Much as I love footling about miles from the shore on a calm summer’s day with shearwaters and maybe the odd Storm Petrel zipping past, there are some cracking birds to encounter in SW England that arrive from the far north to spent the colder months around the coast. Ducks, divers, grebes and scoters. The shearwaters and petrels have gone.
And these winter ducks tend not to be quite so far offshore as the summer seabirds, which is handy because when the weather and water are cold I find offshore paddling a bit more intimidating. Even better, they seem to prefer sheltered bays as I suspect they dislike being battered by wind and waves as much as I do.
I just about managed to get my camera out of my dry bag as a couple of Long-tailed Ducks flew directly past me during a jaunt to Teignmouth. Not particularly spectacular to look at (although they are when in breeding plumage) but a favourite amongst birders as they are quite rare.
I encountered some of my favourite coastal birds at the tip of Nare Head in Southern Cornwall. Purple Sandpipers. Funnily enough they are only at home skipping about on barnacle-encrusted wave-pounded rocks, generally in fully exposed locations, so they buck the shelter-seeking trend. They are incredibly easy to overlook and I very nearly missed them despite paddling past only a few feet away.
The birdworld winter king of the coast must be the Great Northern Diver (bad name). Called the Common Loon (good name) in America. They are the most widespread visiting Diver and probably the commonest. Their penchant for flatfish and crabs means they are often close to the shore. But it was a bit of a surprise to find one right outside the entrance to Padstow.harbour.
This was the tamest Loon out of many hundred I have observed from a kayak. It busily fished in the strong tidal current as I drifted around watching. Absolutely fantastic. It had to dodge out of the way of the Padstow to Rock ferry but didn’t seem at all fussed.
I thought cetacean watching was just about finished for the season.It’s definitely what REALLY gives me a buzz from a kayak but quite a challenge to achieve because not only is the season quite short, conditions suitable for heading out to see them on a flimsy sliver of plastic are patchy.Especially on the swell exposed North Cornwall coast.
I have had my eye on a paddle around Padstow bay and its offshore islands all year because I know it is quite productive for marine life, but have so far been put off by the relentlessly lumpy sea conditions. To make it non-worrying and fun, and to make spotting the fins of cetaceans easier, I would be looking for a swell of less than two foot and a wind of less than 10 mph. Bingo! The forecast for both the 30 Nov and 1 Dec were perfect. Blooming cold but pure sunshine and little wind or swell.
On the first day chum Dave and I paddled the coast between Rock and Trevone past several miles of vertical black exposed cliff which managed to be quite bumpy even in the calm conditions.
My son Henry who was observing from a clifftop at Stepper point reported seeing a couple of ‘big splashes’ a mile offshore towards Gulland Rock. Mmmmm, what on earth might they be…dolphins? whales?
My curiosity was ignited so on the second day I planned a thirteen mile circuit around Padstow Bay from Harlyn up to the mouth of the River Camel, then around Gulland Rock and straight down to the ‘Quies’ rocks off Trevose Head, then back to Harlyn. Using my Cobra Expedition kayak.
This would involve eight or nine miles of offshore paddling so I was hopeful of meeting up with one of the splashy things.
It was below freezing as I paddled out but the sun soon got to work to thaw out my toes. A grey seal was fast asleep ‘bottling’ a couple of miles out and clearly not expecting to be disturbed…it crash-dived with a mighty splash.
A couple of miles north of Gulland Rock three fast-moving fins slashed the surface. I think I glimpsed the yellow side of a Common Dolphin but was not certain…they could just have been porpoises on a hunting ‘surge’.
It was calm enough for me to hear the characteristic ‘piff’ of a group of nine Puffing Pigs (aka Harbour Porpoises) long before I saw them. A good prolonged view as they swam away and then came back.
I assumed another ‘puff’ behind me was also a porpoise, but was very pleased to see a largish looking solo dolphin passing at a leisurely speed. I tore after it but although I was paddling like a demon in a flurry of white water, the dolphin increased the distance between us even though it looked as though it was having the cetacean equivalent of a Sunday afternoon stroll. Of course I always keep well away so as not to disturb any of these superb creatures, but this is often academic as they frequently come over to check you out (although this one didn’t).
The photograph I took of this dolphin confused me a bit as it seemed to show a pale flank patch and I started to get excited about the possibility of a White-sided Dolphin, but guidance from the folk at Seawatch confirm it as a Common Dolphin.
Anyway, dolphins and porpoises from a kayak in December. Fab.
The tide helped with crossing the open water to the fangs of rock off Trevose Head. This really is a sinister place and I got the impression it is not friendly to kayaks very often. In fact I would go so far as to say it is even more ‘exposed feeling’ than Land’s End. I have only ever paddled past here twice before.
I was quite pleased to get round into the shelter of Mother Ivey’s Bay, and the very impressive lifeboat station, before the easy paddle back to Harlyn.
I was sorry to miss out on Henry’s remarkable cetacean sighting while he was perched on top of the cliffs photographing peregrine falcons at Morwenstowe in North Cornwall. He observed a harbour porpoise which was entirely white!
This is apparently ultra rare and there have only been fifteen or so such sightings in the last century. The porpoise-loving fraternity got very excited. My attempts to go and see it by kayak were thwarted by strong winds (surprise,surprise). Another entry for my bucket list for next year!