The recent cold snap was, thankfully, nothing like as bad as last year's Beast from the East - at least not here in Suffolk. It was, however, cold enough to attract a scarce visitor from the continent in the form of a smew. Apart from a two day bird in December, this was our first smew of the winter, continuing a trend from the last few years of very late arrivals: this is the third year in a row that a smew has arrived int he first week of February.
Smew are the smallest members of the sawbill family of fish-eating diving ducks, and breed in a vast area of Siberian tundra and taiga forest, with smaller numbers nesting in Scandinavia. In winter they move south and west, often to coastal waters and large wetlands. Most of the western European population winters in the wetlands from Poland west to Belgium, with a few reaching as far west as the UK. How many reach our shores often depends on the severity of the weather on the near continent, and this year there seem to be fewer around. We usually expect to see up to five smew during the winter, but only have one bird present so far.
Male smew are stunning birds - white with intricate black and grey markings - that go by the fabulous colloquial name of white nuns. (Don't ask why the males are called white nuns, as I've never looked that up.) Females and young birds are equally distinctive, being small greyish ducks with clean white cheeks and a chestnut crown and hind neck. This latter feature earns them the name redheads, and it's a redhead that has arrived this year. (Photo, right, by Jon Evans).
The redhead arrived on Friday, 1 February, and has been seen each day since. She can be quite mobile though, being seen from any of the Scrape hides at different times of day, and has given visitors a bit of a run around. It doesn't help that if she's actively feeding she'll spend as much time below water as above it!
I mentioned that smew are smallest sawbills, and we also have a small flock of the largest sawbills present. This species is known in the UK as the goosander, but you may see it called the common merganser in some fieldguides as this is the North American name. Goosanders breed in upland streams and rivers across northern Europe, including much of northern and western Britain, and move to the lowland rivers and lakes in winter.
Whereas the smew has become even scarcer in recent years, goosnaders have become regular winter visitors at Minsmere, with small flocks moving between Minsmere and nearby Thorpeness Meare. They usually feed on the Meare, returning to roost at Minsmere, where they are most likely to be seen on Island Mere until dusk, when they move to the Scrape. The peak count of goosanders this winter has been 14.
Drake goosanders are as stunning as drake smew. Again they are mainly white with intricate black marks, but their breast is usually tinged salmon pink, they have a bottle green head and long, narrow, serrated red bill - perfect for catching fish. The females and immatures have a very similar plumage to female smew, bar the white cheeks, and are also known as redheads (photo, left, by Jon Evans).
The goosanders aren't the only birds that return to Minsmere most evenings to roost, having spent the day feeding nearby. A party of 11 Bewick's swans have also adopted this behaviour pattern, but they tend to arrive after dark and leave at first light, so few visitors have had the chance to spot them. Fortunately, the eight whooper swans have been more obliging and are most likely to be seen around South Scrape or at Island Mere.
Another small group of diving ducks have also taken up residence in the reedbed pools, commuting between Island Mere and the Pool of Despair (as the pool behind South Hide is known by local birdwatchers). This is a flock of 14 tufted ducks, that were very actively feeding in the Pool of Despair when I saw them this afternoon.
Whilst looking for the smew on the Scrape, you'll have to search through hundreds of ducks: the similarly sized teals are most numerous, followed by mallards, shovelers, wigeons, gadwalls and shelducks. There was a count of 245 lapwings on East Scrape this morning, and a mixed flock of herring and great black-backed gulls on South Scrape.
There are also hints that spring may be on its way, with the first returning ringed plovers on South Scrape, and a few greylag and Canada geese beginning to establish territories. Lapwings were displaying on South Scrape today, shovelers were seen mating yesterday, and courtship is frequent among the ducks.
The signs of spring are not restricted to the Scrape either. At least ten marsh harriers can be seen skydancing above the reedbed, great spotted woodpeckers are drumming in the woods, hazel catkins dangle invitingly from the trees and the daffodils outside the visitor centre are threatening to burst into flower. Plus, of course, there's increasing variety and volume of birdsong: robins, wrens, chaffinches, goldfinches, blue, great, coal and marsh tits and even a couple of lesser redpolls have been singing this week. It won't be long before we hear the first grunting bitterns.
With so much to see, why not plan a winter visit to Minsmere this month and take advantage of our brilliant guided walks. The next walk is a beginners walk with David on Sunday.
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