The big caper debate.

For photographers and birders alike there are few species higher on the ‘must-do’ list than capercaillie, the world’s largest grouse and denizen of Scotland’s fragmented pine forests. Sure they are big charismatic birds, but they are also rare and under normal circumstances are unlikely to be seen without a not inconsiderable amount of effort and local knowledge. All of this conspires to make the caper a sought-after subject.

It’s no secret anymore that there is a so-called ‘rogue’ capercaillie in a pine forest near Kingussie – he’s even been on Autumnwatch.  Anyone who had a mind to keep his presence a secret (me included) might have got away with it even five years ago, but the speed of information exchange today, ensures that this bird will attract increasing attention for the rest of his life. The big question is whether that attention is detrimental to this particular individual or whether being up close to such an icon of the pinewood, nurtures a greater empathy with the plight of the species as a whole. I don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know is that however regrettable it might be to those who want this bird to themselves, it ain’t going to happen. So should we be thinking about this differently?

There is no doubt that a group of people – photographers, birders or otherwise – surrounding this bird, conjures up the perception of harassment; it looks ugly. But is it detrimental to the caper? I’m no scientist but I’m not sure it is and moreover, does it really matter?

Conservation is a luxury of an affluent society and despite the doom-mongering, we still live in a very affluent society. Shouldn’t we then be exploiting that affluence? How about charging to see the caper? Or at least asking for a donation to a forest conservation charity? Now of course this is a legal, political and cultural minefield but my point is that rather than pretend we can keep such a wildlife spectacle under the hat, perhaps we should be shouting it from the rooftops, inviting in the TV crews and exploiting the opportunity for community engagement, even profit?  We’ve all seen RSPB do it successfully with urban peregrines, why not rogue capercaillie?

Ok my cheek is bulging a little from my tongue but it’s the conservatism within conservation that sticks in my craw. The conservation movement cannot on the one hand whip us all into a frenzy about the visual spectacle that is the natural world, and then on the other, deprive us of access to the very best bits – or at least frown upon those who are seen to buck the system. Nobody owns the birds, least of all any single conservation body.

Before my mailbox fills with a deluge of accusations, I’m not advocating recklessness or law-breaking here, I’m not even talking specifically about capercaillie, I’m just suggesting a shift in our mindset to be less precious, less sensitive, less worthy and dare I say, less arrogant about showing people the really sexy stuff that Scotland (or anywhere else) has to offer. If we want their money to put nature back in order, it’s the very least they can expect in return.

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29 thoughts on “The big caper debate.

  1. Very thought provoking. Thank you. It’s a subject for debate at Wild Photos perhaps. As a photographer, I’d be happy to pay for guided, supervised access to rare species if the money went to conservation. This model is used world wide so perhaps parts of UK should catch up

  2. Peter

    Who’d have thought that if you put an attractive bird in front of a photographer they would want to photograph it? (-:
    You make some really good points throughout this blog post and I wholehearted agree with your statements be they fact or personal.
    Here is Spain the species unlike the Scottish population is the relic of the ice age and non-introduced. Though equally low in numbers and if predictions for Spain for climate change materialise, the population in Iberia is certainly doomed.
    Surprisingly and interestingly the species is still considered a game species in the French Pyrenees, while here in Spain wild boar and red deer have been noted to trample nests in the fragmented forests of the north. Likewise, it’s a much sort after species having perused a number of Spanish photographer’s online galleries and why not it is after all a beautiful and charismatic species.
    I guess it’s the world we live in today, the information highway is fast, and an almost instance resource of updated information via web forums, individuals and unspecified means. The mentality I have to say of a fair percentage of photographers have encountered over the years is to photograph a species as a prize, not unlike a trophy hunter. With that ethos it’s going to be hard to prevent such circus shows occurring and some photographers over stepping the mark in an effort to secure there much sort after prize.
    Just how much pressure and the effects a band of photographer’s places on any given species only time will tell, though we are unlikely to be able to monitor such behaviour and its effects on an individual bird.


