Oh dear. The traditional style of English summer seems to have had a bit of a revival.
At least the sea’s nice and warm.
Here’s a selection of pics and clips of all the sea and beach lovers doing their stuff around the coast of Devon and Cornwall, defying the uninspiring August weather. Despite gloom overhead nearly everyone I meet during my paddling expeditions is smiling and enthusiastic….it’s the magic of the sea.
And it’s not just people on holiday.
Pete the Teignmouth lobster fisherman is just as cheerful.
The Teignmouth seals are not fussed about the coasteerers (or their rosy language):
Many fishermen at Mevagissey now take tourists for a spin around the bay:
How excellent is this?….
What on earth is the matter with the children on this beach? Have they no souls? They should be staring at this stunning locomotive with their jaws hanging open in awe and wonderment ( and maybe noting the number). But instead they are wandering about like zombies. They should be taught trainspotting at school.
We’ll start off below the surface and work upwards, culminating in an encounter to match anything you will see in the natural world, anywhere.
High summer means a jellyfish boom in the waters around Devon and Cornwall. The lack of rain and calm conditions has made the water crystal clear, so the jellyfish look even better than usual.
Following record numbers during the spring, there are still plenty of Barrel Jellyfish around, up to about four foot long.
Compass jellies are my favourite, because of there intricate colour scheme and the fact that they are ‘proper’ jellies because, unlike Barrel jellies, they have a sting.
New kids on the block for July are Moon Jellies. How appropriate for the anniversary of the lunar landings. They occur in huge numbers and concentrate around the current lines.
As usual there are plenty of seals dotted along the coast, concentrating in their favourite rocky haulouts. There is no doubt they are increasingly tolerant of humans, it’s dogs they really don’t like. They have very acute hearing and a dog barking half-a-mile away can make them more agitated than a kayaker bobbing about a few feet away.
They show only a passing interest in waterskiers……..
and are quite happy to be the stars of the show:
A big hazard for seals is fast moving craft. This injury is probably caused by an impact with a boat, although it could conceivably be the result of a fight.
I was thrilled to meet up with this Harbour Seal along the south Cornwall coast. Harbour Seals are rare in SW England, the majority are the bigger, and arguably less attractive Grey Seals.
Cetacean viewing from my kayak is my favourite occupation, because it is so challenging. Most porpoises, dolphins and whales hunt miles from the shore so just getting out to where they might be is not easy, and when eventually a day comes along which is calm enough for you to make the considerable effort to get out there, they are so widely scattered that you almost certainly won’t see them.
A smooth surface is the key to success and this month I have been lucky enough to see three different species: Harbour Porpoise, Common Dolphin and Risso’s Dolphin. I might even call it three and-a-half because a glimpse of a big back disappearing below the water followed by a big swirl while down at Penzance was almost certainly a Minke Whale. If only I had looked round a quarter of a second earlier…….
Guillemots and Razorbills have completed their breeding on the sea cliffs and have now headed far out to sea. Just a few stragglers are reluctant to depart.
Manx Shearwaters are constant companions offshore, zipping past the kayak in compact groups, or resting on the surface.
I have been very pleased to have seen several Oystercatcher chicks along the coast this year. Like other waders, which are all declining, they are ground-nesting and so disturbance by dogs is a big issue.
This pair chose a little rocky promontory to raise their two youngsters.
We are going to take a jaunt inland up the rivers now, before returning to the coast for my grand finale.
I am very excited to have seen this next little wildlife gem recently. I was very familiar with Water Voles when I was a teenager in Berkshire, as you can see from my entries in my wildlife diary 1975. In those days I sported a luxuriant (but greasy) mop of hair and my knees were composed of bone, not titanium. You could guarantee a handful of water vole sightings during a short visit to the Thames or one of its tributaries.
Then Mink came along and ate nearly all of them.
This is the first Water Vole I have seen for decades. It was beside the very upper reaches of the Thames, so just about (or very nearly) qualifies for SW England. Even if it doesn’t quite qualify it is GREAT to see.
I took this next video clip, of a very similar-looking, but very much larger herbivore beside the upper reaches of an estuary which was definitely in Southwest England.
A Beaver enjoying breakfast.
We now float off downstream, back to the open coast.
Peregrine falcons are not uncommon, but to actually see one making a kill is exceptional. If you see one in hunting mode, or just starting a stoop, it will probably be out of sight (either round a headland or disappeared into the distance) by the time it strikes its prey. Even if you see the final moments of the plunge, they frequently miss.
