AUSTRIA: Stalking Europe's Big Bird - Hunting The Capercaillie (Auerhahn) In The Austrian Alps

Red Leg

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May 19, 2009
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Mexico, Namibia, RSA, Zambia, Germany, Austria, Argentina, Hungary, Canada, Mozambique, Spain, US (15 states)
This hunt truly begins in the early spring of 1977. A small group of friends stationed in Northern Bavaria decided to take two-days leave in conjunction with a weekend and head off to Kitzbuhel, Austria for four days of skiing before a pending summer training deployment to Grafenwöhr.

Sometime during the weekend, I found myself over my 180 cm Olin Mark III skis (now there is a collector item) on what was termed the “new course.” It was a lovely winding slope through a conifer forest that had opened earlier that season. About halfway down, I looked to one side and along the tree line saw what appeared to be a giant angry black rooster strutting and slashing his wings in the snow.

By that time, I was a licensed hunter in Germany and immediately recognized the bird as an extraordinarily rare Auerhahn. The English-speaking world had named these magnificent birds a ridiculous string of syllables called Capercaillie. This poor old fellow was strutting in what was likely his traditional breeding area before the timber was cut down to enable German and American snowbirds. He was prepared to challenge anything with two legs or wings.

Two years later, at last light while hunting roe deer in the Bavarian alps, one of the great birds flew up from a brushy draw to take his evening roost in a giant spruce not thirty yards away. I waited until full dark to slip away so as not to disturb the old patriarch.

Later that evening over several pilsners, the revier owner told me stories of his grandfather hunting Aurhahn in the same Alpine forests prior to WWII. The traditional hunt was a pre-dawn stalk after a calling cock bird during the spring mating period. With a breeding success rate often less than one per female, the great birds have been very slow in reestablishing their range in the German Alps. Today, Austria authorizes a few permits every year in carefully monitored areas. Hunting them is far more common in Scandinavia where different methods are used.

In any case, that vision of the Auerhahn and the idea of traditionally hunting one would haunt me periodically over the ensuing decades.

I had hunted twice previously in Austria with Martin Neuper and FN Hunting. During the most recent, a splendid and successful expedition for an Alpine Chamois, the subject turned to the Auerhahn. Martin noted that he was able to get several Capercaillie permits each year. In short order, we reached an agreement that one of them was reserved for me in May of this year. He further assured me that we would pursue the bird in the traditional way.

Perhaps still a little foggy with jet lag, I could scarcely believe our hunt was actually beginning as we pulled away from Martin’s lovely home around 3:30 am. A half hour later we rendezvoused in a small village with Andrea, the landowner where we would be hunting. By 4:30 we had parked the truck and were quietly assembling our gear for the hunt. Andrea is also a hunter, and to give an idea of the quality of her 1500-hectare Alpine property, she has a harvest goal of around 100-120 red deer each year. She gets a single Capercaillie permit only once every four or five years.

Early morning return to the base of the mountain.

Our hunting area was the snow capped ridge.

In Austria, the big birds are primarily hunted in two ways. The most common is now from a blind with a .222, .22 Savage or similar caliber rifle. In many areas, many of the birds will be banded. The blind will be set up within a hundred yards of a mating area, and a cock bird will be taken while strutting. Unlike a turkey, they will not respond to a call, but do use a specific territorial mating area. This method and the banding allow the revier owner to be very selective in which bird is taken.

As noted above, the traditional method is to stalk a calling bird at first light while he is still on his roost. That roost is typically at the top of a 70-80 foot tall conifer. The birds make a quiet but distinctive call consisting of a series clicking “tuuk” sounds followed by a slightly drawn-out chattering. During that short chattering period at the end of the call, the bird shakes his head and is unable to see or hear. This allows the hunter to take a few short steps. He makes the same series of sounds when strutting on the ground. We would hunt our bird in the old way.

We parked Martin's Hi-Lux on a logging trail far up the mountain but well the below tree line. After assembling our gear, we started straight up the slope in moonless darkness. “OK?” quietly whispered Martin after a hundred yards or so of the steep grade. “Fine” I gasped back as seventy-years and 6ooo feet of altitude argued rather convincingly that I wasn’t. We only had to climb a couple of hundred yards, but it was through a Hanzel and Gretyl thick Austrian forest an hour before dawn with patches of old ice and rotten snow making foot placement interesting. My Austrian companions were not even exerting themselves.

