Back to Burnham – Will there be seal pups?

So, only 2 months after our last trip, we’re back in Burnham-on-Crouch to see the common seals. The difference this time is that there might, just might be a chance to see some pups, even opthough they’re often not born until July.

We stayed the night before at our usual haunt, the White Harte Hotel, for a comfortable nights stay and some poached eggs for breakfast. The day started with some bright weather, but just before 11.00 when the boat (Discovery Charters 2 hour boat trip) was to pick us up to begin the trip, the clouds darkened and we felt a few spots of rain on our faces. There was also a strong, constant breeze coming in off the sea, but this helped to drive the clouds away and it thankfully stayed dry. We were accompanied on the trip by Noodles, the boat’s resident dog, complete with his own little life-jacket. Noodles takes a keen interest in the seals and seems to love the tours.

As usual, the trip started off with an update on the work to develop the RSBP reserve at Wallasea Island. This area is becoming an increasingly important area for seabirds and waders which was evidenced by the large numbers of black-headed gulls we saw, along with some common terns, Canada geese, brent geese, oyster catchers and little egrets. We even saw 5 avocets on route to and from the seal area.

We soon saw our first solitary seal on the bank of Wallasea Island before heading further along the river and spotting a group of 12-15 on the Foulness side. As we neared the group, what looked to be bits of driftwood next to the seals, sure enough, turned out to be seal pups. There were 4 or 5 in this group, with the bigger ones only 48 hours old and the smaller ones, according to our skipper Steve, only having been born the night before. The pups were incredibly cute, and both mothers and babies didn’t really seem too bothered by us being there.

We stayed slowly cruised a couple of times past this group, before heading a little further up, back on the Wallasea side, to see another group of 12-15 seals which, again, had a few tiny pups with them. We another cruise past them, so both sides of the boat could get a good view, before heading back to to the harbour past the other seals.

It was another lovely trip with Discovery Charters and great to see pups for the first time on our trips to Burnham. I’m sure we’ll be back again in the future.

Knepp Safari – Red Deer, Rabbits & Bats

It was Heather’s birthday at the weekend, so as a surprise I took her to one of our favourite places in the UK, the Knepp rewilding project near Horsham in West Sussex.

Knepp is one of the largest lowland rewilding projects in Europe and they operate safaris from Easter to October. As the land is also crisscrossed with public footpaths, you can also explore much of the area by foot. As it was a special treat, we stayed at the lovely Ghyll Manor hotel in Rusper, but Knepp also has a camp site, (which we enjoyed last year) as well as some cool glamping accomodation.

This year we did the 2-hour dusk safari, starting at 8pm. We arrived a few minutes before it was due to start and had a quick briefing with the guide about the project, what we might see and the usual health and safety stuff before joining the other 10 visitors in bundling into the Austrian Pinzgauer (an ex-army 6-wheeled all-terrain vehicle) in our tour round the southern range of the project.

Soon after setting off, we saw Exmoor ponies (obviously no-longer in Exmoor) along with a load of rabbits. Rabbits seemed to be everywhere around the estate, which I’m guessing is one of the things that attracts the many birds of prey that inhabit the estate including buzzards, barn owls, osprey and goshawk. Although, we only saw a buzzard on this occasion, swooping low through the trees.

There are a few tree-top platforms around the estate and we stopped at a couple as we went round, with the great elevation giving great views of the environment and allowing you to fully appreciate the size of the estate. The guide was a keen birder and when we were on the first platform he pointed out all the birdsong we were hearing, including nightingales, robins, whitethroats, blackbirds, cuckoos and owls. We descended the platform and strolled into one of the fields to see if we could get closer to the cuckoos. As we stood there, one of the group spied some massive antlers belonging to a red deer sticking up from behind some scrub. Soon another huge stag appeared from the tree-line, followed by another. The dusk light made for a beautiful viewing and a good photo-op!

Back in the vehicle we made our way further round the estate, seeing more red-deer and some roe deer. We were also lucky to see a couple of turtle doves, one just strolling along the track. At another field we got out and checked on some corrugated-iron sun-traps to see if we could find some reptiles. No luck on the first one, but at the second we found a slow-worm and grass-snake. Some adders have also been reported at the estate, but we haven’t seen any on our three visits.

We ended the tour as the sun-light was almost gone with a sun-downer drink of white wine (or an elderflower soft-drink) and some home-baked cheese nibbles overlooking the pond. the guide also had a bat-detector which we used to track bats as they flew from a nearby house to the pond and back.

It was a great end to a beautiful early-summer day and we are planning to return to Knepp later in the year for the deer-rutting safari.

Planet Earth 2, in concert at the Royal Albert Hall

Everyone loves Planet Earth 2 right? No one can forget the incredible images of the baby iguanas in the Galapagos emerging from their burrows and being locked in a deadly chase with racing snakes across the sand to the safety of the rocks. How could this show be enhanced?

