Land’s End. Eyeballed by a Sunfish.

I havn’t paddled Land’s End for several years so have been looking for some suitable conditions. The sea there is always lively as it is a focal point of currents and swell and everything that conspires to make the surface lumpy.

Today the weather was no problem as it was clear blue sky. The wind was light and I had done my tidal planning…..not straightforward as at Land’s End it flows north for nine hours and south for only three. The only potential glitch was the forecast four foot of Atlantic groundswell.

My departure point at Porthgwarra could not have been more picture perfect with the cliffs carpeted in the pink of Thrift and yellow of Kidney Vetch. I trolleyed through the tunnel onto the beach.

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Porthgwarra

The sea here was smooth so I couldn’t resist paddling offshore to the Runnelstone buoy. This is a wildlife hotspot and Gannets and gangs of Manx Shearwaters loped past.

All very placid and sunny and warm, but the Runnelstone buoy gives me the creeps. The sea here is very restless in a tethered rhinoceros sort of a way, but worse by far is the appalling moan of the buoy when there is a bit of a swell running. More sinister than the theme from jaws….just listen to this:

 

 

I decided to keep well offshore in the hope of meeting up with some oceanic wildlife and with the tide in my favour I got a bit of a slingshot around Gwennap Head. However, with the mournful moan of the buoy still droning behind me, I started to run into the full Atlantic swell and felt a bit small in a big sea.

I suddenly found myself looking UP at a pair of porpoises as they emerged out of the top of a rolling swell. They swam right past me and one left a fluke ‘print’ swirling right beside the kayak.

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Porpoises in rolling Lands End swell
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Approaching porpoise with Lands End behind

Seconds after I lost sight of the porpoises I saw a bit of random splashing on the surface and paddled over to investigate. It was my first UK Ocean Sunfish of the year (although I saw one in the Med a couple of months ago). I quietly crept upsun to get some decent pics and drifted to within a few feet of it.

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Classic Sunfish fin

It didn’t disappoint and performed precisely as I had hoped. Even better actually because as it floated at the surface its eye was completely out of the water and appeared to be as interested in me as I was it (although it probably wasn’t).

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Ocean Sunfish

 

 

A great encounter with a really extraordinary creature in a really dramatic place.

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Fired up by all this I stayed well offshore and headed directly towards Longships Lighthouse. A circling group of Gannets plunged as the tide drew me closer to a much more confused patch of water around Longships Reef. I was on the edge of my comfort zone and was pleased that I had called in to Gwennap Head NCI (coastwatch station) on the radio to tell them of my plans….just in case.

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Longships Reef

Of course I had to paddle around the lighthouse having come this far, but then cranked up the speed and made for the shelter and cosiness of Sennen Cove a couple of miles away. I had a bit of a fright when there was the unexpected noise of a large breaking wave really quite close……

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Wave breaking on Shark’s fin reef

which turned out to be another bit of the Longships Reef.

Sennen Cove was, in contrast, idiotically warm and sunny and sheltered and smelled of suncream as tourists wandered around licking ice creams and taking snaps.

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Sennen Cove

I had a brief chat with a couple who were just about to launch their inflatable kayaks and advised them to stay within the shelter of Sennen (Whitesand) bay.

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Fellow Kayakers

I was a bit apprehensive about the paddle back but still decided to keep close to the cliffs to make the whole trip a bit of a circuit.

It was indeed lumpy but I never actually felt in danger. The waves broke against the cliffs with quite an impressive impact, however.

 

I stopped to check out a small Guillemot colony at the island called the Armed Knight, while being scrutinised by a load of people milling about on the cliff top beside the Lands End Theme Park. Thank goodness I was down here and not up there.

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Guillemots
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The Armed Knight and Lands End

As the coast bent round to the south the tidal current eased and the swell subsided a bit, but the cliffs all the way back to Porthgwarra, past Gwennap Head which is the most southwesterly point of mainland Britain, can only be described as ‘unforgiving’.