The goal of our short climb was an abandoned logging road that side-hilled the mountain. We crept along it for about a kilometer where we halted and listened. Here the old trail crossed a small flat surrounded by giant trees. It was a traditional strutting area used by the big grouse. Within a quarter hour we were monitoring the faint “tuuks” of three different birds. It was still near total darkness under the trees, but the sky was showing the first hint of dawn.

Based upon the sound, or perhaps pure alchemy, Martin and Andrea determined the correct bird, and then Martin and I commenced the strangest stalk in my hunting experience. He had provided me a walking stick for the initial climb and hike. He now took one end of it in his left hand. I took the other end in mine. This put me approximately four feet behind him. He had his binoculars in his right and I carried a Beretta 12 bore OU in mine. The gun was choked modified and full, and the selector was set for full. It was loaded with 1 ¼ ounces of the millimeter equivalent of No. 4 shot.

During the brief period of chattering at the end of each call, we would take two or three steps. I made sure to stop at the exact moment Martin did. Sharing the walking stick ensured no extra steps were taken by an over eager client. This strange, silent procession went on for ten or fifteen minutes when suddenly the bird quit calling. We both felt we were very close, but we could see nothing through the dense foliage above us.

Suddenly, at the very top of a tree, a branch shook and something that looked more like a pterodactyl than a bird, heaved itself into the air and sailed clumsily into the top of a neighboring tree, where he again promptly disappeared.

Because the bird was alert and suspicious, we couldn’t move, even to raise binoculars. Fortunately, I had released the walking stick and had moved the gun to the ready position when he flew. I estimated the slant range to be 40 – 50 yards. We waited.

I truly do not know how long we remained rooted in place, but it was long enough for my hands and arms to begin trembling slightly from holding the gun perfectly still way from my body. I was also becoming acutely aware that my left boot was at an awkward angle against a rock.

Suddenly a branch shook. Fortunately, he stepped onto a limb that was backlit by the lightening sky. He was facing away, almost certainly preparing to fly again. I did not hesitate, but quickly raised the gun, slid the safety, covered him with the bead and fired. The bird came straight down, but clearly was not dead. Before I had time to even consider a follow-up, Martin launched himself like a linebacker and threw himself on the bird, using his hunting coat to secure him so there would be no damage to the plumage. The sharp point of a knife to the back of the skull ended any drama.

Taking any game animal is special. But a once in a lifetime pursuit is particularly poignant. I had dreamt of the Auerhahn often over the years. The flight of the massive bird from the ground to its roost in Germany was a clip I had replayed many, many times through the decades. The conversation about the traditional means of hunting them was another. And suddenly the quest was over. It is difficult to describe how one can be both sad and so profoundly elated at the same moment.

We gave the beautiful bird the traditional last bite, and as Martin presented a spruce sprig to me with a warm handshake and quiet "Waidmans Heil," we both knew we had accomplished something very special.

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What an absolutely amazing road to get this hunt completed. A very special hunt removed from the list.
Well done.
WOW!!!! Fantastic and thanks for sharing. I knew they were big but did not realise how big...
Very nice write up. Thanks for sharing and the education, this is the first time I have ever heard/read about them.

Side note, hope to get around as well as you when I hit that age!
Fantastic write up and such a beautiful bird, thanks for sharing the experience with us.
I enjoyed that. Great read of an interesting hunt.
Very cool! Super jealous and congratulations! A bucketlist trip for me!
A truly amazing trophy! Congratulations of fulfilling a dream!
An exciting hunt and a well-written story! Thanks for sharing your hunt with us. Assuming that you’ll taxidermy your Auerhahn, please be sure to post pictures. That’s an impressive bird!
Congratulations. I’ve heard nothing but great things about hunting these in the spring. I didn’t realize how rare they are. Will you be having mounted in Austria then shipped home?
Congratulations. I’ve heard nothing but great things about hunting these in the spring. I didn’t realize how rare they are. Will you be having mounted in Austria then shipped home?
Yes. There is an excellent taxidermy studio in the area, and unlike most Americans, they do several of these every year. Shipping it here should be interesting. :oops:
Great hunt! That is a beautiful bird. Should make a great mount. Congrats on making your dream come true. I appreciate your write up and pics.
Wonderful! I have enjoyed reading about them for many years. Hunting them in the old ways would be a dream come true. Congratulations.
Fascinating! Thank you for sharing.

I am going to remember the walking stick technique, what a great idea.
What a journey from the seed being planted until dream fulfilled. Thanks for sharing this hunt with us.

They are big birds. I thought them more the size of a spruce grouse.
Congrats on a very special hunt and bird.

Walking stick idea might be good for walking in on a leopard/bushpig blind in the dark as well.
Waidmannsheil -- and well done!

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