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.

gulp 6
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.

P1350396
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.

P1350453
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.

P1350505
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.

turnstones (2)
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.

Redshank
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.

P1360133
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.

Thatcher rock grey seal
Grey Seal bull, Thatcher Rock
Torbay harbour seal
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.

P1350838

P1350837
Gorran Haven Common Dolphin

 

 

 

 

dolphin 2 gorran
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.

 

Sizzling Summer part one: The Scenery

For much of July Devon and Cornwall have been under blue skies so the dress code for kayaking is as minimal as possible. Just enough clothes to avoid sunburn, and embarrassment as you stroll up the beach for lunchbreak. For some reason people sitting on beaches always stare at kayakers.

20170129_090048
Lantic Bay

There were a few dodgy and cool days to begin with, but they now seem long ago.

20170107_052144
Simon at Polperro.

I’ve been getting about a bit this month.  From the top of creeks twenty miles ‘inland’ to far, far offshore.

Enjoy the photogallery:

P1340463
The curse of the coast
20170110_003550
Early start on Camel Estuary
20170110_022535
Upper Camel
20170110_033735
Mid Camel
P1340237
Lower Camel
P1340050
Scillonian Penzance
20170202_063821
Dave and St.Mawes
P1330582
St. Michael’s Mount
20170203_061237
St. Anthony Head
20170130_052756
Jed and Yours Truly
20170129_051558
Jed, Fowey docks
20170111_060901
Eddystone
20170120_043959
Mark and Paul, Crackington
20170120_053558
Strangles Beach
20170120_062738
Beeny
20170120_073426
Boscastle Cave
20170131_091250
Torridge
20170115_023443
St. Ives
P1340551
Dave and Place House, St.Anthony
20190624_085552
Looe island (not Love island)
20170130_053221
Jed and the Lone Kayaker, Looe
P1340199
Mark and Boscastle zawn
20170129_065804
Pencarrow Head and Jed
20170128_084357
Teignmouth
20170130_053737
Fowey

 

 

P1340180
Strangles Beach
20170122_062329
Padstow Bay Lifeboat station

The cost of parking a car beside the sea is a source of grumblement. So it’s nice when the machines blow a fuse:

 

What better way to keep cool on the hottest day of the year?

20170131_081945
River Torridge

Next blog coming soon:

Sizzling Summer Part 2: The Sensational Wildlife of the Southwest Coast.

featuring dolphins, porpoise, seals, jellyfish, peregrines, beaver, water vole and more.

 

 

 

Otter Encounter on the Torridge

Having not seen a single otter along the River Torridge last year, I was quite keen to try my luck now the water level had dropped after a week of dry weather. There was plenty of evidence of the recent heavy rain, however, with all the driftwood dammed up against the bridges.

20170319_163220
Taddiport Bridge

Otters are incredibly difficult to observe because they are extremely elusive and shy, not to mention being mainly nocturnal. So I made an extra effort to get out onto the water at first light. By the time I paddled off my fingers, despite wearing gloves, were already numb. Maybe not a surprise as it was minus 3 degrees. What an idiot. I certainly didn’t anticipate encountering any other kayakers.

I wasn’t at all prepared to see the first otter which was just around a corner only five minutes into my trip. I was fiddling about with my camera and the otter sensed my presence and vanished. I have learned from experience that if you get too close they just disappear and you will not see them again, no matter how long you wait.

The Torridge is fun to paddle, whether you see any otters or not.

 

Today’s eighteen mile, five hour paddle was as absorbing as ever and I soon found myself in the ‘zone’, paddling along in absolute silence and looking out for the slightest movement on the water or along the bank. The only noise I made was the occasional slurp of a warming draught of coffee. And crunch of an Orange Club.

Seventeen kingfishers, twenty-seven Dippers, five Goosanders, a Woodcock and a possible glimpse of a Mink, and of course I was hoping for another otter.

I looked at all the little patches of sand along the banks as I drifted past, and to my surprise nearly all of them had footprints and little scuffs that I’m pretty sure were otter prints. The owner of the footprints often seemed to have come from out of the water, and some of the tracks in soft sand were clearly webbed, so some were otters for sure. There was hardly a patch of sand without any tracks, so it looks like there’s plenty of them about.

otter print
Otter print (with webs)

20170319_143421

After a couple of hours, along a straight bit of river, there was a big otter swimming in the middle of the river directly towards me. I paddled as fast and as silently as I could to the bank and hung onto a branch with one hand while I prepared my camera with the other. Excellent, it hadn’t seen (or smelled) me.

