Its 4am and I'm frantically lurching out of sleep to turn off my buzzing alarm. I listen intently but can only hear the odd creaking of trees so far. With glacial slowness I move into position, following practised movements that cause as little noise as possible. I ease into my waiting camping chair whilst remaining within my sleeping bag. Its cold before dawn in a highland forest, even if it is spring. I loop my binoculars around my neck and position my notebook in anticipation. Then I wait.
It is always a tense time no matter how many mornings I do this. I can be waiting for barely five minutes to over an hour and some mornings (sadly too many) they never arrive at all. This morning my heart leaps as I hear a rattle of branches and the whooshing of wings. A few moments pass as I hold my breath. Then the unmistakable clicking and popping starts and I relax.
The capercaillie are ready to start their show and I am in the privileged position of being able to watch them in my tiny camouflaged hide. Of course, at this early hour there isn't much to see so I let the sounds flood over me instead as I attempt to distinguish the different voices. After all, this is why I am here, to count the capercaillie (under license) to inform our crucial monitoring work. As the light improves I start to make out shadowed silhouettes. A familiar profile of a male capercaillie standing tall, beak pointing skywards, against the backdrop of a shadowed pine forest appears. This could never get old. Some mornings I am left with just shadows, grasping to hear calls at the edge of my hearing as the males slink off before dawn fully arrives. They are relatively fair weather birds and can be easily put off by too much wind/rain. Or sometimes they may just be tired. They do lek from March to May (minimum) which I'm sure must be tiring especially as hens only choose to appear for a short period during this time. Occasionally, often when the hens are there, I get to see these males at their finest and in these moments I feel fully connected with true wilderness. I silently cheer them on when a hen decides that this is the morning she will grace us with her presence. I can just imagine the adorable capercaillie chicks now.
This is all magical but its not without hard work. Planning starts in January with surveying kicking off in March as we scour forests for signs of capercaillie. Although birds will return to roughly the same location if it remains suitable, they can shift and we need to pinpoint exactly the right location for our hides to get the most accurate count possible. Then in April its two weeks of crazy camping on forest floors and repeated 4am starts. Breakfast becomes very important. My hairbrush is abandoned as my hair is full of pine needles anyway. I am perhaps not at my best. But we need this. This crucial data helps me protect them so I throw everything I've got into this work. Then I just sleep as summer arrives.
No matter what I go on to do in later life, I will never forget these mornings that I spent with the 'horses of the woods'*.
*Gaelic translation of capercaillie due to its 'cantering' call