Manual: How to find a capercaillie lek and how to photograph on the lek.
Capercaillie male and female on the lek.
First of all I have to say that the methods I describe in this article, are the ones which work well for me. I do not claim that these are the only or the best methods. I’m sure there are others who do it differently and succeed too. But for now I stick with what works for me, which has resulted in me finding nine different capercaillie leks so far. Last winter I found three new leks in only two days searching. So I know that my methods work. The methods I describe here, are most likely to be effective in Norway, Sweden and Finland and not regions in the Alps, due to the large difference in the forest ecosystems.
The capercaillie lek.
Early spring my favorite time of the year starts. In this period capercaillie and black grouse have their courtship display ritual, also called “lekking”. In this article I will focus on the capercaillie. In the region where I live, the main lekking action finds place in April and the start of May, with the peak of activity towards the end of April. The birds have a fixed area (the lek) in the forest, which they visit every morning. Here the males display (on the ground) to each other to determine who is the most dominant. From roughly mid-April the females also visit the lek. First they will watch from the trees, but later they come down to ground too. All females go to the lek center to the dominant male. Only the dominant male will get to mate. He defends the center of the lek and the other males display in the surrounding area, in the hope to take over the center by defeating the dominant male. Each male defends about one hectare of forest (this can differ from lek to lek). Because they use such a large areas, which are dominated by trees, it can be quite challenging to photograph these birds. On top of that, capercaillie are extremely shy birds. With the slightest sound or movement they can stop the display and take off. They won’t come back to display that same morning. Therefore, you have to use a hide to be able to observe or photograph this species.
Capercaillie often select denser forested areas to display in.
From my own experience and from the experience of those around me, I know it is quite difficult to find a capercaillie lek. Especially when you have never searched for one before. In the past 5 years I learned a lot from my own mistakes, gained a lot of knowledge by spending a lot of time on different leks and searching for new leks. The past few years I have become more successful in finding new leks. This motivated me to write this article, explaining how I managed to find the capercaillie leks and how I prepare the set-ups to be able to photograph capercaillie during the display.
How to find a capercaillie lek.
It all comes down to timing and some basic knowledge about this species. Searching for their leks by searching for the birds themselves is really difficult and time consuming. Plus you have the chance of walking straight through a lek without noticing, because the birds have taken off before you noticed. Capercaillie display in forested areas and make calls which are hardly heard over 100 meter distance. You often have to be within close range of a capercaillie to be able hear and see it. By the time you would be able to spot it, the bird has heard you a long time ago. stopped it’s display and walked off. You could get lucky and just by chance walk into a lek and flush all the birds. The chance of that is rather small, but even more important, you should not disturb the birds.
The dense forest makes it difficult to
spot a capercaillie over long distances.
For the area I live, the peak of the lekking season is calculated to be around the 28th of April. The combination of the snow melt, temperature and day length make the females fertile around that date. The lekking activities are the highest in the weeks leading up to this peak. However, capercaillie visit the lekking sites already months before the period with high activity. They don’t visit the lekking sites often early in the year. The frequency of the visits increases when the actual lekking season starts to get closer. The males sit in the trees close by or on the lek. When they sit in the trees, they poop several times per hour, leaving heaps of scats behind. It is these heaps of scats which tell me where the lekking areas are.
In March I go out into the forest on skies to look for heaps of capercaillie scat. The birds don’t visit the lekking area every day yet. So if it has been snowing a few days before, the old heaps of scats are probably covered by snow and the new ones are maybe not there yet. Therefor I wait for a week where there has been no snowfall. The chance that the birds have visited the lek and left behind heaps with scats, is then fairly large.
The capercaillie mainly lek in old (mixed) pine forests with blueberry undergrowth, mainly on ridges and hills against slopes. Below the old pine trees, smaller spruces grow, which offer cover when the birds are on the ground. Often there is a more dense forested part within the old pine stand, which consists out of younger trees. These parts are highly preferred by the capercaillie as lekking site, because these offer most cover. Capercaillie are not the best flyers, they need a lot of space for their landing. Therefor they select older pine trees with large branches to land on. When I search for new leks, I select for the old pine forests.
