Otter Encounter on the Torridge

Having not seen a single otter along the River Torridge last year, I was quite keen to try my luck now the water level had dropped after a week of dry weather. There was plenty of evidence of the recent heavy rain, however, with all the driftwood dammed up against the bridges.

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Taddiport Bridge

Otters are incredibly difficult to observe because they are extremely elusive and shy, not to mention being mainly nocturnal. So I made an extra effort to get out onto the water at first light. By the time I paddled off my fingers, despite wearing gloves, were already numb. Maybe not a surprise as it was minus 3 degrees. What an idiot. I certainly didn’t anticipate encountering any other kayakers.

I wasn’t at all prepared to see the first otter which was just around a corner only five minutes into my trip. I was fiddling about with my camera and the otter sensed my presence and vanished. I have learned from experience that if you get too close they just disappear and you will not see them again, no matter how long you wait.

The Torridge is fun to paddle, whether you see any otters or not.

 

Today’s eighteen mile, five hour paddle was as absorbing as ever and I soon found myself in the ‘zone’, paddling along in absolute silence and looking out for the slightest movement on the water or along the bank. The only noise I made was the occasional slurp of a warming draught of coffee. And crunch of an Orange Club.

Seventeen kingfishers, twenty-seven Dippers, five Goosanders, a Woodcock and a possible glimpse of a Mink, and of course I was hoping for another otter.

I looked at all the little patches of sand along the banks as I drifted past, and to my surprise nearly all of them had footprints and little scuffs that I’m pretty sure were otter prints. The owner of the footprints often seemed to have come from out of the water, and some of the tracks in soft sand were clearly webbed, so some were otters for sure. There was hardly a patch of sand without any tracks, so it looks like there’s plenty of them about.

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Otter print (with webs)

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After a couple of hours, along a straight bit of river, there was a big otter swimming in the middle of the river directly towards me. I paddled as fast and as silently as I could to the bank and hung onto a branch with one hand while I prepared my camera with the other. Excellent, it hadn’t seen (or smelled) me.

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It worked its way up the river catching a small crunchy snack at every dive. At the end of this next clip I think it can sense my presence so it submerges with hardlyt a splash, and is gone.

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I waited for it to reappear but soon gave up because I was getting cold, and I more or less knew it wouldn’t show again anyway.

To my astonishment, half-a-mile downstream was  another otter also fishing in the middle of the river. This one put on a good demonstration of the technique of porpoising.

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I knew it couldn’t resist climbing out on one of the mini islands to ‘mark’ it, as it drifted downstream away from me, so was ready with camera raised when it did so.

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This otter was spooked by the whine of a slurry tanker in a field half a mile away, instantly disappearing as soon as the pump started.

Absolutely fantastic, two of my best otter sightings away from the coast of Scotland, and within a couple of minutes of each other.

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Torridge Otter

 

 

 

 

River Torridge: Hatherleigh to Torrington

I like everything  about the River Torridge. It’s a great name, it’s my local big river (although I actually live just over the hill in the Tamar catchment), and it conjures up images of wild places with its link to Tarka the Otter, the novel written by Henry Williamson in 1927. No, I didn’t know the date off the top of my head, I’ve just Googled it.

The seventeen mile section between Hatherleigh and Torrington has so many twists and turns that you have got absolutely no idea of the direction in which you are pointing, and to add to the sense of  adventure some of the tangled woods through which you pass are so dense that they could easily act as cover for a pack of hunting Orcs.

My paddling companion today was Mark and we set off from just below the bridge at Hatherleigh.

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Let’s go!

The water was quite low so there were lots of little gravelly beaches to lure us in for the odd coffee break.

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River Torridge

After Beaford bridge until the outskirts of Torrington (11 miles) there is really very little sign of the existence of humans, apart from the occasional fishing hut several of which look like something out of Hansel and Gretel.

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Beaford Bridge

 

 

 

 

We found a good beach for lunch but we were getting slowly but surely colder so didn’t dither about too long. I got a sandwich blockage in my gullet from eating too quickly but succssfully shifted it with an orange club and swig of coffee.