Video:

 

It worked its way up the river catching a small crunchy snack at every dive. At the end of this next clip I think it can sense my presence so it submerges with hardlyt a splash, and is gone.

Video:

 

I waited for it to reappear but soon gave up because I was getting cold, and I more or less knew it wouldn’t show again anyway.

To my astonishment, half-a-mile downstream was  another otter also fishing in the middle of the river. This one put on a good demonstration of the technique of porpoising.

video:

 

I knew it couldn’t resist climbing out on one of the mini islands to ‘mark’ it, as it drifted downstream away from me, so was ready with camera raised when it did so.

video:

 

This otter was spooked by the whine of a slurry tanker in a field half a mile away, instantly disappearing as soon as the pump started.

Absolutely fantastic, two of my best otter sightings away from the coast of Scotland, and within a couple of minutes of each other.

otter 4
Torridge Otter

 

 

 

 

River Torridge: Hatherleigh to Torrington

I like everything  about the River Torridge. It’s a great name, it’s my local big river (although I actually live just over the hill in the Tamar catchment), and it conjures up images of wild places with its link to Tarka the Otter, the novel written by Henry Williamson in 1927. No, I didn’t know the date off the top of my head, I’ve just Googled it.

The seventeen mile section between Hatherleigh and Torrington has so many twists and turns that you have got absolutely no idea of the direction in which you are pointing, and to add to the sense of  adventure some of the tangled woods through which you pass are so dense that they could easily act as cover for a pack of hunting Orcs.

My paddling companion today was Mark and we set off from just below the bridge at Hatherleigh.

20170203_123459
Let’s go!

The water was quite low so there were lots of little gravelly beaches to lure us in for the odd coffee break.

20170203_135851
River Torridge

After Beaford bridge until the outskirts of Torrington (11 miles) there is really very little sign of the existence of humans, apart from the occasional fishing hut several of which look like something out of Hansel and Gretel.

20170203_143558
Beaford Bridge

 

 

 

 

We found a good beach for lunch but we were getting slowly but surely colder so didn’t dither about too long. I got a sandwich blockage in my gullet from eating too quickly but succssfully shifted it with an orange club and swig of coffee.

20170203_155835
Speedy sandwich eating

 

 

 

The wildest part of the entire trip is Long Wood and it important to have a complete noise ban here because there is always the chance of seeing an otter.

 

 

On today’s paddle we didn’t see any otters at all, although to compensate we saw a load of birds: 25 Dippers, 15 Kingfishers, Goosanders and Mandarin ducks and Mark saw what was probably a Mink running along the bank (black and furry!).

Here’s a pic and video clip of previous otter sightings on the Torridge:

P1070043_01
Otter duo

This cub looked like it was thinking about jumping  into my kayak (it was a classic otter day..they seem to love the rain):

 

 

The first weir to negotiate is a couple of miles above Torrington: Lady Palmer weir. We didn’t fancy getting wet so portaged down the face.

20170203_163653
Lady Palmer weir

The second weir is outside the old milk factory in Torrington and is easily shootable using the salmon ladder on the right hand side. Mark makes it look effortless:

 

 

Exit is at Rothern Bridge beside the old railway station at Torrington.

20170203_172125
Exit at Torrington

 

The Sensational South-West Coast (part 1)

Photo montage of assorted pics that have not appeared in any of this year’s blogs. Browse and enjoy.

But first listen to the spooky, deathly, grim reaper-type bell on the excellently named Udder Rock buoy off Lansallos in South Cornwall:

Prinsendam cruise ship in Fowey in May,

P1090568
Prinsendam

and an even bigger one, the Europa 2, in early September.

P1160454
Europa 2

Superb beach for a tea break. Great Perhaver near Gorran Haven:

P1150475
Great Perhaver beach

Gorran Haven, picture perfect Cornish fishing village

P1150464
Gorran Haven

but with hot competition only a few miles away in the shape of Mevagissey:

Mevagissey
Mevagissey

Charlie and James speeding in the Gumotex Solar at Maidencombe,

20170120_123640
Charlie and James

while Peggy and Becky cruise under the Torridge bridge:

 

20180816_063410
Peggy and Becky

Paul is a bit further upstream by the Old Bideford Bridge:

IMG_3102
Paul in Bideford

The south Cornwall seals put on a fantastic show:seal 17

seal 28

but it’s great to see the less obvious wildlife gems from the kayak seat too:

P1050599
Ringed Plover
P1090754
Hat-trick of Dunlin

The Eddystone light lures me offshore,

P1130372
Eddystone

while the seas down at Land’s End are forever restless:

P1100075
Gwennap Head

A rare swell-free spell allowed a bit of exploration along the (usually) savage Hartland heritage coast in North Cornwall.

