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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Cod, Seal, Beaver

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

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

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Pollack,Pollack,Cod

Next to the beautiful Avon estuary in south Devon,

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Avon Estuary at Bantham

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

Fifteen Ducklings!

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

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Torridge cygnets

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

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

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Peregrine (male)

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

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

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Fledgling Oystercatchers

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

 

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

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Swimming Oystercatcher

 

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

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Bar-tailed Godwit

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

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Willis the Whimbrel

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

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Eric the Eider taking a nap

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looe Delivers the Wildlife (again)

It had to be Looe. Friends Krysia and Stefan were down to stay and I spent a long time ruminating where would be the best place to take them kayaking, with wildlife sightings top of the wish list.

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Stefan and Krysia

Of course if the nature was a bit thin on the ground it would be helpful to find somewhere with jaw-dropping scenery and a sandy beach on which to take lunch. So it had to be Looe.

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Krysia, Stefan and Becky

Oh yes, it would be helpful if the weather was in a cooperative mood as well.

Not only was the trip perfect climatologically, Looe seemed to do its absolute utmost to deliver a constant stream of wildlife nuggets, which started only a few yards from the slipway with a Little Egret stalking minnows,

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Little Egret

and the local Housemartins collecting mud from the estuary (at low tide) for their nests. It’s been very dry so their usual freshwater collection sites will be dried out and rock hard.

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Housemartins
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Housemartin

Looe island is a really excellent place, maintained as a nature reserve by Cornwall Wildlife trust. This means restricted access to people and much, much, much more importantly no dogs. No dogs means ground nesting birds are not disturbed.

That doesn’t mean to say there is no harassment:

 

Everybody loves watching the seals (thanks for the video clip, Stefan):

 

 

This one was ‘bottling’, resting vertically in the water.

 

 

This smaller female seal came over to check us out and then sat on the seabed and studied us from a different angle.P1290668

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

I sent my pics  to Sue Sayer from Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust and she very excitedly replied that this was Prudie aka Freckles. Prudie was rescued by the BDMLR (British Diver Marine Life Rescue) as a storm-battered three day-old pup from Boscastle harbour on 4 September 2017. She was fed and nursed back to health at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary in Gweek, and then released along with six other rehabilitated seals at Porthtowan on the north Cornwall coast on 18 Dec 2017. (thanks for the detailed info, Sue)

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Prudie

A fantastic success story. Confirmation that the enormous efforts of the Cornish Seal Sanctuary at returning abandoned and malnourished seals to the wild is successful.

Prudie was looking to be in perfect health.

One of the bull Grey Seals appeared to have been in a bit of a bust-up, with a healing scar on his shoulder. Unless it was caused by a boat eg jetski.

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Scarred bull seal

Next up on the action list was a bit of peregrine spotting along the coast, before a well-earned nutrition break on a flat calm beach. More seals, a handful of tittering Whimbrels, and plenty of Oystercatchers on the way back.

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Oystercatcher.

We completed our day out with a jaunt up the West Looe river estuary to get a bit of a broad-leaved woodland type view of things.

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West Looe River

 

Beaches, Birds, Chums and Cherry Bakewells

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

Terrific Teignmouth…Today!

As i drove down the lane I hadn’t decided where my paddle destination was to be today, but despite (very) early morning fuddleheadedness, my onboard sea-state assessment centres indicated east. Good call…..the moderate west wind was lighter in south-east Devon, and the east facing bit of coast would be sheltered from the swell coming from the west which was still a bit lively after the storms. As a bonus Dartmoor might block out the drizzle too.

So I went to Teignmouth.

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Teignmouth

The sea looked so benign I made a bee-line for Hope’s Nose six miles away, but the sea was fairly lifeless with just a handful of roving Gannets and the odd Guillemot. After coffee at a little beach at the ‘nose’ I paddled back close to the shore.

As I rounded the headland into Ansteys Bay I saw a diver surface in front of me….a Red-Throated. A beautiful bird and usually quite shy.

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Red-Throated Diver
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Red-Throated Diver

A great sighting but I’m not convinced the bird was fit…it did a lot of wing stretching and its neck looked a  fat…I hope it hasn’t swallowed a fish hook.

As i watched the diver a lone porpoise surfaced in the background:

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Porpoise

I was unusually peckish so headed for a really stunning little sheltered beach (accessible only by kayak) beneath a great slab of red sandstone cliff.

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Lunch beach

As I worked my way through a couple of disastrous ham sandwiches (dried out bread, sleepy coleslaw, slimy ham) a couple of seals swam into the bay and started to horse around….completely oblivious of, or just ignoring, me.