  3. I have an interest to declare as one who has contributed – wilfully and with malice aforethought – to the harassment of this particular bird. I like to think that I haven’t caused it undue stress, but this is a bit like the Heisenbeg uncertainty principle – the very act of observation inevitably changes the thing bring observed. We talk of wildlife “encounters” and there are (at least) two parties to any such encounter. However hard we might try to avoid being observed ourselves, everyday experience in photographing wildlife is the target beast fleeing into the distance at high speed as the snapper is clocked. This bird may be a little different as it doesn’t flee, but defends its territory – but even an animal which retreats has clearly been disturbed, maybe even harassed. I don’t have the answer either, Pete, but I offer this perspective. We should stop worrying about the welfare of an individual animal quite so much, and think more about the welfare of the ecosystem it inhabits. Allow the species to thrive but let nature take its course in looking after individuals. Now contrast that to human ethics, based as they are on putting the welfare of every individual first – while we seem to made a complete mess of our own ecosystem…

  4. Peter

    There are a couple of issues that might lead to the accusations of conservatism here. One is the legal status of this bird. I’m no judge but the law states it’s an offence to “intentionally or recklessly disturb any wild bird included in Schedule 1 which leks while it is doing so ” I know from previous conversations that you have issues with the definition of lek and how it applies to the breeding season but unfortunately there is no timing mentioned in the law leaving this open to debate. Anyone visiting the bird without a schedule 1 licence could be committing an offence and any landowner directing people to the bird could also be committing an offence.
    Second and more importantly, is the welfare of the bird or should I say birds. I doubt that this particular bird is being harmed by the visits but what about the other, much shyer, much more easily disturbed caper in the forest. Last year there were at least four males in the same area but how are these being impacted by visitors or how would they be impacted by increased visitor numbers.
    So yes, there is conservatism being applied here but it’s well meaning. This is still a bird on the verge of extinction in Scotland. Walkers, dog-walkers, cyclists, foresters, landowners and yes even photographers need to bear that in mind.

  5. Pete,

    In one blog post you have summed up my thoughts entirely, but fair more eloquently than I could have done so myself. I am sure the vast majority who visit are overwhelmed by the beauty of the beast and even more impressed by his behaviour.

    I also think that the more folk who have the opportunity to get up close this particular individual the less likely they are to go wondering off during the lekking season when disturbance could be a real issue. Of course I am not suggesting any reckless behaviour with this individual but there is an opportunity to use him for the good of all.

    Cheers, Marcus

    PS did you know the maximum recorded age of a Capercaillie is 3 years 6 months 8 days – this old boy must be getting close

  6. I have to admit that I am one who, after 2 years of walking forest paths and studying google maps (Yes I know Capers are not that big, I was trying to match features with photos) have spent many happy half hours with this bird.

    I also have to admit to snobbery, having gone to all this effort to find it, meeting others who had just started wildlife photography but had much bigger wallets so could pay a guide, did lead to jealousy. Even worse they had much better gear than me as well!

    If you do know where the birds or you manage to work it out there are a few a few SUGGESTIONS I would make.

    1 This is an active lek so early morning visits in April, May or June will, I sincerely hope, result in money flowing from you to Mr Osborne in the form of a big fine, some major bad publicity for yourself and a criminal record.
    2 Discussions with the Forrester and SNH have shown that they are not overly concerned about sensible visits between August and the end of February, but toward the end of this period I would suggest you leave him alone until at least mid morning.
    3 That you set an alarm on your phone to will let you know that you have been in battle for 30minutes and it is time to retreat, back to the car and away if you can bare it or at least to long lens, small in frame territory so the bird settles down to feeding with tail dropped(if the tail is raised he is not relaxed).
    4 if you need a to answer a call of nature be careful, i understand CCTV will be in operation again this year;-)
    5 if the signs are up, leave
    6 if more photographers arrive and you have been chased for the full half hour suggest I suggest you ask them to give the bird a break
    7 let him win, if he comes forwards you go backwards
    8 do not tell anyone else (or at least use a GPS jammer and blindfold if you really have to)
    9 Lastly and with my tongue firmly in my check, if you place an online gallery breathtaking photographs of wildlife taken within 1 mile of your house, do not be surprised if lots of others photographers follow your local photography agenda and start taking all their photo within one mile of YOUR house!!

