Country Diary: Rare visitor is spotted at Throxenby Mere

A male stonechat flies in to settle on a gorse bush.
A male stonechat flies in to settle on a gorse bush.

Surprise, Surprise! With exceptionally cold, and icy conditions, we drove around our local lakes and meres, and to our delight observed a bird swimming alone – quite a distance from ducks such as mallard and tufted at Throxenby Mere.

Smews are rather special birds, breeding in norther Russia with most over-wintering in the Netherlands. I understand that in normal winter weather only about 100 reach the British Isles. The majority occur in southern and south-eastern England. There has been a considerable decline in numbers over recent decades.

Adult male and female smews are completely different. The smew we observed was a female, and often called a red-head on account of its red-brown cap. It had conspicuous white cheeks and chin, with black and fine grey markings and a short bill. It’s known as a saw-bill, and uses the serrated edges of its bill to seize small fish.

We’ve never observed a male smew, which is largely white with black markings, but we’ve just discovered that a single male has been recorded at Fairburn Ings. With St Valentine’s Day approaching, it may head to Scarborough and discover a mate.

Another pleasant coincidence occurred when we parked the car up Albert Road (Chain Hill), just off Scarborough’s Marine Drive. Almost immediately, a little bird with was rather robin-like in general appearance, alighted on vegetation just over the metal rails. With large, rounded head, long legs and upright stance it was a smart male stonechat, enhanced by its handsome red breast, black head and contrasting white collar.

We usually associate stonechats with gorse bushes and open countryside. Indeed, it has a clear attachment to gorse, and the male often uses this bush as a song perch from which he may launch into the air and perform a dance.

Evening during winter they are very territorial and remain in pairs. As we watched, I heard the harsh call of ‘tsak, whee-tsak-tsak’, and away he flew with his mate.

It has hardly been weather for seeking spring flowers. However, Scalby churchyard was a glorious sight, with budding daffodils, and snowdrops. The drooping buds of snowdrops, hung like frosted pearl pendants against the back-cloth of a green mossy bank.

Please remember the birds these wintry days, and ensure they have fresh water when ice covers ponds and hollows.

The fat balls and peanuts which Michael hung in containers on a tree beside Seamer Road Mere, continues to attract more and more birds. Blue tits, coal tits, marsh tits, great tits and even a long-talied tit adore the fat balls.

More chaffinches help gather crumbs on the ground and the great spotted woodpecker is now a regular visitor. It’s so rewarding to watch them at close quarters, and cost so little to help our feathered friends.