You don’t have to actually lay eyes on something to value its presence. This is a lesson I have learnt time and time again and is the reason I enjoy tracking and trailing almost any kind of animal, from the feathers birds leave behind them to the pug marks of a mammal left in soft mud or snow, even the empty husks of insect skins, feeding damage, signs, dung and frass. There are so many ways you can connect to the world of the skittish and shy creatures that we share our space with…. I’ve no intention of going into all the details of the art and science of tracking here; it’s a massive subject of which many books have been written – including my own Nature Tracker’s Handbook!
However, this quick blog has nothing to do with dropping a plug for a book but more to do with the excitement of a discovery I wanted to share with you all.
On Sunday, if I’m honest, I was feeling a little uninspired and flat, the bad news floating about regarding access and wild camping and whether I have all the information I need to really be able to address such a significant issue – all piled up in my head. This perceived pressure is my ‘Black dog’; it bites at my heels, dragging me down.
But I’ve learned over the years that he can be sent running with a dose of unstructured outdoors time, a little bit of connection between the real monkey inside and the landscape I tread.
So there I was, walking with a friend who had rescued me from my downer with the offer of a walk (with an actual black dog and not a metaphorical one!). He took me to a beautiful bit of Caledonian forest, off the beaten track. It was spectacular, and a real winter wonder walk was had after a dusting of snow over the weekend had picked out the textures of the landscape.
Not much was evident in the snow as it was pretty fresh, and few creatures had had the opportunity to scribe it with their comings and goings yet. There was the odd deer trail crossing the track – big slots for the Red deer, with Roe deer less frequent and half the size. Brown hare near the croft with their sets of 3 prints (their two forefeet often merging together to form one depression) as well as the more nuanced, much smaller but non the less similar tracks of Wood mice and the shuffling hollow motorways made by the regular excursions of voles from under the snow. This was pleasure enough.
Then towards the end of the walk, as we were dropping down through some mature and dense Scots pine, I saw them.
Stitching a steady track along the same path we were walking, each footprint a bold triad of toes. Velociraptor-like these prints were made by big feet belonging to an equally big bird. ‘The’ big bird (no, not that Yellow one) is the Capercaillie. It’s not been doing too well in recent years, and it’s a species I’ve not set eyes on for close to a decade. Yet they are here, hanging on, just.
The last time I got a good look at this iconic, native pine wood specialist was back in the 1990’s when they were relatively plentiful. I was fortunate enough to be invited to an RSPB lek watch to record for BBC Radio 4’s original ‘Spring watch’, and here I become immersed in the seasonal sensory spectacle of this bird going about the process of sorting out its genetic future.
This bird is spectacular enough in the singular. Our largest grouse is a chunker, reminiscent of a turkey in size, if not colour. The cock bird in full display, with his glossy polychromatic dark plumage, chestnut wings dropped, and tail fanned, is something for which the use of the word awesome can be justified.
To see several of them gathered at a traditional lek site to display to each other is something else. The cocks show off, standing proud, fluffed up with testosterone, a weird series of mechanical crackles, pops and belches, culminating with a sound like a crock popping from a bottle of fizz. The hens look on, waiting to be impressed. You know the score.
It can only be experienced in my neck of the woods, where the Caledonian forest provides their needs. When I say seen, for the most part, they are not seen. Especially now. A report published last year that looked into the status and the issues surrounding this bird estimated that there are less than 600 birds left; their numbers have dropped significantly since the last survey. https://cairngormscapercaillie.scot/national-survey-results-reveal-uk-capercaillie-numbers-are-critically-low/
It is a species that makes us look at the bigger picture, how our actions have had and are impacting things around us. Some argue the forests are getting quieter because of disturbance, dog walkers, wild campers, and organised sports events. Others cite climate change, genetic bottlenecks and inbreeding (they’ve gone extinct before and were reintroduced). The finger has predictably been pointed at mesopredators bouncing back – badger and pine marten populations have increased. I don’t know what the answer is. It’s not as simple as we would like it, that’s for sure. Nature’s algorithms are bafflingly complicated; who are any of us to proclaim we know the answer? But we must try and find it, which may mean we have to give up our complete freedom of the countryside, our traditional ways, for just some places and parts of the year until we’ve got things better figured out.
But the one thing for sure is what we experience in the moment. The owner of those big bird feet is still living here. I’ve not seen it or heard it, but just those dints in the snow tell me somewhere, for now, at least this bird exists, and while it does, there is still a little hope to be had.
In March it will be on the lek, somewhere in the woods nearby. I might bump into a Capercaillie one day, but I might not. Failing that, just knowing that the bird is somewhere amongst the trees, leaving its dino-treads or its fabulously fibrous pine needle poo for those lucky enough to find them, is good enough for me.
For more information on Capercaillie and its conservation, see https://cairngormscapercaillie.scot/