The Smews arrived with the first snow in early December and by now have increased to the highest number ever, with 18 birds seen this morning. They are stunningly beautiful little ducks, the immaculate white of the drakes set off by black eye patches and a floppy crest drooping down the nape and lined with dark stripes. More fine black markings and subtle grey vermiculation adorn the back and flanks. The females and young birds are less spectacular, the chestnut red crown and white face patch contrasting with shades of grey on body and wings. They breed in woodpecker holes in the Taiga zone and are most often seen in Western Europe on cold winter days.
The Dutch name translates as “little nun” and perfectly captures the seemingly demure and shy behaviour as well as the pure white plumage with its refined black trimmings. A name similar to the English “Smew” is “Smient”, used in Dutch for the Wigeon, a much commoner wintering duck.
Smews are beautifully adapted for fishing and share the narrow, serrated bills of the closely related Mergansers, although the bill is shorter in the Smew. They sit low in the water, tails often submerged and big heads frequently moving from side to side or cocked forward on short necks. When they dive, which is frequently, they do so cleanly, leaping smoothly forward and disappearing almost instantly below the surface with the gentlest of splashes.
Shy but active, Smews often disappear into lakeside vegetation or rush headlong into flight when feeling threatened. Flight is fast on whirring wings displaying prominent white patches. Small flocks in flight have been a regular sight this winter, whizzing between the small overgrown lakes of the floodplain and crash landing among the more numerous Tufted Ducks, Pochards and Wigeons on the big lake.
Activity levels have increased in recent days and weeks. Birds are often seen in groups of several pairs, the drakes now and then rearing up quickly out of the water with the frontal crest raised in a prominent spike. A lot of the flying about in groups also seems related to courtship activity, with males apparently seeing off rivals in competition for the attention of females.