I have been in danger of developing a preoccupation with Smew over the last two months. That could be because as new and different birds become a diminishing return as my national list grows, my attention has turned more to uncommon winter staples instead. But this is also a difficult bird to observe closely or get pictures of in my experience, and doing so can require some working at. Hence the several shorter-range outings I have undertaken at intervals to help fill some mid-winter days.
Dapper, white and black drake Smew are by any standards striking and handsome birds. Nothing else resembles them and so to my mind they are one of the most iconic local birds of midwinter. My previous experience has come mainly from different gravel pit complexes around my home county of Oxon, but this winter the species has so far given us a miss. In that absence near to home I have so far travelled to Herts twice, Leics twice and Worcs three times to seek them out; and it took until today to enjoy a truly satisfying encounter.
This morning a bird was still present 65 miles away near a Worcs village Kemerton, between Cheltenham and Evesham, so I decided on a second attempt there. Smew are prone to moving around several sites over an area, or between different gravel pits in large complexes, and so my first visit here on 21st had been unsuccessful. Needless to say my target returned the following day and remained on most days in the interim. And so around the middle of today (27th) I arrived at Kemerton Lake NR (SO937362), a pleasing and well-kept reserve that is managed by a local conservation trust (see here).
There are hides at the north and south ends of the lake and a permissive path runs around all four sides of the site. I opted for the shorter walk to the southern hide first and soon picked out my quest closer to the northern hide. Once relocated within that facility I spent the next two hours in the Smew’s company while seeking my first ever pictorial records of them.
At first this drake remained faithful to an area away to the hide’s right and close to the shore. This was typical of how I had observed Smew in the past, since in my experience they tend when either feeding or resting to favour lake edges where they might become concealed in marginal vegetation. Today’s bird remained mostly in the open, but since it was diving constantly getting adequate records remained difficult.
After about an hour the Smew had possibly eaten it’s fill and so began to drift across the water’s surface in front of and closer to the hide. Now I was able to obtain some half decent images (above) that will have to suffice for now. By 15:30 pm the bird had moved quite some way from the hide again, and so I decided to head for home before dusk feeling largely satisfied with what had transpired.
Through my two hours here I was joined in the hide by three families, engaging with whom added greatly to an enjoyable ambience. It was a real pleasure to share the space with knowledgeable parents, quietly and lovingly teaching their young children about birds. That was also quite a contrast with the more noisy and obtrusive experience that is now the norm on RSPB reserves, for instance.
My aforementioned interest in these taiga-breeding visitors had begun before Christmas at Cheshunt GPs in Herts. This large complex is an annual wintering ground for the species, and was where I saw my first ever Smew in Feb 1985 when I lived in that area. On my first recent visit I located a drake after much searching that fairly soon dived not to appear again. Going back a few days later I was unsuccessful, since when most reports have come from one of the biggest pits where viewing could be distant.
One of this winter’s best Smew sites has been Eyebrook Reservoir in Leics, where 15 or more individuals have been sighted on some days. I visited there over the Christmas period locating a largish group, but though that was a good experience at a superb site for wildlife, my views were always distant. Moving on that day to Rutland Water I encountered three “red heads”, the immature or female form of Smew at closer quarters. I returned to Eyebrook on my way home from Holkham NNR on 28th Dec but the Smew were not in sight on that occasion.
A possible closer encounter suggested itself around that time, when two drakes were photographed on a private fishing lake at Holt, Worcs from an adjacent right of way. When I tried there and at nearby Grimley GPs on New Year’s Eve, I met local birders who recounted how the Smew in question had frequented various places in their county over the previous several weeks. But of the birds themselves that day there was no sign.
Given this propensity for moving around between sites, I suspect the Kemerton bird is one of those two drakes. And so all this has reached a satisfactory conclusion. Perhaps I have now paid sufficient attention to Smew for the time being, but still hope for one or more in God’s own county (Oxon) before winter’s end.