    No body made me policeman and i do not wish to seam like Mr High and Mighty however, and others may well disagree with this, I do not think he looks in as good a condition as last year and does not seam to be quite as aggressive, this may be our fault.

    Another thought. I am informed that this bird nearly ended up as someone’s Christmas dinner in 2010 and that the Pitlochry bird of the 1990s end up shot and stuffed. So maybe a few well behaved, conservation minded people with cameras that can record bad behaviours out of the lek season could be a good thing.

    Finally and to actually answer the question Pete posed. I would agree about letting the world know if a Rouge Capper takes up residence somewhere public and away from a lek site, for example the one a few years ago that spent its time attacking campers, chickens and the windows of the Hitlon Hotel (that bird was unlikely to add much to the gene pool). But as the present bird is at a lek then we should try to give him and the others in the area a chance even if if the cat is out of the bag to a relatively few people.


  7. Having seen Marcus’s reply, having a guide is a good idea as they can tell you the rules and make sure you stick to them. He happened to be there the first time i visited and ensured that the visit was kept short(hense the alarm on the phone) and informed me about March, April and June being ‘off season’ as it were.

    The reason for the suggested rules was for the many who find out another way and may not know how to get great shots with minimum impact.

    Also interested that there may be another reason for the lack of aggression and him not looking quite as good, happens to us all.

    Still jealous of those with the money to avoid the leg work 😉


  8. Guys

    Thanks for your valuable contributions to what is undoubtedly a touchy subject.

    Although I believe these issues are worthy of open discussion, I’m always wary of such postings for fear of any individual perceiving a criticism – this was most definitely not intended.

    I think there are two separate issues here:

    1. The considerations – legal, ethical and ecological – of visiting this individual capercaillie.
    2. The wider debate on more imaginatively harnessing public interest in charismatic species. This was really the essence of my post but as the responses seem to have veered towards the caper specifically, perhaps I should respond to that.

    I don’t think there is any disagreement on the basic principles of spending time with this bird. For what it’s worth, my own advice to people who already know his whereabouts is pretty much in keeping with what others have said, and is as follows:

    1. Use the vehicle track as an approach and stay close to it.
    2. Avoid any visits in the principal lekking period and before mid-morning generally.
    3. Spend no more than 30 minutes then leave.
    4. Invest in an annual membership with Trees for Life who work hard to restore the caper’s habitat. It’s the least you can do.

    Like Ian, I’m not claiming a green halo but I definitely don’t want to be accused of inappropriate behaviour, least of all by posting this blog!

    This does leave the arguably more significant issue of public engagement and as an illustration of what I was trying to tease out from this post, let’s return briefly to the caper.

    Just assume ‘we’ (the collective interest in caper conservation) could bag a 10 minute spot on national TV featuring the caper and its pinewood plight. Then imagine ending in an appeal to pledge £5 via text to plant a pine sapling in say, Glen Affric. Now this is a very primitive way of encapsulating the idea but I’m sure you get the gist of it. No-one wants capercaillie to become extinct – or red kites or fresh water pearl mussels or whatever. But in my humble opinion we should perhaps better utilise this unique situation for the future of the species rather than the individual. Without compromising anyone’s legal obligations of course.

    ps. Marcus if that statistic is true, this boy is a record-breaker – I first photographed him in 2008.

  9. Pete

    He is at least 6 years old, probably older given that he may have been a year old before he started lekking. You’d think he would have learned to distinguish humans from male Caper in that time but apparently not.

    The RSPB provide viewing facilities for Caper but most folk can’t be bothered getting out of their bed at 3.00 am to see them, why not? So along comes a “rogue” bird and suddenly everyone wants to view it because now you can get a decent picture with hardly any effort. It’s the same species doing the same thing. The best images I have seen of caper recently have been Jari Peltomaki’s recent shots of a Caper emerging from a snowhole, something unique, showing the bird doing something different and something that could only be obtained by knowing the species inside out and working with it for years. The current situation of queues of people waiting to take practically the same shot seems a bit bizarre to me.

