February 2021

Vol. 49, No. 1

About Books: An Owl Like a Beautiful Thought

Mark Lynch

Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl. Jonathan C. Slaght. 2020. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

For me, fish owls were like a beautiful thought I couldn’t quite articulate. They evoked the same wondrous longing as some distant place I’d always wanted to visit but didn’t really know much about. I pondered fish owls and felt cool from the canopy shadows they hid in and smelled moss clinging to riverside stones. (p. 4 Owls of the Eastern Ice)

It is not a stretch to say that any day you see an owl is a good day. Even spotting a common owl such as a Great Horned or Eastern Screech makes us catch our breath. Part of the reason for an owl’s oversized charisma quotient is that we do not see them that often because most species are nocturnal. But their nocturnal habits cannot be the sole reason for our deep fascination with owls. Since Ancient Greece and Egypt, owls have been the subject of countless myths, stories, and beliefs of cultures around the world. They have been seen as symbols of wisdom, drunkenness, silliness, harbingers of death, evil spirits, and thanks to the Harry Potter novels, as magical mailmen. So popular are owls in Massachusetts today that birding websites refuse to post the location of a roosting owl of any species lest throngs of birders and photographers harass the bird.

Some of my most memorable birding experiences have to do with seeing an owl. Once, while birding the Wyoming Rockies several decades back, we came across a large open field in dense forest as the sun set. In the gloaming, a large herd of elk emerged from the forest opposite us, and a male began to bugle loudly. Just then, a Great Gray Owl perched high in a tree near the elk. It was as if a part of the forest suddenly coalesced and became the owl. After about five minutes, the Great Gray made a long, low, totally silent flight across the field and vanished. We just stood there, mouths open. We never saw that bird again, even though we returned to that field the next evening. I am sure all of you have had encounters with owls as memorable.

Have you determinedly looked for owls during a CBC or a Breeding Bird Survey and totally struck out seeing or hearing an owl time and again? Have you ever led an owl prowl and seen the hopes of the excited participants dashed when no owls even called after spending hours in the cold darkness? Imagine how challenging it is to scientifically study owls in the field. Jonathan C. Slaght spent five years studying one of the world’s rarest owls in one of the most remote forests in the world. This is a place with few human residents and many fewer roads. The story of his experiences makes Owls of the Eastern Ice one of the most fascinating natural history books of the year.

Jonathan C. Slaght is the “Russia and Northeast Asia coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He manages research projects on endangered species and coordinates avian conservation activities along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway from the Arctic to the tropics.” (book jacket) After completing a Master of Science project at the University of Minnesota studying the impacts of logging on the songbirds of the Primorye province of Russia, he found himself immediately wanting to go back. It is no wonder, because the Primorye is a natural historian’s perfect choice for field research. It is part of eastern Russia on the Sea of Japan—a location most Americans have never heard of. The Primorye is a vast area of dense mixed forests that are still largely pristine. The few scattered small towns hold a small number of residents, some of whom are subsistence hunters. “Primorye is, more so than most of the temperate zone, a place where humans and wildlife still share the same resources.” (p. 310)

Because of its remoteness and lack of facilities, it is rarely visited, even by Russian scientists. It is home to moose, wild boar, musk and red deer, and the Amur tiger. It was here in the year 2000 that Slaght had a sighting that would change the course of his research: “I saw my first Blakiston’s Fish Owl in the Russian province of Primorye, a coastal talon hooking south into the belly of Northeast Asia.” (p. 3) As he describes his first look at the owl: “It was clearly an owl, but bigger than any I’d seen, about the size of an eagle, but fluffier and more portly, with enormous ear tufts.” (p. 3)

Logging had started to make impacts on the forests here when Slaght first visited the area, and Russian business interests were beginning to eye the natural resources of the area. Technically the owls are protected by Russian law, and it is illegal to kill them or destroy their habitat. But before Slaght’s research, there was no concrete knowledge of the owl’s needs or where they nested. You cannot protect what you know nothing about. Slaght makes it clear: “Conservation is different from preservation.” (p. 9), and his goal is conservation. Preservation would mean lengthy lobbying of the Russian government to simply wall off the entire huge area and close it to all business interests. This is something that it would be difficult if not impossible to get the Russian government to do. Conservation begins with a scientific understanding of the owls’ needs and working out a plan that best suits human and owl needs.

Blakiston’s Fish Owls are among the world’s largest owls and one of the rarest. Globally the population has been estimated at fewer than 2,000 individuals and 500–850 pairs. They are a low-density, slow-reproducing species. Slaght estimates the Russian population at 300–400 for the entire country. In the Primorye, Slaght estimates that one pair of owls raise one chick every other year. In Japan, the same species of fish owl breeds every year and raises two chicks. They are nonmigratory and long-lived. Wild birds have been found that are more than 25 years old: “A hearty creature in an inhospitable environment.” (p. 8)

Many aspects of these owls are unique. Their appearance is like an owl with severe “bed head,” with feathers popping out all over the body. This gives the owl a disheveled, fluffy appearance. In the Primorye, in winter these owls look for salmonid species of fish along open patches of largely frozen rivers. Because they walk along these stretches of river looking for the fish, Blakiston’s Fish Owls are one of the few flying birds that you track. Finding their large K-shaped prints is one of the sure ways to know you are in one of their territories. Fish owls, unlike other owl species, are noisy fliers, and you can hear them taking off and soaring over the landscape. Unlike other owls, fish owls regurgitate a very loose collection of scales and small bones. These are pellets in name only.