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Lands End cliffs
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Gwennap Head

There is the most remarkable instant transformation from exposed cliffs with a tide race, to sheltered sun-drenched cove, when you come round the corner into Porthgwarra.

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Porthgwarra

And as icing on the cake of a memorable paddle, a German tourist gave me a hand with my kayak back up through the ‘tunnel’.

 

 

 

Monstrous Mola Mola

Mola Mola is the scientific name of the incredibly weird Ocean Sunfish. It’s a really good name because it has a tropical flavour, and it is from warmer waters that the Sunfish originates before its wanderings to the North Atlantic,and elsewhere, in the summer.

My most recent Sunfish encounter was not in the UK however. A week in Spain seemed like the perfect way to escape the exceptionally rubbish weather in the UK. It was an extreme irony therefore that we left the warmest April day yet recorded in the UK behind us in the vapour trail as we jetted out from Exeter to indifferent conditions in Southern Spain.

Upon arrival at the beach at the Costa del Sol kayaking was on hold because of the huge surf that would have done a North Cornish beach proud.

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Stormy Southern Spain

Fortunately the Mediterranean reverted to its more typical benign state after a few days so I wasted no time in heading offshore.

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Sunfish Fin

A mile or two offshore I spotted a large triangular-shaped fin waving about at the surface and was pretty certain it was of a Basking Shark, especially when a great blunt nose just broke the surface about four foot in front of it. However no sign of a tail left me a bit puzzled.

All other Sunfish fins I had previously seen (from smaller specimens) had been tall and spiky, so I didn’t think it was one of those.

I sneaked up to the creature in absolute silence and was pretty gobsmacked to see the bits belonged to a really huge Sunfish. The biggest I have ever seen, although they actually can get very much bigger. Sunfish are the heaviest bony fish in the world, and this would be the be the third biggest sort of fish I had met up with from my kayak, after Basking Sharks and Giant Bluefin Tuna (although because it is circular and it was difficult to estimate its length it might just nudge the Tuna into third place).

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Ocean Sunfish

In typical sunfish style it was wallowing about just below the surface, a circular disc with a large fin at the top and bottom.

I got to a couple of feet from it, and could see its glaring eye and permanently open mouth which makes it look both startled and gormless, before it sank into the depths and disappeared.

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Ghostly outline of Sunfish

The next morning, in glass calm conditions, I came across a staggering number of mackerel splashing at the surface, attended only by gulls which swept over the shoals and hoped to be able to grab a fish in passing. I stayed around to watch and was sure some other sea creature would be interested in the potential feast, and was just about to give up when a single dolphin showed up.

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Splashing Baitfish
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Gull hoping for an easy snack

I carefully paddled after it and it was soon joined by a calf which had been adventuring off by itself. I enjoyed watching them quietly surfacing in the calm water and warm sunshine, and then they suddenly sped off to join up with a larger scattered group of about twenty more Common Dolphins.

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Dolphin and calf

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Common Dolphins

A mini feeding frenzy of dolphins and gulls started up about a mile away so I sped towards the action but as usual it had all finished by the time I got close, and then also as usual, the dolphins all sped off to where I had just come paddled from.

The Sunfish and the Dolphins were supported by a cast of some of my favourite offshore seabirds: half a dozen ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas, a handful of Balearic Shearwaters and a couple of Storm Petrels. Even though this is the Mediterranean these are birds you would expect to see in the Atlantic and off the coast of South West England in a couple of months time.

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Bonxie (bottom right) shadowing fishing boat
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Bonxie
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Storm Petrel

 

The only land birds coming across the sea to Southern Spain from Africa were a scattering of swallows, and surprisingly, a couple of Goshawks.

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Migrating Goshawk
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Costa del Sol back to normal conditions

2017. The Year of the Dolphin

2017 IN FIGURES

2814 miles paddled in total.

