CAPERCAILLIES OF THE PYRENEES

A magnificent Western Capercaiilie at a lek high in the Val D'Aran, Catalonia

CAPERCAILLIES ARE STILL LEKKING IN THE SPANISH PYRENEES INTO JUNE! However, it felt like winter camping on snow at 2000 metres ASL for three nights in the middle of their extended lek. Arriving in a pretty Val D'Aran from sunny and warm Barcelona to hear from my hosts that they had been photographing capercaiilies in a snow storm the previous day was a reminder of unpredictable mountain weather. Today the snow had turned to rain and soon we were passing meadows full of clumps of gorgeous blue Spring Gentians on our way up into the pines. Birds along the way included wheatears, Black Redstarts, Mistle Thrushes and, for one day only, a pair of lovely Citril Finches.

I had a picture in my mind's eye of a bird on snow with a defocused natural forest background

Our daily routine started each afternoon with a steep uphill hike lasting around an hour to the lek, which is an area of several hundred square metres within the forest, roughly marking the lowest extent of the remnants of three metres deep snow drifts still lying here. The birds feed widely during the day and arrive back at their position on the lek in the evening, usually going through their display routine for a while before roosting in nearby trees. Already tucked up in my sleeping bag by this time I could almost feel the rush of air as the particular bird I was hoping to photograph the next morning flew up to its chosen roosting tree above my tent. After the cold and wet of the rain on day one I grew to enjoy sleeping on snow, as my new friends explained, it moulds to your body unlike the bare forest floor and with a thick sleeping mat and my expedition sleeping bag it was actually warm. Each morning presented a challenge, under instructions not to disturb the slumbering bird above me, I crept out of the tent like a mouse, into the adjacent photo hide, set up my camera and waited in the cold for something to happen. I couldn't even see my hands in front of my face as the cold of the hard-packed snow floor of the hide started to penetrate my boots after a while.

'Midnight Capercaillie' - too close for a shot of the whole bird with the 500, I was simply tracking a bird taking head shot portraits when it crossed an area of dark shadows...

Eventually, at around 0450, I heard a single 'clop' sound, which after around 15 minutes accelerated into the capercaillie's full song. It was very enjoyable to listen to him for around another hour in the darkness. A competitor answered him some way to the left of the hide and a mountain stream roared in the valley below, before a deafening whirring of his huge wings over my head heralded his arrival on the lekking ground, a large bank of snow in front of the hide. Bill raised, he strutted around, 'singing' and occasionally jumping forward a few metres with another great whirring of wings. A most impressive sight...and sound. This particular lek has around 12 males, although activity was already on the wane with no sign of a female visiting while I was there, the season was almost over for another year.

This magnificent bird's outer tail feathers were broken, maybe telling a story of its fights during this year's lekking?

After around three hours in the hide the light had improved sufficiently to take some photos, at very slow shutter speeds to start with, during a window of around half an hour of lovely early morning light before the rising sun hit the snow drifts and surrounding reflective pine trunks and burnt out highlights completely. Activity usually continues for another hour or two with males calling in response to each other, intruding on each others patch, squaring up and fighting from time to time. Cloudy days prolong activity but it is dark on the forest floor and I personally prefer a sunny day even though the window of ideal light is short. A whistle from our guide signalled the last birds had wandered away from the lek and it was time to thaw out our feet by hiking back down again to the valley below have some lunch and a couple of hours rest before hiking back up to start all over the again.

Light levels were low and I resorted to using the two second timer and slow speeds instead of pushing up the ISO

I would like to thank Iñaki Reyero and Luis Frechila of Wildwatching Spain for making this trip happen for me and most of all to wonderful local guides, Alex Martinez and Mr Capercaillie himself, Javi Montes whose hide network I was using. Of course it is important to remember how lucky I was simply to witness this amazing spectacle let alone photograph it and I hope to be back again some time to this lovely corner of Spain. Javi tells me that capers have been protected in Val D'Aran for over 30 years and there are now around 50 leks in the valley so the future is looking good for them at the moment. The birds are certainly popular amongst local people here, there is even a Urogallo Hotel in Vielha and everyone I talked to bar none knew of the birds' presence. I heard that the Spanish name Urogallo means something like Bullcock, referring to a wild auroch rather than a modern day domestic cow.

Val D'Aran Capercaillie lek with Ameristep hides.

Val D'Aran guide Alex Martinez emerges from another successful caper photo session.

We will be offering a six days Wild Images 'Capercaiilies of the Pyrenees' photo tour in spring 2015, please let me know if you are interested in pre-registering for it.