COAST And Country — Winter Visitor With A Puzzling Name

8 January, 2022 | Features

A COLLEAGUE who was fiendishly good at crosswords was rarely stumped at even the most obscure clues, writes David Carnduff.

However, he puzzled long and hard over one which eluded his impressive general knowledge. The clue was: “A black and white migratory duck. Four letters, starts with ‘s’.”

Being the office’s resident birdwatcher, he turned to me for help. (It was the days before Google). After some thought, I was pleased to come up with the answer — “smew”. He was rather bemused by the unusual name, but at least he was able to complete the crossword.

The puzzle sprang to mind recently when I caught up with a fine example of this dashingly handsome duck at the RSPB’s Lochwinnoch reserve.

Smew are scarce visitors to the Clyde area, their more likely winter haunts being the chilly waters of the Baltic and Netherlands. Such is their rarity in the Clyde area, birdwatchers will grab their binoculars and head out to clinch the sighting whenever one shows up.

Although my recent viewing was at Lochwinnoch, which is in Renfrewshire, there is every chance that the occasional individual may turn up in Inverclyde.

Loch Thom, Coves and Daff reservoirs would be worthy of inspection. In fact, I recorded a smew on the Daff several years ago.

As is usually the case with ducks, the male — or drake — steals a march on the female with its striking plumage.

The male’s most notable features are its black “panda” mask and flamboyant crest. As is befitting such a handsome chap, he has an equally charming partner — an attractive “redhead”, no less.

Mrs Smew is grey with a reddish-brown head and white cheek. In fact, the term “redhead” is commonly used for the female smew.

The Lochwinnoch reserve is again hosting both a male and female smew this winter, leading to speculation that it’s the same individuals returning year after year.

One observer who keeps a close watch on them commented that they seemed to be “acting like a pair”. So, who knows, maybe they have a secret tryst to spend the winter together in balmy Renfrewshire after their summer migration to the species’ breeding grounds in remote parts of Scandinavia or Russia.

But what of the unusual name? According to one source, the term smew has been used since the 17th century and is of uncertain origin. It is probably derived from “smee”, a dialect term for a wild duck.

Crossword enthusiasts, take note!

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