Smew

Mergus albellus

38-44cm

Appearance

This is an elegant bird, slightly larger than the Teal. It's a compact diving duck with a steep forehead and a delicate toothed bill, known as a sawbill. Both sexes have black-and-white wings in flight, with a substantial amount of white on the inner half of wings; the male shows more white than the female. The male can look completely white from some distance, but close up he has a black patch through his eye and black lines along his breast and back. His flanks are slightly barred and grey, and he has a crest on his crown that extends when he's displaying. The female is smaller and a mottled grey with a distinctive orange-red head and nape that differs from her white cheeks and throat. Juveniles are similar to the adult female but the white wing-patches are less distinct.

Habitat

During winter it can be found on inland lakes and reservoirs in Britain and Ireland. It also tends towards estuaries and sheltered coastal waters.

Character

Usually found in small groups where it's common; this means it's most often seen in Britain and Ireland individually or in very small groups. It dives regularly and for short periods, and it takes off with great agility from the water; when flying, its wingbeats are fast. While it doesn't usually mix with other ducks, is has hybridised with the Goldeneye.

Food

Lives mostly off fish during the winter, including small salmon, trout, gudgeon, minnows, plaice and sand eels. In summer, its diet consists mainly of insects and their larvae.

Breeding

This bird does not breed in Britain or Ireland. They create nests in holes in trees and the male deserts his mate while she incubates the eggs.

Population

The Smew is an unpredictable and occasional visitor, partly because its arrival is usually spurred by severe weather at its nearest traditional wintering grounds in the Netherlands. Most of the region's birds arrive in southeast England, on flooded gravel pits, reservoirs and lakes where fish are plentiful. Return migration begins in March and birds reach breeding grounds in May or early June. The winter population in Britain and Ireland is approximately 200 individuals.

Observation Tips

The January and February weather forecasts for the North Sea area can indicate the likelihood of the appearance of these birds. If the Netherlands in particular experiences a sudden cold, it could drive Smews to the region; search for them at local gravel pits or reservoirs.

Voice

Predominately a silent bird, the Smews' calls are uttered in courtship or when alarmed. Not a lot is known about them, but they've been described as creaking, grunting and rattling.
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