Well, one way is to go and see a screening of the best bits of the series, with live music from the show being performed by the BBC concert orchestra, who performed the score for the TV series.

Can it get better than that?

Well yes. Add in introductions to each sequence from Mike Gunton,  executive producer and creative director of the BBC’s multi-award-winning Natural History Unit; then have Hans Zimmer Oscar award-winning film composer and creator of Planet Earth 2’s main theme come on stage and introduce Jacob Shea (composer of the original music for each episode) who then conducted the “opening number”.

All of this in the regal surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall. What a way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Amazing.

 

https://www.royalalberthall.com/tickets/events/2018/planet-earth-ii-live-in-concert/

 

Gibraltar – the Rock and monkeys

A 3.30 am start is early by anyone’s standards, but I think the opportunity of seeing Europe’s only wild monkeys makes it worth the effort.

We flew out of Gatwick, jetting off to Gibraltar International, with a runway that bisects the main road in and out of Spain.

Gibraltar is tiny and the rock dominates the peninsula. After checking in at the stuck-in-time Bristol Hotel, we headed straight to the cable car for the trip up to the top of the rock. By the way, it’s well worth booking your tickets online to beat the queue for tickets.

We had a quick lunch at the Mons Calpe Suite at the top of the rock. It has amazing views, but the service was slow and they seemed to run out of a lot of stuff even though it was only 1pm.

After lunch we started our walk around the top and immediately came across some monkeys or barbary macaques as they are properly known. They have no fear of people, will gladly get close to you and even steal the food out of your hands if you’re not careful (especially ice cream if today is anything to go by).

As we came to the Skywalk, a steel and glass walkway that overhangs the rock, we saw group tours blocking the roadways and the guides were encouraging monkeys to climb on their backs and arms so their groups could get good photos. We didn’t really like this and also the fact that many tourists didn’t really respect the monkeys (let alone other people looking at the apes). As you walk around the rock (and there is a lot of walking, with a lot of up and down) you will come across the macaques and have opportunities for photos. They are fascinating creatures and really do seem very human-like at times.

There are many places to visit on the rock which are included in the price of your cable car ticket, including St. Michael’s Cave (impressive, but doesn’t need the flashing lights and dance music), Apes Den (disappointing), the suspension bridge (good views and great photo op), the Siege Tunnels (educational and interesting, Heather thought so too) and the Moorish Castle (also interesting with nice views). The WW2 tunnels could also be good, but are an added extra and had closed (@17.00) by the time we got there.

In the evening we headed out to the Queensway Quay which has a number of restaurants alongside the marina. We settled on The Landings and had a nice sunset meal looking out over the boats. They have a fish and chips ‘deluxe’ where the cod is replaced by battered scallops and linguistine in full pastry.

Unfortunately, on this night we learned that our whale watching trips booked for the following day in Tarifa had been cancelled due to strong winds. What are we going to do, this was whole reason for this trip?

Gibraltar (unplanned day 2) – Whales 0 – Striped Dolphins 10

So, first apologies for the delay in posting, its been pretty busy and I haven’t been keeping up!

So, in the last post, we weren’t sure whether we were going on any whale-watching trips today, as the wind was too high (15-17 mph). We rang round all the companies in Tarifa and, sadly, all trips had been cancelled. We hastily put plan B into action, calling up a couple of companies in Gibraltar to see if they had dolphin watching trips on which, as they mostly stayed in the bay, would be sheltered from the wind. Luckily, trips were running and they had space for 2 more people!

We managed to book on two trips, one trip in the morning,  followed by another at lunch time.  The first, at 10.00 was with Dolphin Adventure, who run two boats in the Ocean Village marina. There office is right there too. The trip ran for about an hour and a quarter and after heading out through the marina, ran through the bay and just out into the straight of Gibraltar.  We did manage to see a few striped dolphins on the trip, which was a relief as we weren’t sure if we were going to see anything at all that day. The company seems to cater mainly for the tourists coming off the cruise ships that stopped at the Rock and as such, they were pretty efficient at getting everyone on and off, but it also meant it did feel kind of commercial and you share the boat with about 30 other people.

The second trip we booked was with Dolphin Safari, who are also based in Ocean Village and have an office there too. The boat did leave about half an hour late, but this can sometimes be the case depending on what the boat did/didn’t see on the previous trip. The boat is smaller and we only have 9 people aboard, which makes for more intimate viewing. The staff in the office were really friendly and also helpful on the phone when we were desperately trying to find something to do that day.

We headed out and across the bay (different route to Dolphin Adventure) towards Algeciras on the Spanish side of the bay. After about 40 minutes of cruising without any sightings, we turned out towards the Straight of Gibraltar and rougher waters. Just as we thought it was probably time to turn back, we started to see striped dolphins. Soon we saw probably 20 or so in different groups, many of them leaping out of the water and getting the “classic” dolphin encounter of them jumping in the bow wave as we motored along. This was really good viewing and although it didn’t quite make up for the cancelled whale trips, it did mean we saw something great that day.