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Speedy sandwich eating

 

 

 

The wildest part of the entire trip is Long Wood and it important to have a complete noise ban here because there is always the chance of seeing an otter.

 

 

On today’s paddle we didn’t see any otters at all, although to compensate we saw a load of birds: 25 Dippers, 15 Kingfishers, Goosanders and Mandarin ducks and Mark saw what was probably a Mink running along the bank (black and furry!).

Here’s a pic and video clip of previous otter sightings on the Torridge:

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Otter duo

This cub looked like it was thinking about jumping  into my kayak (it was a classic otter day..they seem to love the rain):

 

 

The first weir to negotiate is a couple of miles above Torrington: Lady Palmer weir. We didn’t fancy getting wet so portaged down the face.

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Lady Palmer weir

The second weir is outside the old milk factory in Torrington and is easily shootable using the salmon ladder on the right hand side. Mark makes it look effortless:

 

 

Exit is at Rothern Bridge beside the old railway station at Torrington.

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Exit at Torrington

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scotland 2018 part 1: Otter vs Giant Crab

I could not resist the continuing fine weather for kayaking in the west of Scotland so set off armed with tent and provisions for several days of wild camping, but first I had to do battle with the roadworks on the M6.

My number one wildlife aim was to get a decent photograph of an otter. Most in southwest England are active in poor light at either end of the day and so difficult to photograph , whereas in Scotland I have seen them along the coast in full sunshine.

After two days of paddling I had glimpsed a single otter surface once and then disappear, and had a marginally longer view of a couple of Mink.

Back amongst the islands of Arisaig I had given up hope of meeting up with an Otter because it was midday, sunny and hot, and there were loads of seals around. Then I saw this: (this is a video)

 

 

 

Otters can look like a small seal at a distance but the tail whipping up when it dives can mean it’s nothing else!

When it came up I could hardly believe my luck…it had caught an enormous crab and I knew it would be heading to the nearest rock to consume it.

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I sneaked after it as quietly as I could and sure enough it hopped out on a rock, had a good shake, and prepared the crab for demolition, but the crab had other plans and kept trying to scuttle off:

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It then stared hard at me because I was at the absolute limit of frightening it, about twenty yards. Otters have pretty poor eyesight and fortunately the light wind was in my face. If it was blowing the other way the otter would still be on the way to the Isle of Skye as fast as it could swim (I hadn’t showered for a day or two). It had winkled off the carapace of the crab in one piece and still had it in its mouth as it stared.

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Otter eating crab

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Luckily I was blown back out out of its worry range and it got stuck in to crunching the crab’s legs. It made more noise than Rick Stein tucking in to a lobster.

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It really wolfed its way through its seafood lunch and made sure there was nothing left before exiting the scene with a perfect splashless racing dive.

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Absolutely excellent. This was exactly what I had hoped to witness on my paddle trip to Scotland but hadn’t expected quite such a perfect show.

Incidentally, this is the same species of otter that is found all over the UK. It is often thought, quite understandably, that these are Sea Otters because around Scotland they do most of their hunting in the sea. Sea Otters are a quite distinct species that live in the Pacific off North America.

Compared to rivers and lakes the sea is absolutely bursting with all the otter’s favourite foods. It’s chock full of crabs, anenomes and butterfish, so it’s no wonder that’s where these European River Otters like to hunt. Looking for food in the sea must be like walking into a well-stocked delicatessen, whereas trying to find food in a river or lake is very more challenging and like trying to locate the buffet car on a train.

Unlike Sea Otters, European Otters need a source of fresh water nearby in which to clean up, and always take larger prey items on to solid ground to devour them.

 

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Otter with crab

 

 

 

Dawn Chorus and an Otter or two

May started off,  in perfect paddling style, with a dawn chorus trip along the River Tamar.

The appallingly early start paid off with some great wildlife sightings and a mysterious paddle through the early morning mist that was reluctant to be dissipated by the sun.

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Misty morning on the Tamar

The river surface was glassy smooth but round a corner I ran into some ripples that I suspected might have been created by an otter. I then heard some loud sloshing noises coming from the bank beneath some trees and through the mist could see a Roe Deer trying to clamber out of the water and up the steep slope…..I had missed it swimming across the river in front of me by about a minute!….and would have seen it but for the fog.

