The Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus)
Weighing in at between 1.5 – 5 kg the huge Capercaillie, our largest grouse, is one of Scotland’s most iconic birds.
The Capercaillie has always held a fascination for us. On a couple of occasions we have been lucky enough to catch distant views of the horse of the woods. Earlier in the year we decided to try and get a little closer to the Capercaillie and hopefully have the opportunity to photograph these amazing birds.
One of the most interesting aspect of any grouse is their behaviour at leks. The Capercaillie being no exception. The male Capercaillies compete fiercely at leks in a bid to win mating rites with the females. This was to be our quest – so in April this year Doris and I were off to Sweden to spend a few nights at a Capercaillie lek site
The Capercaillie lek site.
The behaviour of the Capercaillie at lek sites defines the approach to trying to photograph these birds. In the evening the birds begin fly into the lek area. Males take up strategic positions in the tree tops where they spend the night. Shortly after daybreak the males will fly down to the ground to begin displaying. In some instances this is more like a crash as these huge birds drop down through the dense branches.
Setting the Scene
The strategy then is to arrive at a lek site in the evening take up position in a hide and wait during the night as events unfold. Birds will continue to fly in during the night which means you are confined to the hide. Venturing out during the night would disturb any gathering Capercaillies. If you are lucky and all goes to plan the female Capercaillie will gather in your vicinity and the males will drop from the trees, begin displaying and the show will begin.
This is of course in ideal conditions, but there are a number of things that can go wrong.As the lekking sites are in woodland the position of your hide is critical. Even a few yards can make the difference between seeing lekking birds or nothing. On calm evenings in the forest it is surprising how noise travels and how the smallest noises can disturb. So you need to be prepared to be quiet and avoid large groups. The smaller the group the better.
The Capercaillie trip
We travelled to Sweden for a week in April and initially arranged for three nights leaving some spare time for an alternative plan.
On the first evening we settled into our hide waited and listened – all was quiet nothing was stirring not even a mouse. In the morning we discovered that the Capercaillies had come down to lek about 50 yds away and we had seen and heard nothing. The second night was pretty much a repeat of the first.
On evening three our hide changed position. At 19:00 we settled down in what looked like a much more promising position. Our hide was in a small clearing at the top of a hill with another hide placed at the bottom of the hill. Between the two hides was a short but steep wooded bank which was blind from our position.
Shortly before 21:00, as dark began to descend there was a crash in the tree top immediately to the left of our hide. Through a crack in the blind zipper I could clearly see a male Capercaillie perched on a branch immediately above us. This was followed some short time later by a second crash, another male had come to the lek. At last a chance to see the Capercaillie lek. We settled down into our sleeping bags to let the events of the night unfold.
When we awoke after the best nights sleep we had had in the hide it was just beginning to get light. The cameras were made ready for action and we had just started to put out a coffee from the flask when there was a loud cracking of branches as one of the male Capercaillies crashed to the ground. Looking around through the hide blinds the bird was nowhere to be seen. It had dropped down out of sight. A short time later the distinct gurgling of a displaying male could be heard but nothing was to be seen. Eventually by 07:00 all was quiet again and it was clear no further action would take place this morning.
When we emerged from our hide we discovered that the Capercaillies had missed not only our view but had gone over the second hide at the bottom of the hill. Another blank night and still no real sightings of the Capercaillie.
Not to be discouraged as we still had a little time left I made arrangements with Nordic Safaris to visit a different site. Doris would take the night off as I headed out that evening to a different lek site where I and another guest would be spending the night.
Two hides were placed at opposite sides of a clearing. We selected hides and settled down shortly after seven anticipating the morning ahead. Shortly before dark a male Capercaillie flew into a tree close to my hide. From then, barring the call of a Great Grey Owl, all was quiet.
The next morning a male Capercaillie flew down to the ground some distance off after which all was quiet. In the distance the disctinct call of lekking Black Grouse could be heard. Time was moving on and just when light was starting to come up a male Capercaillie flew into a tree not too far from the hide.
This was to be the best and only chance I would have on this trip to capture the Capercaillie. The bird was not in a great position being silhouetted in the tree against the brightening sky and still a fair distance off. A few test shots were snapped with the 300 mm prime which was already in position and mounted on a 40d. Not enough reach to reduce the impact of the silhouette. The 300 mm setup was quickly replaced by the 500 mm set up just in time to catch a couple of shots before the Capercaillie moved along the branch to a position of partial obscurity.
While this may not have been one of our most successfull trips the experience of getting close to the Capercaillie was rewarding. The sound of Capercaillie crashing through the trees is not easily forgotten. Besides there is always next time. Our thanks to Nordic Safaris for saving the day.