The Owls of the Eastern Ice:A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl, Jonathan Slaght, a review

Slaght holding one of the Blakiston's Fish Owls they captured and released.This is a story about the effort to understand and protect Blakiston’s Fish Owl, the largest owl in the world and its endangered population living in the Russian territory of Primorye Krai which lies along the Sea of Japan, north of the Russian port city of Vladivostok. It is a remote, sparsely settled and wild place, isolated from the rest of the world, and Russia as well, at a latitude close to our own, stretching 559 miles, between 42º and 48º north latitude. The author, Jonathan Slaght, a PhD candidate at the time, spent years in Primorye first in the Peace Corps and later working on a variety of wildlife projects before he took on the owls, a several years long study he undertook in association with the University of Minnesota, teaming up with Russian experts, and a loose international group of others doing research on other species resident there, like the Amur Tiger. His crew of Russian field workers, most of them hunters, skilled sportsmen, skilled as well in traveling through the wild landscape and survival there, were invested in the work they were doing. These people become his friends over the several years, despite or maybe because of their quirks, while both assisting and ‘training’ him as they do their primarily winter field work, under very harsh and often dangerous conditions, gathering data in the long months he spent back in the US. Along the way he lays out the work he must do to create an effective conservation plan, the goal of which was to secure the owl’s future, an owl about which relatively little was known.

Resident year around in Primorye Krai, little was known of their seasonal habits, the size and shape of their home territories and those features necessary to meet the owl’s needs. Several years of work passed before they came to understand that these owls move up and down the rivers following the seasons and the fish as they followed their own spawning cycles. The owls are impressive with a 6’ wingspan and can weigh 6 1/2 – 10 pounds. Night hunters of fish, these birds have lost a couple characteristic physical traits of other owls, one being the structure of their feathers. Other owls glide silently through the air in search of rodents and other small land prey. Fish owls have no need for silence as their prey is underwater and unaware of their hunters above. As they pass over you the sound they make is distinctive. The arrangement of the feathers on their heads is also different. They rely much less on their hearing for hunting. Inside the jacket flap of the book Slaght describes them as looking like little bears with tufts of brown feathers. He spends a lot of book space early on describing the owl’s calls, their precise duets, conducted by mated pairs. Being able to identify them by their calls is essential. Triangulating the source of the calls allows them to determine the location of their roosts and nests in the congested forests in which they live. 

The book is full of anecdotes, little successes and near tragedies as they learn the owl’s nesting and feeding habits. There are inventories to be made of prime habitat and how it differs from that which is not. He describes the several ways they devise to live capture them, taking the reader along from failure to failure as they attempt to capture them. It is essential that they do so safely, for their study to succeed. Recording length, wingspan and weights, blood typing and the difficulties of sexing them. Then they band them for future identification purposes and, on select birds, install GPS devices at first with transmitters (these are rendered inoperable by the owls) and later ones that simply record GPS points to help map out their home territories requiring that each owl be captured repeatedly to download the data and recharge the unit’s battery. There are many instances of waiting all night in blinds at -20ºF, others of rescues of owls caught in nets in danger of hurting themselves or of falling into deeper pools of free flowing water where they would drown or later freeze. Slaght on one occasion jumps into the pool himself, soaked all of the way through on a frigid night. Other ‘stories’ tell of the dangers of retreating, nearly too late in spring, via snowmobile down rivers thawing dangerously that threatened to drop them into the rivers where sucked under the ice they would drown. 

Slaght takes a good deal of the book to describe the conditions under which they worked. The character of his team members and the difficulties they encountered in doing even seemingly simple tasks, in a land where a mistake can easily lead to one’s death, all of this fleshes out the story so that the reader has a fuller understanding of the work they do. People disappear here with some frequency sucked beneath the ice when gambles don’t pay off. This is very rugged country with few roads, often built by the logging company operating across the region, and those that exist are subject to washing out. Bridges too routinely washout. Over the course of the book we learn not just about the owls, but about life in this remote place, the friendships created and the difficulties overcome.

This is a very personal undertaking for Slaght. He takes the time to understand the owls and create a successful conservation plan and you can’t do that without becoming intimate with the place. Slaght, who becomes fluent in Russian, is often the center of attention, as a foreigner, especially as an American. His appearance there is a very rare novelty for the locals. The locals are both wary at first of him, unsure of why anyone would voluntarily come ‘visit’, but they are also quickly inclusive as he is brought into the tight social life of the tiny communities in which they do their work. And yes, he learns about vodka and its essential role in social gatherings. All of these factors become a piece of his story, of this project. 

A male Blakiston’s Fish Owl after having fed takes flight to bring a fish to his mate on the nest. from Wiki.

This is not a dry academic treatise by any measure. Slaght’s love for the people, place and animals at home here brings this tale to life. We learn about locating and capturing, safely, these birds of prey who follow the fish up and down the rivers through the seasons. We learn about the extraction industries, the loggers and how to mesh the health and survival of the birds with the needs of the local people.This is a thickly forested region, conifers dominating the mountains and deciduous tress and which brush in the valley bottomlands, with a humid continental climate, its mountains subject to heavy snow falls, its widely scattered human population whose lives can be described as subsistence hunters, dependent upon the meat of the animals they hunt. Hunting here is more a matter of survival than it is of recreation. Winter snow and flooding often leaves them isolated from one another, dependent upon each other.

The story is well paced and his telling is engaging. It reads more like an adventure story than one describing scientific research, although there is some agonizing over details of the technology, missed opportunities due to malfunctioning equipment and sudden changes in weather which requires them to leave immediately, the difficulties of living rough and closely for weeks on impossibly isolated sites. As the book comes to a close he discusses other research being done there on other species and how species survival is linked, the importance of securing that which is necessary for all species to survive including those migratory species that may travel thousands of miles. Drawn in, this reader better appreciates the difficulties and importance of the research being done for these Blakiston’s Fish Owls.


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