Eddystone. Dolphins,Porpoises, and a Whole Load of Fish.

My first trip out to the legendary lighthouse of 2019.

As is typical of me I arrived beach too early, and it was far too breezy. I paddled out from Cawsand in a steady force 4 NE wind and started to get very cold feet about heading out to the Eddystone. Fortunately I had sneaked a final look at the wind forecast before I left home and was as confident as I could be that this was just a flow of cool air off the land that would ease off as the sun got to work. Much of the day was supposed to be just about windless.

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Cawsand

Even so, I hugged the coast round to Rame Head and checked in with the NCI lookout on the headland above before gingerly starting on the ten mile crossing to Eddystone.

The Queen Elizabeth was still at anchor in the outer sound:

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Queen Elizabeth

The wind dropped only slowly and the first five miles were quite bouncy. Manx Shearwaters flicked past, and a few sat about on the sea.

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Manx Shearwaters

I started to relax as the sun warmed my back and the surface smoothed off.

There were quite a variety of jellyfish today: a handful of Barrel Jellies, lots of Compass jellies and one or two Moon and Blue.

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Compass jellyfish
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Barrel Jellyfish

Breakfast was taken on board. Not another soul for many miles around.20170111_034117Of course I wanted to see some fins breaking the water and my hopes were raised by the slightly larger number of patrolling Gannets than I had seen offshore recently. As usual they came over and checked me out. Large objects at the surface tend to eat fish so can mean a meal to a Gannet. Unfortunately for them , I don’t . Not for breakfast anyway.

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Patrolling Gannet (2nd or 3rd year)

However by the time I arrived at the Eddystone reef I had seen no large marine creatures. However I was amazed to see huge numbers of silvery-coloured fish over the reef. I thought these were Mullet but close inspection of the pics later showed they were Bass. Probably thousands of them!

 

 

 

 

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single Bass under the water before (which wasn’t on the end of a hook). Fortunately for them they were managing to outwit the several boatloads of sport fishermen around (who had not observed them below the surface).

Time to head back towards terra firma…after a quick selfie of course;

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Eddystone reef

The four hour paddle back was absolutely superb, and my absolute favourite type of sea kayaking. Cloudless sky, sun behind, ten miles offshore, completely smooth surface and no wind so that if anything appeared broke the surface within half a mile I was going to see it, and if anything splashed or blew within two miles I was going to hear it.

The excitement started steadily. Three porpoises.

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Eddystone Porpoise
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Eddystone porpoise

 

 

This bit of sea a mile or two north of Eddystone seems to be a cetacean hotspot, because four dolphins appeared straight in front of me….two adults and two juveniles. In superb conditions and nicely illuminated by the sun.P1330410

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Common Dolphins

 

 

I dragged myself away and stopped for lunch a few miles further on, and was caught on the horns of a dilemma when I heard splashing far far behind me (where I had paddled half an hour before). Surely dolphins, but should I go back, and add on another three miles to an already hefty trip?

Of course I had to, they might be an ultra rare species. Needless to say they weren’t, it was about ten more Common Dolphins, with a handful of energetic juveniles in amongst the pod.

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Common Dolphin

Added to this was another porpoise and a single speeding dolphin, and then it all went quiet after the half-way reef.

Apart from the odd Guillemot,

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Guillemot

a Common Scoter drake that was trying to conceal itself in amongst a raft of Manx Shearwaters,

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Manx and Common Scoter

and the oil-tanker ‘Emma’ (not the name that would come immediately to mind for an oil tanker)  thundering past on its way out of Plymouth sound.P1330546.jpg

The Queen Elizabeth had left in early afternoon too, with blasts on its horn so loud it made my ribcage vibrate and fillings rattle at a distance of nearly ten miles.

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Armorique vs Queen Elizabeth

 

Dolphins put on a Show

If you want to try to watch dolphins from a kayak my advice would be not to. It is incredibly difficult and you are almost certain to fail. Most of the time they are more than a couple of miles offshore, and just finding a day when the sea is smooth enough to make the trip enjoyable, and calm enough to see fins breaking the surface, is a challenge.

Also dolphins range far and wide so the chances of seeing them at all is always small, especially as using binoculars on a kayak (as would a dolphin-watching boat) is useless due to constant movement.

I hadn’t seen any dolphins since the end of March, since when I have paddled nearly 600 miles, including over one hundred and sixty miles over a mile offshore specifically looking for dolphins. The sea has been extraordinarily quiet, just a few porpoises and hardly a roving Gannet to be seen. All the marine wildlife watching companies around the coast have been saying the same.

