Getting Twitchy

Every year it’s the same. When’s it gonna warm up and be T-shirt weather again? Maybe this year the sun won’t bother to start getting up earlier and going to bed later. We all take it rather for granted but nobody does anything for nothing nowadays. And a few years ago I remember it had really bad sunspots and I’m surprised it showed it’s face at all.

I’m fed up with marinading in my drysuit like a slow boil casserole. It’s actually unbelievably snug and cosy but turn up the paddling speed and it soon gets a tad tropical. Also you’ve really got to stay clear of that artichoke soup for a good twenty-four hours previous.

I’ve also said before that fishing during the hardest winter months is a no-no, unless you are a serious pro fisherman. In the summer the tackle loss rate is far outweighed by catches. However in winter it’s the other way around you might as well sling a tenner overboard every couple of hours. 

So what else can you find to enthuse you to venture out into the wind/rain/subzero temps/freezing water of SW England in your kayak?  If you spent much of your formative years on platform 4 of Reading General like me you will be thrilled to watch the departure of the china clay train from Fowey:

China clay train ready to roll headed by 66117. What a beauty!

But trains are thin on the ground down here so what else? Well, the coast of Devon and Cornwall is absolutely heaving with birds which nest in the arctic and spend their winter holidays basking in our mild winter climes.There is a huge variety and kayaking is, in my humble opinion, the only way to see them. Like this Purple Sandpiper.

Purple Sandpiper taking forty

They are top little birds because they are only happy poking around amonst barnacles in exposed wave-pounded locations and are very tame and unobtrusive. Even in foul weather they never throw in the towel and go to find shelter up a creek.

So quite a contrast to the ubiquitous and oafish and remarkably noisy Oystercatcher. Just look at that extrovert and strutting body language:

Oystercatcher, bossy and assertive.

If  you make your living by probing about in mud it’s a bit of a drag when the whole country is gripped by permafost conditions, such as occurred through much of December. Snipe had a tough time and many headed down to the coast in search of softer gloop to stick their unfeasibly long beaks into. They also seem to be prone to vanity as this one seemed to be transfixed by it’s own reflection:

Snipe....the ultimate Mr. Beaky

 Snipe rather typify the British wading bird. Short legs to avoid being blown over in a gale, brown plumage to avoid be gobbled up by a predator, stout beak to avoid snapping it  if you clang it into a rock.

Avocets however do not conform .

Avocet. Delicate and elegant

I’ve encountered several Eider ducks along the south coast of Cornwall this winter. They are big and rotund and most are brown. But I came across this stunning drake near St.Mawes a couple of weeks ago.

Eider......looking good

Just look at that colour scheme: whose idea was it to do that double airbrush design in lime green on the back of its head? If you sat a hundred decor designers around a table and asked them to come up with a striking design I bet not one of them would suggest that. A great splodge of orange or red maybe but not green. This is the only adult male Eider I have ever seen in the South West so that makes it even more exciting.

There’s always a few swans up every estuary:

Sunrise swan

Mute swans may not be the most exotic birds  around these parts but Persil should take note  about their method of getting those feathers quite THAT white.

The most exciting seabirds around the coast in winter are Loons (great name) as they are called across the pond, or Divers (not such a great name) as they are called here. The most common are Great Northern Divers and these are chunky birds the size of a goose that can dive for minutes at a time. A few are quite tame such as this one of Bude:

Big Bude Loon

The call of these birds is the sound of the Canadian wilderness and you can occasionally hear a very muted version of their spookily laughing call around here. Much rarer are the Black-throated Divers which have a breathtakingly intricate design to their summer plumage on their breeding lakes in Scotland but are a bit more drab, but no less charismatic, in winter. They tend to go around in a marauding pack to terrorise small fish in a few bays in the south of Cornwall.

Trio of Black-throated Divers

Seagulls don’t have a great reputation with fast food eaters in Newquay and St.Ives, but are probably doing the punters’ waistline and arteries a big favour when they swipe their burgers. Herring Gulls are the culprit and their whole behaviour is in-yer-face and gangland.

In complete contrast Kittiwakes are the most dainty gulls and are completely loyal to the sea. A raid on a chippy or attack on a vulnerable ice-cream-cone-licking passer-by would never cross their mind. They extract their food from the surface of the sea and nowhere else.

There were loads just offshore from Bude the other day-must have been shoals of baitfish around as there were loads of guillemots and razorbills as well.

Immature kittiwake

I’ve saved the best till last.  The Peregrine Falcon has an intensity of gaze unmatched by any other living beast ( I reckon). I know their eyesight is at least ten times better than mine because I once watched one take off on a hunting flight from the cliff above me and I followed it flying out to sea till I lost sight of it through my10x binoculars. Ten minutes later it returned with its catch it had seen while still on the cliff. So if you are a plump meal-sized bird you do not want to see a sight like this:

Plunging Peregrine

I doubt if there’s many bits of coast that are not under the watch of a peregrine nearly all the time. You can almost sense the piercing eyes scrutinising your every hair follicle (or lack of). Any sizeable slab of vertical cliff is likely to be a suitable spot for a nest and is likely to have a peregrine sitting nearby, on a rock which provides the best all round view.

Don't pick your nose,you're being watched.

 Start thinking like a Peregrine and there’s a good chance there’ll be one sitting exactly where you would expect……look, there’s another!

Get twitching.

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One Response to “Getting Twitchy”

  1. Frank Needle Says:

    Rupert,you dissapoint me! You mention the China Clay train of this day and age,without mentioning the good old days of the Westerns and their associations with the China Clay trade. 1023 “Western Fusilier” passed by here,where I live on a special a few years ago – poetry in motion indeed,had some good Steamer Specials as well,notably a double header passing on a Moonlit Feb. night with Pullman coaches – Fantastic!
    As for the birds,I was waiting for the Choughs! thought they’d been re-introduced,tripping over them sometimes at Anglesey,saw 4 in one inlet once,also the Ravens.I didn’t realise they were so abundant,untill I saw Autumn Watch once,big powerful bird,I witnessed one literally ripping sods of earth up,presumably hunting worms,grubs e.t.c. impressive stuff.I’ve got to recognise their call now and see them quite a lot.I was also lucky to come across a Choughs’ nest in a cave n.r. Cardigan – noisy buggers though!
    Anyway,I’m finally ready to hit the water again,just waiting for a bit of weather,think we’ve turned the corner now,theres a bit more hours in the day,the birds are singing again,and it’s reaching double figures ‘ere oop North. ha ha.

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