

 

 

 

 

They will soon be heading north to their breeding grounds in Iceland and Greenland.

I was passed by several roving packs of Manx Shearwaters. These too are special, because to see Manx Shearwaters like this you have to be a long way off shore, and to be a long way offshore in a kayak it has to be a very calm day, which as you can see, it was. You can see my launch point of Portscatho in the background.

 

 

For the return trip I paddled along the coast which was looking totally tropical:

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Towan Beach

 

and was shadowed by a cluster of seals who larked about behind my kayak, but don’t like being looked at. I felt like the pilot of a Russian Badger bomber being escorted out of UK airspace by a posse of Eurofighters. Although maybe I wasn’t wearing the right hat.

 

 

 

 

Remind me to clean the weed off the back of my kayak, and decompress my jugulars, next time.

Great fun, but today it was the Loons who called the Tune.

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Hunting Loon
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Great Northen Diver aka Loon

Whale!

Having got back from an all-weekend wedding 250 miles away in the early hours, when the titanium knees were subjected to dance moves (largely unsuccessful) way beyond their manufacturer’s recommended tolerance, anyone with any sense would spend the next day doing weeding.

The Lone Kayaker however wouldn’t know where to start with all the weeds, and has got the same amount of sense as the average slice of toast.

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Lovely Looe

And the promise of one of the warmest early May days EVER, combined with light winds, meant he couldn’t resist heading offshore. Looe was the chosen destination, which was very lucky because he very nearly selected the North Cornwall coast which ended up being fogbound all day and about ten degrees cooler than the sun-drenched south coast.

I didn’t have big expectations in the wildlife front for the day, as I have only ever seen dolphins here once (although they were the rare Risso’s), but it got off to a good start with an encounter with the resident male Eider duck who is always very smartly turned out.

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Drake Eider

I paddled over to Looe island, and out past the Rannies Reef. A loafing Bull seal put in a spectacular yawn which just about summed up my sleepiness as well (perhaps he had just come back from an all-weekend Pinniped party).

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yawning Seal

Also there were half a dozen Turnstones on the last rock of the reef, looking very smart in their breeding plumage with white heads.

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Turnstones

Then I just headed straight out to sea, because it was flat calm with no swell and warm enough to be paddling in just a vest. Totally and utterly perfect, and if there was anything sitting on, or breaking, the surface for half a mile around I was going to see it.

I passed through the line of coastal touring yachts, several of whom (understandably) looked at me as if I was barking mad, just paddling out into a blank open sea.

A ragged formation of about twenty-five migrating Whimbrels flew over constantly ‘tittering’, the classic coastal sound of early May, as Whimbrels have a very short migration ‘window’. A handful of Swallows zipped past me having just crossed the Channel, one in full bubbling song.

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Squadron of Whimbrel

I also saw a scattering of the more common seabirds: Razorbills, Guillemots, Manx Shearwaters and only a very few Gannets, which din’t give me much hope of seeing any Dolphins because the sea seemed a bit lifeless.

I stopped for lunch five miles out from Looe island (Cheese ‘n Pickle Sandwiches). Completely quiet and still apart from the occasional cackle of a Guillemot drifting over the surface, too far off to see. As I digested, a single wandering Gannet momentarily dipped a wing as if it was going to dive but then aborted the plunge, but it made me look hard at the patch of sea below, and up popped a Porpoise. I paddled over for a closer look but didn’t get a good view although I saw it surface a few more time at distance.

Then things seemed to hot up. I came upon quite a large raft of Razorbills and Guillemots mixed with a few Manx Shearwaters which were busy diving from the surface, and there were more Shearwater flocks circling around. I guess I was over some sort of reef.

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Guillemot
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Razorbill
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Manx Shearwater
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Photo taken moments before whale surfaced

I stopped to watch and photograph another auk flock, and suddenly there was a great gush of air and a pretty sizeable back broke the surface followed by a fin, only fifty yards away and heading straight towards me! No question a Minke Whale.

I swung the kayak round to see it surface again but it only popped up when it was nearly out of sight. I tore after it and it reappeared having turned to the south, but although viewing conditions were as perfect as they could be it never came very close. I heard, and saw, it surface a further three or four times and then it was gone.

I managed a very poor photograph, my camera always struggling to autofocus during such smooth sea conditions because it doesn’t have anything to ‘get a grip’ on.

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Minke Whale

Wow. My first whale since Horace (or Doris) the Humpback over twelve months ago. Only my third Minke whale seen from kayak, the other two being momentary glimpses of a single blow. The identity of the whale during my prolonged encounter off Eddystone two years ago , when I was at the epicentre of its feeding activity for half an hour, remains uncertain, although it was a lot bigger than the Minke Whales I have seen and has been positively identified by one whale expert as a Sei. For me they remain the ultimate sea creature to see from my kayak, together with a Leatherback turtle which I have only ever seen once.

