Up the Creek…Autumn Gold, Winter Grey

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Mevagissey

We are actually going to start today’s adventure with a rare recent coastal trip which included a circuit round Mevagissey’s inner harbour, serenaded by a male voice choir! The even rarer appearance of the sun makes the super-quaint coastal town look even more scintillating than usual.

 

Turnstones are regular winter visitors to the harbour walls and quaysides of all the coastal towns, and are often very tame. They are particularly tolerant of kayakers, but it’s unfair to get so close you disturb their catnap. So I don’t.

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Turnstone

Overlooking Mevagissey bay the autumn showers provide a hint of colour to the grey tones of the china clay country behind St.Austell.

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Clay country rainbow

I also had the briefest of paddles along the north coast of Cornwall at Bude during a lull in the swell. That’s certainly the last time this bit of coast will be suitable for a kayak for the next few weeks, the surf is going to be huge.

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‘Kayak-only’ beach near Bude

Up the creeks the mists of autumn add a mysterious flavour to the early mornings. It’s hard to be stealth with all the Canada Geese about, they are very vocal guard dogs and it’s impossible to sneak past without being noticed.

It’s amazing how the winding estuaries can be completely glassy when the open coast, only a few miles away, is seriously blowy.

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Every creek echoes to the flutey piping of Redshank

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and the call of the Curlew which is one of the classic sounds of the winter water.

Beady eyes are always watching.

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Grey Heron

This pic shows thelonekayaker demonstrating nice straight arms for the perfect paddling technique (although they only straightened from the usual slovenly position when the camera was noticed):

 

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Mike from Bideford kayak club shows how it is done without having to worry about what you do with your arms. His Hobie kayak, powered by pedal power that drives a pair of flippers beneath the kayak, speeds along faster than most conventional kayaks. I tried to keep up with him and was left behind rather pathetically.

The weather has been very autumnal and is now very wintry in a southwest England sort of a way. That is wet, windy, and although not particularly cold, feeling pretty miserable and not conducive to outdoor activities.P1400159

Now winter is upon us the colours in the rainbows are still as vivid, but they have leached out of the surrounding countryside which has assumed a more monochrome grey.P1000585

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The grey of winter

However there is a different spectrum of wildlife trying to keep a low profile around the edges of the creeks. Especially good if you have an ornithological bias, because most of them are birds.

Little Grebes (aka Dabchicks) have arrived for the winter up the estuaries. They keep close to the edge and are easy to overlook because they are very small and very elusive.P1000573

And stay stock still:

I like to get ‘in the zone’ as I paddle along, getting completely absorbed in the natural environment, and I have often thought that my senses become enhanced as I strain to see and hear everything that moves.

Anyway, my habit of scrutinising every inch of shoreline as I paddle along in complete silence certainly helped me spot this perfectly camouflaged Snipe hunkered down beside the estuary.

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Snipe

Common Sandpipers used to winter on the continent but increasingly they find the mild climes of SW England satisfy their needs (they obviously don’t mind the rain).

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Common Sandpiper

I find their flutey piping quite charming, but when it comes to decibels they are knocked into second place by the large and in-your-face Oystercatchers.

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Oystercatcher

I am not complaining though, on a drab winters day the clamour of a little group of Oystercatchers might be the only sound you hear, so it is always welcome.

On the mammal front I came across a Harbour Seal in the early morning mist up the Fowey estuary recently.

Once again I have to thank Sue Sayer from the Cornwall Seal Group (and her prompt replies and unending enthusiasm) for an individual id on this seal.

This is Serena Lowen, who I last saw at Looe island in July and who was last recorded up this estuary over two years ago.

There are only a handful of Harbour Seals around Cornwall, the vast majority are the much bigger Grey Seals.

Down at the estuary mouth I at first couldn’t work out what the regularly ‘plinking’ noise was coming from a rocky shore. It turned out to be a Crow who was repeatedly dropping a stone, with a limpet attached, onto the rocks to try to crack open the shell.

It was successful after about the fifth attempt, as was its mate who feasted on a mussel using precisely the same technique. They are worryingly clever birds. I wonder what else they know.

So the leaves and the colour are now gone. So is the sun,

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If it wasn’t for the hint of colour in my kayak, you’d swear this was a black-and-white pic.

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Spoon on the Teign

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.

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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!

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Oystercatchers and Hitachi hybrid
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Oystecatchers asleep

There was a nice variety of other waterbirds resting beside the water…..

Curlew and Shelduck:

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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.

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Curlew, Redshank and Greenshank

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)

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Common Scoter

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.

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Spoonbill

 

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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.

What a fab bird!

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Teign Spoonbill

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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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.

 

 

Dolphin Rescue at Percuil

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Percuil Perfection

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.

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Greenshank

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.

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Percuil River

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.

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Common Dolphin

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.

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Dolphin, St.Mawes

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.

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Out past St.Mawes
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December sun over Falmouth Bay

Of course I was hoping to see some ‘open sea’ wildlife, and was rewarded with a couple of Loons out near Black Rock.

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Carrick Road Loons

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.

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Black Rock
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St. Anthony Head

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:

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Merlin over Falmouth

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.

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Little Egret

 

 

 

 

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.

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BDMLR volunteers caring for a stranded Common Dolphin

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.

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BDMLR vet assesses the smaller dolphin

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The dolphins are reunited, and recorded

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!20170225_181432_Moment_Moment

 

 

The Sensational South-West Coast (part 2)

My second series of assorted images taken from the kayak seat from all around Devon and Cornwall.

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Gig boat race at Fowey
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Starfish, Fowey
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Autumnal Calstock on Tamar estuary

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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:

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Manx (top) and Balearic Shearwater
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Sooty (top) and Manx Shearwater
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Dipper

….listen to the electrifying call of the fastest creature on the planet, the Peregrine Falcon.

 

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Kingfisher
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Oystercatcher
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Flying Scotsman, Teignmouth
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Common Dolphins and St.Michael’s Mount
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Common Dolphin calf
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Minke Whale, Mount’s Bay

 

Autumn is definitely upon us, so offshore paddling is replaced by exploration of the rivers. Tough.

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River Tamar
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River Tamar