Beneath the Condor’s Gaze. Patagonia.

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Andean Condor

Wow. This is some place. It’s a bit of a struggle to know where to look next. To check out another nugget of wildlife unfamiliar to visitors from little England, or stand agape at the mountains of Torres de Paine which rise up almost vertically to over 8,000 ft. Not a bad backdrop for a spot of kayaking.

This was my first experience of kayaking in Chile, and my first in South America. And my first in the southern hemisphere since (kayak) surfing in South Africa in 1989.

It’s actually rare for me to venture further south than Penzance, so thanks to Pete and Bron for masterminding the adventure (and Dave and Sioux, but more about that in the next blog when we explore even further south).

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Becky, Pete, Bron

Mornings start with a nice and noisy display by the Black-faced Ibises that are setting off on their daily routine.

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Black-faced Ibis

Matching them in looks, personality, and volume are the Southern Lapwings that seem full of the joys of the southern summer. Breeding season is in full swing down here…the Lapwing chicks are well grown,

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Southern Lapwings (what on earth are those things sticking out of their shoulders?)

as are the pair of Great Grebe chicks, and their parent, out on the wider section of the Rio Serrano….

The extended family of Upland Geese must have one of the most impressive views on the planet from their goosey ‘office window’.

I was of course dead excited to get out on the water in a kayak. It’s not that easy because howling wind is the norm here so expeditions are frequently cancelled. Fortunately the morning Becky and I had chosen for a paddle was relatively still (for a couple of hours).

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Yours truly getting twitchy……come on……hurry up!

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At last, after safety briefings and instructions on how to paddle, we were on the water and soon out along the edge of the very large Lago el Toro. It was good to be paddling in Chile!

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Blinking heck what a backdrop!

 I had a glimpse of the wind forecast earlier, and it looked a bit worrying. There was a gale force wind expected to arrive after midday, and we had encountered a few (Chilean-style) holdups already. Although we were paddling under the expertise of a very experienced guide, I felt we really needed to get a move on to get into the river before the wind started to howl.

The only problem was there was wildlife to be watched. Such as this Eagle.

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Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle.

But conditions stayed calm and it actually felt quite warm.

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Lago el Toro
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Torres paddling team

Just before we were about to cross a critical 200m exposed arm of the lake which would lead us on to the more sheltered river section, we heard a roar behind us like a jet taking off. It was the wind arriving in true Patagonian style…very big, very sudden, and very dramatic. And we failed to get across the channel by literally minutes. The surface of the lake was instantly churned up into whitecaps with spindrift being whipped off the top. So we pulled up onto a beach and the guides did a spot of thinking about what to do next.

Becky and I loafed about on a little beach while the guides went off for a wander, and a funny thing happened. Before I left home my chum Dave, who is an experienced Patagonian adventurer, had said that if you want to see a Condor up close you must lay flat out on your back like a corpse, and the birds will soon come over to investigate. I was too polite to suggest that he was mixing up reality with mythology…..but he was absolutely right!

Although we were wearing high-vis dayglo green drysuits, a pair of Condors that we could see hanging over a distant mountain as a couple of dots, were soon on their way over to eye us up for a meal.

 

As we lay on the beach one dropped down to really quite a low level and hung about overhead, undoubtedly trying to work out what was going on, and who these strange creatures were loafing about on its ‘patch’.

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Andean Condor

Some might have felt a bit uneasy, as the largest flying bird on the planet, with a wingspan of over ten feet, hangs overhead. Particularly if you were a hobbit, because the head of a Condor bears more than a passing resemblance to a winged steed of a Nazgul.

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condor mugshot

We, however , were thrilled to have such a superb view of one of the world’s legendary creatures, which we were only expecting to see as a dot over a far mountainside (if at all). More like this…….

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distant Condor

That beach was as far as we were going to get and marked the end of our (short) kayaking adventure in Patagonia. The trip had to be aborted because of the wind. Never mind, because the Condor encounter made it all worthwhile.

