So far, this January has been a mild one but wind and rain have ensured that winter has been potent - and Abberton has lived up to its name as a beacon where scarce birds muster to baton down the hatches.
Indeed, birdwatchers who have taken a walk on the wild side at the reservoir this week have been rewarded with a ticklist of classic British winter birds: smew, bittern, hen harrier, Bewick’s swan, merlin and goosander, to name just half-a-dozen.
The smew is one of my favourite birds. Growing up, it had near mythical status in our household; my brother and I spent many an hour scouring the gravel pits and reservoirs to the west of London for these diving ‘sawbill’ ducks, usually to no avail. Those frustrations only meant that, when we did finally track down a smew, the bird was all the more special.
Wonderful birds they are, too: especially the male, who is mainly pure white, with a prominent black patch around the eye. Few British birds are as well-turned-out as this dapper fellow. His partner in crime is beautiful, too, with a distinctive dark red head, atop a snowy cheek.
Smew are scarce winter visitors to our shores, in small numbers, so it is always a thrill to see one. This week, a resplendent male has been especially confiding at Layer Breton Causeway, Abberton. Despite being diminutive, he is so distinctive a bird that, on some days, it has even been possible to spot him with the naked eye, from the best form of bird hide at Layer Breton – your car.
It is worthwhile stopping for a walk on the causeway, however, especially, with patience, you are likely to see a bittern peak out of the reedbed, gorgeous goosanders – which are larger relatives of the smew – and, if you are very lucky, Bewick’s Swans. Just a handful of these delicate swans spend winter in Essex.
Look up, too: birds of prey love Abberton. Marsh harrier, hen harrier, buzzard, peregrine, merlin, kestrel, sparrowhawk will all be in the vicinity.
Essex Wildlife Trust’s Abberton Reservoir visitor centre is running a ‘Winter Raptor Watch’ event this Saturday, 11 January, from 10.30am-12.30pm, at which you have a good chance of seeing many of these birds of prey. The donation is £5 per person; please call 01206 738172 for more information. Please book in advance.