It was a surprisingly pleasant morning along the Teign. My timing was perfect ( i.e. complete luck). A band of showers had just passed over, and there was sunny gap of a couple of hours before the next arrived.
It was nearly high tide so the winter waders were scattered about the fringes of the estuary relaxing, waiting for the water to drop again to make their food accessible. They look for somewhere away from disturbance by people and, more importantly, dogs. They clearly don’t need somewhere which is quiet.
These Oystercatchers are hunkered down on an embankment beside the main SW railway line. perfect!
There was a nice variety of other waterbirds resting beside the water…..
Curlew and Shelduck:
and a scenic mix of winter waders. Here the Redshank’s legs are much more red than the Greenshank’s legs are green. Although actually they’re more orange than red.
I was very surprised to see a drake Common Scoter swimming strongly up the middle of the estuary. Scoters are proper sea ducks and are usually seen far out to sea or along the open coast. It’s not often that they venture into enclosed waters. This one clearly wan’t used to swimming in the proximity of a railway track, because every time a train went past it spooked, and dived.
Lovely to see it in the early morning sun…they are the classic ‘black duck’ and it”s exceptional to get close enough to see any colour (although there’s not alot to see)
Right at the top of the estuary near the Newton Abbott road bridge, I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a Spoonbill in amongst a flock of roosting gulls. My closest view of one ever, by quite a long way. Too close in fact, and I paddled away as fast but as unsplashily as possible, because it looked like it was about to fly off.
It did, but it settled down again a hundred yards away.
It was excellent to observe this extraordinary and charismatic bird feeling relaxed enough to have a bit of a spruce up before tucking the spoon away for a snooze.
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.
My day of kayaking started off like any other….absolutely fantastic. Cunning scrutiny of the weather forecast led me to the picture-perfect Percuil creek near St.Mawes, where, as I had planned, the wind fell light and the sun came out just as I arrived at 8am.(more like sheer luck, in reality)
Slicing across a sheet of glass-smooth water in absolute silence in this sort of place is kayaking at its best. Nothing to hear but the piping of Oystercatchers, Green- and Redshanks, the kraark of Herons, the whistle of a speeding Kingfisher and cackling chatter of Shelduck. Even the seven-note call of an unseasonal Whimbrel.
This Greenshank seemed to be as thrilled as I was with a bit of December sun.
Paddling back down the creek towards St.Mawes was directly into the sun but very scenic in a monochrome sort of a way.
Just before I came round the final bend in the river I heard a snort and saw a disturbance on the smooth surface. I assumed it was a seal but to my incredulity a couple of dolphins surfaced. In over 21,000 miles of paddling I have never seen dolphins this far up a creek.
I sat tight in an effort not to disturb them, and watched.
I was even more surprised to see the yellow patch on the side which showed that these were Common Dolphins, and not Bottlenose as I had initially thought. Bottlenose Dolphins are at home in shallow water as they sometimes like to eat shellfish and crabs, whereas Common Dolphins are creatures of the open sea, and probably not wired-up for navigation along a narrow creek which was rapidly getting narrower as the tide went out.
However they seemed to be quite happy and swimming strongly, although when |I left them they were heading upstream which was not a good plan.
To make my trip complete I intended to paddle out around Black Rock in the middle of Carrick Roads where it opens up into the sea, and although there was quite a swell running, and the tide was going out, the wind remained light and the sun was still out so the sea looked pretty benign.
Of course I was hoping to see some ‘open sea’ wildlife, and was rewarded with a couple of Loons out near Black Rock.
I looped around Black Rock and let the current suck me out towards the lighthouse at St.Anthony Head before heading back up the shoreline.
All the time I was looking out for the pair of dolphins, hoping that they were making their way back out to open waters. I stopped for lunch overlooking Falmouth as a Merlin helicopter was being very noisy:
I wound my way back up the Percuil river between all the mooring buoys, and as I passed the entrance to Porth creek saw the fins of the dolphins zigzagging about like a couple of sharks. Not a good idea to be in such a shallow creek as low water was approaching. This is the domain of egrets, not dolphins.
I watched them from a safe distance for a good half-an-hour, and then things started to go wrong.
They moved close to the northern bank of the creek and the smaller dolphin halted, apparently grounded on a mud bank, but still submerged apart from fin and blowhole. The larger dolphin swam a hundred yards further up the creek and deliberately started to beach itself on the mud.
I paddled towards the scene as I saw members of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) (who had obviously been tipped off by an astute observer and had been watching from the shore), moving down to the water’s edge to help.
One heroic medic waded into the muddy water to try to divert the dolphin back into the channel:
This was temporarily successful but the dolphin swam round in a big loop and started to run aground again. I offered my assistance and attempted to steer the dolphin away from the shallow water.
Unfortunately my efforts too were only briefly successful and the dolphin ran itself aground.
This initiated a full rescue operation by the four BDMLR volunteers present, and for the next three plus hours they worked tirelessly to maintain the dolphins during the critical time they were out of the water.