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Andean Condor

The rest of our Patagonia experience was punctuated with  more top wildlife, including two different Pumas on a single day (courtesy of Pete’s alertness, and Bron’s absolutely unbelievable long -range spot).

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Crested Caracara
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Guanaco
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Puma no.1 (Bron’s)
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Puma no 2 (Pete’s)

Hard to believe we were only there for four days!P1020396

 

Next blog…coming soon.   KAYAKING IN THE ANTARCTIC….. don’t go away!

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blinking blooming chuffing heck!

 

thelonekayaker 2019 Drama Awards

CATEGORY 1 : BEST ACTION MAXSPLASH BLOCKBUSTER

4th Place  Common Dolphin Superpod.

Prolonged low-grade splashiness rather than a mighty kaboom. Although one or two hurl themselves about a bit….it’s usually the youngsters.

 

 

 

3rd Place Diving Gannets.

My first successful clip of a feeding frenzy of Gannets in Torbay. Lured in by a ball of baitfish herded by dolphins. Although conditions are a bit gloomy this is a really tremendous sight, and you can even hear the Gannets cackle with excitement.

They are big birds….with a wingspan approaching six foot. Good performance.

 

 

 

2nd Place Rissos Dolphin Breaching.

A thrilling sight on the most perfect summer’s day a few miles off the toe of Cornwall. Rissos are rare, and fairly beefy…..the size of a small whale so they send up a decent splash.

 

 

1st Place  Humpback Gulp-feeding

This is about as much of a mighty kaboom as you are going to get around these parts (apart maybe from a full breach), throwing out quite a wave.  Lucky I’ve done a bit of surfing.

My excitement centres released such a surge of adrenaline that my pulse rate was almost as fast as the number of views this clip had on the BBC facebook page…over one and a quarter million.

 

 

 

CATEGORY 2: BEST VOCAL PERFORMANCE

3rd Place  Bawling Seal. I was never quite sure what this seal was so grumpy about.

 

 

 

2nd Place Sedge Warbler. Fantastic. The cheerful, chirpy song is the sound of the summer riverbank which always puts a spring in my step (or whatever the kayaking equivalent is).

 

 

 

1st Place  Bottlenose dolphins whistling. You’ll have to listen carefully, and might have to crank the volume up to ten. It’s a thrill just to catch a distant glimpse of Cornwall’s elusive Bottlenose pod, so I never thought I would be able to hear them chatting.

 

 

 

Category 3: BEST MINI DRAMA

This is my favourite category, because it consists of little wildlife dramas that can only really be witnessed from  the silence and stealth and unobtrusiveness of a kayak (and putting in a lot of hours).

7th Place: Somersault Cygnet. Being very small and fluffy makes cygnets everyone’s favourite mini-bird, but is not without its hazards.

 

 

6th Place: Gull tackling crab. Contrary to popular belief, Herring Gulls don’t spend their entire time stealing chips and burgers (and small dogs) from holiday-makers in St. Ives. At low tide they resort to more traditional cuisine, unfortunately for this crab. Having big pincers and looking fierce doesn’t seem to help because the gull knows exactly how to deal with it…flip it over and jack-hammer it in the soft spot.

 

 

5th Place: Grooming Roe Deer. This could just be my favourite clip. A little glimpse into deerish family life as I glide past silently (in the rain). Mother seems to be intent on her licky task but junior has a sort of ‘Get off, Mum’ body language. Like having your hair brushed before you go to school (circa 1965).

 

 

4th Place: Peregrine with Pigeon. A bit X-certificate this one, so if you are a sensitive type, look away now. Peregrines are the perfect predator, and when they land with their prey, which they catch on the wing, they are usually dead because the Peregrine has nipped the spinal cord in the victim’s neck with it’s (specifically designed) beak.

Unfortunately for the woodpigeon, this young female Peregrine hasn’t quite mastered the art of the coup de grace, but at least has the courtesy to disappear behind a rock to conclude the proceedings.

 

 

3rd Place: Duck Family Living Dangerously. The first journey from nest to water is a perilous one for all newly-hatched ducklings, and is even more hazardous when the tide is out (‘cos it’s further). The local crows also have a family to look after, and a few-hour-old Mallard duckling is exactly meal-sized for a nestling corvid.

