I have just returned from a trip to the Highlands with my good friend Malcom Fairley. Mal and I set off on the evening of Thursday 29th March, driving through the night to arrive at the Corran Ferry pre-dawn. Having crossed, we travelled with the moon hanging in the valley head and its silvery light reflecting off the snow-capped tops. We were at Strontian and searching for the fabled Black Duck before dawn. Whilst we did not locate this mystical beast, we did walk nine miles up and down the river and loch side in pursuit of our quarry. Beautiful surrounds with plenty of birds to look at, the unfamiliar Hooded Crows a pleasure beyond more expected birds. Post-Strontian, we looped to see the Acharacle Ring-necked Duck, a worthy consolation having missed one American duck. On the return ferry we had the Black Guillemots at Ardgour - frequenting metal work on a decaying platform. It is always a pleasure to see this west coast special, especially in breeding finery.
Hooded Crows - Strontian
Black Guillemot - Ardgour
Early morning on the 31st saw us walking into the darkness and Rothiemurchus Forest in pursuit of Capercaillie, our second and most sought after target of the trip. It is the huge grouse of the forest which can fan its tail like a black peacock, whilst wielding an ivory bill and blood red ‘roses’ above each eye. Despite the sheer bulk of the bird - wild males reach 5kg and 85cm in height - they are highly elusive, elusive to the point of the ridiculous given the size of the bird. In the absence of the RSPB’s ‘Caper Watch’ at Loch Garten, the only reasonable way to encounter one is to walk their Caledonian Forest via public routes in the hope of encountering one.
The native Scottish population, became extinct between 1770 and 1785 and remains vulnerable. Following extinction, the birds were re-introduced and bred again in 1837. Whilst there was a 1960’s high of up to 10000 pairs, this dropped to less than 1000 birds in 1999 - with predictions of extinction (in a UK context) by 2015. This extinction has not yet come and as of last year’s State of the UK Birds Report, there is an estimated 1114 individuals remaining - albeit spread across a huge swathe of the required Caledonian Forest habitat.
Mal has never seen a Capercaillie before, whilst I have had distant views from the RSPB Caper Watch back in 2011; this was within the contained environs of the Visitor Centre with video relay to screens and distant views. To see a bird in the ‘flesh’ and in its natural environment was a worthy pursuit and one I was keen pursue with Mal. Mal supported the last two weeks of Dove Step 3, a 704.5 mile crossing of Spain, completed in just 28 days. As such we share the same ability to persevere in pursuit of a goal. To this end, our three day trip included 35 miles of walking across the three days aside from the required car travel.
In the pre-dawn gloom, we did hear a ‘clicking’ male in an area of fresh pellets. During the winter, Capercaille can feed almost constantly, producing a pellet nearly every 10 minutes. To hear a Caper and so close, was tantalising. We then spent our remaining daytime in the Loch Garten area enjoying; Whooper Swan, Osprey, Crested Tit, Black and Red Grouse and even White-tailed Eagle amongst others.
Whooper Swan - Loch Pityoulish
Crested Tit - Loch Garten
White-tailed Eagle - Avielochan
Our focus, however, remained Capercaillie, ‘Capull Coille’, the Horse of the Woods. When in pursuit of such specialised and indeed special species, the objective must be absolute. To this end we reconnoitred viable habitat past sunset with friends Cathy and Lee Gregory. This, as is the case for us gentlemen birders, was followed by many ales and much merriment. This indulgence did not, however, compromise our target and the 05:00 a.m.alarm on the 01st April presented itself rudely and coldly. We walked into the night, with an icy full moon illuminating our steps across frozen ground. In the silvern pre-dawn, the moon presented itself variously through the lines of pines, dawn grew in the east and it seemed to get colder the deeper into the forest we marched. Condensation formed and froze on my beard; Mal’s un-bearded face chapped. We continued, deeper and deeper, into the forest in the hope of encountering our quarry. With the orange glow of the dawn meeting the cold air we had all but given up. We re-doubled our efforts and walked already trodden ground. With hope, time and enthusiasm waning we resorted to re-orientating towards breakfast. Upon a cross roads in the tracks I caught movement in my peripheral, a shape forming in the dawning light; a horse in the woods!
A male Capercaillie posed, Lemmy-like, with its ivory bill skyward on bare-ground amidst the pines.
I used Opticron Traveller ED binoculars, MM4ED60 travel scope and USM2 smart phone adapter on this trip. For more details on each - see the Opticron website.
All photographs © Jonny Rankin, 2018.