Sizzling Summer Part Two: The Sensational Wildlife of Southwest England

 

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.

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They show only a passing interest in waterskiers……..P1340660

and are quite happy to be the stars of the show:P1340663

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.

 

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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.

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Harbour Seal

 

 

 

 

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…….

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Porpoise in a rush, Portscatho
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Common Dolphin in even more of a rush, Looe
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Risso’s Dolphin taking a look, Sennen

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.

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Bude Guillemot

Manx Shearwaters are constant companions offshore, zipping past the kayak in compact groups, or resting on the surface.

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Manx Shearwater

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.

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Oystercatcher plus chick

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.

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Entry in my wildlife book….from 44 years ago (gulp..that’s nearly half a century)

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.

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Jed aghast

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.

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Juvenile Peregrine clasping Woodpigeon

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.

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Sizzling Summer part one: The Scenery

For much of July Devon and Cornwall have been under blue skies so the dress code for kayaking is as minimal as possible. Just enough clothes to avoid sunburn, and embarrassment as you stroll up the beach for lunchbreak. For some reason people sitting on beaches always stare at kayakers.

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Lantic Bay

There were a few dodgy and cool days to begin with, but they now seem long ago.

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Simon at Polperro.

I’ve been getting about a bit this month.  From the top of creeks twenty miles ‘inland’ to far, far offshore.

Enjoy the photogallery:

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The curse of the coast
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Early start on Camel Estuary
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Upper Camel
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Mid Camel
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Lower Camel
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Scillonian Penzance
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Dave and St.Mawes
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St. Michael’s Mount
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St. Anthony Head
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Jed and Yours Truly
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Jed, Fowey docks
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Eddystone
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Mark and Paul, Crackington
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Strangles Beach
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Beeny
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Boscastle Cave
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Torridge
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St. Ives
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Dave and Place House, St.Anthony
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Looe island (not Love island)
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Jed and the Lone Kayaker, Looe
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Mark and Boscastle zawn
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Pencarrow Head and Jed
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Teignmouth
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Fowey

 

 

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Strangles Beach
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Padstow Bay Lifeboat station

The cost of parking a car beside the sea is a source of grumblement. So it’s nice when the machines blow a fuse:

 

What better way to keep cool on the hottest day of the year?

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River Torridge

Next blog coming soon:

Sizzling Summer Part 2: The Sensational Wildlife of the Southwest Coast.

featuring dolphins, porpoise, seals, jellyfish, peregrines, beaver, water vole and more.

 

 

 

Dolphins put on a Show

If you want to try to watch dolphins from a kayak my advice would be not to. It is incredibly difficult and you are almost certain to fail. Most of the time they are more than a couple of miles offshore, and just finding a day when the sea is smooth enough to make the trip enjoyable, and calm enough to see fins breaking the surface, is a challenge.

Also dolphins range far and wide so the chances of seeing them at all is always small, especially as using binoculars on a kayak (as would a dolphin-watching boat) is useless due to constant movement.

I hadn’t seen any dolphins since the end of March, since when I have paddled nearly 600 miles, including over one hundred and sixty miles over a mile offshore specifically looking for dolphins. The sea has been extraordinarily quiet, just a few porpoises and hardly a roving Gannet to be seen. All the marine wildlife watching companies around the coast have been saying the same.

Until now.

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Common Dolphins in a rush

I was on the water at 5am because the window of light winds was only forecast to last till midday. It started off grey and choppy but as I headed offshore the wind lightened and the surface glassed off nicely. Manx shearwaters zipped past and a few Razorbills and Guillemots fished from the surface.

Far ahead a single Gannet twisted in the air and dived, and three more circled. That was the only encouragement I needed to engage top gear because I was sure there would be something interesting swimming beneath, and sure enough there were the fins. Dolphins. Phew, I was about to pack in all this stuff due to lack of success!

I could see there were quite a few juveniles, with their smaller dorsal fins, in the pod of about eight individuals. As usual a delegate of adults came over to investigate me as I carefully approached. I presume this is to assess my threat level ( I could be an Orca) and warn the rest of the group accordingly.

 

 

 

 

Fortunately they decided I was completely benign and went off to carry on with hunting as a pack.

 

 

 

 

There ensued an enthralling half hour as the pod remained in essentially the same place, slow swimming, diving, resting, rushing and every so often jumping. Unlike porpoises which roll at the surface with barely a ripple, Common Dolphins are very dynamic and do a lot of splashing.

