Noisy Seal, Silent Otter

It’s currently exceptionally stormy and wet down here in Devon and Cornwall. So there’s not a hope of venturing out into the open sea, and even the coast is a bit dodgy and requires careful planning to avoid battering by a hefty swell.

Simon and I had a very enjoyable trip along the sheltered east-facing coast at Teignmouth during a weather window.

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Simon

Thanks for this next pic, Simon.

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We nearly bumped in to this seal that was resting (‘logging’) at the surface. It didn’t seem to appreciate the intrusion and let us know all about it. I apologise if I approached too close but we really didn’t see it until the last second, and it was right in the middle of a gap between two rocks. At least we were in silent, slow-moving, easy to avoid, craft. It wouldn’t have been so good if we were a speedboat with a propeller.

 

On the more windy days the only option is to find a bit of water as far away from the exposed coast as possible, in as narrow a creek as possible, and beneath as high a hill as possible. And the more tortuous the estuary the better, as it baffles and breaks up the wind.

Here’s what I mean. About as sheltered from the strong wind as you can get, but unfortunately not a lot of protection from the lashing rain.

 

However there’s always a pleasant scene to enjoy:

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Morwellham

and a bit of history to investigate, if that is your thing.20190929_080606

Or a bit of mindboggling Victorian architecture:

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Calstock Viaduct

I spend most of my time, while slipping silently along these sheltered creeks, straining my eyes for the slightest hint of movement, or ripple, as far ahead of me as I can see.

And I was lucky enough to see this dog otter beside an estuary which was broad enough for it to not be disturbed by my presence. I’m pretty sure it was a dog otter anyway, it certainly seemed very long. Look at the distance between its head and the tip of its tail.

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Otter

You will see from this still, and subsequent videos, that he has got a few white whiskers and some more white hairs on his throat. You can also see him lifting his head to have a good sniff as he slithers along. He can probably scent me but he knows I am far enough away to not represent a threat.

maybe I am reading too much into a relatively fleeting view, but I think this was an older dog otter that was completing his nightly patrol of his patch of riverbank. They have such a large territory that it is a struggle to fit it all in during the hours of darkness.

 

 

Seeing an otter is absolutely always very, very exciting because they are so incredibly difficult to observe.

And it more than compensates for the rather autumnal weather.

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Whitebeard the Otter

 

August Wildlife: Up the Creek to Open Sea

The encounter with the Humpback  (on 2nd Aug) is the most exciting wildlife spectacle I have witnessed from my kayak, by quite a long way.

Explosive drama.

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Humpback Whale

The scene is rather more serene at the upper tidal limit of the River Torridge. In fact not a lot could be more serene.

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Torridge Swans

The Swan family are thriving and drift about in the complete silence of a late summer morning.

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately the family with three cygnets on the River Tamar is not doing so well.

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Morwellham Swans

They are now down to one youngster as I passed the corpses of the other two cygnets yesterday floating at the surface, over a mile apart. ????

Most birds stopped singing at the end of June when their breeding season came to an end, but swallows are an exception and are not only still singing, there are still young in the nest. Some pairs will rear a third brood which may not fledge until early October.

The soundtrack  of the summer.

 

The top of the tidal estuaries are fresh water and are the home of Dippers who just can’t resist bobbing.

 

 

 

 

One of the bonuses of choosing Devon and Cornwall as a kayaking destination is the hundreds of miles of sheltered creek to explore when the exposed coast and open sea is lashed by wind, as it has been on and off for the last couple of weeks.

 

 

 

 

It’s great to see the pretty little Mandarin Ducks that seem to have made the Upper Torridge their home. They originate from escapes from collections and have only been in this area for a few years.

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Mandarin Duck

Heading down towards the sea Curlews demonstrate how to spruce oneself up despite an enormous bill, and Little Egrets spear little fish in the shallows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The flock of Black-headed gulls is irresistible to a passing Peregrine that slices through the middle of them. You will see it cut through the flock from right to left. Unsuccessfully, on this occasion. It looks brownish so it is probably a this year’s youngster.

 

 

 

 

This next clip is a bit depressing. A Herring gull with a plastic bag wrapped round its leg. I don’t fancy its chances.

 

 

 

Seals sometimes venture far up the estuaries because there is the potential for good fishing. Even if salmon and sea trout are not as numerous as they used to be, there’s plenty of mullet that follow the tide in.

This is a Harbour Seal well up the Fowey estuary. It clearly wants to take a mid-morning nap  but is unfortunately spooked by the approach of a rowing scull.