I watched them for ages and hoped they would move on so I didn’t disturb them when I continued my paddle back to Teignmouth. However they showed no sign of leaving this perfect little cove, so I quietly slipped my kayak onto the water and tried to sneak past without them noticing. Fat chance!….

They continued on at each other for a while and then turned their attention to me. (nice wren singing in the background in this video clip, by the way)

Then it was full on investigation of idiot sitting in kayak…..

All the time I watched the seals I was looking for signs of anxiety or fear caused by my appearance on the scene. Was I disturbing them? Apparently not…after scrutinising my hull, and me, very closely, with several upside down passes along the entire length of the hull bumping and shoving all the way, they just went back to their sparring.

You don’t have to have a degree in animal behaviour to see that my presence only a few feet away doesn’t seem to be influencing their behaviour at all.

It does appear that the seals in this area are remarkably tolerant of kayakers. This is not the case of some of the seals further west, and definitely not along the north coast of Cornwall at the large breeding colonies.

seal pair There are many more boats/kayakers/people in these sheltered and calm south-east Devon beaches so the seals are more habituated to people.

Although seals are bold and inquisitive when they are swimming they can feel very vulnerable when hauled out on a rock or on a beach.This is particularly so at their remote and innaccessable beaches where they have their pups. Too close an approach in a boat, kayak or paddleboard can easily cause a stampede into the water. Not good if you are a newborn pup and you are in the way of several hundred kilos of lumbering blubber.

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Croc and Seal
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Don’t stop the flossing

The couple of miles back to Polly Steps where I had left my car were livened up by a pair of Peregrine Falcons which sped out over the sea on a hunt, but returned empty clawed.

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Peregrine Falcon

Another surprisingly good wildlife day….better than the weather:

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Teignmouth bay shower

 

 

Magical March Morning at Mevagissey

A succession of storms running in from the Atlantic have limited kayak trips to the most sheltered tidal creeks. These are well protected from the worst of the wind….but not the rain:

 

The deluge is currently so relentless that even the ducks seem fed up.

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Dripping Drake (Mallard)

But just before the unsettled weather arrived I managed to sneak out for a morning on the open coast along the Cornish Riviera.

It was ironic that after travelling half way round the world in the hope of seeing a whale (I as hoping for a ‘Blue’) from my kayak, I had a better view of a pod of dolphins a couple of days after we got back.

Also we somehow managed to miss the record-breaking February temperatures here in the UK, enduring some very mixed weather in the USA and Mexico. We touched down at Heathrow in sunshine and eighteen degrees, but by the time we were back in Devon it had started to rain.

I thought the best way to combat jetlag and the stickiness of airports and travelling, was to go for a bit of a paddle and the sheltered open coast at Mevagissey was beckoning, and temperatures were back to normal (i.e. quite chilly).

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Mevagissey light

Rounding Black Head to the north of Pentewan I was surprised to see Mevagissey Bay looking so flat, so I headed directly for the Gwinges (aka Gwineas) rocks on the far side of the bay. This would take me far enough offshore to give me the chance of seeing a porpoise, or maybe a dolphin.

A couple of handfuls of Gannets were circling and I was moderstely confident there would be porpoises underneath, but the had dispersed by the time I rolled up.

However suddenly half a dozen Gannets plunged in directly in front of me (I’ve got no idea how such a large bird can just instantly appear out of nowhere) and I saw a fin break the surface beside them. I was absolutely thrilled to see half-a-dozen Common Dolphins feeding on a baitball of fish which were just beneath the surface creating a sizeable ‘stippled’ area.

Conditions for dolphin-spotting weren’t great because there was a bit of a swell and an increasing wind which makes seeing fins a bit tricky, especially with the bouncing movement of the kayak.  

 

 

There were a couple of juveniles in the group and one small calf. The calf can be seen surfacing just after its mother submerges in this video.

 

 

 

They suddenly disappeared and I wasted no time in getting to the shore as the swell was picking up and cloud building ominously from the south. I couldn’t resist a quick slingshot around the Gwineas cardinal buoy however, because I don’t think I’ve paddled around it before.

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Gwineas cardinal buoy

Mevagissey was as quiet and quaint as ever:

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Mevagissey

Just a single Purple Sandpiper was poking about the rocks in the company of a handful of Turnstones, just outside the harbour mouth.

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Purple Sandpiper

I did a bit of a double-take when I glimpsed a ghostly white shape under the water beneath me, and was very surprised to see a Barrel Jellyfish, about three foot long, going slowly on its way. The earliest one I have ever seen, by quite a few weeks.

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Barrel jellyfish

A pair of Peregrines were very excited about something on the way back…..

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Peregrine

And to finish off an unexpectedly varied and successful morning of wildlife viewing from the kayak, the nesting Shags were looking smart in their bottle green breeding plumage and punked-up headgear.

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Shag
Shag
Shag

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