Capercaillie lek with Naturguide Tiveden

Capercaillie rooster named "Pink panter"
Capercaillie rooster named "Pink panter"

KABABAM! All of a sudden, the labrador tea bushes sways outside my blind. Don't look. Don't move a muscle, I remind myself. "Kdck- kduck-kd-kd-kd-kduck" followed by a hissing noise, like a hoarse fieldfare. There's nothing but a thin canvas and a few meters of lower bushes between me and the capercaillie rooster lekking. If I move too fast, or take one wrong step, making too much noise on my way to the window where I've rigged my camera and tripod, then the precious moment will be flown away. Litteraly. Sound of large wings outside. Clucking and hissing, unsyncronized. There are two roosters out there! Slowly, I get on my feet, hidden one step to the right of the window. My scarf pulled up, leaving only a small gap for the eyes beneath my cap. Carefully I try my left foot against the floor beneath the window. Pass my weight as slowly as I can. Finally I'm on my knees by the window, peeking over the camera. Outside lies a small, open hill with cladonias, lingon berry bushes, rocks and heather. Rattling from the bushes behind the hill. A black head with a bright red brow, peaks above the bushes, followed by the tail feathers spread like a black sail. The capercaillie disappears again behind the hill. I feel dizzy, realizing that I've forgot to breath.

Flaps of wings further into the forest. The second rooster follows the first one, at an appropriate distance. Slowly, I turn my lens after the capercaillies. Spy through the view-finder which gets all misty by my breath. Startles inside. There it is. About fifteen meters from my photo blind. Lekking and handsome. I wait for the hissing sound before I take my first two photos. Pause. To long series of photos, might disturb them. I get to take another two photos, before the capercaillies disappear in the lower bushes. I lapse on to the mattress. Carefully detatching my camera from the tripod. I know that it's stupid. They might come back any minute. But I just have to see the result. I need to see that it actually happened. That I, with my short tele-zoom (24-105mm) have captured a lekking capercaillie rooster on camera.

Behind those breathtaking minutes I described above, there are endless hours of work. And a big dose of luck and timing. The last couple of weeks, I've been working with bird safaris for my friend and colleague David who owns and runs Naturguide Tiveden. In this post, I'd like to invite you into the magic realms of the capercaillies.

16 hours earlier.

We meet up at a parking lot in Tived, the guests and I. We greet each other corona-safely in the afternoon sun and I tell them where we're going next. Then we drive as a caravan to the base camp in the woods. Once there, the guests gets some time to put their things in order while I make them coffee and arrange chairs and tables for them. We sip on the locally roasted coffee Outdoorfika and present ourselves. The robin sings, the little coffee fire snaps and fade while we're talking. I hand out sandwiches and chocolate. Then double check, so that no one has left necessary equipment behind. Then I talk them through the capercaillie lek. In short the instructions are: keep as quiet as possible, wait for further instructions in the chatt, when to take photos and I put up a handmade map of the site so that we can help each other out localizing the capercaillies during the lek.

We leave base camp in silence. The path is soft and sunlight is refracted in golden spots by the branches above. The scent of humid moss, labrador tea and forest floor heated by the sun, fills the air. A few hundred meters later, we leave the well paved trail for a smaller, hardly distinct path through the bushes. Piles of boulders towers in the lofty pine woods an soon we're by the first photo blinds. In whispers i show the guests how to use the different windows and double check that everything is in place inside the photo blind. Every blind is equipped with a wooden board for floors, a mattress, pillow, down sleeping bag, woolen blanket, toilette bucket and a chair to sit in while taking photos.

When all guests are comfortable in their blinds, I crawl into the blind that is left. Once inside, you mustn't leave the blind. I put everything in order for tomorrow. Tripod in its' place, I open all windows I want to be open. I peel my chocolate bar and arrange my provisions in a neat row. All plastic, anything that might rustle needs to go. I change to dry and warm clothes, using the sleeping bag as a duvet and top it with the woolen blanket. Then I snug under it, fully dressed. From now on, all I can do is to check how the guests are doing through the chat and wait for the capercaillies to arrive for the night.

The silence of a spring night, is different, though. It's a silence that carries all the voices of the woods.