Until now.

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Common Dolphins in a rush

I was on the water at 5am because the window of light winds was only forecast to last till midday. It started off grey and choppy but as I headed offshore the wind lightened and the surface glassed off nicely. Manx shearwaters zipped past and a few Razorbills and Guillemots fished from the surface.

Far ahead a single Gannet twisted in the air and dived, and three more circled. That was the only encouragement I needed to engage top gear because I was sure there would be something interesting swimming beneath, and sure enough there were the fins. Dolphins. Phew, I was about to pack in all this stuff due to lack of success!

I could see there were quite a few juveniles, with their smaller dorsal fins, in the pod of about eight individuals. As usual a delegate of adults came over to investigate me as I carefully approached. I presume this is to assess my threat level ( I could be an Orca) and warn the rest of the group accordingly.

 

 

 

 

Fortunately they decided I was completely benign and went off to carry on with hunting as a pack.

 

 

 

 

There ensued an enthralling half hour as the pod remained in essentially the same place, slow swimming, diving, resting, rushing and every so often jumping. Unlike porpoises which roll at the surface with barely a ripple, Common Dolphins are very dynamic and do a lot of splashing.

 

 

 

I silently left the scene and headed further out, looking for even bigger stuff, although the next marine marvel was actually quite small….a Puffin, with the grubby-looking face and smudgy-coloured bill of an immature bird probably hatched last year.

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immature Puffin

I loitered four or five miles offshore, downed coffee and headed back in before the wind picked up. I stopped at an obvious tideline and saw a couple of distant Porpoises slinking about before checking out the underwater action……jellyfish: one Barrel Jelly, several Blue jellies and over fifty Compass jellyfish, the first I have seen this year:

 

 

 

Notice the little pink fish that is tucked in behind the jellyfish’s umbrella. The perfect safe place away from hungry mouths, and made even safer because it is surrounded by a palisade of stinging tentacles. 

 

 

 

As I watched I heard a thumping splash further along the tideline, almost a mile away. I paddled over to investigate and came upon another small pod of dolphins, about half-a-dozen. These were even more dynamic than the first lot:

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Common Dolphins
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Common Dolphins

 

 

 

Sometimes they re-entered the water seamlessly after a jump, sometimes they bellyflopped appallingly with a mighty splash:P1330078

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I was getting a stiff back and numb backside after seven hours in the kayak seat, so was just setting off for the shore when this dolphin put in the best jump of the day. An appropriate finale.

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Common Dolphin

Dolphin drought over.

 

 

Cod, Seal, Beaver

Before we get to the REALLY exciting wildlife encounters here’s a selection of other stuff I have observed recently while paddling silently along.

The first was actually on the end of a fishing line. I havn’t done any kayak-fishing for a few years but my plan for later in the summer to lure some Blue Sharks within range of my Gopro meant I had to catch some mackerel for ‘bait’. My rod nearly got jerked out my hand when ten pounds of fish, consisting of two Pollack and a Cod, pounced upon the mackerel feathers simultaneously. I released the Pollack and was tempted to take the Cod home for tea, but it somehow managed to read my thoughts and with a mighty effort leaped overboard.

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Pollack,Pollack,Cod

Next to the beautiful Avon estuary in south Devon,

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Avon Estuary at Bantham

where I came upon the largest brood of Shelduck I have seen this spring/summer.

Fifteen Ducklings!

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I was very pleased to see that the swans which were nesting beside the upper reaches of my local estuary, the Torridge, had successfully hatched out five cygnets. It’s always better when it’s on your local ‘patch’.

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Torridge cygnets

Charlie L and I had a superb peregrine encounter off a particularly dramatic cliffy bit of South Devon. 20190621_082115

A female peregrine came labouring in off the sea carrying a large prey item, followed casually by the male bird. It landed on a small headland and as it plucked the victim the feathers drifted off downwind. We assumed the prospective meal was dead, but in a sudden flurry of wings the pigeon escaped and sprinted off around the corner, hotly pursued by the hungry falcon.

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Peregrine (male)

It apparently didn’t get far because the peregrine and meal (half eaten) flew past again later. Nice try though.

Looe island never disappoints because it is private and so free from wandering dogs, which can terrify wildlife. It was great to see a couple of fledgling oystercatchers dozing on the beach. They are usually very difficult to observe because on the approach of anything remotely resembling a threat, including an ageing kayaker, the parents pipe a warning call and the youngsters immediately rush into a dark corner and hide.

