On the Threshold of Capercailzie Lek.
Text and photo by Alexander Prokhorov.
condensed translation into English by Aleksei Morozov
The night before another capercailzie lek hunt I seldom get to sleep. Visions of hunts gone by keep floating in my mind. Most leks are far from human habitat, usually you’ve got a long drive ahead and then five to ten kilometers of walking over difficult terrain. And all the way there you keep worrying about the lek – does it still exist, do birds still visit it? Only the evening scouting, and the sound of the first cock’s arrival at the mating ground, will put an end to your worries.
Everything is usually all right with the leks that are in low-class marshy pine woods, or in old aspen woods, that are of no interest to the timber industry. Here in Novgorod Region the leks that were located in prime pine woods have mostly been destroyed by now, because the last forest inventory failed to map the leks and include them in areas protected from commercial logging.
There are still a few leks that are only a few kilometers from roads. Most people who hunt these leks start out from their homes at night, so that they are near the lek by about 4 or 5 a.m. A walk through a wood in the night fills you with adrenaline, with scary cries of owls and other mysterious sounds of the forest, a chance of meeting a bear, and tree branches that you may run into and damage your face or eyes – not precisely in line with safety rules.
At the border of the lek, you stop for at least 10 minutes and try to hear the song. If you don’t, move slowly and silently to the center of the lek, taking time to stop and listen. This is what you do if you skipped the evening scouting session and don’t know how the birds are located across the lek. If you scouted and know the approximate location of a bird, you shouldn’t rush in – early morning frost makes going very loud. An impatient hunter will move along the perimeter of the lek, spooking one bird after another. A fast rule at a lek is to let the birds “sing on”, and not to rush in until they are singing with enthusiasm. But this rule works only when there are no hens on the lek. In Novgorod Region, hens usually visit leks from about mid-April to early May, the period that often coincides with the hunting season.
In presence of hens, cocks tend to get down from trees as early as there’s light. The cocks that are on the ground are difficult (but not impossible) to stalk. I have killed a few capercailzies to a song at 8 to 9 a.m., but you can do it only if you know the epicenter of the lek, where the birds actually mate. You walk there and stand still, next to a tree, for at least an hour, until the spooked males gain courage to move closer to the action. Mostly they fly from tree to tree with crowing sounds similar to what they “say” when they arrive at the lek in the evening, but some start a full song again, and you can stalk them, using trees to hide you from the bird.
The males keep singing even after the females stop coming to the lek. Most hunters believe that capercailzie activity on the leks continues until new leaves of birch trees are as big as a large coin, and there’s a grain of truth in that. In Novgorod Region, capercailzies sometimes begin to sing as early as first decade of March, and go on to mid-May, or more if the spring was late.
Finally, a couple of entries from my diary:
April 19, 2015. Was at lek at 6 a.m. Lek all under snow with crust. Came in by clear-cut from the central road. Heard the song well ahead. Strong NW wind. Crust cracked under feet, but held my weight. Heard three cocks, stalked the middle one. He sang with much vigor, making pauses during gusts of wind. Took only one or two steps with each song, trying to be quiet. Dawn already. Cock stopped singing when I was no more than 30 meters away. Couldn’t see him. Stayed motionless, waiting for more light. Got very cold, tried to make the bird out between branches, failed. Finally, he flew away. He was on a mid-sized pine, shielded by two smaller fir trees. Saw lots of droppings fresh and old under the pine, indicates a favorite singing tree. After the cock flew off, heard two more.
April 12, 2014. Male capercailzie, weight 4.6 kg, harvested at lek, to a song. Izh-43, 12 gauge, shot #0000. Time – 7:45.
Left home 4 a.m. Left car 6:30, too dark before. Temperature -2 C. .5 km from car to lek. Heard 5 cocks, all in different directions. The one I harvested was nearest. After a few songs he went mute completely and for long. Decided to abandon him and stalk another. Was 40 meters away when he sang again. Stalked to 25 meters, capercailzie sat with tail turned to me. Tried to move to the left, cock went mute for long. Couldn’t see him, he kept silence, no more than 15 meters away. Legs got cold (in rubber boots), kept standing motionless. No snow at lek, and in woods generally. Still dark in crowns, couldn’t make out the bird. Finally caught glimpse of movement, took quick aim and fired. The cock fell without flapping a wing.