 

 

I have sneaked out along the coast during the very few spells of lighter wind during the last few weeks. The Turnstones have returned to the barnacle encrusted rocks. Here one is still in full summer plumage (the smarter-looking bird) while the other is in the less smart winter plumage.

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Turnstones, Mevagissey

It was a bit of a surprise to see a Redshank out on the rocky coast…they usually prefer the mud of estuaries. On migration, no doubt.

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Torbay Redshank (looking a bit knock-kneed)

The problem with wearing Crocs for kayaking is that when you stop for a cup of coffee and a Crunch Cream and walk across a beach they have an almost magnetic attraction for the most painful and spiky stones and shells to get inside and poke the soles of your feet.

It’s a common occurrence, but this is the first one to have been alive.

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Hermit Crab in Croc

At Mevagissey this is the first Crystal jellyfish I have seen this year…didn’t they star in Avatar, by the Tree of Life?

 

 

Grey Seals always make me chuckle when they are ‘bottling’ i.e. sleeping vertically in the water. They can be really deep asleep and I have actually accidentally bumped into them before.

This one at Mevagissey was certainly fairly well gone and you can hear it snoring. Fortunately I didn’t disturb it at all and managed to depart the scene without it apparently waking.

 

 

I came across more seals in Torbay; a woolly-looking bull Grey Seal and a perky Harbour Seal. Harbour seals used to be rare in SW England but they seem to be slowly invading.

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Grey Seal bull, Thatcher Rock
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Harbour Seal, Thatcher Rock

There has been a single window of opportunity for an offshore paddle during the last couple of weeks, lasting only a few hours and early in the morning. The Cornish Riviera at Mevagissey was my destination and I was very pleased to see half-a-dozen Porpoises and a little pod of four Common Dolphins.

Way beyond my expectations on a choppy day.

As usual a couple of adults came over to assess the threat I posed to the juvenile that they were escorting. Fortunately I was quickly deemed to be safe and they carried on feeding close to the kayak. I sometimes half-wish that they would hesitate for a split second before making up their minds, as if they had mistaken me for an impressive creature such as an Orca or a Great white. But they don’t. One glimpse and they have got me pigeonholed alongside floating logs and marine detritus.

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Gorran Haven Common Dolphin

 

 

 

 

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Common Dolphin and Tectona (sail-training ship)

For the next week or so the dolphins wont have to worry whether I am a Killer Whale or piece of flotsam, because I will not be out there in the strong wind. The weather is currently so poor and all other paddling venues so chopped-up, or with unfavourable tides, that the only suitable location is the good-old Bude Canal.

 

Seal catches hefty Salmon

It’s really important not to have your plans for a pleasant morning’s paddle messed up by a pumped-up storm called Diana, with its promise of sixty mph winds and an inch of rain.

However down by the Tamar it certainly was weather for ducks. I wasn’t expecting to see anything resembling another human.

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Calstock and its ducks

And oh yes did it rain:

But at least it was warm, and down in the bottom of the valley it wasn’t as blowy as I had expected.

The incoming tide wasn’t a match for the outgoing flow of the swollen river Tamar so it was quite a challenge to sneak up close to the banks and creep about amongst the branches to avoid the adverse current. One of the advantages of being in ‘Puffing Pig’ my inflatable kayak is that it is extremely manoeuvrable compared to my sea kayak that has the turning circle of a supertanker.

As usual a drab day was enlivened by the wildlife. It was great to see a couple of tiny Little Grebes (aka Dabchicks) in the river… they are regular winter visitors to the Devon coast but I can’t recall the last time I saw one here.

A Dipper zipped over my head before I got to Morwellham, no doubt in search of one of the clear rushing streams flowing down the hillsides because the main river was completely brown. Dippers love clear water and rocky streams and are not at all happy with mud.

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Morwellham looking drab

I just managed to stick my nose around the corner at Morwell rocks before my forward speed exactly matched the current moving the other way. So turned about and drifted down the river in complete silence, supping a cup of coffee, at three mph.

I nearly leapt out of my drysuit when there was a loud snort about two foot behind me. I cranked (and cricked) my neck around to see that I was being eyeballed by a  medium-sized seal.

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Inquisitive seal

It shadowed me for a mile as I drifted on down, and when it popped up in front of me after a long dive I saw the flash of a fish in its mouth.

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seal with salmon

It wasn’t a piffling little fish…it was a decent-sized salmon (distinguishable from a sea trout by its slightly forked, not square-ended, tail).

Somehow the seal managed to peel off the skin like taking off a glove, in about a minute. Slicker than any fishmonger.seal plus salmon 1

And then it really enjoyed the tasty-looking pink flesh that made my breakfast of muesli mixed with Jordan’s country crisp (with dried raspberries) look a bit amateurish.