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Fledgling Oystercatchers

Oystercatcher adults are very vocal and as usual there was a lot of shouting going on:

 

For the first time I can recall I saw an Oystercatcher swimming in the sea. This is very unusual and I think it was probably a tactic to lure a walker away from their youngsters who were probably hunkered down on the beach where they had hatched. You can see the interloper in the video:

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Swimming Oystercatcher

 

I was expecting to see Willis the resident Whimbrel as I paddle along the beach, but instead was very surprised to come across this Bar-tailed Godwit. A bit drab to look at but legendary amongst bird enthusiasts because of its huge migration feats, with a non-stop flight in excess of 6,800 miles being the longest recorded of any bird. Was this bird late onn its way north to arctic breeding grounds, or an early departer for the south. Who knows?

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Bar-tailed Godwit

I did indeed come across Willis the Whimbrel later, similar in plumage, but not in beak, to the Godwit.

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Willis the Whimbrel

On the same reef was Eric the resident Eider. Both of these species should migrate north in the summer but have clearly decided that life at Looe is just too pleasant to desert for half the year.

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Eric the Eider taking a nap

As usual I was investigated by a couple of inquisitive seals, one of which looked remarkably like Nudger, a young male Grey Seal who clambered out onto my kayak deck last year. Here he is in August (ignore the date stamp which is wrong):

 

Today’s seal was bit darker and appeared to have different markings to Nudger, but his behaviour and apparent enjoyment of draping seaweed over his head, and swimming upside down, were identical to Nudger.P1320643

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It was, as usual, great to see this creature which is very ungainly out of the water, wafting about with effortless ease.

 

 

 

Tremendously exciting, but this experience was eclipsed by my first ever sighting of a Beaver, not only in the UK but anywhere in the world. My ultra early start paid off, although I was hoping to see an otter.

This clip was taken just after 5am, in Southwest England!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

£3 Billion Boat

Destination Eddystone, but I didn’t get there. I set off from Cawsand in thick mist, so followed the coast round to Rame Head to review my plans, hoping the visiblity would clear. It did, but only slowly, as I breakfasted on the tiny beach.

A big gnarled old bull seal watched me munch.

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Bull Grey Seal

It had a huge scar on its back which must have been a very nasty injury when it happened, probably from a boat propeller.

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Ouch

As the murk cleared a great grey shape merged out of the mist. HMS Queen Elizabeth.

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Queen Elizabeth Aircraft Carrier

I opted not to paddle all the way out to Eddystone, but craftily reconfigured my route to include a close pass of the mighty ship. I paddled five miles offshore to the Halfway Reef marker buoy to check out the offshore wildlife scene. It was still a bit disappointing with hardly a Gannet to be seen, no fins and only a handful of shearwaters and a single Bonxie to liven things up.

The most interesting creature was floating motionless on the surface, four miles from the shore. A Painted Lady butterfly which had clearly failed to make the crossing from France. I scooped it up and to my astonishment it was still alive.

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Lucky Painted Lady

It spent a couple of hours drying out on my deck and then (amazingly) it flew on its way. About a dozen of its compatriates flew past during the morning, miles out to sea. Remarkable because it was a cloudy morning, and also because I know that this little army of winged invaders started their journey in the deserts of the Middle East earlier in the year…..because I saw them there, in their thousands. They swarm northwards and  a few months later they (or their immediate offspring) are flying across the English channel to arrive in the UK, providing the weather conditions are favourable. Hopefully these immigrants will give rise to a good number of offspring which will be flitting round our gardens in six week’s time.

My focus then shifted from back from wildlife to hardware.

I looped around the Half-Way Buoy and headed east to slingshot around the Mew Stone, swinging back west towards the carrier that was at anchor outside Plymouth breakwater.

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HMS Queen Elizabeth and Rame Head

 

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HMS Queen Elizabeth   

My approach precipitated an interception by the prowling police launch. I don’t think the Merlin helicopter was scrambled as my presence was detected, it just happened to be going for a bit of a jaunt as I passed.

As I completed the final leg of my 22 mile paddle back to Cawsand the helicopters continued to buzz.

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And even as I trolleyed my kayak back up the ramp at Cawsand, the hefty ship completely dominated the view.

