Much is changing in the seabird department at this time of year, in terms of departures, arrivals and alterations of appearance.
It’s a very prolonged process as I have recently observed whilst paddling along various sections of coast. Many Cormorant nests already contain chicks whose wobbly heads wave above the edge of their nests as they demand food in a weird gurgling way, whereas the overwintering Great Northern Divers (Loons) are not only still around in force, many are still in winter plumage and several thousand miles away from their breeding grounds.
Like many seabirds their winter outfit is unremarkable and essentially dark above and white below, and gives no hint of the amazing transformation into stunning breeding plumage.
I observed Loons in all states of transformation in South Cornwall recently.
A quartet still in winter plumage (or starting to moult):
A bird in full breeding plumage with two winter birds:
And just to top it off a very rare Black-throated Diver in Summer plumage, in the company of a Great Northern.
These divers nest in the arctic so are in no hurry to depart as it is probably still quite snowy up there, and a few could be around until June.
Other winter visitors will soon be heading north. This juvenile Glaucous Gull I came across in Newlyn Harbour will be off,
as will this rare Red-necked Grebe,
and these Avocets that brighten up the dreary muddy scenes of some of the southwest’s estuaries.
More Common seabirds also undergo a very rapid change of outfit. Guillemots overwinter like this:
Then go through a quick moult when they look a bit flea-bitten,
before emerging in their smart summer look:
Manx Shearwaters clear off to warmer places in the winter and have only just returned.
Everbody’s favourite bird of the Summer is the Swallow, and I have seen just a handful of these coming in off the open sea over the last week. Almost a match for these in terms of floatiness and liveliness are the ‘Swallows of the Sea’……Terns.
Although no Terns nest in Devon or Cornwall (I’m pretty sure), a lot migrate past during Spring and Autumn and I was thrilled to see fifteen or so Sandwich Terns fishing in the Camel estuary at Rock a few days ago. A fantastic sight in the bright sunshine with the air full of their excited chatter. They love sitting on mooring buoys so were quite easy to photograph.
Even birds as common and as overlooked as Shags, sporting snappy-looking quiffs and brilliant green eyes , can impress at this time of year.
Curiously there are a handful of Eider ducks, which really ought to move north during the summer for breeding, that seemingly can’t be bothered and spend the entire year in the same place. I suppose it’s a lot easier not to go, but looks like you might get a bit of a belly.
Lighter winds and an easing of the Atlantic groundswell lured Paul and myself down to Penzance for a tour around Mount’s Bay.
It’s one of my favourite circuits: from Penzance harbour along the coast to slingshot around St. Michael’s Mount, then three plus miles of open sea across to Mousehole and then back along the coast to Penzance with a nose around Newlyn harbour on the way.
St. Michael’s Mount was looking even more impressive than I was expecting….it always does even though I have paddled past it dozens of times.
Although there was more of a rolling swell than I was expecting for the sea crossing to Mousehole, the wind was light and the sun was trying to appear so Paul and I didn’t feel uneasy about the level of exposure. He did however intermittently disappear behind the swells.
I was a bit disappointed not to see any sea mammals on the way over. I have encountered several species of dolphin and a whale around here and was expecting a porpoise at the very least but it wasn’t to be.
We ventured a little way down the coast past Mousehole but the current combined with increasing wind and steady swell made it feel a bit less safe so we headed for the extreme cosiness of Mousehole harbour. Always a few seals hanging around St. Clements Isle just offshore.
Around the corner in Newlyn there was a lot going on as usual with a constant movement of fishing boats. Tucked in behind the harbour wall out of the wind it, at last, felt really quite warm as the strong sun emerged from behind a cloud.
Half a dozen chattering Sandwich Terns floated past along Penzance promenade to confirm that Spring really had arrived. Yaroo.
GERRAN’S BAY, ROSELAND PENINSULAR
Next day took me to Gerran’s Bay and a launch from the stunning Carne beach. Even better that there is no parking charge here (unlike £8.50 for the day at Penzance….blooming heck!).