But…phew!…not this time.

 

 

2nd Place: Dunlin Bump. Extraordinary. About 500 Dunlin lined up on Plymouth breakwater, roosting at high tide. What on earth prompts the bully to have a go at the innocent victim, apparently just minding its own business, and apparently no different to the other 499 Dunlin in the group?

 

 

1st Place:  Dancing Stoat. This is not drama, this is a full-blown theatrical performance. In fact it is completely over the top. The Stoat gets so carried away it dips it head completely under the water, rushes backwards and forwards lashing its tail about like a lure, and even picks up a leaf in its mouth before it makes an exit stage right.

All to lure the ducks within range of his spiky little fangs. Unsuccessfully, on this occasion.

All the more remarkable to know that this was in salt water (up an estuary).

 

 

Will 2020’s Wildlife Theatrics be as Dramatic?

It’s got off to an elegant start with these Avocets (on the Teign).

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Avocets

 

 

Birds on the Breakwater

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After the excitement of seeing the dolphin close to Plymouth, I repeated my circuit of the Sound in the hopes of a similar encounter.

Plymouth Sound, even in mid December, is a very busy place. There are naval craft constantly on the move, such as the patrol ship HMS Mersey:

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HMS Mersey

These larger boats are surrounded by a flurry of support vessels including the maritime police.

Then there is the cross channel ferry:

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Brittany Ferries Armorique

and probably most ubiquitous of all are the Princess Motor Yachts being taken out for sea trials all round the Sound. I could see six of them at any one time.

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Princess Motor Yacht

Crossing the main shipping lane out of the Sound is not straightforward because of the constant movement of boats, and on my way to the breakwater I had to wait to let two ships pass.

But despite all this boat traffic, or maybe in spite of it, I came across a Porpoise hunting in the strong tidal surge around the western end of the breakwater (no photo).

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Plymouth Breakwater

The breakwater itself is a satisfactorily remote and mysterious place. It is about a mile from natural dry land and also about a mile long. With its old structures and a fort dotted along its length, it is also a bit spooky (especially if you used to have nightmares about Sea Devils after watching Dr. Who, like me).

So it is a fantastic place for wading birds, which feed along the shore of the Tamar when the water is low, to rest when their feeding grounds are flooded at high tide. Well away from human disturbance, and more importantly, dogs.

But as I approached the middle of the breakwater near the old fort, I was taken aback by the sheer numbers of birds dotted along the wall. Many, many hundreds of them.They were concentrated on this section because it was about the only bit that was not constantly sloshed by the swell surging against the other side of the barrage.

I was very pleased to see a large number of Purple Sandpipers, which are my favourite coastal ‘wader’. They are winter visitors and inhabit rocky coast that is battered by waves, so this was perfect for them! And they are very tame which makes them even more endearing. It was great to hear them chattering as they jostled for position on the steep slope. They don’t seem to be happy on the flat, they are only at home on a steep barnacle-encrusted rock being splashed by the surf.

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Purple Sandpiper

 

I counted a total of forty-three Purple Sandpipers, which I think is exceptional for Devon. It was actually more than this because there were a few dotted about in amongst the Dunlin flock.

I don’t suppose many other birdwatchers come out here during the winter, not least because it doesn’t look that welcoming (or interesting) from afar.

Amongst the throng were five slightly larger waders….Knot. Winter visitors from the high arctic.

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Pair of Knot

But the really remarkable sight were the hordes of Dunlin, at a rough guess over 650. Yes, they are the UK’s most abundant winter-visiting wader and not a particularly noteworthy sight when they are scattered over acres of mud on a grey winter’s day. But lined up along the breakwater they were a spectacle.

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Dunlin

Excuse the shaky camera work, but conditions were, as usual, not favourable for photography. A sneaky little north wind was throwing up a chop which bounced back of the wall and lurched me about all over the place, and every so often the biggest of the swells on the ocean side of the wall would break over the top with a boom and a surge of white water and cause the birds to scatter (and my heart miss a beat).