 

 

 

I silently left the scene and headed further out, looking for even bigger stuff, although the next marine marvel was actually quite small….a Puffin, with the grubby-looking face and smudgy-coloured bill of an immature bird probably hatched last year.

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immature Puffin

I loitered four or five miles offshore, downed coffee and headed back in before the wind picked up. I stopped at an obvious tideline and saw a couple of distant Porpoises slinking about before checking out the underwater action……jellyfish: one Barrel Jelly, several Blue jellies and over fifty Compass jellyfish, the first I have seen this year:

 

 

 

Notice the little pink fish that is tucked in behind the jellyfish’s umbrella. The perfect safe place away from hungry mouths, and made even safer because it is surrounded by a palisade of stinging tentacles. 

 

 

 

As I watched I heard a thumping splash further along the tideline, almost a mile away. I paddled over to investigate and came upon another small pod of dolphins, about half-a-dozen. These were even more dynamic than the first lot:

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Common Dolphins
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Common Dolphins

 

 

 

Sometimes they re-entered the water seamlessly after a jump, sometimes they bellyflopped appallingly with a mighty splash:P1330078

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I was getting a stiff back and numb backside after seven hours in the kayak seat, so was just setting off for the shore when this dolphin put in the best jump of the day. An appropriate finale.

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Common Dolphin

Dolphin drought over.

 

 

Cod, Seal, Beaver

Before we get to the REALLY exciting wildlife encounters here’s a selection of other stuff I have observed recently while paddling silently along.

The first was actually on the end of a fishing line. I havn’t done any kayak-fishing for a few years but my plan for later in the summer to lure some Blue Sharks within range of my Gopro meant I had to catch some mackerel for ‘bait’. My rod nearly got jerked out my hand when ten pounds of fish, consisting of two Pollack and a Cod, pounced upon the mackerel feathers simultaneously. I released the Pollack and was tempted to take the Cod home for tea, but it somehow managed to read my thoughts and with a mighty effort leaped overboard.

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Pollack,Pollack,Cod

Next to the beautiful Avon estuary in south Devon,

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Avon Estuary at Bantham

where I came upon the largest brood of Shelduck I have seen this spring/summer.

Fifteen Ducklings!

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I was very pleased to see that the swans which were nesting beside the upper reaches of my local estuary, the Torridge, had successfully hatched out five cygnets. It’s always better when it’s on your local ‘patch’.

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Torridge cygnets

Charlie L and I had a superb peregrine encounter off a particularly dramatic cliffy bit of South Devon. 20190621_082115

A female peregrine came labouring in off the sea carrying a large prey item, followed casually by the male bird. It landed on a small headland and as it plucked the victim the feathers drifted off downwind. We assumed the prospective meal was dead, but in a sudden flurry of wings the pigeon escaped and sprinted off around the corner, hotly pursued by the hungry falcon.

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Peregrine (male)

It apparently didn’t get far because the peregrine and meal (half eaten) flew past again later. Nice try though.

Looe island never disappoints because it is private and so free from wandering dogs, which can terrify wildlife. It was great to see a couple of fledgling oystercatchers dozing on the beach. They are usually very difficult to observe because on the approach of anything remotely resembling a threat, including an ageing kayaker, the parents pipe a warning call and the youngsters immediately rush into a dark corner and hide.

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Fledgling Oystercatchers

Oystercatcher adults are very vocal and as usual there was a lot of shouting going on:

 

For the first time I can recall I saw an Oystercatcher swimming in the sea. This is very unusual and I think it was probably a tactic to lure a walker away from their youngsters who were probably hunkered down on the beach where they had hatched. You can see the interloper in the video:

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Swimming Oystercatcher

 

I was expecting to see Willis the resident Whimbrel as I paddle along the beach, but instead was very surprised to come across this Bar-tailed Godwit. A bit drab to look at but legendary amongst bird enthusiasts because of its huge migration feats, with a non-stop flight in excess of 6,800 miles being the longest recorded of any bird. Was this bird late onn its way north to arctic breeding grounds, or an early departer for the south. Who knows?

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Bar-tailed Godwit

I did indeed come across Willis the Whimbrel later, similar in plumage, but not in beak, to the Godwit.

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Willis the Whimbrel

On the same reef was Eric the resident Eider. Both of these species should migrate north in the summer but have clearly decided that life at Looe is just too pleasant to desert for half the year.