 

 

Stream in the Sky

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Pontcysyllite aqueduct

We were venturing to the other side of Offa’s Dyke to attend Guy and Lynn’s wedding, so decided to check out the Llangollen canal the day before. It had qualified for Unesco World Heritage status so must be worth a visit, and from a kayaking point of view the lure of paddling over the highest aqueduct in the world was hard to resist.

All the local rivers were in flood anyway so there wasn’t a lot of option.

We started off at Chirk, which is actually in England.

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LLangollen canal at Chirk

Becky walked as I paddled along. Fortunately our cruising speeds were just about the same. It was all pleasantly scenic and quiet and peaceful, and very green.

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Llangollen canal at Chirk

First up, on the remarkable feats of canal engineering, was the Chirk aqueduct, which at only seventy foot high was trifling compared to what was to come.

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Chirk aqueduct and Railway viaduct

 

Chirk tunnel followed immediately after the aqueduct. 460 yards long and a bit creepy in the middle where it is so dark you can’t even see your paddle.chirk tunnel.jpg

Although I had a pathetic little torch I wouldn’t trust a narrowboat entering the other end to notice it. Fortunately one didn’t appear.

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Tunnel exit

Not surprisingly because of all the boat activity wildlife was a bit thin on the ground today, but it was great to see several families of Mandarin duck on the canal.

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Mandarin duck

My timing for the passage past a swing bridge was perfect because a narrowboat was approaching and a very cheerful Canadian gentleman was working the hand winch.

 

The increasing number of sightseers bulging out of the canal boats hinted that something remarkable was just around the corner.P1320173

Of course they would all have preferred to be travelling by kayak, or at least that’s what they said.20190613_102540

It was time for the BIG viaduct. Pontcysyllite…..the Stream in the Sky. With less than a foot of parapet to protect you from a 126 foot drop it is not for the faint-hearted. Peering over giddy ledges usually makes my head spin but if I’m sitting in the seat of a kayak it doesn’t seem to be a problem. And if  Thomas Telford’s creation had stood firm without losing a drop of water for 214 years then it was probable it would see me to the other side and back (twice, because I couldn’t resist going over it again).20190613_103415P1320283

 

 

 

The canal somehow managed to maintain a very high level of visual appeal over the next five miles to Llangollen.

Sweeping through green fields,

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past a cliffy bit,

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and through neatly pruned gardens. As a bonus at one stage the sun almost threatened to come out, but then it started drizzling again.

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We stopped for lunch at Llangollen wharf and consumed tuna and sweetcorn sandwiches. Unfortunately they were a bit fizzy because I had made them yesterday morning before we left Devon.

The canal side was busy with tourists spilling out of the town for a boat trip. Both conventional and horse-drawn were on offer.

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Llangollen wharf
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Horse drawn canal boat

Following refuelling ( on the high octane sandwiches) the nine mile paddle back was relatively easy for me because there was a significant flow of water in the canal, but not so easy for Becky because the towpath remained motionless.

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and the afternoon swelled the number of visitors to the viaduct, many of whom were more interested in phone screens than the staggering view or mindboggling feat of engineering.P1320247

Time for one last sweep of the Gopro to take in the dizzying height.

 

For the final four miles to Chirk I was sucked along in the wake of a narrowboat. 20190613_104320

 

 

 

 

Blinking Cold

Blooming heck. It was warmer in February! Relentless rain and cold is not only hard work for a kayaker who was looking forward to easing in to a nicely ironed (Joke) pair of swimming shorts, it is also very bad news for nesting birds. The Sand Martins and Kingfishers that I saw beside the river Wye a couple of weeks ago will have had their nest holes flooded by the exceptionally high water  levels.

This little family of Mallard can at least find their own food as they paddle along, but they are very vulnerable to the cold and wet. They definitely know the best pace to avoid the rain, although getting there isn’t so straightforward.

 

Further down the Fowey estuary I witnessed what was nearly a family catastrophe as a mother Mallard was leading her brood down to the water for the first time. The nest had been in the foliage at the top of the bank, far above high tide level. An opportunist crow had spotted the posse and was looking to take advantage of their exposure as they made for the (relative) safety of the water. Only the awareness and courage of the mother saves the duckling that ends up momentarily floundering on its back, which the crow was just about to whisk away.

 

On this particular day I nosed out of the estuary for a good look at the open sea, but once again their didn’t seem to be a lot going on so I reverted to watching the wildlife of the creek. Even Lantic Bay beach, one of the best strands in Cornwall, didn’t look particularly welcoming. It was steely and grey. Not only did it look cold, it WAS cold.

