The Horse of the Woods

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Introducing the Capercaillie, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the grouse family. Its largest member and one of Scotland’s most iconic species. It’s also a bird under serious threat and a flagship species for Scottish nature conservation.

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Translated from the original gaelic, its name literally means ‘the horse of the woods’. A title it is often referred by. How it got it is the subject of much debate. Some say the horse element has to do with its size. The cock bird stands 60-90cm  tall and can weigh anything up to 10 pounds (that’s almost 4 and a half kilos for any europhiles out there).  I prefer the alternative explanation that has been put forward, that it derives from the opening notes of its remarkable display, sounding like hooves on cobbles.

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The breeding display of a male Capercaillie is one of the most unforgettable spectacles nature has to offer. It struts back and forth, tail elegantly spread like a Spanish lady’s fan.

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Click on image to enlarge

Click on image to enlarge

Head thrown back, throat feathers erect, it makes a series of resonant clicks and pops followed by a sound like a knife being whetted. The call becomes  louder, more urgent, building insistently like a drum roll to a crescendo.

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Click on image to enlarge

Click on image to enlarge

For all this show of potency and strength though the Capercaillie  is a bird in real trouble. According to recently released figures from RSPB Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage numbers hover around an estimated 1228 individuals. That’s down from 20,000 in the 1970s.

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Click on image to enlarge

Once extinct in the UK, the species was re introduced in the 19th century. Since then it has suffered a number of crises. The latest figures though are alarming, despite intensive efforts from land owners and conservationists aimed at halting and reversing its decline and preventing a second UK extinction. Efforts have concentrated on the creation and improvement of the  native mature Scots pine forest habitat the Capercaillie favours and legal methods to control predators such as foxes.

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Research has shown many Capercaillie have met untimely demises flying into forestry deer fences. To reduce the number of fatal collisions, fences at key Capercaillie sites have been removed or marked to make them more visible to low flying Capers.

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The recent wet springs that Scotland experienced in 2008 and 2009 haven’t helped. To be able to breed successfully the Capercaillie requires warm, dry weather conditions during the critical brood period. Rain  in June in particular is a major cause of chick mortality. Last  year was more encouraging. A couple more Springs like that will be hugely helpful in supporting the efforts of the conservationists in securing the long term future of the species.

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I was reminded of that vulnerability  recently as a result of an unexpected encounter during our recent  return visit to Finland this summer. Driving along a private track in an area of forest owned by our guide Jarno, we flushed a female and its chicks hidden in the vegetation next to the roadside. As mum flew off deeper into forest  the chicks took to the trees and perched there stock still trying to look as  inconspicuous as possible.  They are remarkably well camouflaged , but  not that well camouflaged that they couldn’t still be spotted and  they  presented a rare and privileged opportunity for a couple of images. As I looked through the viewfinder I was struck by the chick’s fragility. A fragility that presented an apt metaphor for  the plight of the Scottish population.

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There was no time to dwell on such thoughts though as deep within the forest came the sound of the hen calling her brood to her. And in the blink of the eye the chick  took flight, followed by its siblings heading in the direction of mum and safety. Unbelievable even at a few days old these birds can fly short distances, showing  a remarkable strength and resilience. Qualities that will stand them in good stead in the coming years. Nature always seems to find a way.

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Next time, more from Finland. It really turned out to be a very special trip with lots more amazing wildlife watching encounters!

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9 Responses to The Horse of the Woods

  1. Chris Kayler says:

    Awesome! What a gorgeous bird. Love the way you incorporate the OOF foregrounds.

    • jcoxfoto says:

      Hey Chris

      An absolutely cracking bird eh? Thank you for your kind comments and taking the time to provide feedback. Much appreciated :)

  2. Ann Brooks says:

    Great pictures Jules. It would be a tragedy if we lost such a fantastic bird a second time.

  3. Simon Litten says:

    A fine collection, Jules. All top notch!

    Simon

    • jcoxfoto says:

      Cheers Simon. Glad you like ‘em. They’ve been languishing in a dark cupboard the last six months so glad they are finally seeing the light of day. :D

  4. Alan Cox says:

    Brilliant images and an excellent text; best images I have ever seen of a Capercaillie and I have never seen photos of chicks before, really informative for me. The writing is first rate. I would have thought the whole thing could be sold as an article but people don’t pay much I know. I have had it reported to me that Birding World has stopped paying photographers and offers them a copy of the magazine instead! Your second explanation of its name seems the most plausible to me.

  5. Hello Jules.

    Some of the best photos of this european treasure that I have seen to date. I have yet to see one and hear that I will have a better chance of by headding off to Europe’s forests to see them.

    Keep up the great work

    Wayne

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