 

 

As the sun appeared the dawn chorus really got going and over the period of about three hours I picked out at least twenty-five different songs. The most frequent, and loudest, were Wrens and easily the best were Blackbirds, hotly pursued by Blackcap and Robin. Assisting Blackcaps in the migrant department were Chiffchaffs, Sedge Warblers and the tuneless rattle of a rarely seen Lesser Whitethroat (which of course I didn’t see). Chaffinch, Goldfinch and Reed Bunting did not want to be left out and four species of Tit just about qualified as songsters. Stretching it a bit was the coo of Stock Doves and Pigeons, the crow of a Pheasant and laugh of a Green Woodpecker. Nearly forgot about a single Goldcrest. Oh, and Swallows.

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Chattering Swallow

If you were to toss in to the mix the whistle of a pair of passing Mandarins, the peep of a Kingfisher, jink of a Dipper, and assorted cries of Great Spotted Woodpeckers, crows, rooks and jackdaws, that brings the total of bird species heard to over thirty. Surely you’d struggle to find a better place on the planet.

Unfortunately the serenity was shattered by the death-screech of a Song Thrush, a fledgling I suspect, that was carried off by a Carrion Crow for breakfast for its own brood.

While lost in listening to a particular loud and clear blackbird, a big swirl on the surface fifty yards ahead caught my attention. An otter for certain. And it was struggling with a BIG fish. I drifted a bit closer and watched it splash and twist and roll with occasional glimpses of what appeared to be an eel about three foot long. After a minute or so it swam to the bank and then rapidly followed the shore downstream, constantly struggling with the eel which was still very much alive, so there was quite a lot of splashing still. It travelled fast (three to four mph) and as it approached a dense bush overhanging the water it uttered a high pitched ‘peep’ and disappeared into the bush, and that was it gone.

 

 

 

Perhaps it was just  finding somewhere  quiet to eat its breakfast, but I think that there may have been cubs nearby and it was presenting them with a live fish and had called to them on its approach.

A couple of weeks prior to this encounter I had seen another (possibly the same) otter with a fish on the shore in roughly the same place, and had then glimpsed a smaller creature disappearing into a large hole at water level….was this a cub? Intriguing, and a good reason to go back to investigate.

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Otter eating fish

I dropped in to the shore for a thermos of coffee at a place where there are an awful lot of signs making you feel very unwelcome and basically saying you can’t get out. So I always do.

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Unwelcoming signs

Nice to see a Common Sandpiper who also contributed to the catalogue of ‘peeps’ with its own version (and Sandpipers are the best at it).

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Common Sandpiper

Apart from the assault on the eardrums of scores of singing birds along the Tamar in early May, nostrils are bludgeoned with the overwhelming smell of Wild Garlic, which seems to concentrate in the heavy air of a cold early morning. It’s so strong it makes your eyes water.P1080558.JPG

The Beech trees seemed to have got even more yellowy-green on the way back.P1080358

I passed a couple of broods of Mallard ducklings, the first was a large family of a dozen and a week or so old, the second straight out of the nest and about eleven.

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Mallard family 1
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Mallard family 2

Most bizarre was the Canada Goose that was looking for somewhere to nest and making sure that the site was above high water level. She had clearly factored in the recent heavy rainfall but when calculating a margin of safety I think had got her decimal point one or two places out.

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Canada Goose looking for nest site
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….bit too far for the goslings to jump, maybe…

 

The Lone Kayaker is now Video Enabled!

At last, after nearly 20,000 miles on the paddling odometer, The Lone Kayaker has discovered the little red video button on his camera. Before now he has only pressed it by accident.

However in a supreme effort to extricate himself from the sort of era when voles ruled the planet, he is now video-enabled (love the jargon) so he can embed (there it is again) movies into his blog.

So now your favourite reading and viewing can be even more favouriter.

