‘Old nun’ enjoys a swim

Old nun - or a smew.
Old nun - or a smew.

I WATCHED an old nun having a swim in the icy lake. I was actually a bit worried. The ice was thick and the old bird kept diving under it and swimming out of sight beneath. Would it be able to surface somewhere or find its way back to the open water?

It was swimming with several redheads. They too were diving under the ice and vanishing in all directions. They were not taking much notice of me. I was only ten yards away but they all seemed quite unconcerned.

They were obviously hungry and the few minnows they were finding to eat were barely keeping body and feathers together.

Old nun is a Norfolk name for this splendid sawbill duck. White nun is the more common name of bygone days and redhead is the present accepted name for both females and immatures.

These are also known among birdwatchers as weasel birds because of the obvious likeness to the mammal with its sharp face and brown and white colours.

The usual name is of course smew. That is a very strange name, and does not seem to have a known derivation. The farthest back one can get is smeath, also smee, which to my mind sounds Norse.

These exquisite birds are not at all common you know. A dozen come to Sussex each year if we are lucky, usually to Rye Harbour and now and then to Chichester gravel pits.

I actually took this photograph at the Arundel wildfowl collection of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. There can be few such beautiful black and white designs in nature and it beats the magpie wings down. All those thin fine lines of black across the chest and flank give the bird a delicacy of pattern, amongst placing it into the calibre of birds of paradise.

When it gets back to the Siberian forest lakes to breed it keeps well away from the nesting site otherwise the drake would attract attention. Female smew will breed in nest boxes put up for goldeneye ducks in Scandinavia.

She will even lay eggs in nests already occupied but will then stop the mother goldeneye entering the nest ever again, though will look after goldeneye ducklings when they hatch as if they were her own.

I guess smew have even got down to Egypt in this winter’s bitter blast. Lots will be in the Caspian Sea and more down in the Punjab at this moment. Your easiest bet to get a glimpse of this fabulous old nun is in the Arundel collection. Go now and enjoy a hot cup of coffee in the restaurant as you watch the redheads too.

I have just found another name for the smew, used by Pagham Harbour wildfowlers a century ago: Greenland Ice-bird.

That sums up the strange bird better than old nun perhaps.