We picked up our hire car and made the 1 hour journey to Tarifa and just as we were about to descend the hill down into town, we spotted some Griffon Vultures riding the thermals and pulled over to observe them for a few minutes.

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Griffon Vulture, Tarifa Spain

Wildlife watching is a game of patience, you can spend hours and see nothing at all and, often you may have to wait until the last minute until you finally see something that will make it all worthwhile. It’s important to just the experience being out in the open enjoying nature and if you’re luck, you might be rewarded.

Burnham-on-Crouch – Common seals and seabirds

So, last weekend it was the West coast of England last and today was on the East coast in Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex. As the name implies, Burnham sits on the River Crouch, just before it flows out in to the English Channel.

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View of the River Crouch from Burnham

 

If you’re in London and fancy seeing some wildlife, its just an hour and a half’s drive away or 1 to 2 hours on the train (depending on the service).

We took a boat operated by Discovery Charters from Burnham Town Quay on a two-hour trip along the river looking for common seals, but also keeping an eye out for seabirds and waders (more on that later).

Once we were past the moorings for all the number of yacht clubs that operate along the river, we made our way onto the River Roach that joins the Crouch with Foulness island on one side and Wallasea island on the other.

Soon we came across our first seals. I would say they were basking in the sun, but it was fairly overcast, albeit with no wind, no rain and mirror-calm waters.  As we motored along we saw seals on either side of the river  in groups of 8 to 12 and saw over 50 in total.  The boat slowed past each group, then turned round and went past again so that the passengers on each side of the boat got a good view. The seals were quite curious and although some of the seals may have slipped down the muddy banks into the water as we approached, like boats being launched down a slipway, they often swam towards us to have a closer look at us.

 

Wallasea Island is a RSPB project consisting of saltmarsh, mudflats and lagoons that has been created by re-engineering the existing seawall and utilising more than 3 million tons of excavated soil from the huge Crossrail rail tunnels that have been bored under London. This newly created habitat is home to a huge array of birds (differing depending o the season) and today we say a huge amount of arctic terns, some cormorants, oystercatchers, spotted redshanks (I think) and a single avocet (although I believe it is common to see many more).

 

We were dropped back at the quay and had some traditional chips and a pickled onion from the chippy before we jumped in the car for the drive home.

This was our third time making the trip to Burnham and we’ve always seen seals and in the summer months we’ve seen seal pups. We’ve also previously seen marsh harriers and curlews, so although sightings are never guaranteed, in our experience this is a very good spot for seeing something!

 

 

 

Cornwall day two – dolphin watching in Padstow!

So, back on a boat today.

After another great cooked (veggie) breakfast at the Little Mainstone guest house, we jumped in the car for the hour long drive to Padstow, made famous by Rick Stein and his restaurants, but is a very beautiful little fishing in its own right.

We were booked in the 2 hour discovery trip with Padstow Sea Safaris. We got kitted up in our warm layers, waterproofs and lifejackets before heading out to the harbour, down some steps and into the boat. It was a RIB, so guarenteed to be fast, windy, a bit bumpy and a bit wet.

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Keep warm! Lots of warm layers and waterproofs needed on a RIB in spring.

We headed out of the estuary and along the coast to a cove with a rocky feature called “The Dragon” due to its likeness to a sleeping Smaug. Unfortunately there were no seals here, just a lonely Shag, so we headed back out to “Seven Souls” another sheltered cove where we came across a single grey seal, its head bobbing in the green waters.

Next stop was a small island, home to nesting seabirds. We had a wonderful sight of a seal on the rocks as dozens (if not hundreds) of Guillemots and Razorbills launched themselves from the cliff abive it’s head and straight towards us.

After a few minutes watching this spectacle, we headed towards Port Isaac, home to the Doc Martin TV series. As we motored on we saw a common dolphin, then another and soon we were joined by a small pod of 4 or 5, playing chase with us and surfing through our bow wave. This is the kind of dolphin experience you imagine and we felt lucky to see it. This went on for about 15 minutes before 1 got excited and started jumping, seemingly just to entertain us.

Time was running out, so we took some photos at Port Isaac before heading back towards Padstow. We kept close to shore, stopping at caves along the way, hoping to see some more seals who like to sleep on some “shelves” inside the caves. We saw one more grey seal “bottling” in the water before we returned to Padstow. We were dropped off on the beach (due to the tide) and walked back 10 minutes to town.

We had lunch in Cherry Trees Coffee House, which serves the most amazing cakes along with pasties and other lunch fayre. We can heartily recommend the Easter Caramel Brownie Tart!