Western Capercaillie

The Capercaillie is always amongst the most wished for bird for anyone heading north to see the Scottish specialities. Most of those species can be quickly and easily ticked off – Crested Tits, Osprey, White-tailed Eagle, Golden Eagle, Twite, Ptarmigan, Red and Black Grouse, Hen Harrier, Snow Bunting and Scottish Crossbill. I’m convinced that the latter is probably one of the most misidentified birds in Scotland, and half the time that misidentification is probably deliberate – it’s easier to tell yourself it’s a Scottish Crossbill than to go through the hassle of analysing sonographs – after all it’s in Scotland, it’s got to be a Scottish Crossbill, right? Anyway, Capercaillies…

It should be mentioned that there is actually a way to significantly increase your chances of seeing a Caper and that’s to visit the Capercaillie Watch organised by the RSPB from Loch Garten. I’ve only been once and I have to say it was underwhelming. You arrive in darkness and wait for dawn, when the assembled group excitedly scan for Capers. The excitement quickly subsides when it becomes apparent that there aren’t any to be seen. Actually, one was eventually seen, but only by a camera looking in a direction that nobody else can see from the hide. The images are displayed on a screen in the hide, and if we squinted and used a bit of imagination, it was possible to imagine that the black pixels in the distance could indeed be a Caper.

I’m probably being very unfair. The fact is, many people have had great sightings from there. Besides, the Capercaillie is a Schedule 1 species and enjoys protection not only at the nest, but during lekking too (this applies to ‘rogue’ birds too). It is a species that is very vulnerable to disturbance and the Scottish population is a fragile one. It only exists now thanks to the importing of Swedish birds for a reintroduction following its original extinction in the 18th century. Numbers of Capers are hardly encouraging, with barely over 1000 birds left. Visiting the Caper Watch is undeniably a responsible way of going about seeing a Caper.

I’d already made at least one unsuccessful trip to see Capercaillie. Any walk through Caledonian Forest is always a treat though, so the visible absence of a Caper is easy deal with. They’re around, and that in itself adds a certain bit more ‘magic’ to the place.

Sometimes, however, a ‘rogue’ Caper is encountered. A male bird fired up on testosterone, in full lekking mode long after the morning leks are over, and often long after/before the breeding season has taken place. Such birds are fiery, aggressive, territorial and generally not to be messed with. No longer do they restrict their aggression to rival males, but to anything and everything – walkers, bikes, cars, horse-riders. Everything encroaching into its patch is fair game. Equally, they are not to be disrespected either – such an existence is no doubt exhausting to maintain, and constant disruption to an already abnormal existence is not going to do the bird any favours towards its long-term survival.

My first rogue Capercaillie was seen with a friend during a week-long trip to the Cairngorms. We heard the bird before we saw it, and immediately knew what we were listening to. We just didn’t know where the sound was coming from. We were stood in a dip in some very uneven ground, making sound placement difficult. Before we’d had time to consider what we should do, the bird found us, and lurched towards us both to drive us away. Chaos and comedy briefly ensued as we tried to distance ourselves from the bird but without being given a chance to do so. It didn’t take long at all before the bird relaxed, lowered its tail and began feeding on blaeberries, seemingly oblivious to us, or perhaps just confident enough that we wouldn’t be stupid enough to consider taking it on.

The second rogue I encountered was actually in a location not very far from that first bird. It’s entirely likely/probable that it was indeed the same bird. No violence this time though! The bird briefly raised its tail, but very quickly chilled out and ambled about the forest floor feeding.

Since those rogue birds, I have discovered an area of forest that seems to be full of Capers. Their distinctive cylindrical droppings litter the floor there, and on one visit I actually lost count of the number of birds I saw. Clearfells and firebreaks afford wide or long views making it possible to quietly sit and observe large amounts of forest at a time and now and again a Caper could be seen moving from one tree top to another, or crossing from one side of the clearfell to the other. It’s not the sort of place to get frame-filling shots, but it is a great place to watch the birds from a respectful distance while causing zero disturbance. Furthermore, I’ve never seen a single person there – it’s nicely away from the areas that are more frequented by birders, tourists, etc.

A male Capercaillie takes flight

I consider myself very lucky to have had the encounters with Capercaillies in Scotland that I’ve had, and I think it’s unlikely that I would go out of my way to see a rogue bird again. I can only imagine the pressure such birds face these days with the facebook photographers all wanting shots to share. I don’t doubt that next time I’m in the Cairngorms though, I shall spend some time in ‘my’ area again, sit back against the trunk of a Scots Pine and watch the activities of the local Capers there. It’s not always about the photos.