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Hardcore birding

Victoria James heads into the forests of the Scottish Highlands in search of the elusive capercailli

Right now, in pubs across the country, you will hear earnest knots of men – and maybe a few women – discussing lifers. They’re not off-duty prison officers, or the local chapter of Amnesty International. They’re birdwatchers.

It’s spring, and the birder’s heart is big with anticipation. Breeding season has begun. And, as any nightclubber can tell you, males and females of any species become more conspicuous when on the pull. For birdwatchers, that means even more chance of spotting a “lifer” – a new bird to add to their “life list” of every avian they have ever seen. For hardcore birders, a “lifer” is a rarity – a big deal.

And deals don’t come much bigger than the capercaillie, which even the scrupulously precise Royal Society for the Protection of Birds describes as a “huge” woodland grouse. The other adjective commonly applied to the capercaillie is “elusive”. I can attest to one of these descriptors, but not the other. Last year I spent three days in Britain’s only surviving capercaillie habitat – the ancient Caledonian pine forest of the Scottish Highlands – and failed to see a single one. This year, over the Easter break, I tried again.

The birds lurk – and lek, the name given to their striking courtship display – both on the forest floor and at the tops of trees. They are extremely vulnerable to disturbance, and the number of capercaillies in the UK has plummeted to fewer than 2,000. For this reason, the RSPB requests that birders not enter the forests for dawn searches, but use the hide at Loch Garten, which opens at 5.30am. When I arrive by bike on my first morning, the queue is already thirty-strong. I see them all speed past me: shiny cars with RSPB stickers and a couple of minibuses of birding holidaymakers. Last year I was on foot – an hour-long walk from my frozen tent. Not one car stopped to give me a lift.

For this is the dark secret of birders, normally the most affable people alive: until the target has been spotted, it’s every man for himself. Like the object of his fascination, the male birder is both competitive and highly territorial. In the hide this morning, a successful breeding male (the dowdier female and offspring huddle nearby) has staked a prime position for his scope. Behind him, a thwarted smaller male gives a hopping, ducking display of frustration. This is war, except that all the scopes, lined up like Gatling guns, are pointing in the same direction.

Towards 7am, the large male claims a capercaillie sighting. “Where? Where?” twitters the flock. But his directions are vague. A capercaillie is as big as a turkey, but no one else can see one. The male holds his son up to the eyepiece of his scope, and the boy dutifully nods his head.

I wonder if father and son enjoy the dangerous sport of birder-baiting, perhaps visiting hides around the world and claiming to see the resident rarity. By 8am, the day’s Caperwatch is officially over, and no one else has managed to spot the bird. When I slope back late that afternoon to watch Loch Garten’s ospreys, no capercaillies are listed on the daily sightings board.

The next two days, I sleep in and miss Caperwatch, having been up till midnight observing pine martens in a mammal hide. (These are very similar to bird hides, but with double-glazing, carpet and radiators. I consider chucking in birding and becoming a full-time mammal person.) The martens appear because eggs and peanut butter are put out for them. Capercaillies, however, eat pine needles – their metabolism must be phenomenal, to say nothing of their sphincter – so there is little point in trying to bait them closer to the hide.

During the daytime, I frequent other capercaillie hang-outs. The proprietress of The Bookmark, Grantown-on-Spey’s fine small bookshop, tells me they’re easily spotted in the local woods. I pedal off but encounter no capercaillies, only the capercaillie warden, who swears they will be roosting in the treetops around the bogs “digesting, which takes ’em a while”. That afternoon, I join a ranger walk in the Dell Woods near Nethy Bridge. Capercaillies are regularly sighted here, but again it is the wrong time of day, and I see none – nor the following afternoon, in the high-range woodland beyond Forest Lodge, the RSPB ranger headquarters.

I swing by Loch Garten on the way home. The board tells me that a capercaillie was spotted that morning. I curse myself for having been a dirty stop-out with the martens. The sympathetic warden pats my arm and tells me the capercaillie may be my “bogie bird”. I’ve never heard the phrase, but do not need to ask what it means. I don’t want the capercaillie to be my bogie bird.

If I have to have one, it can be one of those in­distinguishable small tweeters that we lump together as “little brown jobs”. Not the feathered monarch of the glen.

This story ends happily, of course. I could hardly bear to have written this piece, otherwise. I don’t actually keep a list, but embrace my own notion of a “lifer” – an avian sighting you will remember for the rest of your life. Encounters with other species, and perhaps especially with birds, are precious and piercing reminders that we share the planet with unseen multitudes. Radar technicians call migrating birds passing overhead “angels”.

I am eating a piece of shortbread when the first visitation comes, just before 6am. Then they are upon us thick and fast. A female roosts in a tree, looking as huggable as a scatter cushion. A lekking male can be seen on one of the deep field cameras fluttering and leaping, the microphone picking up his dolphin-like clicks. And then what I have always wanted, a clear view through my own binoculars: a black head and fanned tail carried high like the fo’c’s’le and sterncastle of a man-o’-war, steering through the undergrowth. The delight in the hide is palpable and scopes are offered for general viewing. In my head, I make a tick on a list I do not keep.