Map the area.
After having selected a forest area, I zigzag through the forest on my skies, looking for heaps of scats underneath the old pine trees. When I find a heap of capercaillie scats, it does not mean that I have found a lek yet. It could just have been a place where a bird has been eating or resting. On the lek, every male has several trees he prefers to sit in. The birds won’t sit on exactly the same spot in each tree every time. So several heaps of scats underneath the same tree and also under other surrounding trees should be visible. To get an idea of how the birds use the area, I use my GPS to log each tree, which has got heaps of scats underneath it. Once I have found a large area with several groups of trees with multiple heaps of scats underneath them, I suspect the area to be used for lekking. But this doesn't mean that I have found the actual lekking site yet.
On the map you see the locations of trees with heaps of scats underneath them and locations with tracks in the snow.
Revisit the area.
Once I have found an area of which I expect it is used as a lek, I revisit the area in the days after. I look for new heaps of scats. I cover the old heaps with snow, to make it easier to differ between what is old and new. On some sunny mornings the birds display on the ground already in March. After fresh snow or a warm morning, the birds will leave tracks in the snow. A normal walking track and a display track can be separated from each other. When displaying, the males hang their wings down alongside their body. The wingtips will drag in the snow and draw lines parallel to their footprints. Also the walking patterns are different. When displaying the birds often walk in circles in a small area. Once I feel confident that I have found a lek, I set up a hide in a place where I have a good overview of the area where I expect the birds to display. I wait until the end of March / start of April before spending the first night in the hide.
Before spending the first night on the lek, I check the weather forecast. The birds don’t like heavy wind and are also known to not display in the start of the season when there is a lot of precipitation. For the first night in the hide, I select a day with good weather. The nicer the better.
Sometimes you get lucky and the birds display during snowfall.
When and how to go to the hide.
You have to be in the hide before the male capercaillie fly to the lek in the evening. They normally come in during sunset. Early April this means I have to be in the hide before 18:00. By the end of April this has changed to 19:30 (please note that this differs from lek to lek). I make sure that I’m fully installed in the hide at least 15 minutes before the first bird arrives. The males stay within one kilometer distance of the lek during the lekking season. They will come closer to the lek towards the evening. So the later I walk into the lek, the larger the chance I will disturb and chase away a male which is on its way to the lek. The males often have their fixed routes to the lek. In case I accidentally chase off a bird while walking to the lek, I will change my route in order to avoid that area the next time I walk in. Also don’t leave the hide within 30 minutes after the display has finished. The birds don’t fly but walk off. If you get out of the hide too early, you can scare off the birds.
The males fly to the leks in the evening and sit in the trees. They keep a close eye on the area to make sure it is safe to display in the morning.
Try, try and try again.
The first night in the hide I do not expect to see any birds. It is for me all about the sounds. I listen for birds flying into the trees in the evening. In the morning I listen for any displaying sounds. If I don’t hear anything, I move the hide to another spot in the area where I expect the birds to come to and try again. The area where the birds display is not always directly underneath the trees where they have been coming to in the previous months. At one lek I found, I placed my hide in the area where I had found the heaps of scats. The first night I spent in the hide, I didn’t see a single bird. But early morning I heard some flapping in the distance. I moved the hide in that direction and spent another night in the hide. That evening the wind picked up and it staid quite all night and morning. The birds hadn't shown up because of the strong wind. The next evening I was back in the hide, this time there was no wind and I could actually hear the males fly in. I was still far off with my hide. When I found the actual lekking site, it was located over 200 meter from the area where the birds had been sitting in the trees the months before.
Photographing on the lek.
Map the lek.
Once I’m sure the area is being used by the birds as a lek, I want to find out how many males are using the lek and how they are using the lek. I do this, because it can happen that one or several males disappear from the lek during the lekking season. They can get killed by a predator or by a car on the road. When this happens, I want to be able to switch my hide to a different male. By doing this in the start of the season, I don’t risk losing valuable time if I would have to switch to a different male during the peak of the season.
