One species I think of as a real harbinger of winter at Rye Harbour is the smew (below). This small duck belongs to a group known as ‘saw bills’ due to the serrated edge to their bills, and includes species such as red-breasted merganser and goosander. In Britain it is a winter visitor from Scandinavia and Russia, with small numbers occurring mainly in the south-east. Females and immatures have a grey body and a rusty red head and are usually referred to as ‘red heads’, while the males are superb looking birds, almost completely white with a black mask and back. Alternative names for this species include ‘white-nun’ (mainly referring to the males), ‘smee’ and ‘vare wigeon’, a name once used in parts of south-west England for the females and immatures whose heads were thought to resemble that of a weasel (‘vare’ apparently is an old name for weasel).
Wader numbers remained high during December, particularly on Flat Beach, with up to 2500 golden plover and 1000 lapwing, while up to 400 curlew were present on Harbour Farm late in the month. Notable species included single jack snipe on the Beach Reserve on the 8th and 15th, a purple sandpiper on the Quarry on the 7th and spotted redshank on Ternery Pool on the 8th, while 27 ruff at Castle Water on the 10th was a notably high count for this species. This month also saw several sightings of bittern at Castle Water, up to two great white egret on Harbour Farm and Narrow Pit (with up to 42 little egret), and a group of six Bewick’s swan at Castle Water on the 6th. In addition, a great northern diver was present at the river mouth on the 25th and smew were seen on the 22nd at Castle Water and on the 26th on Harbour Farm. Raptors during the month included marsh harrier at Castle Water and on Harbour Farm, and a couple of sightings each of merlin, over the Beach Reserve on the 8th and 16th, and peregrine over Rye Harbour Village and Harbour Farm on the 6th and 8th. As well as the usual barn owl at Castle Water, December also saw a couple of sightings of short-eared owl over the Beach Reserve on the 15th and 26th. Passerines included small numbers of rock pipit regularly around the saltmarsh at the eastern end of the reserve, several small flocks of fieldfare at Castle Water, with 70 on the 22nd, small groups of bearded tit and the occasional chiffchaff, also at Castle Water throughout the month, and a raven over Harbour Farm on the 17th. The highlight, however, were two firecrest near the hide at Castle Water on the 10th.
Little in the way of invertebrate records during December as might be expected, though a bit of stone turning on Flat Beach on 17th did turn up several devil’s coach horse beetles, many woodlouse spider and the uncommon ground beetle Licinus punctulatus (above), only the fourth reserve record.