Here’s a handful of the older videos to get things started:

Common Dolphins off Fowey Aug 2016. A total and utter thrill, how could it ever be anything else?:

 

 

 

Otter on River Torridge 2016. A typically wet, ottery type day:

 

 

 

Slapton Porpoise 2017…..listen for the ‘piff ‘as it breathes. That is why they had the old name of ‘Puffing Pig’ in Newfoundland (they were called ‘Herring Hogs’ in England)

 

 

 

And finally, for the time-being, no apologies for a nod to the hundreds of hours I spent taking down train numbers on platform 4 of Reading station as a little lad. As the ancient Chinese proverb says “Once a trainspotter, always a trainspotter”. Actually it might not have been the Chinese, it might have been my friend Neil from the platform, but never mind.

Here’s the superb China Clay train at Fowey. Number 66 187,in case you want to put it in your little book. Just listen to those air brakes!

 

 

 

 

Note: these videos are taken with old cameras and of a dodgy quality……from now on they will be 4K quality. Not sure what that is but they are going to be pretty pin sharp!

Camel Otter

A sparkling, still, clear morning lured me down to the River Camel for a predawn start. It had to be that early so I could get up to Wadebridge for the turn of the tide, and although my kayak was encrusted in frost I was hopeful, as usual, to have some special wildlife encounters as the sun peeped up.

The beach at Rock was deserted apart from a few slavering mongrels dashing about with their owners frantically blowing whistles and the dogs taking absolutely no notice at all.P1040396

It was superb to head off up the estuary with my kayak silently knifing across the glass-calm surface.

The soundtrack to my trip was classic winter wetland birds: the rippling call of Curlew, piping of Oystercatchers, clear call of Redshank and a handful of Greenshank, and mewing of Lapwing.

I kept away from the shore to avoid disturbing the roosting flock of over a hundred oystercatchers at the foot of Cant Hill, and as I approached Cant Cove saw a disturbance on the completely smooth water a hundred yards ahead that didn’t look like a duck.

I engaged ‘stealth mode’ and paddled on in absolute silence and soon realised the ‘v’ on the surface was caused by an otter. It was heading straight towards me so I readied my camera and sat absolutely still. It dived a couple of times but continued on its collision course before glancing off at the last second, passing without apparently being too alarmed by my presence (or smell). Actually it seemed most concerned about the noise my camera made as the ‘burst mode’ clattered away.

A fantastic view in the post-dawn sun, smooth water and nice green backdrop to the image from the reflection of the trees behind.P1040386

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Camel River Otter

I followed it along the shore as it continued to hunt, leaving a tell-tale trail of bubbles every time it dived. One dive was long and it covered a surprisingly long distance underwater,  before getting out into a mini cave for a bit of a sniff around. I was expecting another good view when it took to the water again but it inexplicably completely  disappeared even though there was apparently very few places for it to hide along the open shore.

This is only the third time I have seen an otter in salt water from my kayak in an open estuarine location around SW England. I saw one close to this same spot on the Camel last year, and one on the Fowey estuary many years ago. All the rest have been in the rivers.

There was a lot of waterbird action around the Amble Marshes a bit further upstream and the wind remained non-existent to make the paddling experience as good as it could be on a chilly winter morning. The sun ensured all the birds were looking at their best.

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Upper Camel Estuary

As I quietly slipped along I heard the plinking of a load of pebbles being flipped over along the shoreline and came upon a busy little gang of Turnstones doing just what their name suggests they ought to do. Interestingly I noticed that they flip the stones over by opening their beaks to act like a lever.

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Turnstones

The best sighting was a pair of Whooper Swans far off across the saltmarsh but the supporting cast wasn’t to be sneezed at:

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Shelduck
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Goosander (2 ducks and a drake)
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Wigeon

After sticking the nose of my kayak beneath the A39 flyover, I sped back down to Padstow on the outgoing tide and my morning of excellent wildlife watching was nicely rounded off by a thumping great Glaucous Gull, a rare winter visitor from the arctic, taking a rest on the sandbar in the middle of the river.P1040572

Glaucous Gull
Glaucous Gull

I arrived back at Rock and just about escaped from the car park before I was hemmed in by a convoy of shiny 4x4s with personal numberplates.

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Padstow (complete with slavering mongrel)