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Eric the Eider taking a nap

As usual I was investigated by a couple of inquisitive seals, one of which looked remarkably like Nudger, a young male Grey Seal who clambered out onto my kayak deck last year. Here he is in August (ignore the date stamp which is wrong):

 

Today’s seal was bit darker and appeared to have different markings to Nudger, but his behaviour and apparent enjoyment of draping seaweed over his head, and swimming upside down, were identical to Nudger.P1320643

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It was, as usual, great to see this creature which is very ungainly out of the water, wafting about with effortless ease.

 

 

 

Tremendously exciting, but this experience was eclipsed by my first ever sighting of a Beaver, not only in the UK but anywhere in the world. My ultra early start paid off, although I was hoping to see an otter.

This clip was taken just after 5am, in Southwest England!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looe Delivers the Wildlife (again)

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.

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Stefan and Krysia

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.

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Krysia, Stefan and Becky

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,

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Little Egret

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.

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Housemartins
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Housemartin

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.P1290668

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While going through my pics later I saw it had a tag in its tail. Tag

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)

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Prudie

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.

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Scarred bull seal

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.

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Oystercatcher.

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.

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West Looe River

 

Beaches, Birds, Chums and Cherry Bakewells

 

Here’s a selection of assorted pics from trips during the fantastic weather of the last ten days:

 

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Razorbills changing into breeding plumage . Veryan Bay
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Lansallos Beach
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Polperro
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Guillemot, St Austell Bay
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Gribbin Head
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Lantic Bay , Fowey
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Great Northern Diver (Common Loon), Mevagissey
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Dave and Simon, Rumps Point, Polzeath
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Dave and Simon, Newlands, Polzeath
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Perfectly synchronised Guillemots, Polzeath
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Dave ‘n Cave, Portquin
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Puffin, The Mouls, Polzeath
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Peregrine peering
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Simon and Dave, Rumps Point, Polzeath
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Guillemot reluctant to change out of winter clothes, Portquin
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Dave and sushi. Healthy stuff.
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Cherry Bakewell. No natural ingredient within miles.
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Looe
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Eric the lone Eider, Looe
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Hang on !!!! Eric’s found a mate……Erica, Looe
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Duchess the (half blind) Grey Seal (thanks for the id, Sue)
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Oystercatcher, Looe
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Cormorants with nestlings, Looe
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Little rattly train , Looe
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Dave, Looe
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Filming with BBC Spotlight (thanks for the pic, Dave)
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Dave up the creek, Looe
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Barrel Jelly

Don’t try to tell me that SW England is not a world class sort of place.

 

 

Nudger

A long-arranged day’s kayaking with Jeremy and Jane was looking good with very light wind and decent temperature for early October, so the open sea coast was our destination.

We started off at Looe.

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Looe Harbour

Out into the open sea we headed directly offshore, stopping to take in the glass smooth surface and clear water…….and up popped Nudger the seal between our two kayaks.

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Nudger

We didn’t go to him. he came to us. So for a little while, we enjoyed the extraordinary encounter.

 

He worked his way round all four of us kayakers, clearly hoping for a fishy handout. nudger 8

 

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It was smiles all round (although maybe not from Nudger who failed to get any seal-type  snacks) but we eventually dragged ourselves away and paddled off at top speed. However Nudger had not finished with us and followed in our slipstream, tugging at the skeg on Becky’s and my kayak and pulling at the toggle on Jeremy and Jane’s.

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Nudger pulling at the toggle.

 

It was only when we came into the territory of a big bull seal that Nudger suddenly disappeared.

Wow, a good start to our wildlife watching trip.

We paddled out to sea in a big arc with Polperro our destination for lunch. A single Balearic Shearwater was an unexpected bonus although you probably have to be a bit of a birder to fully appreciate them, as to the non-birder they are disappointingly smudgy brown, and usually distant, and easy to overlook.

Just before we swung into Polperro, about a mile and-a-half offshore, there were a handful of Gannets circling and occasionally plunging. I was certain there would be a porpoise around and one duly appeared with a very satisfactory ‘piff’. It put on a fantastic show as we just sat and watched surfacing so close we could hear it inhaling as well as the main exhalation blast. A kayaking first for Becky and Jane.

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Polperro Porpoise

We scorched into Polperro as all the wildlife excitement had seriously delayed our lunch. As fast as you can go in an inflatable double kayak (with a bit of a leak) anyway.polperro lunch.jpg

 

Lunch was taken on the wall of the super-quaint village of Polperro.

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Polperro-lunch on the wall

The day of wildlife was nicely rounded off with a distant peregrine scorching across the horzon, and a couple of Kingfishers fishing up the hidden creeks of the Looe estuary.

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Looe Kingfisher

(yet to get a good Kingfisher pic from kayak).

Today belonged to Nudger:

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