    None of which has anything to do with conservation of course but in order for conservation to work does everyone have to have a slice of the action. Shouldn’t people be contributing to charities for nature conservation because it is morally the right thing to do. As you say the bird has appeared on Autumnwatch but I am not aware of any particular benefit that has accrued from that.

    There’s a rare moss (Buxbaumia viridis) which lives in the forest near the Caper. It’s only found in about 10 locations in Scotland and is much rarer than Caper, I have yet to see a single photograph of that species…….

  10. Caper as you call this magnificent bird is deaf at one
    short time when singing his ritual song,during mating.
    You have to know that moment and make few steps
    forward,without alerting the bird.Wait for next song and
    repeat advance.This can be difficult,but doing this sort of
    advancement one can get into very good position for a perfect photograph.Many years ago I achieved that,and
    have a few satisfying shots. One against fool Moon.

  11. Pete.
    To a certain degree this bird has already done what you are asking ie Autumn Watch, Wild Wonders of Europe, 2020 vision, bird ambasador or what.

    How far would you take this, John Muir Trust groups? Scouts? Local primary school? This may seam crazy however why restrict veiwings to people who are already on the fanatical edge of the wildlife watching spectrum, as some one who is reading ‘the last child in the woods’ I feel it could have a major effect on the veiws of many young people however if this were to be done then this is not the bird to use.

    The right candidate would involve a difficult 3mile walk or 4×4 trip though locked gates with maps, compases and GPS removed, oh and not on a lek site. You could say that this can be acheived though Caperwatch which I will still attend this year as last year and the previous 10. (still great to see the number of people attending even if the Capers do not show).

    Colin, Jari Peltomaki’s photo is wonderful by the way and i do take your point about all of us taking similar photos however i do not have all the images i would like but may well make my recent visit my last, not sure I may feel different in October

    I look forward to seeing how this discussion continues, i was expecting it to be about Pine Martens!!

    All the best


  12. Rumour has it that, having read this blog, “George” has lawyered up and hired himself a leading “Kinguisse” PR Agent.

    Subject to contracts being signed (terms and conditions apply) and payment of all relevant fees, George is prepared to appear for/at/on any photographic workshop, bird watching tour, television show, film (silent or talkie), charity function, school fete after dinner speaking event, poster, calendar, advertising campaign etc… All participants/attendees attending such functions will be asked to sign a waiver and release George from all liability for personal injury caused by inadvertent contact with his beak. Full details of his requirements, including pine needles and grit, can be obtained from his agent.

    George has also signed a deal with a new Sunday national paper and his story will be serialised over the next few months. An authorised biography will be published in the Autumn.

    Yours (very tongue in cheek) Andrew

  13. Hi Pete

    Just when you thought it was safe…..I’m feeling a need to say my piece, so here it is. I think that the phrase ‘conservation is a luxury of an affluent society’ is perhaps a bit misleading.

    I realise that the context here refers to conservation of so-called ‘charismatic species’, such as capers, but conservation is far more than this and when it is looked at in a broader sense and other aspects are considered – for example, the role of pollinators, carbon storage, coastal protection, water quality etc it becomes quite apparent that conservation of functioning ecosystems is not a luxury for affluent societies; it is becoming increasingly essential.

    With best wishes,


  14. Couldn’t agree more Margaret and as I’m sure you know, I’d be the first to support wider investment in more broadly communicating that very message. This notwithstanding, let’s make no mistake that if we lived in a less affluent society, capercaillie conservation would be much less of a priority let alone worrying about whether (and how) we can photograph the species; we’d be discussing how best to cook them!!

  15. Hi Pete

    I do agree entirely with what you say. Conservation of species such as the re-introduced, very small Scottish population of capers is a complete conservation luxury, given their wide range and conservation status.

    I suppose the flip side, when it comes to capers, is that in the less affluent countries where they occur, the human pressures are much less. This means much greater areas of natural habitat supporting naturally sustainable populations where a few going in the pot would be likely to be neither here nor there.

    At least George should be safe from ending up in a casserole dish in the kitchen at Ballintean.

    Now for his ethical rights………….