So, pretty pleased, and  a little shaky with adrenaline overdose (and Olympic-style kayak sprint). Soon cured by an Orange Club.

The sea smoothed off even more for the paddle back in, and I came across a few other kayakers who were doing the circuit of Looe island.

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Fellow kayakers at Rannies Reef

From a mile out the shrieks of enjoyment of bathers on the main beach at Looe carried over the sea. No doubt made more shrill by the water temperature which is only just over 12 degrees.

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Looe main beach

 

 

 

Where’s the Blinking Spring Thing?

It’s half-way to the longest day and Spring is struggling to put in an appearance. The Daffodils have been flattened by the recent blizzard and the Blackbird which dared to start singing outside the loo window about  three weeks ago hasn’t uttered a note since.

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Hostile Sea

Although it would be nice for it to warm up a bit so I could wash my thermal base layer, I can cope with the rain and the cold. It’s the wind I don’t like. Paddling into a headwind is not only very hard work, it’s appallingly demoralising, and the subsequent downwind run doesn’t compensate for the upwind struggle. Watching and photographing wildlife is almost impossible while the kayak is being thrown about and splashed with spray, and basically no fun.

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Tragic Weather

The open sea and exposed coast are no-go zones. At least there are a few sheltered estuaries which are doable if you have read your tide tables correctly. The wintering waders provide a bit of entertainment with their cheerful piping calls, especially the ‘shanks’, both Red and Green.

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Paul, Torridge, Bideford
Penquite quay
Penquite Quay, Fowey estuary
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Redshank

However I did manage to squeeze in a coastal jaunt during the briefest lull in the relentless blow, with temperature just about survivable in full thermal gear and drysuit. And gloves and balaclava. (fuel today was Raisin and Biscuit Yorkie….DUO)

I couldn’t resist a visit to Torbay in the (unlikely) hope of seeing the dolphins again, even though the traffic round the back of Paignton on the road to Brixham is enough to make me go  (even more) grey and bald (again).

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Paignton

Brixham on the southern side of Torbay is a sensational place to launch, with the paddle out of the busy fishing port providing all the sights, sound and smells necessary to sharpen up the senses (especially if you are a fan of fish).

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Brixham

I was initially drawn to Berry Head because the swirling currents concentrate sealife activity. As I approached the headland and stared hard at the patch of sea beneath half-a-dozen circling Gannets, I could hardly believe my luck because a dolphin breached clear of the water. I cranked up the speed and as I drew close to the dolphins changed to cautious mode in an effort not to frighten them. A splinter group sped right past me and then joined up with the main pod of about twenty and sped off southwards.

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Common Dolphin (in a hurry)

I followed but as usual had difficulty keeping up, just about staying in touch at fast cruising pace. As we sped past St. Mary’s Bay they suddenly completely disappeared and I decided to continue down the coast towards Dartmouth, even though I had originally planned to go the other way.

Good move, as I had only paddled this bit of coast a couple of times before and had forgotten how stunning it was. Cliffs interspersed with some excellent beaches, the most scenic of which is Scabbacombe, backed by sweeping green hills.

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Superb Scabbacombe

The seabirds clearly hadn’t been told that Spring had been put on hold. Oystercatchers were piping excitedly and all along the cliffs Fulmars were settled on their nesting ledges and cackling in their very primeval way. Seabirds do seem to hint at a link with reptiles from long ago because the call of Fulmars, Guillemots, Razorbills and Gannets would not seem out of place in a colony of Pterodactyls, although I’m not old enough to  confirm (quite).

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Extrovert and noisy Oystercatcher
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Cackling Fulmars
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(Shag and) Cormorant in Breeding Plumage

A flock of Common Scoters were disturbed by a passing jetski and did a couple of circuits of the bay before pitching in.

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Common Scoters

Gloom. One of a pair of Great Black-backed Gulls that were sitting on a headland had a trace from a fishing line sticking out of its beak. I would think a hook was stuck in its throat so almost certainly it was doomed.

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Poor blooming Gull

The Mew Stone, sitting like a mini-fortress at the mouth of the Dart estuary, provided a suitable turning point for my trip, and the slumbering seals barely bothered to wake up as I slipped silently past.

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Mew Stone and Froward point
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Lazing Lump of Lard

For the sake of completeness I made the effort to paddle round the back of the fang-like Eastern Black rock before returning, and my efforts paid off with a brief sighting of a couple of Porpoises and a handful of Purple Sandpipers picking  amongst the barnacles on the rocky islet.