Outside the blind thrushes and small birds are singing. There's hardly any wind, the spring air clear and fresh. A couple of cranes calling in a distance. I ask in the chat, how the guests are doing and gets back a bunch of happy emojis and thumbs up. The chocolate bar is very tempting after a while and I eat it while the golden sunlight by dusk, turns blue. The thrushes and the little birds go quiet. A woodcock pass by with a crunchy laughter. Then all is quiet again. I usually don't say that it's quiet in the woods. There are always some kind of sound. E breeze in the tree tops, birds singing, insects buzzing or the squeek of a tree leaned against another. My definition of true, deafening silence is not to be found until late november, when all the leaves have fallen. That's a silence so compact, that your own heartbeats sounds like drums and your breath like hard wind in comparison. It's a silence that swallows and mutes all other sounds. The silence of a spring night, is different, though. It's a silence that carries all the voices of the woods.

Smashing of large wings. The first capercaillie rooster has arrived. This one in particular, use to land early, 7.30 p.m. The other roosters won't show up until an hour later. I pull the blanket over my head, in order for the screen of my phone not to flash more than necessary and write to the guests. From now on, when the roosters arrive, we need to be absolutely quiet and still. If anyone would scare them away tonight, there won't be any lek tomorrow. I've named the first rooster "Pink panter", since it likes to hang around a small hill where there was a pink, plastic bag. I assume it's one of the older roosters, the beak is pale. A crunchy, burping noise reaches me in the hide. Pink panter is lekking in the evening. I remain under my blanket, giggling in my mind at the ridiculous sound. Write some more with the guests in the chat. Two more roosters have landed close to their photo blinds. I check the weather for tomorrow, no freezing temperatures, sun and no wind - perfect capercaillie weather. I feel very excited. Though I've never fancied TV-sports, I can imagine it's the same excitement as when your favorite team is about to play. Or like a child, the night before their birthday. After a while I get tired and fall asleep.

I wake up an hour before dawn, by the buzzing of my phone in my pocket. There's still half and hour before the guests are going to wake up, but I like to wake up a bit earlier. I shut off the alarm, listens and drink some water. Then I pull the blanket up again and compose a nice "good morning-message" for the guests. All of them answers but one. Sometimes phones uncharges in the cold. Personally I've got a small bag with a powerbank as backup in my sleepingbag. Finally the last guest is online. They've all slept well, one had strange dreams, another praises the evening concert with the little birds and the cranes. I give clearance for two of the guests to move towards their chair. They reply with thumbs up once they're in place and the rest may start their less than two meter long journey towards the chair. It might seem ridiculous, but it's very hard to move quietly in a photo blind. The slightest rustle from the sleeping bag sounds like an elephant in the bush next to you. Completely quiet is very hard when moving, but if we're aiming at complete silence, we'll end up being quiet enough. Two thumbs up. All the guests are in place. Now we wait for the capercaillie lek to begin.

It's kind of like yoga. Long meditative moments of simply waiting. The focus and presence in your body as well in what's going on around you. The sun has hardly made it over the tree tops, but the capercaillie roosters are lekking at the other side of the wet woods. Flaps and clucks. Hissing and rustles as they move through the lower bushes. The chat is full of enthusiastic hints on where to look for the capercaillies. A capercaillie hen has landed and all the roosters are gathering in this spot. I start on my breakfast sandwich. My photo blind is a bit off from the guests blinds and the capercaillies are by the guests. That is very good. It's great if they can manage to get some nice photos of the birds. Personally I've weeks to get nice pictures, with some luck and timing. Even though the roosters may have their favorite spots, it's the hens who decide where the main arena will be. They're drawn towards last years winner, but everything can change in one morning. If the king of last years lek would loose, or died during the winter, the centra of the lek will move to the new king.

One of the guests writes in the chat: "They flew away. They're heading toward Lovisas blind." I pause while chewing, put down my breakfast. Listens. At first, only the small birds. Then there's the smashing sound on powerful wings, only a few meters away. All of a sudden, the labrador tea bushes sways outside my blind. Don't look. Don't move a muscle, I remind myself. They're here. The feeling is hard to describe. I've tears in my eyes. Grateful to get to be so close to the birds during their ancient rites. Excited and tense, my hunting instincts kicking in, I want to take a photo of them, if I can. But I must not disturb them, no photo is more important than the capercaillie getting to mate in peace. Clucking sounds and smashing of wings, the roosters fight. Like a small detonation of an ancient force let loose in the woods. We are here by the capercaillies rule and even though I've now tried, this wild forest magic won't be caught in words. One simply has to experience it first hand.

Would you like to experience the capercaillie lek with Naturguide Tiveden? You can already prebook your spot at the capercaillie- and black grouse leks 2022. Simply tap the button bellow. Are you curious on what it's like being in a photoblind? Please, check out @tracelessintiveden and our highlight called Birdsafaris at instagram.

Peace out!