For Slaght there are many challenges to determining the population of these owls. They call most frequently in February, a time in the Primorye when temperatures dip below minus 22 degrees. Like the Great Gray Owl, fish owls hoot in the low two hundred hertz range. So low are these calls, they are difficult to record. “On the tapes I’d later make, the owls always sounded far away, muffled, lost, even if they were close by.” (p. 45) The female’s calls are even lower than the males. They duet, but early on in the field, Slaght could hear only the male distinctly.

Getting around anywhere in the Primorye in February at night is a challenge because of the snow and cold. There are few roads. Snowmobiles take Slaght and his Russian guides along the shores of the rivers. But even this is difficult because the peak of the fish owls calling coincides with the start of ice melt on the rivers. This means that there are patches of the frozen rivers covered in frazil, or slush. Since they are out at night, Slaght and his companions cannot quite see if the frazil is just a six-inch coating on top of more stable ice or frazil with open water underneath. There are a few roads, but they are muddy and covered in deep snow, so you need special vehicles to drive any distances. Walking with skis or snowshoes through the forest is also difficult. “The days’ struggle turned out to be the standard rather than the exception: there are poking thorns, prodding branches, and unexpected falls in the future of anyone who chooses to study fish owls.” ( p. 79) Slaght is helicoptered in on his visits there.

The few towns that exist in the Primorye are inhabited by hearty, independent, and sometimes slightly eccentric Russians. Luckily, Slaght is conversant in the language. Accommodations early on in his research are pretty basic.

The rooms were separated from one another by filthy, patterned sheets that hung unevenly in the door-frames. There was so much plaster on the floor in the back room that it crunched constantly underfoot, and there were small bits of what appeared to be frozen meat and fur against one of the walls under the window. (p. 21)

Trying to conduct research while accommodating the Russian customs of your compatriots was a bit of a challenge.

Russian social customs typically dictate that once a bottle of vodka is on the table for guests, it is not removed till empty. Some vodka distillers don’t even put caps on their bottles—opting for a thin layer of aluminum to puncture instead—because what do you need a cap for? (p. 29-30)

In the end, Slaght had to just give up and go to bed early while the drinking went on and on. But he mastered other important customs:

There are two reliable ways to get a Russian man to respect you: the first is to consume voluminous amounts of vodka and bond over the honesty exposed by subsequent drunkenness, and the other is to go toe-to-toe in a banya. I had long ago stopped trying to keep pace with Russian men and their drinking, but in those days, I could steam with the best. (p. 59)

Owls of the Eastern Ice follows Slaght through the years as he gets to know these birds’ habits and habitats. On his first year while visiting the northern parts of the Primorye, he simply wants to prove the owls are still here and that it is possible to determine their territories. His first sighting of an owl during this time is memorable.

We were a few hundred meters shy of the tributary by dusk when a massive form dropped from a tree. Despite the failing light, its shape was pronounced against the river’s frozen surface near the cliffs opposite the tributary’s mouth. I’d seen other owls in shadow before, so I knew immediately that’s what this was, only this was much bigger than any other owl species I’d ever seen. It was a fish owl. I found myself holding my breath as this truth washed over me. The bird did not make any unnecessary movements; it floated on extended wings at a descending angle over the water, then disappeared up the tributary where it had hunted the night before. (p. 65)

Gradually over his yearly visits, Slaght discovers that the owls have certain trees they will nest in. These are forest giants like old-growth Japanese poplar or Manchurian elm, trees that stand out from the rest of the forest. Looking out across the hilly landscape, Slaght is able to pick out those trees that are most likely be the site of a nest. Finally, through much trial and error, Slaght learns how to trap and attach geolocators to the owls, allowing him to track owls’ movements through the year.

Owls of the Eastern Ice is simultaneously an exotic travelogue and a fine account of how field research is done in remote places. Slaght’s writing perfectly captures the sense of this unique place. The Primorye is a land at once forbidding in winter yet inhabited by people determined to live outside of the chaos of city life no matter what gets thrown at them. It is a tough, sometimes violent life, and Slaght’s writing allows us at least a peek into the challenges they face and how they cope. He also works with several determined Russian researchers who are trying to document Russia’s wildlife that are endangered by rapid and unrelenting development in the search for natural resources to exploit. This is a unique place few of us will ever visit, yet Slaght’s prose brings us along with him on every trip to the shores of the frozen rivers and into the snow-clad forests of the Primorye. Best of all, he lets us share in his excitement of hearing and seeing these magnificent owls.

With proper management we’ll always see fish in the rivers here, and we’ll continue to follow tracks of tigers that weave among pine and shadow in search of prey. And, standing in the forest under the right conditions, we’ll hear the salmon hunters too—the fish owls—announcing like town criers that all is well: Primorye is still wild. (p. 310)

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