Berry Head Porpoisefest

Paul and I were very excited about today. The winds in Torbay were forecast to be very light  and temperature due to top twenty degrees (not bad for the end of September) so we were planning to paddle offshore to hopefully eyeball a few cetaceans, while sitting on a lovely smooth sea (which doesn’t happen that often).

Brixham harbour was calm and blue……perfection. And the lifeboat looked poised for action, which was reassuring.

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Brixham Harbour

Berry Head is a great place to see porpoises and just as I was explaining (droning on) to Paul that they like to hunt the edge of the tidal currents, one surfaced with a puff only a few yards directly in front of him. What a way to encounter your first porpoise! A couple more surfaced and put on a bit of a show for us.

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Berry Head Porpoise

Good start…we had only been paddling for twenty minutes. We felt the omens were good so headed directly out to sea from the headland. A handful of Balearic Shearwaters zipped past and we saw, and heard a further scattering of Porpoises, and saw a few of them.

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leaving the ‘bustle’ behind

Four miles from Berry Head we stopped to take in the surroundings. For about as far as we could see in all directions were circling and milling gulls and Kittiwakes, clearly intent on catching something at the surface. Every so often they would splash into the water and more often than not come out with a sprat in their beak. There seemed to be no specific concentration of baitfish, it was just spread over a vast area of sea. I also noticed a Garfish leap out of the water a couple of times.

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Paul in hunting mode (Berry head in background)

We were rather hopeful this massive food source might lure in some big eaters but unfortunately nothing bigger than porpoises appeared, and the occasional Gannet sploshed in. There was however a reasonably-sized car transporter which we did our best to avoid.P1170896

There was so much action going on we were reluctant to head back to the shore because we both felt something dramatic was about to happen. However we were now being sucked along the coast towards Dartmouth on the big ebbing Spring tide so if we didn’t strike for the shore now it would be a very long haul back to Brixham.

While still two miles offshore we were distracted by a superb double wildlife encounter. As we ran into a whole load of porpoises which were puffing all around us, I saw a tern sitting on the water. I crept up quietly with camera clicking and was thrilled to see it was a ‘this year’s’ Common Tern. A beautiful little bird, not common at all around here and only the second I have ever seen sat on the water.

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Common Tern (first winter)
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Common Tern

We then focused on the porpoises which seemed to have us surrounded. One torpedoed directly towards Paul and he watched it swim just underneath his kayak.

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Harbour Porpoise
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Paul and Friend

The porpoises, which frequently are too far away to see even though you can hear their ‘puffs/piffs’ seemed to appreciate that Paul was a porpoise rooky and wanted to give a really good demonstration of their aquatic skills. With a splash a sizable fish broke the surface with a pair of porpoise in even more splashy hot pursuit.

They came almost TOO close for a suitable video…..but you can hear their ‘Puffing Pig’ blow very nicely in this clip:

We were so engrossed we didn’t realised we were being conveyed down the coast by the tide at over one knot, so had to engage fast cruise gear and make for the shore, and a four mile coastal paddle back to Brixham. With a deep blue sky, dropping sun behind and very pleasant cliffy scenery, this wasn’t too much of a hardship.

And if you like your boats, there are always plenty to admire along this section of coast.

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Bloat boat
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Brixham trawler
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photogenic Sailboat

I think I’m more of a scenery person.

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note jetskier. Unfortunately they avoided colliding with the rock.

 

Scotland 2018 part 2: The Supporting Cast

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Otter plus crab lunch

Although the otter catching and eating the crab was by far my best wildlife encounter during my five days in the Arisaig area of Western Scotland, there was plenty else going on in the natural history section.

Not least the five trillion midges that came over to pester me one still and warm evening. What sort of a creature is it that deliberately flies into your eyeball and voluntarily gets blinked to death? In their thousands. Their friends in the itch depatment are ticks several of which, despite my best efforts to avoid them, managed to find their way into various cracks and crevices about my person.

More of a threat to wildlife was the two Mink I briefly saw. Despite being very fluffy and floating high on the water they are adept swimmers and seem to dive as well as an otter.

