Life as a Capercaillie Advisory Officer – Molly Doubleday
A member of the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project team and in her post since the project began, Molly spends a lot of her time away from the computer and out in nature, keeping a watchful eye on one of Scotland’s rarest and most iconic species. Naturally, this means she has fascinating stories to tell. We asked her about them…
What drew you to working with capercaillie?
Since the age of 13, after I watched a documentary featuring an elephant orphanage in Africa, I have wanted to work with endangered species. Originally, I had a rather specific goal of wanting to cuddle baby elephants for a living. Over time, however, I realised that this may be a tad unrealistic. More importantly, I started learning about species closer to home that needed my help. It felt right to start my conservation career in Scotland.
The Scottish Highlands have always intrigued me. By chance, I completed many of my voluntary conservation placements in the Highlands at the start of my career. It didn’t take long for this place to capture my heart. So much so, that I turned down a paid conservation job interview, to instead take an unpaid internship at RSPB Abernethy. The opportunity of living and working in this ancient Caledonian pine forest was too good to miss…
I don’t think you ever forget your first capercaillie sighting. Within a week of working at Abernethy, I was lucky enough to have my first encounter. It was quite sudden; I happened upon a male and two female capercaillie, and though the females flew far into the trees, the male didn’t go far. He watched me for a while from his spot up high. Assessing. Moments later he had also melted into the shadows. Working in the forest felt extra special after this encounter. I rarely saw capercaillie, but that didn’t make this forest any less magic.
This means that when the opportunity came up to continue my work for the RSPB on the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project, I jumped at the chance. I haven’t looked back since…
What does a typical day as a Capercaillie Advisory Officer look like for you during spring?
Hectic. After months of preparation, we are finally able to complete our capercaillie lek counts. For 2 weeks in April, I essentially live in forests and become somewhat feral.
A capercaillie lek involves male capercaillie coming together, often returning to the same site year on year, to display in order to attract females to mate with. This gives us an all-important opportunity to count these males, so we get an indication on abundance and distribution on an annual basis.
My days start early. Very early in fact. Capercaillie start lekking before dawn, so we have to be ready to count from 4am. Many of our lek counts are completed from hides. These are essentially small canvas tents, with windows, that enable to count capercaillie with minimal disturbance. We set up these hides the evening before our counts and ‘sleep’ (this is debatable, they are not the most comfortable accommodation) overnight. Waking up in the middle of a pitch-black forest can be unnerving. It is almost eerily quiet. If we have successfully located the lek, it’s not long before the capercaillie’s iconic call pierces the darkness. Always the first voice to awaken a forest. Not a bad way to start the day…
Once these birds have finished lekking, it’s time to pack up and get ready to do the process all over again in another forest. As Capercaillie Advisory Officer, I oversee all the lek counts in Scotland, so my days are often spent fielding emails and taking phone-calls, to ensure this goes as smoothly as possible. With such a small window for these counts, there is a lot of pressure to get this right. Fortunately, I have an expert team of lek counters to hand for which I am very grateful.
What about your job is most rewarding?
I find the advisory aspect of my role highly rewarding. I work with a lot of land-managers in my role and I am always elated by their eagerness to help these birds. Some of them have been working hard to keep capercaillie safe for decades and it’s a privilege to have their experience and enthusiasm on board. The kind of work we do requires a huge amount of effort, from the gruelling monitoring schedule to long days of hands-on practical work, like heather strimming and creating screening. Working with local land-managers, both familiar and new to capercaillie, to achieve even more for the birds on their land is a joy. I really couldn’t do this job without them.
What’s the most challenging element of what you do?
By far the hardest part of my role is maintaining motivation as numbers of capercaillie remain in a perilous position. It can be draining to throw yourself into this work and seeing no apparent effect. The realisation that another forest has lost its capercaillie is a tough pill to swallow. However, I am lucky that there are always small wins that buoy us all up. Reports of a successfully-reared capercaillie brood or a newly-established lek are always welcome, especially if this happens in areas we have worked to improve for them. These are the wins that encourage me to keep going.
What’s your most memorable moment in your conservation career? (We know that’s probably an ask!)
I have been privileged to live and work in many wild locations. I have collected treasured memories, to include seeing a hen harrier nest up close on a Scottish Island and cradling puffin chicks as a Ranger on the Farne Islands.
One of my most special moments was actually during my current role. It was during a lek count, in a forest that we had only just picked up that capercaillie may be present. I had low expectations as I set my hide up the evening before. But, much to my surprise, I was elated to wake up to not just one capercaillie call but that of five males, all strutting their stuff within metres of my hide. One male in particular had decided to lek very close to my hide. In the semi-darkness, I held my breath as he circled me, convinced he could see me through the windows as we came eye to eye…
Thankfully, he seemed unphased and his enthusiastic lekking paid off as he managed to attract a hen. He may have gotten a little over-excited as he actually managed to snag my guy rope as he rushed to greet his mate. A ludicrously wonderful moment.
If you have ever looked into the eyes of a capercaillie, you know that they belong in Scotland. They are at home in this landscape of sprawling native pine forests. All of us can help make sure they are here for many more years to come. It is my privilege to be part of something that is working to achieve just that.
Find out more about the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project and meet the rest of the team at cairngormscapercaillie.scot