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.



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.



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.

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…….

Porpoise in a rush, Portscatho
Common Dolphin in even more of a rush, Looe
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.

Bude Guillemot
Bude Guillemot

Manx Shearwaters are constant companions offshore, zipping past the kayak in compact groups, or resting on the surface.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.











Mission: Otter and Water Vole on the River Thames


Failure of this  mission was almost certain because otters, although increasing in numbers, are still extraordinarily elusive (and mainly nocturnal), and water voles are now very rare thanks to predation by Mink, and also shy and difficult to observe.

The key to success, I felt, was an early start. I set my alarm for no particular reason for 0410, but was already half way through my first cup of tea by then courtesy of a dawn duet by a Song Thrush and a Cuckoo which had started twenty minutes earlier.

It was surprisingly cold on the water as I paddled through the mist and my fingers went numb. Hard to believe it was early June.

Thames dawn
June dawn on the Thames



The appallingly early start was worth it for the birdsong alone. The dense waterside vegetation was full of reeling Reed and Sedge warblers. This one is so excited about the appearance of the sun it can’t help interrupting its preening with bursts of song:



It then really got going when it had spruced itself up.



It was great to hear a few cuckoos. They undoubtedly had their eyes on the nests of the Reed Warblers, one of their favourite places to lay their egg(s). We just don’t here them in West Devon anymore, apart from on the moors.



It was still well before six o’clock when I saw the flat profile of  a water vole swimming across the river ten yards ahead of me. It had disappeared into the reeds long before I had scrambled my camera out of its drybag, fumbling with chilly fingers. So no photo but a thrill nonetheless. As I paddled up the river in complete silence I heard several more water voles….they make an absolutely characteristic ‘plop’ as they dive into the water when you pass.

These quiet upper reaches of the Thames, with no disturbance from boats with engines, must be perfect for the voles.

Upper Thames
Upper Thames

I knew that seeing an otter was going to be highly improbable, and as the day brightened it was more likely to be impossible. Never mind, there was plenty to maintain the attention. Mallard ducklings:

Mallard duckling



And this extraordinarily brightly-coloured Coot chick just out of the egg.

coot chick 2
Coot chick

Surprise of the morning was this Red-crested Pochard, probably escaped from a collection.

Red-crested Pochard
Red-crested Pochard

So no otters when I reached my turnaround point, but I found the remains of their supper. A couple of crayfish claws left on the foot of a bridge:

Crayfish claws.

On the way back the sun really got to work and I started to get a bit humid in my drysuit. Huge numbers of insects awoke and buzzed, bumbled, flapped and hummed. Most obvious were the Banded Demoiselle damselflies, thousands of them.



There are few other pastimes with more feelgood factor than sitting on a clear-running river drifting along watching the natural world being busy around you, skylarks and yellowhammers singing, and warm sun on your back. Bees on the comfrey;

bee on comfrey
Busy bee

And a late Orange Tip, looking a tad tatty. Most Orange Tip butterflies are ‘finished’ by the beginning of June:



The family of swans I had passed in the mist earlier put on a bit of a show for me on the way back. Initially only one cygnet took a ride on Mum’s back, then the others clearly thought it was a great idea so they tried to climb aboard as well.






The Sedge Warbler was in a bit of a strop when I passed for a second time, probably because I was drifting too close to its nest. You can clearly hear the irritation in its voice.



After lunch I took a leisurely paddle down the more typical section of Thames downstream from Lechlade, with chugging canal boats and beautifully maintained lock-keepers houses.

Buscot Lock
lock 2
Buscot Lock


Paddling downstream as I was making my way back up, was seventy-one year old Philip Sowden, He was within a day of completing the 862 mile Bliss Canoe trail, a route around the country following inland waterways. He told tales of hundreds of portages, camping en route, and a capsize on the River Severn. It had taken him two years on and off, and he is one of the few ever to complete it. Wow. Good effort!

Philip Sowden
Philip Sowden

Late May/early June is the perfect time to visit the rivers. There is an explosion of life, a cacophony of birdsong and the foliage on the trees is still a vibrant yellowy-green. It’s not too busy with other river users,either.

Incidentally, if you want to know why paddling along silently in a kayak is better than any craft with an engine, take a look at this clip.



Time to go home, farewell to the Thames for the time-being.

Thames early




It’s Tough being Little

Cygnets chilling

There’s more to being a recently hatched waterbird than sitting about with your siblings looking fluffy. Just keeping up with the gang can be a problem.


Weather conditions in blazing June can be challenging. Not good if you have no waterproof coat, or feathers.


The nearest shelter is underneath Mum’s tum:sheltering ducklings 1

sheltering ducklings 2
Mallard chicks in under

For an impressively large brood of eight cygnets, the broad wing of mother’s wing is about the only umbrella large enough, but it’s still a bit of a squeeze.


It would appear that there’s only room for seven. Lucky it was only a passing shower.


