Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl
By Jonathan C. Slaght. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020, 349 pp. (Kindle Edition)
In an interview published in the Guardian, Jonathan C. Slaght said that if you googled "Blakiston's Fish Owl," his photo would come up. I decided to try it—and there he was, embracing a large, hairy bird, a member of an endangered species that Slaght is doing his best to save. Both of them looked pretty fierce.
Ferocity—or at least a fair amount of toughness—is surely an asset for any animal negotiating the wild region of Russia where Slaght conducted his 5-year Ph.D. research project studying fish owls. The Primorye province, probably best known as home to the Amur tiger, is an area of dense mountains, brutal winters, and dangerous springtimes, when frozen rivers suddenly break up into fast currents.
After watching a deer succumb to the rushing waters, Slaght reflects on the "quiet violence" of the place: "Primeval dichotomies still outlined existence on the Samarga [river]: hungry or satiated, frozen or flowing, living or dead. A slight deviation could tip the scales from one state of being to the other…The line between life and death here could be measured in the thickness of river ice."
Slaght fell in love with the Primorye when he first saw it at the age of 19, and by the start of his research in 2005-6, he was already familiar with the region from subsequent visits and three years residence while in the Peace Corps. But he knew little about fish owls—and, as he tell us, not much about them was known by anyone. His aim was to gather enough data about their lives to create a program that would balance the owls' needs with the needs of the region's 2 million human inhabitants who depend upon fishing and logging—enterprises threatening to the owls' existence.
In this chronicle of Slaght's successive winter visits, we follow his own education, as he learns to identify fish owl tracks, to hear the owl couples' duets (which to the untutored can sound like a single voice), to find their nest trees, and to capture them and attach equipment for tracking. He describes these procedures, along with the frustrations, disappointments, and discomforts of fieldwork, honestly, clearly, and with little melodrama, offering a remarkably vivid picture of what this sort of fieldwork entails.
As you would expect, there is repetition from year to year, and I thought the book was too long, but the author carries the story along well, enlivening it with episodes revealing the "quiet violence" of the place (fire, flooding, extreme cold); with profiles of his co-workers and the colorful people he meets (including a hermit, formerly a KGB informant, who claims that gnomes tickle his feet at night); with playful imagery (the Tengmalm's owl, he says, recalls "a severe-looking cupcake,"—a depiction that photos attest to); and with the activities of the fish owls themselves.
At a time when so many species are in trouble, this book's description of a single team's passionate effort to save one makes it clear how much work is required to prevent extinctions. Has this effort succeeded? In an epilogue, having seen fish owls he worked with nesting again after a horrific typhoon, Slaght ends on a modestly hopeful note. These are resilient birds, he says. They survive catastrophic storms, freezing temperatures, even Ph.D. projects. Vigilance will be needed to protect them, he notes. But this is a species that will "not go down without a fight."