COAST And Country – Winter Visitor With A Confusing Name

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A COLLEAGUE who was devilishly good at crosswords was rarely puzzled, even by the most obscure clues, writes David Carnduff.

However, he pondered at length the question of one who escaped his impressive general knowledge. The clue was: “A black and white migratory duck. Four letters, begins with ‘s’.

Being the resident ornithologist in the office, he turned to me for help. (It was the days before Google). After some thought, I was pleased to find the answer – “smew”. He was rather puzzled by the unusual name, but at least he was able to complete the crossword.

The puzzle came to my mind recently when I encountered a fine example of this dashingly beautiful duck in the RSPB’s Lochwinnoch Preserve.

The Smew are rare visitors to the Clyde region, their most likely winter haunts being the cold waters of the Baltic and the Netherlands. Such is their rarity in the Clyde area, bird watchers will grab their binoculars and head for viewing whenever one shows up.

Although my recent visit was to Lochwinnoch, which is in Renfrewshire, there is every chance that an occasional individual will show up in Inverclyde.

The Loch Thom, Coves and Daff reservoirs deserve to be inspected. 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 step over the female with his striking plumage.

The male’s most notable features are his black “panda” mask and flaming crest. As befits such a handsome guy, he has an equally charming partner – an attractive “redhead” no less.

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

The Lochwinnoch reserve is once again welcoming a male and female smew this winter, which suggests that these are the same individuals who return year after year.

An observer who keeps a close eye on them said they appear to “act like a pair”. So who knows, maybe they have a secret rendezvous to spend the winter together in mild Renfrewshire after their summer migration to the species’ breeding grounds in remote parts of Scandinavia or the Russia.

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

Crossword lovers, take note!

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