I swung offshore at Nare Head where I caught a microglimpse of a Chough after drew attention to itself with its animated call before disappearing. I checked out the Guillemot colony on Gull Rock before a long looping circuit out to sea, after reporting my journey plan over the radio to Portscatho NCI.
Wandering Gannets passed and the occasional Porpoise puffed, as well as a scattering of Guillemots, Razorbills and a few passing shearwaters.
Fifteen miles later I arrived back at Carne beach which was now buzzing with activity and echoing to the shriek of holidaymakers finding out how cold the water still is.
Just offshore was a handful of loons (the ornithological ones, not the Paddleboarders), and I was extremely pleased to see some of these spectacular birds had moulted into their stunning breeding plumage, making them even more impressive to look at.
I could hardly believe that another day of light winds was in prospect, especially as we were in the middle of a low pressure system so the weather was far from settled.
This time I paddled out from a small side creek of Carrick Roads at Percuil (another absolutely excellent launch location) and out across glassy waters past St.Mawes and the lighthouse at St. Anthony and into the open sea. This time I was really hopeful of a BIG cetacean sighting as the water was completely smooth.
I could hear the Gannets hitting the water with a ‘thoomph’ from half-a-mile away, but when I came upon the mini-feeding frenzy which also involved a load of Manx Shearwaters, the only cetacean involved in the show was a single Porpoise, which was however unusually animated and surged at the surface while on the hunt.
Although I had registered my offshore paddle with Nare Point NCI, a couple of fishing boats came over to see if I was OK, which I suppose was quite understandable as a kayak bobbing about motionless (as I was eating a cheese ‘n pickle sandwich at the time, and cheese ‘n onion crisps with a handful of cherry tomatoes to provide the healthy bit) a couple of miles from the shore, is a bit weird.
The most surprising wildlife sighting of the day was a lone Puffin that was squadron leader at the front of a V-formation of Guillemots.
There is alot of hardware in and around Falmouth Bay but I was much more interested in the natural history which was made even more photogenic by the exceptionally smooth conditions.
The North coast usually looks like this:
So it was nice for it to ease off for a day or two to allow sea kayak access.
This was my first decent paddle trip on the North Cornwall Coast since last Autumn. I set off from Rock which is another of my favourite launch sites. Unfortunately the excitement of the day was a little bit soured by the slipway attendant who first told me I wasn’t allowed to use that particular slipway (which left me struggling for words as I had trolleyed my kayak down the water from the carpark and there was absolutely nobody else in sight), and then informed me I had to pay a £3 launching fee. It would be the same price if I was to slide the QE2 down the slipway. Someone hasn’t quite thought this through, methinks.
My clenched teeth slowly relaxed as I slipped out silently into the watery wilderness, serenaded by squadron of Sandwich Terns and their ‘kirrick’ calls.
Out of the mouth of the Camel Estuary I crossed over to Pentire head and then into the more swirly water of Rump’s Point.
A ghostly white shape below my kayak was my first Barrel Jellyfish of the year, quickly followed by two more.
As I watched the seals and Auk colony on the Mouls island I was joined by a couple of huge RIBs bristling with tourists on a Wildlife cruise. They sped off North while I followed a smooth patch of water, along which the Shearwaters tracked, back to Newlands island and then back to the Camel.
These sheltered waters reverberated to the sound of boat engines as people enjoyed the last few days of the Easter holidays.
Noisiest is the ‘Jaws’ speedboat which looks like it has been lifted from a scene from a James Bond movie from the seventies (or possibly sixties). A bit of a contrast to the stealth of a kayak.
Before the ‘Beast from the East’ weather system snarled in, brandishing its Siberian temperatures, snow and savage wind, I managed a handful of very pleasant trips. The first was a bit of an offshore paddle in St.Austell Bay from Fowey , and to my complete jaw-dropping amazement (and entertainment), I yet again stumbled upon a pod of Common Dolphins.
