Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Horse of the Woods - The Capercaillie

The Capercaillie is the world's largest species of grouse and its name means 'Horse of the Woods'. The bird became extinct in Scotland in 1785 and was subsequently reintroduced in the 19th century. The population flourished to a peak of around 10000 pairs in the 1960's but has since gone into precipitous decline to around 500 birds. It has been depressingly named as the bird most likely to go extinct in the UK by 2015. The cause of the decline has been attributed to a range of factors including habitat fragmentation, predation and the widespread use of deer fencing which the birds unwittingly fly in to. A great deal of effort is currently being expended on trying to prevent the loss of this magnificent bird.

Back in February I was told about a location of a rogue male, fortunately outside of the breeding season. The bird is rightly afforded a great deal of legal protection around breeding time which requires all kinds of licences to go anywhere near them. The males go 'rogue'  when they have not found a mate and the overdose of hormone coursing through their blood causes them to fearlessly attack anything moving nearby. My friend knows this well as he had a finger broken by one and they frequently draw blood from the unwary. To give you an idea of how aggressive the bird is I found this video on the web -  Caper Video
So I booked two days off work the following week to go and try and find this bird that I have always wanted to photograph. I will admit if you said to someone I am going on a 700 mile road trip in the hope of finding a single bird in forest they would probably think it was time you booked yourself i to a padded cell. However, that is what trying to get some photos of this bird required. I arrived up in the Highlands the night before with usual questions of whether the bird would still be around but hoped given that rogue males are so territorial that it would still be present.

Dawn the next day saw we walking through a Scottish forest dripping with lichens and mosses. I think it was a case of the bird finding me on this occasion as it appeared, puffed up and magnificent, out into a small forest clearing. They are a large bird about the size of a small turkey and when stood next to you with its neck extended is at an alarmingly dangerous height if you thinking of having any children in the future. The bird would frequently throwing its head up with its strange clicking call a lot of which is apparently subsonic and outside human hearing range.

The bird was very aggressive initially but by staying quiet and calm it soon settled down with only the occasional mad outburst which became easy to predict as you could almost see the 'red mist' descending in the eyes. I stayed with the bird for the morning until it decided to fly up to the top of a pine tree to roost. A bird of that size taking off vertically is an impressive sight.

The whole performance was repeated the next morning and then it was time to leave to make the long drive south. An amazing encounter with such a beautiful bird will stay with me for ever and I would always look back on the many photographs from that trip with great fondness. I really hope the measures  to try and conserve this bird are successful as it would be such a great loss to lose the 'Horse of the Woods' from those atmospheric Scottish forests.


  1. What a beautiful and stately bird. Your photos are amazing:)

  2. Oh my. I feel like I just read an account of a mythical creature, or one that lived eons ago, and doesn't exist any longer. And we only know it through cave paintings.

    I, too, hope they can save this creature. Jeepers. Scary, sad stuff.

    But magnificent.

    THANK YOU for taking and sharing these photos. There's now a new animal in my head & heart that I never new existed on this planet, one that is fascinating and wonderful it its own right. =)

  3. Preciosas capturas,son realmente fantasticas,buen trabajo.Un abrazo

  4. Oh my, what an incredibly handsome bird. Great photos and very interesting post all round, thank you.

  5. Absolutely amazing! I have never seen or heard of this bird species before! Love the photos, especially the portrait of the head!

  6. Whoa! Such cool and beautiful photos....

  7. Thanks for the comments. It was an incredible experience. I am off to the Danube Delta in a couple of days for a week visit so hoping to encounter some exciting new birds on my travels. Hopefully I will get some photos to share with you in future posts :)



  8. Amazing! Such a great bird, and amazing shots!

  9. An experience you will never forget. Thank you for introducing me to this magnificent bird. I do hope conservation efforts can save these awesome birds. Spectacular photographs!