Warm pee trickles over my hand. I’m barely awake. Dark. Freezing cold, damp. Holed-up in my one-person, snow-covered hide I’m trying to aim into a discarded coke bottle.
Hooouuuhoooou Hooouuuhoooou… pause …Hooouuuhoooou Hooouuuhoooo pause. A lone male black grouse has been keeping me awake since 9pm calling to distant females. A disappointing three shutter clicks between the rising sun at 4:45am and my grouse fleeing a hooded crow attack at 4:47am.
This is the third night I’ve barely pressed the camera shutter, and, unable to venture out of my hide until the ‘all-clear’, I continue the indignity of filling the bottle (note to self: not more than two cups of tea on a hide night).
He will be back again tonight. And the next night and the next.
Part of the Grouse family, male Capercaille and Black Grouse both have only 100 days throughout their lives to attract a female and reproduce. This intense pressure to succeed drives aggression, body size, plumage and obsessive compulsive mating behaviour.
Ranging across the boreal taiga – the world’s largest terrestrial biome – grouse aren’t at risk globally but habitat degradation on the periphery has resulted in a catastrophic collapse leaving pockets clinging on for survival. Capercaille are extinct in England and their numbers have gone from 20,000 to 1,400 in Scotland, where after a reintroduction programme they are now in intensive care.
Geographical distribution of the Western Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus. IUCN 2014. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.3
Winner-takes-all competition, where natural resources are scarce and opportunities few and far between mean increasingly desperate male behaviour and many many more losers.
I’ve checked my equipment, the exact time of sunrise, the weather forecast and cloud cover. I’ve spoken to other photographers and ‘smiled’ through “you should have been here yesterday”. Frustrated, I’m straining my eyes in the lifting gloom to locate a clucking black grouse. With an average life-span of 5 years and sexually mature after a year, he has around 4 seasons left. He hopes to mate at least once during a 4 week lek. And, mildly voyeuristically, I’m here to shoot this lekking, cavorting couple.
Twitchy fingers, I shoot. Too soon. Not enough light. Sunrise in around an hour.
As with every self-respecting male looking to attract a lady, he’s chosen his favourite hang-out…
…sneakily checks to see she’s watching
…flashes his best side
…and tries to catch her attention.
He shouts and calls
Eventually, maddeningly, giving up when she buggers off to a more enticing lek….
It’s not looking good for him. Three seasons left.
We both leave.
As with the Black Grouse, the Capercaillie, a turkey-sized bird, clatters into the tree-tops above the lek at around 9pm and then starts booming, strutting and posturing to attract females. Inside my damp, cramped hide I can hear Capercaillie in the distance and can spy an extremely timid bird close by, hoping I’ve chosen the dominant male.
FOUR fruitless nights.
No dominant male emerging. Who knows why? Maybe the choice of site. The shine of their plumage. The boom of their call. Or simply unlucky.
I’m scuttling down the mountain, pushing through the spruce. Heart pumping, short of breath. Concentrate. One frantic foot in front of the other. Quickly shifting the weight of my backpack so I don’t go tumbling. I’m following fluttering and noise heard last night to yet another location. No sleep. Grubby and a bit smelly. I’m now aching. I need to keep moving. I really shouldn’t have packed that extra lens ‘just in case’.
My last night. My last chance to shoot a dominant male surrounded by females. It’s now 4:47 and I spot a magnificent male Capercaille in his tiny clearing.
He’s spent the last 6 hours keeping me awake and calling to two inquisitive, but hard to please females. Does he really have the goods?
Finally. One joins him on his little mound and I quickly shoot. Thank goodness, at least I have SOMETHING.
But, success in the world of the Capercaillie is only achieved by coaxing many females down from the trees and then mating with them all.
Don’t judge him!
So, he continues to call.
and then another and another join him. I snatch a really quick shot.
This is an intense, precarious dance. He must keep satisfied the enticed females, while he judders back his head and calls to more.
My heart is racing too. The exhilaration of getting a shot, any shot, is soon replaced by “was the exposure right, it would be EVEN BETTER if there were more females, better light, a better composition and male-female interaction. Can I change my position, a different lens or camera settings? What might happen next that I need to be ready for?”. This internal competition never ever ends.
A flutter in the trees signals even greater success. Are we seeing the emergence of the dominant male?
Disaster. Another male has spotted him and has decided to crash the party. Flurry, squawk, this insurgent cock must be chased away.
This leaves the females on the ground to flee and scares away the jittery ones remaining in the tree.
Irritation, frustration, annoyance. All that time and energy wasted.
Another fruitless night. Tic Toc.
My heart rate is slowing, calming down. The excitement is over. A glow of edgy satisfaction as I’ve got ‘A’ shot but not ‘THE’ shot. I’ve already raised my own expectations just out of reach.
Tired, hungry, aching, I need to pack up and leave. Damn, where did I leave that half-empty coke bottle?
It’s tough being a boy.