It’s always a thrill to see them because it really doesn’t happen very often. Over the last fifteen years I have only seen dolphins about once every 500 miles paddled, but in the last four months have come across ten pods. Maybe this is random chance but maybe it means that there are more dolphins, and more dolphin food, about. If this is the case it is excellent news considering it is the polluted and littered nature of the sea that usually makes the headlines. It is possible I am getting to know the best places to see them but their highly mobile nature makes sightings extremely unpredictable, which for me is all part of the fun, and challenge. Success in spotting dolphins is a reflection of the number of miles paddled.
The Cornish Riviera, like its Devon counterpart in Torbay, is east-facing and so fairly protected from the winter swells that usually come from the west. It’s more attractive than Torbay and a lot less built-up and generally more of a wilderness experience, with much less chance of running into, or being mown down by, a jetski.
As I emerged from the shelter of Fowey estuary I was a bit disappointed the sea was so lumpy, and took a few waves over the front. No danger but just not so much fun as carving over flat water. I was hoping it was a residual chop from the southerly wind that had now changed direction but it was looking like offshore paddling was out. However I stuck with it and hugged the shore, stopping for breakfast onboard (bowlful of muesli) in the shelter of Gribbin Head.
As I crunched granola, I caught sight of a load of Gannets plunging vertically into the sea just round the corner of the headland. I couldn’t resist sticking my nose in, so rounded Gribbin Head and followed the circling pack of Gannets as it headed out across the bay towards Mevagissey. And hey presto, the sea had miraculously smoothed off.
I was back in my comfort zone and powered after the gannets although stupidly, in all the excitement, forgot to ‘check in’ with Polruan or Charlestown NCI (coastwatch) which I usually do. My radio batteries were flat anyway…oops.
Suddenly a dolphin surfaced a few yards in front of me and gave me quite a jump. It looked very big. Nothing else happened for a minute and just when I thought that was all I was going to see, a whole load more appeared and started to splash, puff, snort and surge all around the place.
Twelve to fifteen in total and at least one juvenile amongst them.
Yet another fantastic dolphin experience and only the second time I have seen them in February, the first being a couple of weeks ago!
After half an hour in their company I took a big swing around Gribbin Head before heading back to Fowey and was rewarded with the brief sight of four ‘Puffing Pigs’ (porpoises), a pair and two singletons, that were hunting beneath a circling gannet. Always incredibly elusive and difficult to see because they are so small, but a speciality from a kayak because you can hear their loud ‘piff’ from quite a disatnce, which you would never hear above the engine if a boat (or even the ‘noise’ of a yacht).
I completed my day at Fowey with a quick blast up the river to admire the Class 66 loco heading the China Clay train up to Lostwithiel, and a well-earned cup of tea at Penquite Quay. As they say: once a trainspotter always a trainspotter. I might add: once a tea-drinker always a tea-drinker. The two seem to go together quite nicely.
There are quite a few Little Grebes (aka Dabchicks) wintering up these sheltered creeks at the minute; their numbers increase further during cold snaps when their freshwater haunts freeze over.
The Herons are sporting a fancy array of plumes around their necks in preparation for creating a bit of an impression for the start of the breeding season.
My next little jaunt was to the Cornish coast at Mevagissey (the other side of the bay from where I saw the dolphins) where I was very pleased to observe half a dozen rare gulls visiting from the arctic. It’s unusual to see just one of these ‘white-winged’ gulls, but to see four Glaucous and two Iceland Gulls in one trip is, for me, unprecedented.
Glaucous Gulls are great big bruisers the size of the more familiar Great Black-backs, Iceland Gulls are smaller and finer but telling them apart requires a bit of ornithological expertise, because their plumage is almost identical.
Finally I managed a paddle up the beautiful Camel estuary from Rock with Dave before the weather became too kayak unfriendly. It was only a couple of degrees above freezing and there was a bit of a sneaky wind from the east but the winter sun made our trip feel a little warmer.
As usual there was lots of birdlife to admire, including a handful of perfectly camouflaged Ringed Plovers roosting amongst the pebbles on the tideline.
