Clicks at the crack of dawn

Scottish Sporting Gazette

Caper populations have collapsed in recent decades. To minimise disturbance, very few people are licensed to monitor their lekking sites - an incredible ritual. Artist Justin Prigmore is one of them...

At 3:55am my iPhone alarm vibrates in my chest pocket. It's been a windy night, so I've not really slept much - the side of the hide kept flapping, and the woody stalks of the heather made for an uncomfortable bed. It's still dark as I drag my bivvy bag inside the hide and pour a cup of coffee from my flask. Now it's just a case of waiting and listening to every sound.

Above the wind I think I hear a click, but I'm not sure. A minute or two later and I hear it again, but from a different direction. The tiny dome-hide is only a metre square, with small flaps on all four sides to look out from. It's too small to cover you when you're sleeping, but it's fine to kneel in.

Slowly, the clicking continues, coming ever closer. It's still too dark to see where from, but it sounds like there's more than one. Suddenly there's a crash of wings and a disturbance up-front. I look out, but still nothing is to be seen. As the first hint of light appears in the sky and my eyes start to adjust to the lifting darkness, I can just make out the large dark shape on the forest floor ahead of me.

This is a place of giant trees, the ancient forest of Caledon, and in front of me I see the huge black fan of a tail spread out like an ancient warrior's shield. The clicking gets more and more frantic, followed by a sword-whetting sound and the cork-popping finale. Then there's the noisy flutter jump as this alpha male demonstrates his dominance and makes sure all around know that this is his spot. This is the horse of the woods, the magnificent capercaillie.

Scottish Sporting Gazette

Fifty metres to the right, another bird is working up a similar performance. They seem to be trying to outdo each other. Suddenly a hen bird flies in, closely followed by another two, and the intensity cranks up to fever pitch. The first hen crouches on the floor with her wings down and the big male, twice her size, covers her. This continues for the next few hours, but by 7am the action dies off and the forest returns to its usual silence. I have just witnessed one of nature's most stunning and enigmatic spectacles.

The caper lek display is something that not many people get to see. It's a secret world and I'm one of only a handful of people in the country who get to experience this. As a Cairngorms nature officer, I am doing it with an official disturbance licence from SNH for population monitoring purposes, from the concealment of a camouflaged hide that I'm nestled in the night before and can't leave until the birds have finished.

Scottish Sporting Gazette

The forests of the Cairngorms National Park are vital for these birds and are home to around 80 per cent of the UK population - we are privileged to have them here. They've declined significantly in the last 30 years from 20,000 to around 1,000 birds. Fence collisions have probably had the biggest effect on the birds, but they have also suffered from loss of habitat, overhunting, predation, wet spring and summer weather and disturbance. But lots of good work has prevented them from becoming extinct, particularly through the EU Life Project. Now, through a new partnership called Cairngorms Nature, more work is being done to expand their habitat, manage our woodlands and prevent birds from being disturbed when they have young. Hopefully this will turn things around once more.

As a wildlife artist, I have travelled to many places searching for charismatic species to paint, from the big game of East Africa to wolves, bears and moose in North America and Scandinavia. But from an artist's point of view, there are few things more spectacular to paint than a cock caper in full strut. These birds are simply awesome. They have so much attitude when they are lekking - they are actually intimidating - but completely enthralling.

Scottish Sporting Gazette

From my Highland home, I have the opportunity to see them regularly (I often see them within a few hundred metres of the house) and I am passionate about ensuring we do what we need to do to enable them to thrive again in our woods.

For most people, they are difficult birds to see - I hope that painting them on huge canvasses will help raise people's appreciation of what we have and encourage them to be part of the effort to save them.

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