Under the instruction of BDMLR vet Natalie, the dolphins were covered in sheets and/or seaweed and had seawater poured over them constantly to stop their skin from drying out. Natalie assessed their health and decided to move the dolphins together. Definitely a good idea but moving 100kg of struggling dolphin about on a plastic sheet over slippery seaweed is not a straightforward procedure. Fortunately another two BDMLR members arrived to ease the lumbago.
The initial plan was to put the dolphins onto a boat and take them a couple of miles out into the deeper water of Carrick Roads although failing light would have made this very challenging, so it was relief all round when the incoming tide came to the rescue and refloated the dolphins.
Unfortunately I had departed at this stage because it was nearly dark, but I hear that both dolphins were seen swimming strongly out into deeper water and hopefully made it safely back into their more familiar oceanic environment.
Their is a lot of mystery surrounding cetacean strandings but it seems likely that these pair had made a navigational error. Common Dolphins spend most of their time well offshore and range widely , and these may have ventured into the (exceptionally) deep water of the outer part of Carrick Roads, and accidentally headed into the mouth of the Percuil River when they meant to head east in the open sea. Maybe they were lured in by the easy feast of lots of Grey Mullet which I saw as I was paddling and which they seemed to be chasing.
And once into the very shallow water of Porth Creek it would be very easy to become disorientated and confused, especially with a dropping tide……but who knows???
Whatever, today was a triumph for the BDMLR volunteers. They responded quickly enough to be on hand when the dolphins beached and had all the expertise, experience and equipment (and muscle power) to deal with the situation and care for the dolphins and get them back into deep water. Good job!
My second series of assorted images taken from the kayak seat from all around Devon and Cornwall.
Am I getting paranoid or did this Newlyn trawler really pile on the power as it approached me to throw up as big a wash as possible for me to negotiate? It certainly throttled right back after it had gone past:
A few offshore seabirds for the serious ornithologists:
….listen to the electrifying call of the fastest creature on the planet, the Peregrine Falcon.
Autumn is definitely upon us, so offshore paddling is replaced by exploration of the rivers. Tough.
After several major offshore paddles recently, to Eddystone, Dodman Point and Tintagel, a downturn in the weather forced The Lone Kayaker to a return to coastal paddling.
Although I find being far out to sea the most exciting environment for paddling, with the possibility of a whale appearing at any second, following the shore is more interesting from a scenery point of view. Also there are more boats and people to look at, if that is your thing. Maybe even 007 himself……
Or watching some poor devil getting a ticket because he was parked slightly on the grass because the carpark was completely full.
Out along the coast there is always something to maintain the attention in the ornithological department. For example, incessantly piping Oystercatchers,
stands of reptilian-looking shags resting on the offshore rocks,
and a handful of very confiding Turnstones creeping about amongst the barnacles. Beautiful little birds, but extraordinarily difficult to spot amongst the acres of rocks exposed at low tide.
As I was watching the Turnstone a seal popped up beside me with a snort. I was pretty sure it was the same individual that had climbed onto my kayak a couple of weeks ago…a smallish Grey Seal with the look and behaviour of a youngster. It wasted no time in checking me out and then starting to sniff the deck of my kayak, probably looking for a snack. You will see from this video that it once again appears to be excited and playful and throws its head about a bit while working out what to do.
(p.s ignore the date stamp….havn’t got to grips with GoPro fully.)
In anticipation of its next move I paddled alongside a rock and hung on tight, and sure enough the seal decided to hop on board. Hardcore science types would say that this action is purely motivated by food, and indeed the seal did do a lot of sniffing about and close inspection of my dry bag on the back deck, which contained nothing more stimulating to the appetite than some moderately stale Custard Creams. However watching the seal’s behaviour closely, I am sure that a bit of horsing about was involved.
It finished off with an inverted swimpast.
It was then joined by a pale-coloured friend and they had a bit of an introductory twirl.
Other larger and maybe wiser members of the group watched from a distance, and I made sure I didn’t approach too close to frighten them into the water, so took a long loop around the reef out to sea when I moved on.
Only the friendly seal came along to accompany me, porpoising along beside the kayak and bumping into the rudder regularly. At one stage a gull flew over about six foot above the seal’s head and the seal playfully snapped at the bird.
It got even more excited when a local tourist boat appeared round the corner and it benefited from a handout in the shape of a mackerel.
As I paddled across the bay the seal eventually disappeared and I reverted to admiring the shore-based wildlife. A juvenile Buzzard on top of the cliff was constantly whining at it’s unseen parents. This is the main soundtrack of the countryside at this time of the year when all other birds have largely fallen silent.
I pulled up on a tiny beach for a coffee break and as I did so a Kingfisher flashed past with a whistle, and a flash of orange and brilliant turquoise. This was the first one I have seen on the open coast this summer, presumably a bit of post-breeding dispersal as they nest in holes along river banks. It was a typical fleeting view, summed up quite nicely by this indistinct photo:
And so back to something resembling civilisation, and the buzz of the beach.
The last nugget of wildlife before I got back to the slipway was a Little Egret hunting little fish as the tide surged in.