Saturday, 6 December 2014

6th December 2014 - The Strange tale of the Westport Smew

I'm not sure whether you know this or not, but it's December now, and the days aren't as long as they are in June or July. Back in the summer, I could easily visit Westport before work, arriving before 06:00hrs on some days to give the site a thorough grilling. In December though, morning visits are out of the question and even afternoon visits are a bit of a rush. I do try and visit the lake every afternoon during the week, but if I get held up at work or stuck in traffic then there's no chance of making it. 

On Wednesday 3rd December, I arrived quite late in the afternoon, parking up at 15:45hrs. As the light was already fading, I didn't bother with my wellies and just walked round in my work shoes. This meant I stuck to the paths and I didn't stand on my usual jetty to scan the lake. I counted the tufted and pochard as per usual, highlight being a drake Goldeneye and I returned home. Run of the mill visit. Happens every night.

But then it went bang and pop. I received an email sent from a gentleman with whom we'd had a few reports sent into Staffsbirdnews in the past. The email contained a photograph of a redhead SMEW taken at Westport at 13:00hrs. Smew is quite a Westport mega with only a handful of sightings in the past. I've sort of missed two previously over the years and still needed it for my list. 

The doubts started to go round my head. Had I missed it in my haste? Had I been complacent and not done a proper check? Could I really have counted the ducks with the Smew under water all the time? Did my bum really look big in these trousers?

I convinced myself that the Smew must have flown off and I wasn't really complacent and sloppy. PLo said he would check the lake in the morning and so all was calm. By the time he had arrived, DK had already been on site since 07:30hrs and there was no sign. But it then transpired that another visitor had seen the SMEW whilst walking around at 15:45hrs. Exactly the same time as I arrived. He'd rang another birder to say he had thought he'd seen a SMEW (thanks for passing the message on), returned to his car to fetch his bins but when he returned to the lake at 15:55hrs there was no sign. The mystery deepened when DK said he'd been checking the gulls at 14:30hrs and seen no SMEW. It was all very odd. 

Thursday and Friday afternoon produced no further sightings and we spent from 07:30hrs to 10:00hrs on site on Saturday morning. We wandered off to the pits still discussing the mystery of the Smew. 

Then, PLo rang me to say he'd met Simon Middleton (the original finder) by the top pool who told him the SMEW was again present. PLo checked and there it was. He rang us, we put the news out and hurtled back along the A50, arriving at Westport about 45 mins later. The boys on the bank hadn't seen the Smew for ten mins but following an anxious wait, it was found again in the bottom corner. It was the largest gathering at Westport since the last time something was found (CJW's Glaucous Gull maybe?), and we saw the Suttons, the Carthy's, Karl, Bill M, Gronk, young Bromley plus several faces I didn't recognise, along with PLo and PJ.

This is the 5th record of Smew at Westport, the first for 17yrs. It's also my 3rd Westport tick of the year, even though my year list total is one of the lowest for quite a few years. Photos below are taken by PJ.

1986 - A drake was seen on February 23rd and March 1st.
1991 - Two redheads were seen on February 17th.
1996 - A redhead seen on December 9th.
1997 - A redhead arrived on January 29th with a party of Goosander and was still present the following day.
2014 - A first-winter drake was seen on 3rd and 6th December.