P1120196
Duckpool
P1130141
Lower Sharpnose Point
P1120247
Hartland Cliffs

Now autumn is knocking on the door, it’s easy to forget how warm and sunny summer was, and how exceptionally clear the sea was this year:

P1120076
Tabby seems to be flying

Don’t forget the dazzling dolphins:

P1050005
Common dolphins Torbay (in Feb!)

That’s it for now. Part 2 soon.

 

 

 

 

Terrific Torridge

From its confluence with the River Taw at Appledore the Torridge estuary provides nine miles of varied scenery and a really excellent paddle. A big Spring tide will get you within two miles of Torrington.

I’m always a bit unsure about whether you are supposed, or allowed, to paddle on the river above the tidal extremity. I certainly wouldn’t even give it a thought during the fishing season which is the beginning of March to mid-October. I have mixed feelings about all this but if there is a prohibition to paddlers it means that the river is kept quiet and provides a safer and more acceptable home to the Torridge’s number one special creature, the otter, then it can only be a good thing. Otters seem to be very sensitive to human disturbance although I suspect it is actually the dogs who hang around the humans that really spook them. Incredibly otter hunting was only banned in the 1970s.

And there are a lot of otters on the Torridge. It was of course home to Tarka.

You don’t need to venture out of the tidal reaches to see otters. Very early in the morning I have  seen them in the last couple of miles above the bridge at Annery Kiln.

The first stretch from Appledore to Bideford takes you past Appledore shipyard and a load of boat carcases before you pass beneath the new Torridge Bridge and into Bideford. The Old Bridge doesn’t impact on the skyline quite so much.

new-torridge-bridge
New Torridge Bridge
old-torridge-bridge
Old Torridge Bridge

Bideford is an underated town and looks pretty smart on a glassy day.

Upstream of Bideford is one of my regular paddles. And it’s popular with activity groups with good road access from the A386. It’s imperative that you time there-and-back upstream paddles with the tide unless you want to be burning up huge amounts of energy and not actually going anywhere. On a Spring tide high water arrives at the very upper reaches about thirty minutes after Bideford.

Sit-on-top heaven
Sit-on-top heaven

p1000398

I have had some memorable wildlife encounters here, whether it is families of Swans or Shelduck in the Spring, or a Roe Deer swimming across the river in front of me. Or a peregrine taking a stoop at some Teal.

p1050389_01
Swan Family
p1050383
Shelduck Family
p1060190
Swimming Roe Deer

p1060199p1060230_01Above the bridge at Annery Kiln the Torridge takes on the look of a freshwater river. Kigfishers attract attention with their piercing whistle, although they seem very wary and never allow you to get too close. This seems true for most of the Torridge birdlife…a bit of a contrast to the birds on the River Thames.

p1010596
Annery Kiln Bridge
p1100321
Torridge Dawn

Dippers inhabit the extreme upper reaches and bob about on the rocks.

But the Torridge is all about the Otter. They are always very difficult to photograph as they tend to be out in poor early morning light and are often tucked in under the bank.

relaxed-torridge-otter
Relaxed Torridge Otter
torridge-otter
Torridge Otter

But it is always nothing short of thrilling to see them. If you are watching an otter you are in a very special place. It is about as close to the true wilds as you are going to get, otherwise the otter wouldn’t be there. They are very discerning and picky about where they hang out. And at the slightest wiff of a problem (or even the slightest wiff), they are gone and you do not see them again.

One exception to this. I once paddled round the corner and surprised a big dog Otter on the River Tone. I immediately drifted into the depths of a riverside bush and waited in silence to see if it would reappear. I gently turned my head to detect the source of snuffling from an even denser patch of bush to my left, and saw the otter was in there as well, waiting for me to reappear, or ideally not! That was the day I came of age in terms of otter-spotting……I was beginning to think like one.

otter-plus-salmon
otter plus lunch

Fortunately public enemy number one (or wildlife enemy number one , at least), the Mink , seems to be less common than the Otter.

p1030160
Mink
p1050937
Beam Weir….not for the faint-hearted