The next surprising encounter was with one of the police launches that protect the naval ships at Devonport (15 miles) downstream. ‘Which way to Plymouth?’ , one of the officers joked.

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Police Launch

Absolutely superb, I hadn’t expected to see anything today apart from wind and rain.

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Calstock viaduct

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Dawn Chorus and an Otter or two

May started off,  in perfect paddling style, with a dawn chorus trip along the River Tamar.

The appallingly early start paid off with some great wildlife sightings and a mysterious paddle through the early morning mist that was reluctant to be dissipated by the sun.

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Misty morning on the Tamar

The river surface was glassy smooth but round a corner I ran into some ripples that I suspected might have been created by an otter. I then heard some loud sloshing noises coming from the bank beneath some trees and through the mist could see a Roe Deer trying to clamber out of the water and up the steep slope…..I had missed it swimming across the river in front of me by about a minute!….and would have seen it but for the fog.

 

 

As the sun appeared the dawn chorus really got going and over the period of about three hours I picked out at least twenty-five different songs. The most frequent, and loudest, were Wrens and easily the best were Blackbirds, hotly pursued by Blackcap and Robin. Assisting Blackcaps in the migrant department were Chiffchaffs, Sedge Warblers and the tuneless rattle of a rarely seen Lesser Whitethroat (which of course I didn’t see). Chaffinch, Goldfinch and Reed Bunting did not want to be left out and four species of Tit just about qualified as songsters. Stretching it a bit was the coo of Stock Doves and Pigeons, the crow of a Pheasant and laugh of a Green Woodpecker. Nearly forgot about a single Goldcrest. Oh, and Swallows.

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Chattering Swallow

If you were to toss in to the mix the whistle of a pair of passing Mandarins, the peep of a Kingfisher, jink of a Dipper, and assorted cries of Great Spotted Woodpeckers, crows, rooks and jackdaws, that brings the total of bird species heard to over thirty. Surely you’d struggle to find a better place on the planet.

Unfortunately the serenity was shattered by the death-screech of a Song Thrush, a fledgling I suspect, that was carried off by a Carrion Crow for breakfast for its own brood.

While lost in listening to a particular loud and clear blackbird, a big swirl on the surface fifty yards ahead caught my attention. An otter for certain. And it was struggling with a BIG fish. I drifted a bit closer and watched it splash and twist and roll with occasional glimpses of what appeared to be an eel about three foot long. After a minute or so it swam to the bank and then rapidly followed the shore downstream, constantly struggling with the eel which was still very much alive, so there was quite a lot of splashing still. It travelled fast (three to four mph) and as it approached a dense bush overhanging the water it uttered a high pitched ‘peep’ and disappeared into the bush, and that was it gone.

 

 

 

Perhaps it was just  finding somewhere  quiet to eat its breakfast, but I think that there may have been cubs nearby and it was presenting them with a live fish and had called to them on its approach.

A couple of weeks prior to this encounter I had seen another (possibly the same) otter with a fish on the shore in roughly the same place, and had then glimpsed a smaller creature disappearing into a large hole at water level….was this a cub? Intriguing, and a good reason to go back to investigate.

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Otter eating fish

I dropped in to the shore for a thermos of coffee at a place where there are an awful lot of signs making you feel very unwelcome and basically saying you can’t get out. So I always do.

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Unwelcoming signs

Nice to see a Common Sandpiper who also contributed to the catalogue of ‘peeps’ with its own version (and Sandpipers are the best at it).

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Common Sandpiper

Apart from the assault on the eardrums of scores of singing birds along the Tamar in early May, nostrils are bludgeoned with the overwhelming smell of Wild Garlic, which seems to concentrate in the heavy air of a cold early morning. It’s so strong it makes your eyes water.P1080558.JPG

The Beech trees seemed to have got even more yellowy-green on the way back.P1080358

I passed a couple of broods of Mallard ducklings, the first was a large family of a dozen and a week or so old, the second straight out of the nest and about eleven.

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Mallard family 1
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Mallard family 2

Most bizarre was the Canada Goose that was looking for somewhere to nest and making sure that the site was above high water level. She had clearly factored in the recent heavy rainfall but when calculating a margin of safety I think had got her decimal point one or two places out.

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Canada Goose looking for nest site
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….bit too far for the goslings to jump, maybe…

 

The Total Tamar

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Cormorant drying out

From Gunnislake weir it’s a twenty mile paddle down the entire length of the tidal reaches of the River Tamar. If you finish at Devil’s Point where it opens out into Plymouth Sound it’s more like nineteen but you really have to take a slingshot around Drake’s island to provide a satisfactory turning point for the trip.

