For the Birds Radio Program: Smew!

Original Air Date: March 27, 2000 (estimated date)

On March 24 and 25, a Smew turned up off Wisconsin Point, but disappeared by the time most people arrived.

Duration: 4′16″


On March 24, for some inexplicable reason, a duck that was supposed to be migrating between its wintering grounds, along the Mediterranean Sea, and its summering grounds, from Siberia to Scandinavia, was found in Superior, Wisconsin. And even odder than how far out of range it was is its name—it was a Smew. Smews are in the same genus as mergansers, but the Smew looks more like a regular duck than a merganser. I thought its name came directly out of Dr. Seuss, but my Oxford English Dictionary assures me that it’s obscurely related to the Dutch smient or the German schmiente for a small, wild duck.

The adult male Smew is a lot prettier than its name—it’s shaped rather like a scoter, and mostly white with a lovely black eye patch and a black patch on the back, and some delicate gray feathering on the sides.

No one saw the duck arrive in Superior—it was just there in the afternoon when Shawn Putz, a University of Wisconsin student, was checking out migrating ducks. (He’s been conducting a daily census on Wisconsin Point.) He alerted my friend Robbye Johnson and some other birders, and word got out on the internet, and soon birders from all over Wisconsin and Minnesota were planning a trip to the Twin Ports. The early birders got the bird—those at Wisconsin Point at 7 on Saturday morning were treated to high winds and high fives as they savored the beautiful bird. I was committed to bringing a group of Boy Scouts to the Western Waterfront Trail in West Duluth to work on the Bird Study Merit Badge, and so had to be in Lakeside at 8 to meet the boys who needed rides, and then at the Western Waterfront Trail at 8:30 in case there were families who wanted to meet us there. We checked out the birds in the marsh there, but there wasn’t much activity and I was going bonkers wishing I could check out the Smew. Since we had a small group, we decided what the heck and headed over to Wisconsin Point, getting there around 9:30. I found a dozen different birders searching for the Smew, but it had been last seen about a half hour before I got there. With the powerful wind, lots of ducks were coming and going, and this bird was going, going, gone.

Wisconsin Point is nice and close to Duluth, so I didn’t go on much of a wild goose chase compared to birders who’d come up from hundreds of miles away. One had enough sense of humor to make the title of his report on bird chat “No Smew Is Bad News.” Saturday was an exciting day to be out looking at birds, even if the Smew wasn’t among them. Tundra Swans were flying in to Allouez Bay by the dozens and to the St. Louis River by the hundreds. At least 25 Bald Eagles were flying about and picking at stuff on the decayed and rapidly breaking ice. And every time I scanned the lake, another group of ducks had arrived. Birds were on the move, and birders disappointed that the Smew was gone were at least seeing other good species. And because this was the peak of waterfowl migration, the birders checked out other good places for ducks, geese, and swans. But no one found the Smew anywhere.

Where did it go? Will it turn up nearby, or in a lake in another state? Did it get up into the sky and fly and fly till it was in Siberia? Did it simply vanish? A year ago an immature Smew turned up in Minnesota—was this the same individual? This odd duck will keep birders speculating for years. And meanwhile, if you see an unusual, mostly white duck with a black face patch, give me a call. What’s one more wild goose chase in the spring?