Molly Doubleday, RSPB Scotland's Capercaillie Advisory Officer, shares some of her knowledge of these charismatic creatures.

My Capercaillie Story

I am still relatively new to the Capercaillie world as I started my position as the Capercaillie Advisory Officer in August 2018. My journey started at university where I obtained a relevant BSc (Conservation Biology) and MSc (Endangered Species Recovery). I followed this up with a multitude of voluntary placements and short-term contracts within the conservation industry, primarily with the RSPB. I was delighted to be given an opportunity to work in the highlands as the residential volunteer at RSPB Abernethy in the winter of 2017/8. This is an old-growth native pinewood which is home to capercaillie so I properly began my familiarisation and fondness of this species here. A subsequent seasonal placement as the Capercaillie Project Officer during the spring/summer of 2018 led me to where I am now and I can confirm that my affection of this species is completely ingrained.

Capercaillie background

Capercaillie are a magnificent yet elusive species of bird. They are rare in the UK as we only have between 1000-2000 birds that are all located in the highlands of Scotland.

Side by side images of male capercaillie and female capercaillie
A male (left) and female (right) capercaillie

They live in pine forests with a diet of pine needles in the winter and a variety of ground flora in the spring/summer e.g. blaeberry. Chicks will feed on invertebrates within their first 6 weeks then switch to plant material like the adults.

Chart showing the changing diet of the capercaillie throughout the year
Diet of capercaillie through the seasons

There are many threats facing this species….

Threats to capercaillie include collisions, habitat, disturbance, climate, and predators
Summary of threats to capercaillie

Lek counts

Due to their vulnerability, it is essential that we keep a close eye on this species. The primary way we monitor these birds is through completing lek counts.

What’s a lek?
A lek involves male capercaillie congregating in spring (March-May) and putting on a display in the hope of attracting females. Lek sizes can vary from a single male to over 20 males. This lekking behaviour usually begins before sunrise (i.e. about 4am) and can continue for a few hours.

male capercaillie displaying to females
A male capercaillie displaying to females during a lek

How do we find leks?
Birds will often return to the same lek site year on year so this provides us with a comparable data set to monitor numbers. Forest surveys are completed before the peak lek season to confirm the presence of capercaillie to inform these lek counts. This is called ‘cold-searching’ and data on capercaillie signs (and birds if we are lucky) are collected. Signs are generally droppings but we can also record feathers, dust baths and footprints.

capercaillie droppings and footprints
Capercaillie droppings (above) and footprints (below)

How do we count leks?
Lek counting is an incredible experience but it is hard work! They involve sleeping in a hide the night before so that surveyors are ready for the action to kick off at 4am. These hides are not the most comfortable accommodation. They are essentially smaller versions of one-man tents with little insulation and no floor covering. This means that surveyors are usually sleeping amongst heather with their feet sticking out under the hide! Although these counts are done in spring, it is the highlands so snow is still a strong possibility and it is generally cold. Lots of layers are required including thermals, jumpers, hat/scarf, a sleeping bag and a bivvy bag. I also brought a thermos of hot water to make a hot water bottle to be extra toasty!

The actual lek count involves waking up at 4am and very quietly getting into a sitting position. It’s still dark at this time so it’s then a matter of anxiously straining your ears for the first sound of capercaillie calls. These counts are not always successful as capercaillie don’t always display in bad weather conditions and there is always a chance your hide is in the wrong place. It is therefore a massive relief when you hear this calling begin. Its then a matter of counting the males (from calls and visually when it gets light) and noting any females present. The surveyor then waits until all this lekking activity is finished before leaving the hide which can be anything between 1 and 5 hours. Snacks are essential; although noisy crisp packets and crunchy apples are avoided!

It is important to note here that these birds are legally protected so these surveys can only be completed under a license as they are highly vulnerable to human disturbance. We advise the public to stick to forest tracks during the birds breeding season and there is always a chance that a capercaillie will fly over your head!

hide used to view capercaillie
Hide which is used by surveyors to monitor leks

My experience

As the Capercaillie Advisory Officer, one of my key jobs is to organise and complete these lek counts. It is an absolute privilege to be able to watch these magnificent birds. I slept in the forest for 14 nights this year. It was an unusual experience as being in the middle of nowhere sleeping on the
forest floor surrounded by deer calling and other unidentified noises. Beyond watching capercaillie other highlights included listening to the dawn chorus as it gradually rose to its crescendo and watching numerous sunrises over the forest. I may have been exhausted after these two weeks but I felt utterly privileged to have been so close to these remarkable birds. After all, there could be worse jobs...