2400 in Devon and Cornwall

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Winter Dawn on the Torridge estuary

183 in Spain (Costa del Sol)

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Gibraltar (from Spain)

133 in Scotland

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Loch Arkaig

100 along Rivers in England (Thames and two Avons)

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September Thames

500+ miles of offshore paddling (more than a mile from the coast) in Devon and Cornwall.

6 trips out to the Eddystone Lighthouse

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Yours Truly at Eddystone

1 Interception by the UK Border Force

Wildlife seen from my kayak in 2017:

1 Humpback whale seen. Horace, aka Doris, hung around the sheltered waters of Slapton sands in South Devon for an incredible six weeks in the Spring. I saw him (her) twice from my kayak, although the first time shouldn’t really count because he (she) was tangled up in a lobster pot rope.

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Horace the Humpback takes a puff

33 days with Harbour Porpoises seen, a total of approx 177 individuals. Porpoises are very small and very unsplashy and easily overlooked unless the sea is flat calm. For every one I saw, I missed an equal number when all I heard was there ‘piff’ as they breathed, the sound of their breathing carrying long distances over the water.

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Harbour porpoises

11 days with Common Dolphins, totally approx 171 individuals. Another 175ish in Spain. Several fantastic close encounters with groups bow riding when I could muster up the power to paddle at top speed. I need to eat more pasties.

Seeing Common Dolphins is extremely unpredictable and random as they range far and wide and usually keep well offshore. However the pods in Torbay around Brixham at the end of the year and running into early 2018, were the closest in, and most regular, I have known.

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Common Dolphin (youngster)

3 days with Bottlenose Dolphins, totalling 50-80 individuals. Plus 8-10 at Chanonry point in the Moray Firth in Scotland, probably the best dolphin watching location in the UK.

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Bottlenose Dolphins

A huge thrill on 18 Dec a couple of miles off Lamorna Cove when a proper ‘stampede’ of 30+ Bottlenosers charged directly towards me in a line all jumping out of the water simultaneously. An unforgettable image.

2017 was by far my best year yet for number of dolphin sightings.

7 Giant Bluefin Tuna sightings, all after 13 Nov. Amazing. I have glimpsed them on occasion before and seen the odd random splash but there seems to have been an invasion of them this autumn. Hopefully it means the baitfish are making a bit of a comeback which will mean more mega sightings of large fish-eating sea creatures.

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Giant Bluefin Tuna

Four days with tuna at Fowey, with one extraordinary day with scores of splashes and fish jumping right out, one at Mevagissey  (double splash), one at Berry Head (double splash), and brief intense feeding frenzy off Lamorna Cove near Penzance.

Loads of seals. All Grey seals in SW England apart from one Harbour Seal near Portscatho.

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Grey Seal pup
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Harbour Seal, south Cornwall

11 Otters in Devon and Cornwall, plus 6 (before 6am on one day!) in Shetland. A poor year overall for otter sightings; there don’t seem to be so many on the River Torridge. ???

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Otter

I saw otters on the Rivers Tamar, Taw, Camel and Torridge.

2 Mink. Nasty, nasty little creatures which have almost exterminated  Water Voles. Maybe this is a bit unfair because if you are a Mink you do what Minks do and can’t really help it (although leaving Water Voles off the menu would help the public image).

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Mink (trying not to look too evil)

One on the Torridge, one beside the Thames in Marlow!

1 Sunfish at Fowey. There were quite a lot around this year, I just didn’t seem to bump into many by shear random luck (or lack of).

Also one off Gibraltar (also from kayak) on 10 March. A real whopper.

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Gibraltar Sunfish

5 days with Portugese Man-of-War sightings, totalling over 50. A good year for jellyfish in general with nine or ten species seen, including the not so common, and unpleasantly named, Mauve Stingers.

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Portugese Man o’War

Technically Portugese Man o’Wars are not jellyfish, they are Siphonophores. Likewise By-the-wind Sailors (another excellent name) are not jellyfish, they are Hydrozoa. However because I am a bit of a simpleton it seems sensible to lump them all together in one group because they are all jellylike and do what is expected of a jellyfish (i.e. float about and look like they might give you a bit of a sting).

