Horse Of The Woods – An Encounter

It was 6 am when my deep sleep was broken by my alarm. House Of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’ bellowed through the van, shortly followed by an elbow to the ribs from my partner Laura, “Shut that off!”.  I slipped out of bed to reach my phone and felt the cold hit my warm skin. The hair on my body stood up as if to try and ward off these daemons of frost.

I rubbed my arms and tried to bring some warmth to my skin. Fumbled about for my Woodland Ways ‘Deer species’ t-shirt and pulled it over my head. Still feeling the cold I found another from the overhead cupboard and put on the second. It was a red flash t-shirt with the lightning emblem on the front. I grabbed some clean, fresh and cold boxers from the cupboard and pulled them on swiftly followed by my dark green outdoor trousers, a Craghoppers fleece and a deer hunter jacket. Layering garments is better for keeping warm in a cold climate and this combination would keep me warm against the bitter morning frost.

I kissed Laura goodbye, told her I loved her and I’d be back in a few hours. I tucked my binoculars in my jacket pocket and pulled the camera strap over my head and arm. I’d borrowed one of my dad’s DSLR cameras for this adventure and was hoping the training he had given me in the previous week would help me on my quest.

I stepped out the van into the darkness. The first traces of light in the sky were close and the morning frost was thick. It had snowed the previous evening and there were patches on the ground. I slid the door closed and waited for Laura to lock it behind me. Pulled on my hat and I was ready.

I took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness and then headed the few meters north to the gate of the woods. I passed through the gap for walkers and slowly headed up hill. I made sure to walk on the pine needles at the side of the track and not on the stones as I didn’t want my steps to be heard by animals. There is nothing quite like the sound of a human walking in nature and the residents of our woods are well aware of it, avoiding us at all costs. It was time to adjust the settings on the camera. I wanted to make sure if I got the chance to take the shot I wouldn’t be let down by my settings. As I turned the camera on I was almost blinded by the screen. I checked my settings and adjusted them for low light levels. I took a couple of photos and got nothing from the camera. It was still far too dark for photography.

As my eyes readjusted to the dark I set off further up the hill, deliberately taking my time, frequently stopping to listen as the forest started to come alive. When our eyes are restricted by darkness, our hearing becomes more sensitive and its enthralling to become more audible aware.  I could hear Coal Tits chirping away and a Wren alarming as it defended its territory from the passing human. A Robin hooked up to a low branch to get a better view of me. It was a beautiful crisp morning and the birds were doing what birds do.

I came across on old logging track which lead off into an unfamiliar part of the woodland. I decided to follow it as the less used a track, the more likely an animal encounter. I slowly walked down the track sticking to the right tyre trail, legs brushing through long grass but making sure to avoid standing on ice or sticks which would give my position away.  Off to the left I glimpsed movement, a flash of white moving through the trees. I stopped moving and watched as a young Roe deer doe ran a few meter away. She stopped in a gap between the trees and watched me, this moving tree walking through her woods. I slowly lifted the camera and took a couple of shots. The shots were blurred as it was still too dark. I watched her go about her business for a few minutes. When I set off again it startled her and she ran away at 45 degrees to my position, behaviour typical of a prey species.

It was not long before I had my next encounter. Ahead of me on the track I got a glimpse of another Roe deer. Again it was a doe but this time she had a kid with her. She got wind of my scent as the cold wind was to my back taking my scent straight to her. Deer have 200x more scent receptors in their nose than a dog and as such have incredible ability to sniff out danger. They ran up the hill barking at me as they went.  Reaves Muntjac are known as the barking deer, however it is common for other deer species to bark when startled. The Roe deer bark is a single rough, loud bark, followed by numerous quieter grumbles.

Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus) sighting.

I came across another trail leading up the hill and followed it. It lead me through Scots Pine trees and grass below. The terrain changed nearer the top to Heather and Blaeberry undergrowth. I was encouraged by the terrain and headed to the top of the hill. On my ascent I found some droppings at the base of a Scots Pine, hidden in the needles, which looked like a small cigar. Typical Capercaillie sign!

Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) Sign

I went further and at the side of the track, stuck in heather was a large black feather. It was shaped like a question mark and had a flat end. I know this to be the tail feather of a male Capercaillie.  The feather was damaged but I collected it for future lessons. In my excitement (dancing around like an idiot) I forgot to take a photo of my recent acquisition in situation.

Now my plan was to get to the top, descend a few meters and where I found a good spot I would stop, sit down and just be present in the moment. Watching and listening to the sounds of nature, the morning calls of the song birds and keeping an eye out for the horse.

As I reached the summit of the ridge-line, I was confronted with a plateau of similar terrain. There was no suitable spot to sit and look down on the area so I continued onward. Trying to avoid the snow covered heather. About 200 meters later I saw the ground descend to my front and was eager to find my spot to sit. I took a step but straight onto a bit of snow that crunched when my foot struck it.

As the crunch reverberated around the immediate area, a huge bird flew out of a tree to my left. I swung myself around to witness a black silhouette fly into the sun and glide over the ridge to my front. I didn’t even try to take a photo as the light conditions were terrible. But I had found the infamous horse of the woods, the endangered Capercaillie. Elusive and clever, few have ever seen them in the wild.

I didn’t want to pressure the bird so I gave it time to settle in its new spot and recover. I took the time to adjust camera settings and extend the monopod leg. After celebrating my find, I set off slowly over the ridge where I took a beautiful photo of a Roe deer in the sun.

I searched the area for a further 30 minutes but alas, I could not find the Capercaillie.

Years of Bushcraft, field craft and tracking have given me the knowledge to understand bits of nature. My intention is to continue my training and enjoy what nature tells me.

You can join Jason Ingamells and myself on an amazing Scottish Wildlife Experience in May 2019! Follow this link and book your spot on our 5-Day trip to the Scottish Highlands. We will visit conservation agencies to learn about some of our most endangered and protected species such as the Scottish Wild Cat and of course, the Horse of the woods!

Stuart Wedge – Apprentice Instructor