This male capercaillie was killed on the lek by a goshawk. Only the head remained.
I map the lek by staying overnight in hides on several places on the lek, where I will have a good overview of the area. I listen to the display sounds of the different males and map the areas they use. After each morning, I search for tracks on the lek, to make sure that what I heard came from the right direction.
Here I roughly mapped the territories of the different males which use the lek.
I especially try to find the exact location where the females come to. This will be the center of the lek, where most of the action will be. The females often select a patch where there still is snow on the ground.
I placed this hide on a spot where I had a good overview over the lek. No birds displayed close to this hide. But from here I could track the movements of 3 different males and I saw where the females went. This helped me to decide where to set up two other hides, from which I actually could photograph.
Placing the hides for photographing.
Once I know how many males use the lek, where each male his territory has and where the females land, I will place the hides in a way that I can photograph the birds. Often birds display in the densest parts of the forests. Making it almost impossible to place a hide in their territory. Therefor I first select the birds which display in the most open parts. Even then it might be a real challenge to find a good spot to place a hide. For me there are 5 important factors, which are from most important to least important (personal preference):
1. Distance to the bird: I don’t put the hides too close to the place they lek or too close to the tree they sit in at night. The birds are very shy and leave when disturbed. The closer I’m to the birds the bigger the chance they will hear me or notice the movement of the camera.
2. Background and foreground: I prefer to have a clear stretch of forest so that the background and foreground are blurred in the picture.
3. A flat space to sleep: I can spend many days after each other on the lek. I want to make sure I can lay down with some kind of comfort in order to be able to make several photo sessions after each other.
4. Angle from camera to bird: I don’t like it when the camera is standing higher as the birds are. I try to get on the same height or lower than the birds. However, if this would mean that I will be too close to the birds or won’t have a nice foreground and background, I will go for a less favored angle.
5. Light direction: When already taking all the previous factors into account, the light direction often has to be taken for granted. But if I still can choose, I either try to get the light from behind me or with back-light.
Here I found a open area on the lek which was being used by one of the males for displaying.
The dominant male defended this hill. I set up a hide about 2 meter lower than the top of the hill. In this way I had enough distance from the birds and a nice angle to photograph from.
This movie was filmed from the set-up which is shown in the previous picture. It shows how well the low angle works.
Be quiet and don’t move too much.
As mentioned before, capercaillie are extremely shy. Their display is all about sound. They constantly listen to the display sounds of the other males. If you make too much sound, the birds will hear it and stop their display. The sound of the camera shutter can be enough to scare them off. The first pictures I mate, are always single shots. After a while the bird will get used to the sound of the shutter and the high speed mode can be activated. But I alsways shoot in short bursts of 2 or 3 pictures, just to be on the safe side. If you have a bird within your sight, don’t move the camera equipment too fast. Their eyesight is good and they will see your movements if you are not careful. If a male capercaillie has noticed your sound or movement and is not sure if you are a threat, he will stop displaying and close his tail feathers. He will stay still, keep his eyes on you and listen. If you stay still and quiet, you still have a good chance he will continue to display after a minute or two. Often the sound of the other males in the area or a female landing somewhere, will motivate him to continue to display.
This male didn't trust the sound of the my camera shutter. He closed his tail feathers and stopped with displaying.
Each bird defends about one hectare of forest and won’t be standing on the exact same spot every single day. So if you don’t photograph the birds one day, don’t directly change the hide. If you do that, you will keep changing the hide every single day and never get the results you want. Taking all factors (weather, size territory, amount of cover and chance of disturbance) into account, I think that one out of the three mornings on a capercaillie lek should result in good pictures. You can have found the best spot, but still there are several things which can mess up your photo session. So BE PATIENT and keep trying!
Be patient and keep trying. One day everything will work out.