Purple Sandpiper and Turnstone
Turnstone and purple Sandpiper

Berry Head was a bit more lively on the return leg with a strengthening Southerly wind and I was quite pleased to get back to the quieter waters of Torbay.

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Berry Head

Back in Brixham harbour I had an entertaining prolonged encounter with a large bull Grey Seal which had clearly seen so many boats and kayakers it was devoid of any fear, and finished off with a paddle tour around the inner harbour.

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Idiotically Tame Seal

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For now it’s back to a near white-out and challenging conditions for watersports enthusiasts.

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Yours truly looking fed up, and with sizeable snowflake about to go up nose.

However every cloud has a silver (Starling-flavoured) lining if you are a top predator like this Sparrowhawk:

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Sparrowhawk with lunch
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Is it possible for eyes to be more piercing?

 

2017. The Year of the Dolphin

2017 IN FIGURES

2814 miles paddled in total.

2400 in Devon and Cornwall

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Winter Dawn on the Torridge estuary

183 in Spain (Costa del Sol)

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Gibraltar (from Spain)

133 in Scotland

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Loch Arkaig

100 along Rivers in England (Thames and two Avons)

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September Thames

500+ miles of offshore paddling (more than a mile from the coast) in Devon and Cornwall.

6 trips out to the Eddystone Lighthouse

The author at the Eddystone
Yours Truly at Eddystone

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.

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Horace the Humpback takes a puff

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.

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Harbour porpoises

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.

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Common Dolphin (youngster)

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.

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Bottlenose Dolphins

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.

Jumping Giant Bluefin Tuna
Giant Bluefin Tuna

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.

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Grey Seal pup
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Harbour Seal, south Cornwall

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. ???

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Otter

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).

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Mink (trying not to look too evil)

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.

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Gibraltar Sunfish

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.

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Portugese Man o’War

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.

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Sooty Shearwater

37 Balearic Shearwaters, on six days. Scattered amongst the much more common Manx Shearwater, usually well offshore.

Manx and Balearic Shearwater
Manx and Balearic Shearwater

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.

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Storm Petrel

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.

Great Skua, Fowey
Great Skua

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.

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Juvenile Puffin

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.

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Black Tern

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.

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Drake Long-tailed Duck in Summer plumage
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Drake (and duck) Long-tailed Duck in Winter plumage

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.

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Pink-footed Goose

Several pairs of Black-throated Divers in Scotland. The most beautifully marked UK bird?

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Black-throated Divers

 

Kingfishers on 21 days. Everybody’s favourite waterbird.

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Kingfisher

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.

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Wilson’s Petrel

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.

1 Hartland Point

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Hartland Point

Looe

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Looe

3 Kynance Cove

Kynance Cove
Kynance Cove

Christmas Bonus. Dolphins, Porpoises and Seals.

Still a few weeks to go to Christmas I know, but I just couldn’t resist the title.

The winter storms, which bludgeon me into submission and send me cowering up a creek, have been kept at bay for a further couple of days by a nose of high pressure. Not only light winds but also very little groundswell which is unusual at this time of the year, making offshore paddling irresistible.

Fowey was my destination on Day 1. Fowey is not only an exceptionally beautiful place, paddling always seems to be more relaxing here as the tidal currents seem to be less than around the corner past Dodman Point. Even the slightest current working against the wind chops up the surface significantly.

And following my recent encounters with the Giant Tuna and dolphins and porpoises here, I was full of expectation.

I called in my ‘passage plan’ on the radio with Charlestown NCI because there was nobody at home in Polruan NCI probably because I was a bit early, as usual.

I got the impression that there was not a lot going on in the sea in terms of wildlife but was kept interested by the little parties of Guillemots I passed. First photo with my new camera!

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Guillemot (in winter outfit)

I watched the handful of passing Gannets closely as they filed past. All they have to do is circle round once and show an interest in a particular patch of sea, and my eyeballs are locked on to the surface, because the fish that attracts a Gannet will also lure in other sea creatures. I’ve often located porpoises in this way, but for every one I have seen there will be twenty that I have missed, not only because porpoises are so small and unobtrusive, but because by the time I have arrived at the scene the action, if there has been any, has finished. Chasing down feeding ‘events’ in a kayak is a slow process. It’s a lot easier with a 200 horsepower outboard. Even two hp would be quicker than me.

