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Issue 7 - Wild capers

Scotland Magazine Issue 7
March 2003

 

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Wild capers

IN EACH ISSUE GRAHAM HOLLIDAY WILL EXPLAIN WHAT WILDLIFE TO LOOK OUT FOR IN THE COMING SEASON. APRIL/MAY: THE CAPERCAILLIE

Hunted to extinction in 1785, the capercaillie was reintroduced to Scotland in the 1800s. This turkey-sized grouse inhabits the old Caledonian pine forests of Abernethy, Glenmore, Glen Affric and Tay Forest. A decrease in available brood habitat, an increase in predators such as foxes and crows and high deer-fencing which is hazardous for low-flying birds like the capercaillie have all conspired against this extremely shy bird.

The capercaillie is the largest and most endangered bird in Scotland. The RSPB estimates that there are only around 1,000 of these magnificent birds left, and a second extinction is possible within a decade. April sees the beginning of the spectacular male mating displays known as ‘lekking’.

To see lekking capercaillie you’ll need to be an early riser. During April and May, watchers visiting the RSPB site in Abernethy are taken to the hide at 5:30am to see the males display and fight in what are often fierce battles in a bid to impress the smaller females who observe from the trees above.

“It is a real wildlife spectacle and attracts lots of bird watchers,” says Kenny Kortland, RSPB Capercaillie project officer who helped set up the ‘Capercaillie Watch’ at the Abernethy Forest Reserve in Strathspey. In 2002, 1,500 people visited, and numbers will be monitored in 2003 to
control any potential disturbance.

The RSPB is at pains to advise visitors to the forest to be careful. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, it is illegal to disturb a nesting hen, and as of spring 2004 it will be illegal to disturb a capercaillie lek, (the area of several hectares used for display and mating). There are signs asking visitors to avoid wandering around the forest during the lekking season.

If you want to see this Scottish spectacle, head to the hide at Loch Garten .

“Some mornings caper cocks will display very close to the centre and the views are tremendous. Such experiences are not guaranteed, but the chances of seeing some caper action are good,” says RSPB Abernethy site manager Colin McLean. “The capercaillie is Britain’s most
endangered bird, and we must urge people to behave responsibly or we will lose this unique species.”

Loch Garten also provides excellent chances of seeing osprey, red squirrel, woodpecker and the country’s only endemic bird, the brightly coloured Scottish crossbill.

Spring also brings out Britain’s rarest amphibian, the natterjack toad. At Caerlaverock Wildfowl & Wetlands Centre in Dumfriesshire there are special extended opening hours to view spawning.

Songbirds arrive from the tropics as the geese and swans begin the journey north.

Of Scotland’s more exotic species, you might be fortunate enough to see wildcat at the large Scottish Wildlife Trust site at Rahoy Hills which is home to several of these largely nocturnal hunters. This solitary cat breeds in May, producing up to six kittens, and is one of the most difficult
creatures to spot in Scotland. You’ll need a bit of luck to catch this feline unawares.