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Mink

I would have been disappointed not to see an Eagle and ended up with two. Sea Eagles are so incredibly huge that if one is around you really have to be pretty daft not to see it (or eyes down on your phone…..again). One was being pestered by Gulls on the south side of the Arisaig peninsular, the second sat in a tree at loch Moidart.

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White-tailed (Sea) Eagle

The half dozen or so Great Northern Divers I saw were all nearly in full summer plumage. I’m not sure whether these are non-breeding birds that spend the summer here or that they are winter visitors that still havn’t headed north. I suspect most will soon depart.

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Great Northern Diver

A pair of Red-throated Divers were fishing in the sea in front of my tent at Peanmeanach beach and flew back to their loch in the hills calling in classic, honking, ‘Rain Goose’ (their Shetland name) style. There was no rain in the forecast however, and I suspect they got this name in Shetland because it rains much of the time and there are a lot of breeding Red-throats there.

Trying hard to compete with the divers for snappiness of plumage were the Black Guillemots. I really like these busy little birds (although their movements verge on frantic) and unlike their southern cousins they have an extraordinary high-pitched whistle as a call note. A good sound for carrying distance on a windy day. In the video the second bird hasn’t quite finished moulting out of its winter plumage. (video)

 

The islands in Loch na Ceal near Arisaig hosted a lot of birds and the still and sunny weather enhanced the atmosphere. The main soundtrack came from the Oystercatchers. If they didn’t have such charisma I might be tempted to say what an appalling din. (video)

 

 

A pair of Common Terns looked like they were checking out somewhere to nest,

Common Tern
Common Tern

and a rather smart looking Common Gull was busy incubating her eggs beside a bouquet of Sea Pink. (could be a ‘he’ I suppose). Incidentally ‘Common Gull’ is a very bad name for what is NOT the most Common gull and is in fact an extremely neat and attractive bird.

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Common Gull

I know it’s ‘only’ a seagull but I had to insert this video because I love the way the Gull settles back down to incubate its eggs so proudly and cosily with a contented shuffle and waggle of its tail. (video)

 

 

A pair of Ringed Plovers were a bit agitated as I passed so I guess they were nesting as well. They got a lot more stressed when a Great Black-backed Gull turned up with bird’s eggs on the menu for lunch.

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Ringed plover

Arisaig’s most prominent residents are the Harbour Seals. There are a lot of them and they drape themselves about on low flat islets and their bawls and grunts carry far over the water. They enjoy nothing more than following kayakers in large numbers and diving with a splash. They are rather more photogenic than Cornwall’s Grey Seals, and have a more dished cat-like face. (video)

 

 

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Heap of Harbour Seals
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Posse of Harbour Seals

I saw one Grey Seal in amongst a colony at the mouth of Loch Moidart. It had a whitish blaze across its head.

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Grey Seal

A trip to Scotland would not be complete without a Red Deer and I would have been surprised not to see one…..

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but I certainly wasn’t expecting to see quite so many (tens of thousands)  Moon jellyfish wafting about in the clear waters of Loch Sunart. Accompanied by a few Lion’s mane and small white jellies with very long tentacles.

The other wildlife highlight of my early morning paddle on the smooth waters of Lochs Sunart and Teacuis was the sound of birds with the songs of Blackcaps, Willow and Wood Warblers drifting down from the deciduous woods on the bank. Plus the occasional Tree Pipit and ‘zip, zip’ of a Spotted Flycatcher. Didn’t see any of them . Plus the odd Cuckoo, which I did see. I could hear one calling from over a mile away.

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Moon Jellyfish
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Moon Jellyfish

The rarest bird I saw was not the most glamorous and a bit specialist to the ornithologist. This iceland Gull was hanging around the fish farm on Sunart.

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Iceland Gull

It was so still most of the time that I could here the ‘coos’ of these Eiders long before I could see them.

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Line of Drake Eiders.

It was time to head for home, a mere 650 miles away.

The seals waved me off:

Harbour Seal