Goslings are insatiable lawnmowers and are so intent on their task that they run the risk of being trampled underfoot by fellow pasture-grazers:


Cygnets have bold and protective mothers who make it absolutely clear how they would deal with thelonekayaker if he should venture too close. I get the impression it would be more than just stealing his ham sandwiches and eating his custard creams.


Not all parents stand their ground, however. In fact this newly hatched Moorhen’s parents were absolutely nowhere to be seen, leaving junior stranded on the bank like a…er…sitting duck (or more like a miniature penguin). It looked a bit unsure about things.

Moorhen chick
Moorhen chick


However it’s not all bad.





Gems on the Thames

The Lone Kayaker has always loved the River Thames. On a hot June day it is buzzing with wildlife and  paddling along the smooth backwaters around Oxford is effortless because there is so much to look at and take in.

Oxford backwater

Everything , apart from earwigs and pale creatures with no eyes that live in caves, seems to love the sun. Mother and offspring Mallard relax on a sun-drenched bank:


and the strong light brings out the colours on the beak of a Moorhen. Although it’s a common bird  its attractive colour scheme is often overlooked as it creeps about in dense riverside vegetation. Its beak is complemented by a pair of bright green legs and feet.


Even the centre of oxford was looking smart today.

Thames through Oxford

Red Kites floated overhead, right in the middle of Town.


Godstow meadow was a melee of Greylag geese which are feral, and noisy, and messy, but likeable nonetheless. Of course everyone loves a tiny gosling.

Greylag Geese
Its exhausting being a tiny goose with all that noisy eating going on all around.

At a muddy shore there were a load of Housemartins zipping about collecting mud for their nests. I used to very much take these birds for granted but not any more. Virtually all avian insect-eating summer visitors have crashed in numbers over the last couple of decades so to hear the cheerful ‘dreep’ of a Housemartin, the classic sound of a summers day in a town, is something to be savoured.

Housemartin with mud for nest

The best wildlife action of the day was saved till I was nearly back at the car. I saw a stooped grey bundle of feathers near the bank and a concerned couple on the other side of the river asked me to investigate. They thought that it was a Heron that was caught up in some fishing line or suchlike.

Fortunately it turned out to be a perfectly healthy Heron building up the energy to have a bit of a bath, with some major ruffling of feathers. It was also very tame so I could get some good pics, although I looked away politely every so often when it gave me a bit of a glare.

Heron having a ruffle and a shuffle
Getting stuck in

video (complete with urban sounds e.g helicopter)


Three Days on the Thames

IMG_9332I’m not sure why I like the Thames so much, when my favourite sort of paddling is the open sea. It’s probably because I spent quite a lot of time messing about on the river at Sonning in craft ranging from canvas canoes to tippy marathon racers, in days when I had hair and used to go trainspotting.

Paddling the Thames is about as relaxed as you are going to get in a kayak. The water is flat and the flow is barely perceptible.The only slightly turbulent water is when you are sitting in the locks. Everyone is very friendly because life on the water is a great leveller. And there’s loads of Kingfishers.

Typical Thames

I was dropped off at Donnington Bridge in Oxford and had soon inflated Puffing Pig II, my Gumotex Seawave kayak, which was to be my transport for the sixty-five miles down to Cookham. The Seawave is a pretty large craft but I wanted to take all my provisions with me as I have found before that there are not as many convenience shops along the river as you might think. This is actually seems to be true for most of the places I go kayaking.

So I was laden with food, and although I love camping I’m not that hard-core so take along a good thick self-inflating mattress, which also takes up a lot of space. Plus a load of spare clothes in case of disaster. And a fat book….Lord of the Rings (again) in fact, so you can see why I needed a big boat.

Thames River Cruiser

Up until Iffley Lock the river was chaos with a rowing race, but below the lock it was pretty much deserted. Just a handful of hire boats (with everyone on board, without exception, clutching a bottle), and a few big River Cruisers which announced their approach with the thump of a bassline from an eighties disco classic long before they came into view. Party goers lurched about on their deck (also clutching bottles). They were pretty pleased when I twirled my paddled in time with ‘Tragedy’ but I nearly dislocated my wrist when the blade snagged the water. Fortunately it happened at exactly at the same moment as Barry Gibb was doing his warbly bit when the whole song grinds to a halt before before the final triumphant (tragic) chorus, and I just about managed to make it look like it was all part of the routine.

Mid September is about as late as I enjoy wild camping in the UK as it is starting to get cold and it is pretty dark by seven. It is also frequently wet and my first day was no exception. I found a decent place to camp before Culham cut but as I was setting up my tent, while simultaneously trying to shoo away a herd of Aberdeen Angus bullocks which were slavering over my bag of pegs, the heavens opened. I dived into the tent and was pretty soon in my sleeping bag as there was really nothing else to do. Except have supper. I unwrapped my  (limited edition) Ginsters Beef and Tribute Ale pasty but was horrified to find it was still frozen even though I had taken it out of the freezer at home twelve hours previously.

