Jonathan Slaght’s book, “Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl,” had been printed four times in mid-December and local bookstores still couldn’t keep it in stock. Why is a book about the study of owls in the Russian Far East, one of the wildest places on the planet, so popular with readers, including me?
Maybe because it’s a fascinating mysterious story (will they find enough of these top secret owls to study) and an adventure tale full of weird and fascinating Russian characters. It is set in a place of amazing beauty and ruggedness, with dangers around every corner in a remote ancient forest. And it’s the story of a fearless young wildlife biologist determined to save one of the world’s rarest owls.
The Blakiston’s owl is an endangered species that few of us have heard of and even fewer will see. Slaght (rhymes with “cat”) describes them as one of the most charismatic and enigmatic owls in the world. Their stronghold is in the forests of Primorye province adjacent to the Russian Pacific coast and there were few studies to draw on when he decided to focus his postgraduate work on ‘ice owls’. .
How big are these owls? Their wingspan is similar to that of a bald eagle, about 6 feet in diameter. They are as big as a fire hydrant, and Slaght sometimes mistook an owl in a tree for a small bear. These large birds have a disheveled look, with their long, loose feathers needed for the extreme cold.
“It’s a challenge to study,” Slaght says. “You have to be prepared to spend a lot of time in the woods at minus 30 degrees.” Winter is the best time to locate owl fish, as when they can be found, it is usually near an opening in the ice of a river, where a pair of owls will dot a territory. They spend much of the night standing on ice or perched low on a branch, waiting to pounce on salmon or trout.
I was amazed to read that Slaght and his colleagues would sometimes follow owl tracks along a frozen river to find his fishing hole – the idea of following a raptor is mind boggling. The first year of the study drove researchers to desperation as they tried to locate enough owls to study. Learning how to trap the owls was another major obstacle, but eventually they were able to attach radio telemetry devices to a number of them. This helped identify areas used by owls, information that has guided logging companies to preserve the huge trees that owls need for nesting.
Along the way, researchers endured snowstorms, broken equipment, local residents hungry for a night of alcohol-fueled drinking, unsanitary living conditions and even a hermit who could have fled Russian authorities. . Slaght takes everything into account – the weather, the human figures, the charismatic owls, the Spartan regime – with a puzzled demeanor.
“I’m not an adventure junkie,” he says, “but I like being in wild places with few people, where nature is in control.”
Slaght works for the Wildlife Conservation Society, headquartered in New York City. He’s stuck at a desk at his home in Minneapolis these days, writing grant applications, but he goes on the road for two to three months every year. With the exception of this last COVID year, it comes back to Primorye every year. The scarcity of nesting sites is a limiting factor for all cavity-nesting species. The owl team therefore set up nesting boxes near the rivers of the province. These are basically 55 gallon barrels of soybeans, an approach that saved the owlfish subspecies in Japan.
Slaght thought he would write just one book and then move on, and he seems a little stunned at how deeply this one resonates with readers. Since he has more stories to tell, he plans more books.
Here are some free tips for its publisher: Whatever book Jonathan Slaght writes next, print plenty of copies.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at [email protected]
Jonathan Slaght’s “Owls of the Eastern Ice” was nominated for the National Book Award’s Long List for 2020 and was named New York Times Notable Book of 2020. The Wall Street Journal placed Slaght’s book on its list of 10 best books of 2020 and it was included as Times Nature Book of the Year for 2020.
More on fish owls
To learn more about fish owls, check out the Blakiston’s Fish Owl Project website, fishowls.com, or search for the bird’s name on Google.
Oriental ice cream owls
By: Jonathan C. Slaght.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 368 pages, $ 28.