Capercaillie are impressive birds as they are the world’s largest grouse, the males weighing up to 4kg with a 120cm wingspan (the females being about half this size). These birds are only found in a small number of pinewoods in the Highlands of Scotland, with their stronghold in the Cairngorms National Park. This species is in a critical position, with only around 1,000 individuals left in Scotland. Conservation action has halted their drastic decline over the past 20 years, but numbers remain low. It is crucial that we stay informed about their population size, which is where lek counts come in.
So, what is a capercaillie lek? Well, this is when male capercaillie group together to display at their finest, in the hope that watching females will be impressed enough to mate with them. Their display call is likened to cantering horse hooves. Capercaillie is actually a Gaelic word and means ‘the horse of the woods’.
Capercaillie start this lekking behaviour before the sun rises, at around 4am, so their call is always the first to echo through Highland forests. April is the peak month for this lekking, which is why this is my busiest month of the year as we take this opportunity to count males at these leks. As these birds return to the same sites every year, this is a really useful way to monitor populations as we can compare counts of males year on year and observe trends.
Fieldwork starts in March, when we complete our cold searching, which is our secret weapon in locating leks. Although many birds return to roughly the same lek site, they do tend to move slightly, especially if conditions have changed. It is essential for us to pinpoint the exact locations of leks to accurately count birds, whilst also protecting these sites so that they continue to remain suitable.
During this time I am out in the forest at every opportunity I can muster. Long days of walking through Highland forests, which can be wonderful, if the weather is on my side - less lovely when trudging through sheets of Scottish rain! I start my days early, as I like to be on site for 8am. I ensure I have all my relevant kit, including my trusty thermos of tea of course, and I am off to explore my forested world.
As capercaillie are such an elusive species, we cannot rely on sightings alone. For such a large bird, they can blend into forests miraculously well. More often than not, these birds see me before I see them. Often, this happens when I pause for a moment, perhaps to tie my shoelace, and am startled by the loud crashing of a capercaillie taking flight. If I keep walking, these shy birds tend to stay put, blending in perfectly with their forest home.
The best way to find capercaillie is to follow their poo. From years of experience, I have learnt to move through the forest like a capercaillie; to see their home through their eyes, as this is the best way to locate hotspots of activity. An old established Scots pine, with long, strong branches, can be the perfect roost tree for a bird to perch on overnight. A flush of blaeberry or boggy ground are checked as both can provide excellent food sources through the warmer months. A fallen tree, with a prominent root plate (upturned base of the tree) is always worth a glance, as the bare earth that collects here is favoured for dustbathing, which helps birds keep their feathers clean.
Once I find an apparent hotspot for poo, this is likely to be the lek site. I make a note of the location and plan to return in a couple of weeks to do the lek counts.
‘You’re so lucky to get to see capercaillie lek. And as part of your job too!’ I often get this comment. I understand why, as a capercaillie lek is one of the most wonderous wildlife spectacles in Scotland. However, this work is not nearly as glamorous as it sounds.
These hides are potentially the least comfortable accommodation you can imagine.
Lek count preparation starts the evening before. I arrive on-site well before dusk and head off into the forest with my large pack, towards the recorded lek location. To ensure we are there as the lekking starts and to avoid disturbing the birds, we sleep in hides overnight. These hides are potentially the least comfortable accommodation you can imagine. They have no ground sheet and are tiny, and so sleeping positions are restricted to perching in a chair or scrunched up directly on the forest floor. They also have limited insulation and water-proofing. Sleep is scarce.
As the birds start lekking at 4am (sometimes earlier) I have to be up, ready to start my count before then. That moment of waking is tense, I’m holding my breath and straining my ears to see if I can hear this distinctive, yet subtle capercaillie call, in the forest air. The mornings I wake to these calls are the best mornings. I can relax, I am in the right spot and can concentrate on counting. Sometimes the birds are late to begin, and, on sadly too many mornings, their call doesn’t come at all.
This is a common result for me. As the Capercaillie Advisory Officer, I allocate myself the more ‘challenging’ lek counts. If no birds are heard, this means I have the difficult job of trying to track them down in the forest, often in near-darkness. My heart always sinks when my searching doesn’t bear fruit and no birds are located. At a state of near-exhaustion, this can be a hard pill to swallow. This is the tough side of conservation. Monitoring wildlife is always rife with challenges. When it doesn’t go as expected, that nagging worry that the birds are no longer there can eat away at you and the sense of failure is inevitable. This is the reality of working with a critically endangered species.
Despite these challenges, and sometime less than comfortable conditions, I am grateful that this is my job. To get so close to such a majestic species is awe-inspiring. However, this experience is relatively fleeting. My survey season is over in a matter of weeks, then it’s back to the perhaps less exciting office work and meetings that fill most of my year. I cherish this time with my birds, as it gives me the much-needed motivation to keep going. I am determined to hold on to this species in Scotland. Forests will echo with this cantering call for many years to come!