 

The best ornithological spectacle was yet to come. As the tide dropped the Dunlin became restless in preparation for flying off to their feeding grounds a few miles away. They gave a display almost as impressive as a Starling murmuration.

 

A(nother) top wildlife day.

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Dunlin

Watch this last video clip closely. This is a perfect example of what is so good about watching wildlife from a kayak. It is so quiet and unobtrusive it allows a close-up and personal insight into the daily mini-dramas that usually go unnoticed.

This extraordinary incident definitely wouldn’t have been noticed by anyone else.

What on earth sparked this little Dunlin into this particular act of unprompted aggression?. It was in the middle of a flock in excess of five hundred and the rest were completely stationary and rested.

A long-standing grudge, or did it just have an eye on what it consider to be the best perch around.? Who knows?

Here it is again:

Merry Christmas

Osprey!

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Fowey

It was a spectacular morning in Fowey as I slid quietly through the estuary as the sun peeped up.

 

 

The moderate NE wind meant that today was going to be a coastal paddle and heading offshore wasn’t going to be an option. So I was just going to have to settle for filling my eyeballs with spectacular south Cornwall scenery…tough.

Although I did venture out around the cardinal buoy which marked the excellently named Udder rock. Always the chance of a porpoise or dolphin.

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Udder Rock buoy

I reached Polperro in just under three hours, but the very low Spring tide meant the harbour was completely dry, so I stopped for a coffee break outside.

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Polperro

An almost complete lack of wildlife encouraged me to visit Gribbin Head on the way back. I glimpsed a seal, very briefly saw a Barrel jellyfish below  and there were a few Gannets roving about offshore. That’s about it. Oh, and a single Curlew.

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Tea break beach

As I reentered Fowey Harbour I had clocked up about twenty miles.

I did such a double-take when I saw the white cap on a large bird of prey perched high in a tree overlooking the water, I cricked my neck. It was an Osprey. Wow.

My second of the year and the first in Cornwall. They are increasingly regular on migration around the rias of south Cornwall as their breeding numbers further north steadily increase. They stoke up on fuel, usually in the shape of mullet , before continuing south to spend the winter in West Africa.

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Osprey

This was undoubtedly a juvenile bird with white scalloping to the feathers of its upperparts, and a smattering of buff on its white underparts. It also had the aura of a youngster in the way it moved and looked.

I was relieved I didn’t resemble a meal-sized fish when it glared at me with piercing eyes. No chance of (me sporting a ) mullet nowadays.

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Osprey glare

There was little chance for the Osprey to rest. The local crows were relentless in their persecution.

 

 

And eventually it gave in and flew off up the estuary.

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Osprey on the move

An unexpected fantastic finale to an otherwise uneventful (from a wildlife perspective), but super-scenic, paddle.

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Ullswater

I was lured north by a request to do a bit if filming on the shore of Kielder water, in Northumberland, to enthuse about seals, dolphins and Humpbacks as seen from the kayak seat. It was great to meet the team from Daisybeck Studios. They had taken over a couple of disused rooms in Kielder castle and there were cables and screens and cameras everywhere, and the place buzzed with a healthy energy. Just like in the movies!

Of course I had to do a wee spot of paddling while I was up there. Kielder water isn’t particularly kayak friendly (in terms of access), so I opted for Ullswater in the Lake District.

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Donald Campbell’s Plaque

Ullswater is eighteen and a half miles around. I know, because I paddled every inch of it. It took me a little over six hours (inc ten mins on shore to chew my way through a couple of pieces of stale marguerita). It would have taken Donald Campbell five minutes and twenty-nine seconds at 202.32 mph in Bluebird.

So he might have been back in time for breakfast but he probably wouldn’t have noticed mother Roe Deer rather charmingly grooming her kid in the drizzle.

 

 

It wasn’t a bad day for mid October in the Lake District, and most importantly the wind was light. Although it took a bit of time for the early morning mist to clear from the tops. P1390191

Of course I followed the side of the lake without the main road, and it was pleasantly wild and remote in terms of scenery, but I failed to spot the hoped-for otter. But then I spend my whole time looking for an otter, and hardly ever see one, anywhere.