It’s now time to ‘batten down the hatches’ till the Beast has blown itself out.
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.
What is going on? Yet another sunny day on the North Cornwall coast with no incoming swell. Not good if you are a surfer, but absolutely brilliant if you are a sea kayaker who has a penchant for cetaceans and likes to venture as far offshore as possible.
The sandy Camel estuary between Rock and Padstow was looking stunning in the sunshine of the late April morning. And the water was as clear as I have ever seen, no doubt due to the virtual absence of rain over the last month, and helped by the fact that the sea life hasn’t ‘got going’ yet. The plankton bloom is yet to kick off, resulting in increased cloudiness known as ‘ May Water’ (or so I have been told).
Having said that, the plankton IS already evident on the south Cornwall coast and a couple of Basking Sharks have been sighted in the Falmouth area hoovering it all up.
The two mile paddle to the mouth of the Camel estuary was a treat. It is over a shallow sandy bottom so the sea look positively Caribbean. The shoreline was dotted with early morning dog-walkers and their rampaging pets. Migrating shorebirds such as Whimbrels have a tough time finding a secluded beach on which to gather themselves for their onward journey, as every available patch of sand seems to come with a marauding dog.
This is the Whimbrel time of year. Whimbrels have the tremendous (if a bit unimaginative) old name of ‘Seven Whistler.’ Its characteristic piping call consisting of seven identical notes is one of the sounds of Spring on the open coast. There is a doomladen old saying which relates to the call of Whimbrel migrating overhead in the dark. It describes the ‘six birds of fate’ which fly about at night seeking their lost companion. When all seven are united, according to the story, the world will end.
Why can’t the ending describe them all being thrilled to get together again and going off for an all-night party?
Daymer Bay was absolute glass which made gliding over the turquoise water even more of a thrill.
It was marginally less smooth after I had crossed the Doom Bar and passed into the open sea around Stepper Point. I couldn’t resist a photo of the moon behind the chimney at the point. I made directly for Gulland rock a couple of miles offshore towards Trevose Head.
My intention was to slingshot around the island of Gulland Rock and then paddle north around the back of Newlands Rock and then on around ‘the Mouls’, before returning back past Rumps point and Pentire Head to Polzeath Bay.
I have never done this circuit involving all the three islands of Padstow Bay. Its the usual problem of wind and swell on theNorth Cornish coast not making for favourable paddling conditions on the day I would like to go.
But not so today! It was perfect.
The stench of guano from Gulland Rock assailed my nostrils half-a-mile before I got close, and I started to pass little groups of Razorbills and Guillemots as I rounded the southern tip of the rock.
I was a bit surprised at the very large rafts of auks floating about off the western side of Gulland Rock however; there must have been many hundred, with dozens more cackling from their nest sites on the cliffs. I drifted close enough for some decent photos and then paddled away before I caused a disturbance.
The three mile transit to Newlands was uneventful until I stopped for a coffee break on an exceptionally smooth patch of sea. I heard the piff of a porpoise but had difficulty in observing it because it was a lot further away than I had thought. It moved past to the south followed by a chum shortly after.
A few Manx Shearwaters zipped past and a few Gannets cruised overhead. Around the final island, The Mouls, I looked hard for the Puffins which are supposed to nest here, but didn’t see any. Just a very orange-looking seal basking on a rock. Last year’s pup?
I slid across the tidal current to get up close and personal with the dramatic, cliffy and highly convoluted coast at Rumps point. The flat conditions allowed me to paddle within inches of every nook and cranny. A Peregrine whinnied from its rocky promontory high above.
Round the corner into the relatively busy Polzeath Bay I brushed past a few paddleboarders that were spilling out from the beach where a few surfers bobbed in the disappointing (for them) swell.
I was paddling against the tide coming out of the Camel estuary but with a bit of cunning coast-hugging I managed to avoid most of the current. If there is no swell running so that you can get right in against the shore, I have found that when paddling against a current there are almost as many eddies working in your favour as there are flows of water against you. Another very specific advantage of a kayak!
