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.
After my encounter with the suspected Fin whale near the Eddystone rocks last August, and a couple of brief sightings of Minkes, I thought that would put a pause on adventures with large cetaceans, at least until late summer.
It is still completely pretty amazing that a Humpback would appear in South Devon at all, and beyond belief that it would spend over six weeks cruising about the sheltered waters of Start Bay, wowing the crowd of assembled whale watchers with some unbelievably close passes to the beach at Slapton. The very fact that the carparks at Slapton Sands are so convenient and close to the steep shelving shingle beach (and therefore in close proximity to deep water), and usually swell-free because it is east facing, is a remarkable coincidence. Its about as perfect a place for whale-watching as you are going to get.
If you were to put a pin in the map for the best pace for a whale to turn up for the maximum number if people to enjoy viewing it, you would choose Slapton sands. Even the bus stop is only yards away.
Needless to say I wanted to see the whale from my kayak. My first view from my Gumotex Inflatable was when the whale was trapped in a lobster pot rope. Hardly very memorable.
Ten days ago the sea at Slapton was just about flat calm and there was no ‘dumpy’ waves on the beach which can make launching here interesting/embarrassing/entertaining for the crowd. Apparently the whale was still around.
In my Scupper Pro kayak, which I had brought because it drags over the shingle well, I paddled a mile or two offshore. Lots of small parties of Guillemots whose guttural call could be heard for amazing distances over the millpond sea, a few Gannets and a pair of porpoises.
But no whale…yet.
I hadn’t really expected to see it because yet another remarkable feature of this remarkable whale is its habit of coming close inshore late in the day. Many seem to think this is tide-related but it can’t be because in the space of two weeks the tide has gone through its complete cycle, yet the whale still turns up at roughly the same time.
I slid my kayak into the water and sat around fifty metres from the shore, on a surface so calm I could have been in a lake.
To my toe tingling astonishment I heard the whale blowing half a mile away towards Torcross, and saw the bushy cloud of spray slowly disperse. Good grief, it seemed to be heading straight towards me. I fumbled for my camera but already my hands were trembling with excitement.
It surfaced and dived once more. I then saw patches of smooth water appearing in a line like giant footprints coming towards me at the surface as the whale approached….fluke prints caused by the whale swimming along just below the surface! Amazing!
It surfaced and blew only twenty yards away and I got a very unsatisfactory photo. Like a complete idiot I thought the action had finished when the bulk of its body disappeared and I lowered my camera, but then the tail flukes came up in perfect humpback-style as it deep dived. Moron…would have been a pic to remember.
However it was an absolutely extraordinary encounter. Who would have believed you could see a whale like this within a stone’s throw from the shore in South Devon. I had spent a fair amount of time during the winter researching where in the world you could see Humpback’s from a kayak, as it has been number one on my kayaking wishlist for some time. Hawaii or British Columbia were on the shortlist.
Wherever it was going to be, I hadn’t expected it would only require about ten strokes of the paddle to get far enough from the shore to achieve the ideal position for viewing! Thinking about it, there probably isn’t anywhere else in the entire world when you can be loafing about eating a Bakewell tart on the beach one minute, and having a Humpback swim more or less dirctly underneath your kayak less than five minutes later.
Four days ago a wildlife viewing boat (AK Wildlife Cruises) had absolutely incredible views of a Humpback breaching in the middle of Falmouth Bay right beside their boat. Crystal clear pictures and video, you couldn’t hope for better.
So a couple of days later I set off in my Cobra Expedition Kayak for a twenty-five mile paddle around Falmouth Bay, cutting right across the middle to the Manacles rocks, and then following the coast back. Tremendously exciting, calm waters, huge expectation, but no whale.
I had a reasonable consolation prize. About three miles offshore I sped towards a mini feeding frenzy of gulls which had attracted a handful of Gannets which appeared from nowhere and wasted no time in plunging in. As I approached I could see fins of dolphins slashing at speed across the surface, and the pale patch behind the fin to show they were Common Dolphons. Superb. They appeared a couple of times more but were only momentarily visible in a burst of spray. And suddenly they were gone, the gannets drifted off, and the gulls settled on the water. The lone Manx Shearwater also winged away. Feeding frenzy over.
This is not the first time this has happened. It is quite difficult to get to a feeding frenzy before it finishes. One of my objectives for this year is to see a big frenzy. The only time I have ever achieved this was off Bude over ten years ago, when I threw out some mackerel for the gannets and they dived in beside my kayak to catch them.
Other wildlife highlights were five Sandwich Terns, four Great Northern Divers, a Whimbrel, six Purple Sandpipers on the Manacles and several swallows coming in off the sea.
And an excellent Barrel Jellyfish in the clear waters off Swanpool beach.
Nipped in for nice lunch at Porthallow and met up with former work colleague Andrew who is training for Lands End- John o’ Groats ! (by bike, not kayak)
Looking closely at photographs of the Slapton and Falmouth Humpbacks, it would seem they are different whales. This seems even more likely because the Slapton whale has been seen in its usual area since the Falmouth whale has been sighted, and it is unlikely the whale would backtrack sixty or seventy miles when it is supposed to be on migration.
So, probably two Humpbacks. Even more amazing. And on my ‘local’ patch. Thank goodness I hadn’t booked a whale watching by kayak trip somewhere on the other side of the world, which would never have been so much fun. (actually it might have been, but I’m a huge fan of wildlife in the UK, so it would have had to have been exceptional).
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.
The water was absolutely glassy as I cruised along absolutely silently past sleeping 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.