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.
The water was quite low so there were lots of little gravelly beaches to lure us in for the odd coffee break.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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)
I saw one Grey Seal in amongst a colony at the mouth of Loch Moidart. It had a whitish blaze across its head.
A trip to Scotland would not be complete without a Red Deer and I would have been surprised not to see one…..
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.
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.
It was so still most of the time that I could here the ‘coos’ of these Eiders long before I could see them.
It was time to head for home, a mere 650 miles away.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
The Beech trees seemed to have got even more yellowy-green on the way back.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
The best sighting was a pair of Whooper Swans far off across the saltmarsh but the supporting cast wasn’t to be sneezed at:
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.
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.
100 along Rivers in England (Thames and two Avons)
500+ miles of offshore paddling (more than a mile from the coast) in Devon and Cornwall.
6 trips out to the Eddystone Lighthouse
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. ???
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).
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.
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.
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.
37 Balearic Shearwaters, on six days. Scattered amongst the much more common Manx Shearwater, usually well offshore.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Several pairs of Black-throated Divers in Scotland. The most beautifully marked UK bird?
Kingfishers on 21 days. Everybody’s favourite waterbird.
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.
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.