The (Western) Capercaillie is the largest of the woodland grouse. Whilst widely distributed in northern Europe, in the United Kingdom it is found only in remnants of the Caledonian Forest and commercial conifer plantations in Scotland. Capercaillies became extinct in the United Kingdom in 1785 and have been reintroduced at various times since 1837 with the Scottish Capercaillies having being reintroduced from Sweden. The Scottish population has declined rapidly from some 20,000 birds in the 1970’s to between 1,000 to 2,000 birds today, and is once again at risk of extinction in the United Kingdom.
Capercaillie are usually a sedentary bird that avoids contact with humans. However, the species is renowned for producing “rogue” males that will aggressively defend their territory against all intruders, whether other male Capercaillies or humans. Over the past couple of years, there have been two well known rogue males in Scotland although sadly, the rogue male on the Rothiemurchus estate was recently killed by a dog.
I had tried on two previous occasions to photograph both of the rogue males outside of their lekking season but had been unlucky on both occasions, seeing neither bird. On my third trip, when I was starting to think that these Capercaillies were going to be two of my bogey birds, I finally met one of the rogue males and was able to spend time with him.
One of the advantages of the current generation of digital cameras is their excellent high ISO/low light performance. Making the best use of my Nikon D3s’ high ISO capability, I was able to work with my Nikon 200-400mm lens handheld without a tripod. This allowed me greater flexibility and the ability to work at eye level with the Capercaillie. More importantly, as my profile was lower and less threatening than had I been standing up with a tripod, the Capercaillie accepted my presence and I was able to spend time with him without causing any stress or disturbance to him. This was helped by working alone and not with other photographers.
The rogue male’s territory varies over a short distance which afforded the opportunity to make different images of him as he work his way through his territory.
One of the interesting behavioural traits of this particular rogue male was how he would interact with humans. As soon as any new person entered his territory, he would immediately and aggressively seek to assert his dominance over the intruder(s). When he was assured of his position as the dominant male, he would return to feeding. On two occasions, I witnessed this behaviour as he strutted off from where I was photographing him to confront mountain bikers and walkers.
Capercaillies are protected at law and it is an offence to harm them or their leks. Known lek sites should be avoided during the breeding period of 1 March to 31 May. The RSPB run a Caper Watch at Loch Garten Osprey centre from 1 April to the middle of May and this is one of the best places to watch and observe Capercaillies in Scotland without causing them disturbance.