    With best wishes,


  16. Pete

    Without wishing to needlessly resurrect a well worn debate there are a couple of points to raise. Recently I have witnessed some totally irresponsible behaviour at the bird including one “photographer” defending himself with a tripod, you can imagine what I said. I can only imagine that if people are happy to act like this when others are about what is going on at other times. I have also noticed an increasing number of people searching for the bird (who seems less aggressive this year) which means, of course, potential disturbance to other birds in the forest.

    So we are now nearly at the start of April and the crucial lekking season when hens will be starting to appear and hopefully mating will take place. Can I therefore make a plea that all responsible photographers, birdwatchers and tour companies stay away from the area at least till late summer when hopefully the birds will have successfully bred without stress or disturbance.

    Sorry to hijack your blog and thanks to you and all the responsible photographers who have taken care not to disturb the bird but seeing a rare, magnificent species being clubbed with a manfrotto for the sake of a picture is not on.

  17. As one of the tour guides who has visited this bird with several groups, I don’t see a problem out with the breeding season, however during the season there is certainly a wider issue of disturbance to Caper in general not just the effect on this bird. I ceased visiting this site at the beginning of the breeding season and will not do so again until it finishes either as an individual or with a group. Whatever your views are on this, the legal position is quite clear, that you will almost certainly be in breach of the Wildlife & Countryside Act by ignoring any notices and visiting the site. I would not be surprised at all if an attempt at a prosecution is made sometime soon…..a shot across the bows so to speak, as there is undoubtedly a growing incidence of disturbance of breeding birds in Scotland by individuals with cameras….(note I did not say “Wildlife Photographers”).

  18. I am in complete accord with you Peter about this particular caper. We have been hearing rumours that the bird is to be removed for his own good? I am desperately worried that this ‘removal’ would be to a cage in the nearby zoo (a place I will never visit again – I’ve never been so upset to see 1,000 yard stares on birds and mammals alike – perhaps all zoos have that effect on the inmates – I wouldn’t know cos I don;t go to them and made the mistake of stumbling into this one – never again).

    I still say the way to go would be to use ‘Arnie’ in the best possible way is by having volunteers on site guiding, guarding, educating and preventing cruelty to him. Removing him is likely to lead to another male taking his territory and suffering the same kind of pressure. Also putting notices up just at leks might as well be a big advert – start searching here – notices should go up (for what it would cost) at well used entrances to many – if not all – of the Commissions Scottish woodlands ….

    For those of us not able to get a different image – we’re only visitors for a scant few weeks a year – or we can’t afford to go abroad – or spend a lot of money on a speciality photographic venues – then that 20 mins or half an hour spent looking at and photographing this particular magnificent and iconic bird is something to be treasured. It took over 50 years for me to see a caper, ever since I was a little girl with a very early bird book I hoped to see one and the enjoyment I have had watching him and looking at my pics later is undimmed. I don’t care that my pics are just like everyone elses – they are my pics – taken in a responsible way with the birds welfare in mind and are a reminder to me that I have been physically eye to eye with this fantastic creature.

  19. I have found the comments here very interesting and agree with much that has been said, thanks to you all. That is to say a guided introduction to the bird would be the way forward in my opinion. I like many would prefer to pay, be legal, and cause as little disturbance as possible. I saw the bird a few weeks ago, the friends I was with are always very conscious of disturbance and doing the right thing. So we walked to the spot on the track were the Caper had presented its self on a visit made in 2012 and proceeded to wait around, almost an hour went by without the bird showing. We were about to leave when a group from the Heatherlea Company arrived, the leader went off into the forest and was back in about five minutes, he then took all 20 of his group off the track to where he had found the bird to be. We couldn’t believe our eyes, now that’s what i call disturbance, and it should be condemned. They left after about 15 minutes having had a good look at the bird, well I suppose that’s what some guides do and I know they have a job to do and that’s the name of the game you pay your money and get shown the bird, otherwise what’s the point of booking with them. I’m now sorry to say that after waiting around for a while when they had gone, we decided after some consideration to take a look one at a time, for no more than five minutes each. So going back to what I said earlier I’d be much happier paying to see the bird as I’m sure I’d get more than the 4 minutes I allowed myself.

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