Encouraged by a light tailwind I wandered about three miles offshore, and suddenly found myself on the edge of a group of twenty circling Gannets which seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. Sure enough, there were fins below. Three Common Dolphins. Fab. As I quietly approached, five more dolphins joined the gang and they all came over to  say hello. Just for fun I piled on the speed (can’t go more than 6-7mph flat out) and the dolphins responded with a load of splashing and surging in my excuse for a pressure wave.

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Dolphin and the Dodman

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Common Dolphin, Fowey

The dolphins hung around for five minutes then moved off. It all went a bit quiet after that so I paddled in for a leg stretch at superb Lantic Bay. As I was approaching the beach I heard the haunting querulous call of a Loon and observed a family of three fishing in the bay. Great Northern Divers (aka Common Loon across the pond) often go around in threes and I’m pretty sure these are Mum, Dad and this year’s offspring. Just by the way they act, and look, and communicate to each other in a family sort of way. Amazing that they can stick together on their migration from the arctic.

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Lantic Bay Loon

My enjoyable day was soured a bit as I arrived back in Fowey. A Dory which I had seen leaving the estuary at the same time as me six hours earlier overtook me on the way in and it was full up to the gunwhales, and beyond, with Sea Urchins. I had a chat with the three crew and they said they had picked up over six hundred (!) urchins by shallow diving along the local coast, and were going to sell them on to souvenir and craft shops. Blimey. They must have had nearly the lot.

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Sea Urchin (one that got away)

Day 2  involved a fifteen mile circuit of one of my favourite sheltered bays in South Cornwall, initially heading three miles offshore and then coming back along the coast.

I set off just as it was getting light and my systems (e.g eyes and ears) were far from fully operational when a small duck, which I initially presumed to be a Guillemot, pitched onto the surface with quite a splash in front of me.  Because it was half dark I was only ten yards away when I realised it was a Long-tailed Duck. I scrambled my new camera out of its dry bag and just managed a few shots before the duck paddled off into the gloom. My fourth L-T Duck of the autumn….pleased with that.

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Long-tailed Duck

Incidentally, no long tail because it’s a female.

My offshore jaunt was rather dull and was rescued by the appearance of a couple of porpoises which surfaced only a few yards away. In typical aloof porpoise style they popped up, piffed, and then completely disappeared.

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Harbour Porpoises

From a couple of miles offshore I could hear the weird wailing ‘song’ of a seal drifting out from a sheltered cove. At one stage it droned on for about a minute without a breath. A bit like Leonard Cohen, but more tuneful.

After coffee ‘at sea’ I cautiously paddled towards the seals who were hauled out on the rocks. I am acutely aware that seals can feel very vulnerable when out of the water and kayakers can, and do, cause real disturbance to colonies, so I kept my distance and was subjected only to a disapproving stare.

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Six-eyed Stare
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Large and Little

One seal, which had a nasty-looking fresh injury on its back, was mottled like a granite-style kitchen surface. A Harbour (or Common) Seal. Not Common at all in SW England, only the second I have seen in Cornwall. Maybe it’s because they get beaten up by the Grey Seals, as seemed to have happened to this one.

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Common (Harbour) seal

The Spring tide was just about low as I came round the headland to Portscatho. The local gulls were very busy and very noisy as they hunted through the exposed kelp for their favourite delicacy. Flicking over the fronds with their beaks and shallow-diving from the surface. If one caught a starfish it was immediately hounded by half-a-dozen friends who were keen to have an ‘arm’ or two. Dramas like this that are played out as you paddle along unobtrusively and silently are what I like most about kayaking (as well as all the other stuff).

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Gull plus seafood lunch. Rick Stein would approve.

I consumed my cheese and pickle sandwiches on the foreshore at Portscatho. The weather wasn’t bad for December 5th…..it was completely windless and warm enough for me not to have cold feet, even though I was wearing two pairs of socks. My photos would have looked better if the sun was shining, however. A turquoise sea is always better than one which is battleship grey.

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Portscatho

My ornithologically outstanding day was nicely rounded off with a close encounter with two Purple Sandpipers, distant views of a couple of Slavonian Grebes and a Red-necked Grebe, and another dozen Loons.

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Purple Sandpiper with purfect camouflage.
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Great Northern Diver (Loon)

It’s not just the marine environment that provides the best wildlife encounters from a kayak. It’s nice to get close views of some of the commoner, but no less attractive, species that seem only to be tame enough for close approach in city parks. Like this Moorhen with its incongruously large, and green, feet.

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Oxford Moorhen

I snapped this squirrel in the middle of Oxford (from my kayak of course). I’m not entirely sure that the tree to which it was clinging wasn’t some sort of creature from Middle Earth. Those look like faces in its bark.

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Secret Squirrel
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That’s got to be an Ent from Fangorn, surely