It was such a nice sunny end-of-March day that I set out to paddle the whole length and back again, but because of the tide times I would have to start at Calstock and go downstream first and finish with the section upstream afterwards. The very high Spring tides would be a big help and power me along, especially in the middle section. Even so, a BIG day out and a good way to get fit for the Summer. Or collapse.

Definitely a job for my long and sleek Cobra Expedition SOT kayak.

I slipped beneath the never-ceases-to-amaze-me Calstock viaduct through the early morning mist before sunrise. Chilly enough to make me thankful I had remembered to bring gloves. Singing Blackbirds and Chiffchaffs injected a Spring boost into my cold musculature.IMG_0143

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Early morning Calstock

The water was absolutely glassy as I cruised along absolutely silently past sleeping Cotehele Quay.

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Cotehele Quay

The river then widens significantly for the long straight past Halton Quay prior to the huge loop starting at Pentillie and finishing at Weir quay.IMG_0159

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Pentillie

Incidentally, there are good slipways to put in at Calstock and Cotehele although these are very muddy and tricky at low tide, and an excellent all-stage-of-the-tide gravel slipway at Weir Quay.

The next four miles to the Tamar Bridge is a bit uninteresting and potentially unpleasant if the wind is blowing. After Cargreen on the Cornwall side the River Tavy joins from the left and the branch line train clatters over the metal bridge at its neck.

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Tamar Bridge

I was very pleased that as I approached the vast Tamar Bridge the wind was still non existent, and the outgoing tide whipped me along.

The moderate easterly wind which had so far lain dormant inland started to make itself felt as Devonport dockyard came into view. I always feel a bit small and vulnerable here as there is a lot of boat activity with navy boats shuttling about all over the place, and the Marine Police always watching, and no doubt wondering what on earth I am doing out in the middle of the wide river, all by myself, battling through the chop.

Four submarines and a couple of frigates on the left, a supply ship on the right, and then you have to time your passage correctly to dodge between the three Torpoint chain ferries. Not quite as straighhtforward as it seems as their movements seem a bit random, although I’m sure they aren’t.

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Torpoint Ferry

Round the corner towards Devil’s point I hugged the Devon shore and although kept out of the wind found myself paddling against a stiff eddy current flowing upstream. I diverted into Mayflower marina for a breather and a cup of coffee. A seal popped up beside me and as I fumbled for my camera it disappeared and was gone.

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King Billy (overlooking Devil’s Point)

As I emerged into Plymouth sound the wind really started to bite, but I was determined to get to Drake’s island as it provides such a good target and also the carrot of a sandy beach to stretch the legs. Although I’m pretty sure you are not allowed to land on Drake’s island I think there is some rule to say it’s OK if you are below the high water mark. This might be a load of tosh but I don’t want to find out because I am going to stop there anyway.

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Lunch Break Drake’s Island

As I hauled up on the beach and levered myself out of the seat , a pair of Sandwich terns floated past with their grating call….Spring is here.

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Sandwich Tern

I loafed about for the best part of an hour waiting for the tide to turn, very conscious of the marine police control tower half a mile away in Plymouth, watching me like the eye of Sauron in the Dark Tower.

As usual I set off too early and spent the next hour paddling against the last gasp of the ebbing tide, which as usual didn’t turn till way after it was supposed to. I think it is down to inertia; even though the tide is rising it takes a while to reverse the current in a large body of moving water.

I successfully dodged two of the Torpoint ferries but fell foul of the police boats when I ventured too close to the submarines. The officers were very polite and I diverted a bit further out.

The huge lake upstream of the bridge was a bit of a haul with wave chop coming over the deck but at least the tide was kicking in. I was surprised to see five Shoveler ducks flying over.

As the twists and turns of the river arrived the wind eased off. I was thrilled to see a pair of Barnacle Geese swimming beside the mud of the Devon bank at Halton Quay.  If this was a single bird it would probably have been an ‘escape’, but the fact that it was a pair makes wild birds seem more likely. If so, the first I have seen since I saw skeins migrating in across the Outer Hebrides (being harried by Golden Eagles!) decades ago.

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Barnacle Geese (and Shelduck)

Only other birds of interest were five Common Sandpipers and a single Green Sandpiper on the corner just below Calstock.

Arriving back at Calstock with thirty-one miles under my belt, it was a bit of a struggle to set off for another five miles upstream. But the sun was out and pleasantly warm, and the water smooth.

