From 4 to 15 June, the Estonian Fund for Nature organised the largest ever capercaillie survey in the history of Estonia in the forests around the bogs in Virumaa and Soomaa. 200 volunteers from the United Kingdom, Germany, Latvia, Belarus, and Estonia covered more than 4500 kilometres on foot in the forests in search for the capercaillie and other landfowl, as well as evidence of their activity.
The survey covered the remarkable area of 150 square kilometres, 65 square kilometres of which were in Soomaa and 85 square kilometres in Virumaa in the nature conservation areas of Ohepalu, Agusalu, Tudusoo, and Sirtsi, as well as on their bordering areas, and in Laukasoo in the Lahemaa National Park. The days were long. Instructions and maps were issued early in the morning. Every surveyor or pair of surveyors was then allotted 40 to 60 hectares of forest area or mire to work through, and the evenings were dedicated to the aggregation of the data and the amending of the survey sheets. For the most part, the surveyors worked alone and moved with the help of a map, and used their smartphones or GPS navigation units to make a note of every capercaillie and other landfowl that they encountered. ‘For me, it was the first time chasing a bird species in a forest. The area I had to cover on foot was enormous. My legs hate me even now, three days after the event,’ says volunteer Eero Väin about his otherwise positive experience of the survey. ‘Sadly, I did not encounter any capercaillie, but I stumbled upon a family of raccoon dogs instead. That is how it often is in nature – you go looking for one thing and end up finding something completely different,’ he added.
Over the course of the 12 days, the volunteers did an unbelievable amount of work and covered a very extensive area. Working days lasted from dawn till dusk and some assiduous volunteers participated for a whole week. Among others, there were 15 volunteer participants from the United Kingdom under the aegis of the organisation EUcan who spent 11 days in the area, the majority of which on the trails of the capercaillie. The organisers applaud all the volunteers and are sincerely grateful to everyone who contributed their time and skills to improving the life of those gorgeous birds.
In the course of the survey, feathers, stool, and other information was also gathered for further evaluation, which allows for a more precise scientific analysis of the situation of the capercaillie and other landfowl. The volunteers were instructed to locate the birds and the evidence of their activity by the scientists from the University of Tartu, who taught the volunteers what to look for and to disturb the forest dwellers as little as possible.
There were 300 direct sightings of individual landfowl and almost 50 sightings of families – 12 families of capercaillie, 30 families of hazel grouse, and four families of black grouse. Thousands of signs of bird activity were also sighted. Evidence of landfowl was most abundant around Tudusoo and the survey area of Kikepera. Commenting the preliminary results of the survey, the ornithologist Urmas Sellis said: ‘The scientists are currently analysing the surveyed areas and the findings. At the moment, we can say that the situation of the capercaillie is not anything to brag about. There were 33 sightings of capercaillie hens without chicks, which indicates that the majority of the capercaillie have no offspring.’ He went on to add: ‘It is too early to provide the exact reasons for this. Predation is a factor, as is the nature of the landscape that the capercaillie inhabit and where they nest. Based on the results of this survey, this is what we are now going to research. For instance, the volunteers also discovered 40 killed landfowl and destroyed nests, which provides us with very valuable information about predation in the area.’
Because of its showy demeanour, specific diet, and a massive body, the capercaillie is a fragile link in the ecosystem. Its disappearance from some of its primeval habitats and a noticeable decline in numbers is cause for deep concern. In Estonia, the surviving capercaillie often inhabit old bog-side pine forests that provide them with suitable plants for food, gnarled pine trees that support the heavy bird, and places to hide from predators. Further research into the bird’s habitat use and the factors influencing its birth and mortality rate is necessary, and this is why the help of volunteers was needed. The knowledge gathered during the survey will help improve planning of the protection of the majestic bird and the activities that influence its environment, including the restoration of mires. In Estonia, the capercaillie belongs to the protected category II; it has also been included in the species listed in the Annex 1 of the European Union Birds Directive. The protection of the capercaillie in Estonia is based upon the action plan for conservation of the capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) (approved in 2015).
The extensive capercaillie survey took place in cooperation of the Estonian Fund for Nature (ELF), the University of Tartu, the State Forest Management Centre (RMK), the Estonian Ornithological Society, and the Environmental Board. The survey in Virumaa was part of the project Conservation and Restoration of Mire Habitats (LIFE Mires Estonia, project no LIFE14 NAT/EE/000126), financed by the LIFE Programme of the European Commission and the Environmental Investment Centre of Estonia.