Actually, this may not be news if you're following our Facebook page or if you've happened to pop down to the reserve in the last month or so. Our male smew has become sort of a local attraction, some would even say star. Since the end of January our Facebook updates have begun to sound a bit like a broken record: “male smew on the Barr Loch...click... male smew on the Aird meadow...click...male smew... click.. smew... click... smew... click... smew”. However, thanks to its good looks and the rarity of his species, Mr. Smew’s popularity never faltered. To this day, visitors and staff still meticulously scan the Loch through their scopes to admire this beautiful rare duck. It’s not all about looks though, so read on if you want to get to know our local celebrity a bit better.
Drake smew at Lochwinnoch, photo by Allan Simpson
Smews breed in the Northern Taiga of Finland and Russia. More precisely, - and somewhat surprisingly- the female smew nests in trees by slow rivers and other bodies of water. They use tree holes, such as old woodpecker nests, or even specially made nestboxes. As winter approaches, they migrate South, mainly towards the Low Countries (Luxembourg, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands and Northern Germany), and the Black sea. There, they favour sheltered coastal areas and fishy lakes. In Britain, they are found mostly on the South-Eastern English coast in winter. Only 10 to 60 of them visit Scotland each year.
“Our” smew has only been around since late January tough. This seems to indicate that it spent the winter some place else and decided to enjoy a wee stay at Lochwinnoch on his way back.
Male smews are unmistakable. Their delicate black markings on white plumage give them a gorgeous “cracked ice” appearance. The females and immature males (impossible to distinguish the two- unless you’re a smew) look a bit rougher but also more colourful: their body might be grey but their head is a lovely chestnut colour, which is why they are commonly called “redhead smews”. Both have a short beak with a hooked tip and serrated edges. This “sawbill” makes it easier for them to catch the fish they pursue underwater. In the summer, their diet might also include insects and larvae.
Plate 347 of Birds of America by John James Audubon depicting Smew or White Nun.
By the end of winter, male smews usually start displaying to females by flicking their beak from side to side and raising their crown feathers. Couples then pair off before migrating back to the Taiga. Despite the lack of any female smews in Lochwinnoch, we did witness some courtship behaviour. Whilst we haven’t seen a full display, “our” smew has shown possessive behaviour towards a female goldeneye, fiercely chasing off the competition. Though this might seem strange, smews and goldeneyes have been known to interbreed. They are actually closely related and have similar nesting behaviours (Goldeneyes nest in tree holes too!). Slightly stranger, male goldeneyes were spotted displaying to a male smew in Lochwinnoch last year. I guess such good looks cannot leave anyone cold!
This is not the first year our reserve has been visited by a smew. It is now the third year in a row that a male smew chose to spend the end of winter at Lochwinnoch, sometimes accompanied by a “redhead”, but not this year. In 2010 and 2011, regular smew sightings were recorded between late February and early April, on both occasions for a period of six weeks. With a bit of luck, our smew’s stay will last as long this year, which would leave you a couple of weeks to pop in to the reserve to admire him for yourselves, if you haven’t yet.