6 Sooty Shearwaters, on four days. A true ocean-wandering seabird which nests on islands in the Southern Ocean. My first ever kayak-seen Sooty ‘Shears’ were the result of my concentrated efforts to paddle offshore this year. 5 seen near Eddystone, 1 near Land’s End.

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Sooty Shearwater

37 Balearic Shearwaters, on six days. Scattered amongst the much more common Manx Shearwater, usually well offshore.

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Manx and Balearic Shearwater

43 Storm Petrels, on six days from mid June to the end of August. 29 at Eddystone, 1 at Porthcurno and 13, several very close, on a rainy but fortunately fairly windless day off Fowey.

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Storm Petrel

Storm Petrels are probably my favourite pelagic seabird I have seen from my kayak because they look impossibly small and vulnerable when fluttering low over the waves, yet spend all their time when not involved with nesting at sea scattered over the oceans of the world.

They are indeed vulnerable because they seem to be a favourite snack of Peregrines. I have seen a Peregrine snatch a Storm Petrel from just above the surface of a stormy sea off Hartland Point (not from my kayak). Probably a good reason why they usually keep well offshore.

5 ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas. Another of my favourites, and a sensational encounter with one off Fowey on a calm and sunny day, only a few feet from my kayak. By far my best view in SW England.

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Great Skua

6 Arctic Skuas . All near Torbay and no decent photos.

6 Puffins. All around Eddystone. The usual gang of dirty-faced immature birds in late Spring , and one (very unusual sighting, I think) juvenile on 21 Aug. A Puffling.

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Juvenile Puffin

1 Black Tern In Mevagissey Bay with a load of Common Terns. Only my second ever from a kayak, and first ever half decent pic.

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Black Tern

8 Long-tailed Ducks. An exceptionally good year and (yet) another of my favourites. The males are one of the most attractive sea ducks. This year I was treated not only to a superb pair at Porthpean, but also a hugely unusual drake in summer plumage on the Taw estuary on 29 Sept.

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Drake Long-tailed Duck in Summer plumage
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Drake (and duck) Long-tailed Duck in Winter plumage

1 Pink-footed Goose Another kayaking first , and actually I can’t remember the last time I saw a ‘Pink-foot’, even from dry land. Superb close view, in amongst some Canada Geese, on the upper reaches of the Fowey River.

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Pink-footed Goose

Several pairs of Black-throated Divers in Scotland. The most beautifully marked UK bird?

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Black-throated Divers

 

Kingfishers on 21 days. Everybody’s favourite waterbird.

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Kingfisher

1 WILSON’S PETREL. I can still hardly believe this. The chances of seeing one of these from a kayak in England are as remote as Captain Sensible becoming Prime Minister. Ironically they are one of the most numerous birds in the world, nesting in the Southern Hemisphere and visiting the northern oceans in our summer.  A lot of birdwatchers spend a lot of time staring out to sea through telescopes hoping to see one but hardly any ever do. It’s only during storms that they are likely to be driven close enough to the shore to be seen, so when the sea is calm enough to venture far out in a kayak the petrels will usually be long gone.

So I was pretty lucky to see one a couple of miles from the Eddystone lighthouse, bringing back memories of the first one I ever saw with my father from the deck of the RMS St.Helena off the coast of South Africa, in 1989.

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Wilson’s Petrel

Finally, 3 Favourite Scenes from the year. All great to look at from the depths of winter and give prospective kayakers hope that at least a few days next year might be warm, sunny and still.

1 Hartland Point

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Hartland Point

Looe

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Looe

3 Kynance Cove

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Kynance Cove

Costa del Bonxie

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Puerto Banus

We spent four days on the Costa del Sol,  based halfway between Estepona and Puerto Banus. From the beach the extraordinary Rock of Gibraltar is usually visible thirty miles away to the southwest sticking out like a sole molar from the gappy gum of Andalucia.