Was I going to extract myself from my cosy bag and venture out across the stair-rod rain to get a packet of biscuits instead? No way. So I ate the frozen pasty. I just imagined I was eating some type of novelty pastry and meat ice cream and sort of enjoyed it. Actually I didn’t, it was disgusting. Luckily I found a Double Decker tucked away in my lifejacket to have for afters.

I had the Jetboil on for a cup of tea the next morning at the first whiff of light at six, and was on the water long before anyone else, having to operate the first couple of locks myself before the lockkeepers came on duty. The rest of Day 2 was uneventful and very pleasant and peaceful, if a bit cool and cloudy. I had a good view of a Muntjac deer which was grazing beneath the bushes close to the bank. Nice to see because we don’t get them as far down as West Devon.

Muntjac Deer

I camped at my ‘favourite’ spot beside a little sandy beach just beyond Goring lock. At midnight I was awoken by a lot of splashing and chattering noises with quite a few high pitched squeaks. Otters! I shone my pathetic torch out across the river but the snivelling beam never illuminated them, although the noises continued for an hour. I think there were at least two cubs because the squeaks came from two places fifty yards apart. A perfect location for otters with several islands covered in a tangle of bushes and trees. In the morning I found ottery footprints on the beach yards from my tent. Although it was a pity I didn’t see them it is absolutely excellent to know otters are thriving on the Thames.

On Day 3 I paddled through Reading and through a familiar Sonning, although everything looked a lot smaller than when I was ten. I took a prolonged diversion off the main river down the St Patrick’s Stream, which bypasses Shiplake lock, and then the Hennerton Backwater.


Henley was fairly busy with rowing sculls as usual, and drunken fools in zigzagging hire boats, but my attention was suddenly captured by a tussle between a Great-crested Grebe and a whopping fish. The fish was so large that initially it wasn’t entirely clear who was trying to eat who.

The drama which then unfolded over the next ten minutes is  the sort of extraordinary wildlife encounter that makes me pick up my paddle time and time (and time and time) again. It was absolutely gripping stuff, and all the more remarkable that it was played out within a stone’s throw from Henley bridge, with nobody else in any of the boats or the buzzing Angel’s Arms having the vaguest notion of what was going on. They were far too busy looking at screens and discussing Bake Off.

The Grebe held a twelve inch Pike in its beak. I would have thought it would have been a bit risky to mess with a Pike half that size, but to tangle with a top predator of that proportion is surely asking for trouble.

The bird kept changing its grasp on the fish and then tried to line it up to get the pike’s head in its mouth. This was initially unsuccessful and I assumed there was no way that the fish would fit down that neck. Wrong. Many minutes later all that was sticking out of the grebe’s beak was the tip of a tail fin, and soon that too disappeared. Absolutely amazing.IMG_9399


Even the local Cormorants were impressed.

Impressed Cormorant

I camped at the end of the regatta course and didn’t put up my tent till it started to get dark to avoid detection. Alas, as I was in my sleeping bag, reading about Bilbo’s eleventy- first birthday party, an official-looking launch pulled up and told me I couldn’t camp there. When I groaned in dismay he conceded to let me camp but pay the £10 mooring fee. I’m not sure that this was a good deal but it would have been a drag to move.

Next morning was stunning. No wind and a mist hanging over the water. The rowers were out early and I was scorned by a sculler in a GB team t-shirt who muttered that I was paddling on the wrong side of the river. As I switched sides I was nearly bisected by a coxless four who suddenly appeared out of the mist.

Misty Henley

IMG_9516IMG_9521I had a relaxed run through Marlow and was approaching my destination at Cookham when I saw a small lithe black beast scampering along a pontoon.  A mink, in the middle of Bourne End! It had a fish in its mouth and scurried into a bush. I stopped and waited and it soon reappeared and stared me out, with those beady black eyes. I have been scrutinised by quite a few mink before and they have such evil intent that it makes you feel a bit uneasy and want to cover up your jugulars.


In wildlife terms they are public enemy number one and it is mink that have exterminated the endearing little Water Vole that used to be so common along the Thames when I was growing up. The characteristic ‘plop’ of a vole jumping into the water was a familiar sound. On this trip I didn’t see a single vole.

I watched the mink for fifteen minutes as it scurried about, eventually emerging out of the bushes with the tattered fish in its mouth. I got the impression it (the Mink) was a youngster as it acted in a sort of teenagery manner.

Mink with Lunch

I hadn’t been expecting that much wildlife action in the tail end of the year, so the grebe and the Mink were an unexpected surprise.

After four days on the water, the sight of a Red Kite floaing over the river hardly made me look up. There were absolutely loads of them and the rather weedy mewing call from this years offspring could be heard more or less continuously during my trip down the river.. I still can’t believe they can all find enough to eat. A major success story as a few decades ago there were none in this area.

Red Kite

Thames trip over.


p.s.   A couple of my Grebe-eating-the-pike pics were printed in The Sunday People newspaper, with a suitably over-the-top headline:

Grebe pic in The Sunday People