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Morwellham

Half a pizza at Morwellham Quay fuelled me for the final push to Gunnislake weir. The riverside tree that I had noticed had been gnawed by a Beaver last time I was here had fallen down. No other signs of any chewed trees, but I’m sure it was a beaver as you can see the teeth marks quite clearly.IMG_0279

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Tree chewed by Beaver
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Gunnislake Weir

I didn’t hang around at the weir as I was just about spent, and cruised back to Calstock on completely smooth water and a current that was just starting to ebb.

Three Kingfishers in the upper section.

Forty-one miles paddled. Total trip time twelve hours.IMG_0282

Biggest milage yet.

Tamar Treats

p1060167I don’t paddle the ‘middle’ section of the River Tamar Estuary very often. It’s further for me to drive and doesn’t offer much more than the the upper bit between Calstock and Gunnislake, which is exceptional.

It’s also a bit less scenic than the upper bit, more exposed to the wind with its wider valley, and quite a lot more mud exposed as the tide drops. Mudflats aren’t everyone’s idea of a beautiful paddle.

However it was time for a change of scenery so we set off to do this stretch again, starting at the superb ‘all stage of the tide’ slipway at Weir Quay and paddling six miles upstream to Calstock, with careful tidal planning hopefully working in our favour. The tide really zips past at Weir Quay and I was relieved to see it heading in the right direction to give us a bit of a kick start.

My paddling companion Paul was trying out his recently purchased Prowler 13, I was in my super comfortable Gumotex Safari inflatable kayak, and vulnerable to guffaws from any other person afloat who thinks inflatables are not serious watercraft. I was pretty certain we were not going to meet any other paddlers, being January 7th and not a very pleasant day ,so I was probably safe.

The wide muddy shores made fertile by the billions of leaves and other organic matter that come down with the river are a waterfowl heaven. We were only just getting absorbed into the surroundings , being serenaded by piping Redshank and bubbling Curlew, when we put up a flight of Wigeon from the shore. As they circled back round over our heads a Peregrine knifed across the sky and attacked the little group. It was unsuccessful so then pursued an individual bird as it twisted and turned virtually down to water level, but departed empty-handed (-footed) and cruised back to an exposed bough of a tree high above the wide sweeping bend of the river.

Pity, I havn’t seen a successful Peregrine kill for many years.Plenty of near misses though.

That was our first treat of the day.

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Cotehele Quay

We had the tidal flow in our favour for the whole six miles to Calstock although it did seem to stop every so often, well before the tide was full. Cotehele Quay draws the eye as it is set in a very scenic bit of valley and seems to be beautifully well-preserved and groomed by the National Trust. Just round the corner is the familiar, but always astonishing (as it is so high), Calstock viaduct. We stopped for lunch on the slipway and had a chat with the Muscovy ducks.

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Calstock Viaduct

The tide turned and assisted our progress back down. Treat number two came in the elegant form of ten or so Avocets that were doing what they do on the mud on the Devon side of the river. I well remember the excitement of seeing my first Avocet at Arne in Dorset nearly half a century ago (!).

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Tamar Avocets

‘Peregrine’ corner was completely sheltered from the wind so we just drifted along with the current supping a cup of tea(me)/coffee(Paul). We watched a couple of Cormorants fishing the smooth water. Remarkably, both surfaced with flatfish in their beaks within a minute of each other. And both fish looked too big to swallow. The first was reluctantly ditched by its captor, the second looked as if it was going to be swallowed no matter what. The equivalent of a human downing a laptop whole. I think I got a bit too close in my efforts to take ‘that’ photo…the Cormorant dropped the fish and cleared off.p1060217

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Gulping Cormorant

Treat number two and-a-half, not quite qualifying for a whole.

A head just popping above the surface a hundred yards away lured us over to investigate…..although I thought it was a seal it just could have been an otter.

Just when I was beginning to think whatever-it-was was not going to surface, a seal appeared directly behind Paul’s kayak and then started to rub its nose, quite vigorously, on the plastic. We were both gob-smacked by its sudden appearance and apparent lack of bashfulness and watched as it swam about close to our kayaks before submerging and disappearing. Treat number three.

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Fearless Seal

The hugely hugely entertaining trip was soured somewhat when Paul discovered the hull of his e-bay purchased Prowler was sloshing with water. Lucky we hadn’t gone off to the Eddystone. It would have sunk.

The source of the leak was a worn through skid-plate from being dragged around too much by its previous owner.. This is a common problem with Prowlers as their hull tapers to quite a narrow point at the back of the boat, but easy to prevent if you don’t drag it around too much. Use a kayak trolley.

Yet another top trip.