I had only picked Jed up from the station in Exeter a couple of hours previously, so I was very pleased to be able to show him a Peregrine, as a fledgling snickered at its passing parent. I told him to watch that passing pigeon closely, just in case the falcons had a ‘go’ at it.
They certainly did. The adult and young Peregrine stooped in a shallow dive at the pigeon, there was a mid-air scuffle of wings for a split second, and then the struggling pigeon was just about scrambled to the rocks on the shore, secured in the talons of the peregrine that was losing height fast with the weight.
All in a few seconds, and a hundred yards away, and as usual I was hoping for an action replay to work out exactly what just happened. Looking at my pics later helped.
It is a juvenile Peregrine holding the pigeon (streaked breast, not barred). It looks as though the pigeon is a youngster as well (no white flashes on its neck), so was maybe easier to catch.
I’m pretty sure the young Peregrine actually caught the pigeon itself, although I might have expected the adult bird to have made the catch, and then passed it to its offspring as part of its training. I think the young bird had already progressed on to making its own ‘kills’, or perhaps this was its very first, and amazingly successful, effort!
I’m also pretty sure I saw the adult actually herd the pigeon in the direction of the young falcon because it was flying in the opposite direction a few seconds before the stoop.
Peregrines have a notch in their upper mandible to nip the spinal cord of their avian victims to kill them outright. This young bird didn’t do that (probably hadn’t had that lesson yet) so the unfortunate pigeon was still very much alive, and still flapping, as the Peregrine takes it behind a rock and out of sight to deal with it.
Here is the action again slowed down even further.
Fantastic. One of the great spectacles of the natural world. In my opinion right up there with things like seeing a Lion taking an antelope. Maybe even better, because it happened right here on our ‘doorstep’ and I suspect fewer people have seen a peregrine make a kill than a lion. All played out as we watched from the comfort of a kayak seat. And a completely random sight that only comes from putting in the hours of paddling. In my case, many thousands of hours. In Jed’s case, an hour and-a-half. Lucky.
It had to be Looe. Friends Krysia and Stefan were down to stay and I spent a long time ruminating where would be the best place to take them kayaking, with wildlife sightings top of the wish list.
Of course if the nature was a bit thin on the ground it would be helpful to find somewhere with jaw-dropping scenery and a sandy beach on which to take lunch. So it had to be Looe.
Oh yes, it would be helpful if the weather was in a cooperative mood as well.
Not only was the trip perfect climatologically, Looe seemed to do its absolute utmost to deliver a constant stream of wildlife nuggets, which started only a few yards from the slipway with a Little Egret stalking minnows,
and the local Housemartins collecting mud from the estuary (at low tide) for their nests. It’s been very dry so their usual freshwater collection sites will be dried out and rock hard.
Looe island is a really excellent place, maintained as a nature reserve by Cornwall Wildlife trust. This means restricted access to people and much, much, much more importantly no dogs. No dogs means ground nesting birds are not disturbed.
That doesn’t mean to say there is no harassment:
Everybody loves watching the seals (thanks for the video clip, Stefan):
This one was ‘bottling’, resting vertically in the water.
This smaller female seal came over to check us out and then sat on the seabed and studied us from a different angle.
While going through my pics later I saw it had a tag in its tail.
I sent my pics to Sue Sayer from Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust and she very excitedly replied that this was Prudie aka Freckles. Prudie was rescued by the BDMLR (British Diver Marine Life Rescue) as a storm-battered three day-old pup from Boscastle harbour on 4 September 2017. She was fed and nursed back to health at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary in Gweek, and then released along with six other rehabilitated seals at Porthtowan on the north Cornwall coast on 18 Dec 2017. (thanks for the detailed info, Sue)
A fantastic success story. Confirmation that the enormous efforts of the Cornish Seal Sanctuary at returning abandoned and malnourished seals to the wild is successful.
Prudie was looking to be in perfect health.
One of the bull Grey Seals appeared to have been in a bit of a bust-up, with a healing scar on his shoulder. Unless it was caused by a boat eg jetski.
Next up on the action list was a bit of peregrine spotting along the coast, before a well-earned nutrition break on a flat calm beach. More seals, a handful of tittering Whimbrels, and plenty of Oystercatchers on the way back.
We completed our day out with a jaunt up the West Looe river estuary to get a bit of a broad-leaved woodland type view of things.
As i drove down the lane I hadn’t decided where my paddle destination was to be today, but despite (very) early morning fuddleheadedness, my onboard sea-state assessment centres indicated east. Good call…..the moderate west wind was lighter in south-east Devon, and the east facing bit of coast would be sheltered from the swell coming from the west which was still a bit lively after the storms. As a bonus Dartmoor might block out the drizzle too.