Rock was absolutely buzzing with humanity when I got back. The queue for the ferry to Padstow was long (no doubt heading for fish ‘n chips at Rick Stein’s) and the car park full.
I really enjoy exploring the extreme upper tidal limit of rivers on a big Spring tide. You can investigate all sorts of places you wouldn’t have a hope of getting to in anything but a kayak. They are also more or less immune to bad weather as they tend to be in sheltered wooded valleys.
In South West England the big Spring tide always occur at about 6am and 6pm (high tides in the middle of the day are always neap). this suits me just fine because I love paddling at first light because there is never anyone else around, you don’t have trouble finding a place in the carpark, and you might just be lucky enough to see some special wildlife that is essentially nocturnal and hasn’t quite gone to bed yet.
That is precisely what happened when I set off up the River Camel from Wadebridge recently just as it was getting light and on a massive tide. In my Gumotex Safari Inflatable. There was a pretty decent current flowing upstream through the town but this was soon balanced by the river flowing in the opposite direction.
I hadn’t been up here for several years but was soon enjoying it immensely as the river twisted and turned through thick woodland, every so often brushing up against the old railway track which is the Camel trail cycle path.
I could sense otters so I paddled slowly in almost complete silence , and was thrilled to see the back of a dog otter as it dived in mid river just as I came round the corner. I slunk off to the bank and watched it fishing for a few more minutes before it disappeared under the overhanging bank. Superb.
Only half-a-mile further on I encountered a smaller otter, probably his mate, fishing in exactly the same manner in the clear waters of the freshwater river. I just managed to creep past without frightening it when it went to the shore. Not easy as the river was only about ten metres wide but I was pretty determined not to spook it.
The Truro river at the head of the Carrick Roads complex of rias is a bit different. Very different in fact because you end up paddling through the middle of a city , but still a lot of fun especially as this was another bit of water I hadn’t paddled for many years.
I paddled upstream with the tide from Loe Beach near Restronguet and thought I would have an easy ride past King Harry Ferry and the junction with the Fal River. But no, there was a stiff northerly wind blowing and this far outweighed any tidal benefit. Pulling the paddle through the water was more like dragging it through treacle.
Past the line of very smart riverside properties at Malpas, Truro cathedral swings into view a couple of miles away to lure you in. The approach to the impressive edifice is very much smeared by an enormous pile of scrap metal on the quayside , and banging and crashing and metallic scrunching noises emanating from the vehicles shovelling it around.
The enjoyment of this particular trip is that you can paddle up into Truro past Tesco and a loads of offices, under the A39 and then up a culvert right into the bowels of the Cathedral. I’m not sure why it appeals to me, as there is not a lot of hope of seeing any otters. Maybe its just that it is a jaunt exclusive to kayaks. Any other craft would have got snagged on the semi-submerged shopping trolleys long before they got to the Cathedral.
If you have a penchant for big country estate houses then you will not be disappointed on the way back (or the way up, for that matter) as you can admire the sweeping green lawns of Tresillian House overlooking the length of Carrick Roads, or the more elusive Tregothnan Estate peeping over the top of the trees, and redundant ships, at the Fal/Truro junction.
The sheltered creeks of the Carrick road complex provide fantastic paddling which is usually protected from wind and is essentally flat water. There are a host of side creeks to keep you entertained all day, or maybe two or three.
There is no swell apart from where the Fal River opens out into the broad waters of the Roads itself, and here conditions can get a bit lumpy when there is a southerly wind as it is exposed to a five mile fetch of pretty open water to Falmouth.
For me the most exciting part about kayaking up these sort of secret hidden places is the wildlife. It provides the opportunity to encounter freshwater species which you don’t see much during the summer because the rivers are no-go with the fishing season. Kingfishers, Dippers, Grey wagtails, not to mention the explosion of spring flowers….bluebells and wild garlic (THE smell of mid Spring) to name but a couple.