I hope this article has been useful for you and that it will help you to find a capercaillie lek yourself. For those who don't live in Norway, Sweden or Finland and don’t have the time to search for a capercaillie lek themselves, I rent out hides at capercaillie leks in my region. For more information about this, please visit the Your Norwegian Nature homepage.
My first experience on a capercaillie lek.
Early spring 2011 a friend tipped me about a capercaillie lek, not too far from where I lived at that moment. Having photographed black grouse before, photographing capercaillie had become a great dream for me. So I was very pleased with the tip. My best mate also wanted to see and photograph capercaillie, so we planned to do this together. The only problem was that we needed to hike over a mountain with all our equipment in order to get to the lek. The first attempt to get to the lek didn’t exactly go to plan. After an hour hiking, the snow got too deep to walk in. But we didn’t let that stop us. After 3 harsh long hours we arrived on the lek. …at least that is what we thought. It stayed quiet the whole night and no birds showed up. Apparently the lek had moved.
After searching through the area for tracks, we found tracks about 300 meter from where we had our tents the first time. There was a small open area in the forest. I placed my tent with the opening towards this area, in the hope a capercaillie would show itself there. We decided to take turns in staying in the tent. I would spend the first night on this new location.
At 18:00 I went into my tent and my mate left. From the comfort from my sleeping bag I listened to the forest. Some bremlings and finches were calling, a woodpecker tried to find insects in a dead tree next to the tent. These sounds ompletely relaxed me. I had almost forgotten why I was there, until something big and heavy crashed into the tree right above my tent. My heart almost jumped out of my chest. …a male capercaillie had landed exactly above me. Minutes later I could hear a second one come in a bit further away. I think I heard four birds come in in total. I almost didn’t dare to sleep, being afraid to scare away the birds by snoring. At 3:30 I suddenly woke up by loud sounds right next to my head. The capercaillie which was in the tree above me, had landed right next to my tent. It was so close to my tent, that I could hear the frozen snow crack under his feet. For hours I listened to him displaying. …on the right side of my tent, behind my tent, on the left side of my tent, but he never came in front of my tent. Sadly that tent only had an opening in the front. So I never saw him and had no chance to take any pictures. I had to go back.
The second night went quite similar. The males started right next to my tent with the display. He stayed there for the first hour or so. It was still dark, but I kept a close eye on the open area in front of my tent the whole time. Suddenly the capercaillie walked into the open area, crossed it in about 3 seconds and disappeared behind the trees and thick shrubs. Here he stayed for the rest of the morning. I could hear him the whole time, only 15-20 meter away from my tent. But no chance to take a single picture or catch another glimpse of him. This frustrated me and motivated me to go back. I knew I was on the right spot and that he had to show himself at some point.
The third night went exactly as the second night. The male crossed the open patch in the dark and displayed right in front of the tent behind the trees and shrubs. Because I almost never had any visual contact with the birds, I had been focusing on their sounds instead. I noticed that when the males challenged each other, they imitated the clicking rhythm of each other. This gave me the idea to try to lure him out with the sound of the camera shutter. Every time the male clicked, I took a picture. I was quite surprised when I heard that he slowed down with clicking after I started imitating his clicks with my shutter. And before I knew it, I saw his head appear from behind the shrub. A few clicks later he had positioned himself right in front of my tent. Giving me the chance to photograph a capercaillie for the first time of my life. What a moment! I was very lucky with the timing. Seconds after I had taken the first picture, the sun came through and I could lower my iso and increase my shutter speed.
My very first capercaillie picture! Taken with a Canon 40D on ISO 1600 and 1/8 s.
The moment didn’t last long. Apparently he noticed that the clicks of my shutter were coming from my tent. He walked straight up to my tent and stuck his head right against the camouflage net to see what was inside. I didn’t dare to breath or look at him. Luckily, after a few seconds I saw his head disappear slowly from the tent opening, expecting him to walk off. What was I wrong… the quite forest was suddenly filled with the sound of this huge bird launching a full force attack to my tent. The message was clear… don’t mess with me, this is my territory! What a first photo experience! I was hooked!
The last picture I managed to take before he attacked my tent.