So I went to Teignmouth.
The sea looked so benign I made a bee-line for Hope’s Nose six miles away, but the sea was fairly lifeless with just a handful of roving Gannets and the odd Guillemot. After coffee at a little beach at the ‘nose’ I paddled back close to the shore.
As I rounded the headland into Ansteys Bay I saw a diver surface in front of me….a Red-Throated. A beautiful bird and usually quite shy.
A great sighting but I’m not convinced the bird was fit…it did a lot of wing stretching and its neck looked a fat…I hope it hasn’t swallowed a fish hook.
As i watched the diver a lone porpoise surfaced in the background:
I was unusually peckish so headed for a really stunning little sheltered beach (accessible only by kayak) beneath a great slab of red sandstone cliff.
As I worked my way through a couple of disastrous ham sandwiches (dried out bread, sleepy coleslaw, slimy ham) a couple of seals swam into the bay and started to horse around….completely oblivious of, or just ignoring, me.
I watched them for ages and hoped they would move on so I didn’t disturb them when I continued my paddle back to Teignmouth. However they showed no sign of leaving this perfect little cove, so I quietly slipped my kayak onto the water and tried to sneak past without them noticing. Fat chance!….
They continued on at each other for a while and then turned their attention to me. (nice wren singing in the background in this video clip, by the way)
Then it was full on investigation of idiot sitting in kayak…..
All the time I watched the seals I was looking for signs of anxiety or fear caused by my appearance on the scene. Was I disturbing them? Apparently not…after scrutinising my hull, and me, very closely, with several upside down passes along the entire length of the hull bumping and shoving all the way, they just went back to their sparring.
You don’t have to have a degree in animal behaviour to see that my presence only a few feet away doesn’t seem to be influencing their behaviour at all.
It does appear that the seals in this area are remarkably tolerant of kayakers. This is not the case of some of the seals further west, and definitely not along the north coast of Cornwall at the large breeding colonies.
There are many more boats/kayakers/people in these sheltered and calm south-east Devon beaches so the seals are more habituated to people.
Although seals are bold and inquisitive when they are swimming they can feel very vulnerable when hauled out on a rock or on a beach.This is particularly so at their remote and innaccessable beaches where they have their pups. Too close an approach in a boat, kayak or paddleboard can easily cause a stampede into the water. Not good if you are a newborn pup and you are in the way of several hundred kilos of lumbering blubber.
The couple of miles back to Polly Steps where I had left my car were livened up by a pair of Peregrine Falcons which sped out over the sea on a hunt, but returned empty clawed.
Another surprisingly good wildlife day….better than the weather:
It’s not very often the first day of the year is so conducive to a paddle along the open coast. I didn’t start off in a particularly relaxed fashion however, because the mile or so from Brixham to Berry Head was a bit lumpy in the NW wind, and the cloud cover made the sea look grey and unfriendly.
However around the headland we were sheltered from the wind and the surface smoothed off nicely. I was hopeful for a view of the porpoises so we drifted out with the current along the tideline along which the porpoises hunt. We were pretty pleased when a trio of porpoises puffed and surfaced for a few minutes right in amongst our motley group of four kayaks, especially as this was a kayaking ‘first’ for Suzanne.
As we drifted south on the tide the sun came out and instantly transformed the monochrome grey sea into a vibrant blue. With the warmth of the sun the temperature would have done justice to a day in March, not the first day of January.
We angled in towards a ‘kayak only’ beach for an early lunch, passing little groups of fishing Guillemots and Razorbills.
We tucked in to the coast for a very warm paddle back toward Berry Head.
I was surprised to see some Guillemots already lined up along their nesting ledges and already in their smart breeding plumage, apparently enjoying the spring-like conditions as much as we were.
Strangely, as we rounded Berry Head and knuckled down to flog into the wind and chop, the cloud came over again and the summery colours reverted to wintery gloom.
However our spirits were not to be quashed by the whims of the weather, and we finished off the first trip of 2019 with the sight of a dozen Grey Seals hauled out on the pontoon, which Paul had smelled (!) as we had paddled past.
My search for the calmest waters to paddle usually leads to the shelter of one of the estuaries at this time of year, with the open sea usually battered by windchop or groundswell, or both.
A recent jaunt to the Fowey River from Golant is more typical of this time of year, but demonstrates how paddling along in absolute silence (apart from a bit of merry banter) always seem to deliver some exceptional wildlife sightings. On this occasion it was one of only a handful of Harbour Seals in SW England.
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.