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Cormorants were resting on the fence. They get about everywhere.

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Cormorants

The local sheep, Herdwicks, were taking a very relaxed approach to life, in keeping with the quiet morning and expansive scenery.

 

 

The rather elegant Ullswater ‘steamer’ (or two of them actually, one of them more streamlined than the other) slithered up and down the lake, from end to end. Glenridding to Pooley Bridge. It was impressively unobtrusive and almost complemented the surrounding grandeur.

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Ullswater steamer

 

 

Summer was in the process of passing the baton to autumn. Not just in the yellowing of the leaves. A family of swallows flitted about the treetops, while the whistle of a Wigeon (which was visiting for the winter) carried far over the water.

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Autumnal Ullswater

A posse of what were probably resident Goosanders were having a bit of a preen at the northern end of the lake by Pooley Bridge. I guess they hatched out in the Spring.

 

 

Dry stone walls ran all over the hillsides, something we really don’t see in Devon. Down here it’s all about the Devon bank, which has a core of stone with soil on top which ends up full of bushes and trees.P1390197

By far the best wildlife highlight of the day was the family of three Roe Deer beside the lake. They were all looking in prime health, especially the youngster. They had already put on their winter coats, apart from a patch of summer russet that had yet to be moulted around the rump of the doe.

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Roe deer doe and kid.

I’ve never been too sure why a young Roe Deer is called a kid, whereas a young Red Deer is called a calf. And a young Fallow Deer is a fawn. Useful facts for that pub quiz.

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Roe deer licking calf

This clip is yet another example of how excellent a kayak is as a silent an unobtrusive platform to enable observation of those special little wildlife moments that would not be possible if you were crashing about in the undergrowth.

I particularly like the ‘get off, Mum’ moment half way through the video.

 

 

 

 

Otter in the Rain

Is it really worth going out for a paddle in an autumnal deluge, when you could be in a dry place drinking tea and eating Victoria sponge?

 

 

Yes, if you’ve got a decent drysuit. It’s actually quite fun. And there’s no jetskis on the water. Nobody else at all in fact.

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It was great to see that the remaining cygnet on the river had survived following the mysterious death of its two siblings a few weeks. The parents were their usual feisty selves and had a bit of a go at my GoPro. The cob (male) swan had a real go at me when the cygnets were young and came whop-whop-whopping directly at me which was a tad alarming.

 

This very pale buzzard wasn’t phased by the torrential downpour. It was like water off a….er…duck’s back.

Buzzards which have this much white are frequently mistaken for other species, but it is not abnormal. The French name for Buzzard is ‘Buse Variable’.

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Even though I havn’t seen an otter here for over a year, I was hopeful of seeing one. Although the best time to see an otter is a twilight, they do seem to put in an appearance when it is raining. I’m not sure why this is…..could it be that it is because it gets darker when it rains (and so mimics dusk), or is it that they feel they are not going to be disturbed when it is absolutely hosing down because only the daft venture out?

Because it was really chucking it down I felt that an otter couldn’t resist coming out.

And it did. I saw a smallish otter carving a ‘v’ in the water far enough ahead of my kayak that I could easily glide over to the bank and sit absolutely quietly tucked in the middle of a (very drippy) bush without it noticing me.

This is my video in its entirity. It nicely shows the weather conditions, which was not great for my completely unwaterproof camera. It also shows how difficult it is to track a diving otter, which doesn’t usually surface in the same place it dived…..although this one did.

Apologies for the shaky camera work…it’s really not that easy from the kayak seat.

I think this was a bitch otter because it isn’t that big. I noticed it had a rather fetching little pink patch in the middle of it’s (usually black) nose.

 

I managed to sneak past up the river without disturbing it, and then picked it up again on the way back down twenty minutes later.

 

There’s not much doubt it was the rain that lured this otter out. The photos were timed at 1215. It’s not very often  you encounter otters at midday, they are usually well tucked up in bed.