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Lantic Bay

Back up the estuary Herons were doing their thing:

 

and I got the impression that this Gull had ‘dealt’ with crabs of this size before. It avoids the (very large) claws and knows how to flip the crab over to expose the underside before hammering it with its beak.

 

The rain has eased and the temperature is getting back to where it should be for mid June. Time to get moving…..

 

 

Mission: Otter and Water Vole on the River Thames

 

Failure of this  mission was almost certain because otters, although increasing in numbers, are still extraordinarily elusive (and mainly nocturnal), and water voles are now very rare thanks to predation by Mink, and also shy and difficult to observe.

The key to success, I felt, was an early start. I set my alarm for no particular reason for 0410, but was already half way through my first cup of tea by then courtesy of a dawn duet by a Song Thrush and a Cuckoo which had started twenty minutes earlier.

It was surprisingly cold on the water as I paddled through the mist and my fingers went numb. Hard to believe it was early June.

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June dawn on the Thames

 

 

The appallingly early start was worth it for the birdsong alone. The dense waterside vegetation was full of reeling Reed and Sedge warblers. This one is so excited about the appearance of the sun it can’t help interrupting its preening with bursts of song:

 

 

It then really got going when it had spruced itself up.

 

 

It was great to hear a few cuckoos. They undoubtedly had their eyes on the nests of the Reed Warblers, one of their favourite places to lay their egg(s). We just don’t here them in West Devon anymore, apart from on the moors.

 

 

It was still well before six o’clock when I saw the flat profile of  a water vole swimming across the river ten yards ahead of me. It had disappeared into the reeds long before I had scrambled my camera out of its drybag, fumbling with chilly fingers. So no photo but a thrill nonetheless. As I paddled up the river in complete silence I heard several more water voles….they make an absolutely characteristic ‘plop’ as they dive into the water when you pass.

These quiet upper reaches of the Thames, with no disturbance from boats with engines, must be perfect for the voles.

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Upper Thames

I knew that seeing an otter was going to be highly improbable, and as the day brightened it was more likely to be impossible. Never mind, there was plenty to maintain the attention. Mallard ducklings:

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Mallard duckling

 

 

And this extraordinarily brightly-coloured Coot chick just out of the egg.

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Coot chick

Surprise of the morning was this Red-crested Pochard, probably escaped from a collection.

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Red-crested Pochard

So no otters when I reached my turnaround point, but I found the remains of their supper. A couple of crayfish claws left on the foot of a bridge:

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Crayfish claws.

On the way back the sun really got to work and I started to get a bit humid in my drysuit. Huge numbers of insects awoke and buzzed, bumbled, flapped and hummed. Most obvious were the Banded Demoiselle damselflies, thousands of them.

 

 

There are few other pastimes with more feelgood factor than sitting on a clear-running river drifting along watching the natural world being busy around you, skylarks and yellowhammers singing, and warm sun on your back. Bees on the comfrey;

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Busy bee

And a late Orange Tip, looking a tad tatty. Most Orange Tip butterflies are ‘finished’ by the beginning of June:

 

 

The family of swans I had passed in the mist earlier put on a bit of a show for me on the way back. Initially only one cygnet took a ride on Mum’s back, then the others clearly thought it was a great idea so they tried to climb aboard as well.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sedge Warbler was in a bit of a strop when I passed for a second time, probably because I was drifting too close to its nest. You can clearly hear the irritation in its voice.

 

 

After lunch I took a leisurely paddle down the more typical section of Thames downstream from Lechlade, with chugging canal boats and beautifully maintained lock-keepers houses.

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Buscot Lock
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Buscot Lock

 

Paddling downstream as I was making my way back up, was seventy-one year old Philip Sowden, He was within a day of completing the 862 mile Bliss Canoe trail, a route around the country following inland waterways. He told tales of hundreds of portages, camping en route, and a capsize on the River Severn. It had taken him two years on and off, and he is one of the few ever to complete it. Wow. Good effort!

Philip Sowden
Philip Sowden

Late May/early June is the perfect time to visit the rivers. There is an explosion of life, a cacophony of birdsong and the foliage on the trees is still a vibrant yellowy-green. It’s not too busy with other river users,either.

Incidentally, if you want to know why paddling along silently in a kayak is better than any craft with an engine, take a look at this clip.

 

 

Time to go home, farewell to the Thames for the time-being.

Thames early