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.

Glaucous Gull
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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.