The weather forecast for the first couple of days was exceptional for mid March, even for Spain. Sunny, hot, and most importantly for a kayaker, hardly a breath of wind. Perfect for the paddle to Gibraltar.

I was using a RTM Disco kayak, a really excellent sit-on-top that is quite narrow (26″) so licks along and is effectively a mini sea kayak. It cuts through the water a bit better than the slightly fatter sit-on-tops, and with no ‘hull-slap’.

It was completely dark when I set off at 6.30 (Spanish time). I stopped for breakfast on the beach at Estepona soon after sunrise and ladled on the factor 50 suncream. And then ladled on a load more.

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Sunrise Spanish-style

The sea was so calm and flat and benign that I decided to cut directly across the bay to Gibraltar 23 miles away, which would take me several miles offshore so hopefully meet up with a sea creature or two.

I was nearly too far out to see a small school of Common dolphins between me and the coast. I adjusted course slightly to intercept and then paddled along beside them for about a mile, only just able to keep up as their cruising speed is four to five mph.

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Common Dolphins and Gibraltar

It was a school of about a dozen , with a couple of small calves sticking very close to their mother’s side the whole time, and breathing when they did. The water was oily calm and with the slab of Gibraltar as a backdrop it was quite an experience. Eventually they swung offshore and I resumed my course.

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Mother and calf Common Dolphin

The kayak-fishermen off the headlands were not particularly friendly, saying, in perfect English, that they did not speak English. I think they considered me a threat to their fishing even though I quite clearly had no rods.

I had my passport tucked away in a drybag just in case I was stopped by one of the many customs/police boats zipping about.

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Lunch break

As I crossed from Spanish water into Gibraltar a dark shape at the surface several hundred metres away caught my eye. I initially thought it was inanimate and nearly didn’t bother with it until it flopped half-heartedly. It turned out to be a fin belonging to a really big Sunfish, by far the biggest I have ever seen.

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First glimpse of thumping great Sunfish

Sunfish are the biggest bony fish in the world (so excluding sharks and rays, which are cartilaginous), and it wasn’t quite a record breaker, but must have been four foot across. I sneaked up on it silently and managed a few underwater pics as it very slowly and reluctantly sunk into the depths. They really are the most bizarre design.

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Ocean Sunfish

After 31 miles and ten hours paddling I rolled up at Catalan beach , Gibraltar.Feeling fairly pooped, and a bit burnt where the copious quantities of suncream didn’t reach.

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Arrival at Catalan beach

Back along the coast near Estepona, the next day was equally sunny and still ,so I headed offshore. I was a bit surprised to come across half a dozen Great Skuas (aka Bonxies)which really do not seem to be suited to the calm waters and busy, built-up coast of Southern Spain. They are surely more suited to a windblasted patch of bogland above a wavetorn Scottish coast.

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Bonxie on the Costa

Some were cruising about with that alarming sense of purpose, and enormous potential power. Some were resting on the water.

I saw half a dozen more the next day, and wonder whether they actually winter here as they seemed quite at home and not just passing through (although I’m not sure quite how they would look different if they WERE just passing through). Maybe, like us, they were on holiday.

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Bonxie and the Sierras

I really like Bonxies and they might just be my favourite seabird. I’m not sure why as their plumage is sludge brown and they always look a bit scruffy. But they are never boring and to see them accelerate in to intercept a tern or a kittiwake or a gannet to make it disgorge is breathtaking.

The birding was complemented by a dozen or so Balearic Shearwaters zipping past, and a couple of Adouin’s gulls to dilute the monopoly of the hefty Yellow-legged Gulls (that are the size of a Greater Black-back).

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Adouin’s Gull

The final day  in Spain was absolutely awful: rain, wind and cold. Couldn’t have been more British. Time to head home.

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Gannet