Smews are definitely one of my favourite birds. They are scarce but annual visitors to Minsmere, with up to five usually seen between mid December and late February, maybe for slightly longer. They are diving ducks that feed on fish (they're actually the smallest member of the sawbill family, closely related to goosander and red-breasted merganser), so at Minsmere they usually favour Island Mere or South Scrape - the deeper areas that retain some ice-free areas in severe weather.
It's not just their rarity that amkes smew sought after by birdwatchers. The drakes are one of our most attractive birds. Their snow-white plumage is perfectly offset by black pencil-lines and narrow grey vermiculations, in such intricate patterns that they cannot be mistaken for anythng else.
Smew by Neil Cole
The females and young birds, known as redheads, are equally attractive, with chestnut caps, pure white cheeks and a pale grey body, making them almost unmistakable (only the even rarer slavonian grebe and the introduced ruddy duck should pose confusion when looking for a redhead smew).
We've had one redhead around at Minsmere throughout the freeze, with an occasional second bird and a male, but this morning their were an incredible nine redheads with a single drake on South Scrape. This is the largest count at Minsmere for several years, no doubt having been forced west by the deep freeze in Holland and Denmark. Sadly, before I was able to see them, they had flown out to sea, so it's likely they were only brief visitors, but I'm sure more smews will arrive int he next few weeks.
Although temperatures at Minsmere have risen slightly above freezing, most of the open water remains frozen. Part of South Scrape is clear (this is salty, which helps) and was crammed with teals, wigeons and shovelers, while very small open patches remain on East Scrape and Island Mere.
With all the ice around, it's perhaps no surprise that duck numbers are low, or that the Bewick's swans seem to have deserted (hopefully only temporarily). They're still feeding close to the A12 at Blythburgh, and were seen on Dingle Marshes over the weekend, so they may return to roost here when the ice melts. I'm not sure I'd be keen on roosting on Island Mere with two foxes patrolling the ice for a meal!
Saturday's pair of mandarins moved to East Scrape on Sunday, but have now departed. Offshore, a female velvet scoter lingered on Monday, when 200+ red-throated divers were seen. Also on Monday, 42 white-fronted geese flew north. Other interesting records over the last couple of days have been more predictable: Caspian and yellow-legged gulls roosting on the Scrape, two firecrests near the wardens' office, two pintails on East Scrape, grey plovers on the beach, three woodcocks near Bittern Hide, and the water rails feeding on sprats at Bittern Hide. Also, up to 20 water pipits have been feeding around Trevor's digger in the reedbed.
Sadly, though we seem to have lost our starlings. Like the Bewick's, they may simply have moved to Dingle, possibly as a result of the freezing weather. The peregrine has moved with them too! Hopefully, they will return when temperatures rise, though there is no guarantee. There's been no waxwing sightings for a few days, either.