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Author ventures into the Russian wilds to save a magnificent owl

  • August 04, 2020

Yes, there were second thoughts, admits ornithologist Jonathan Slaght as he talks about tracking the world’s largest owl. His interest in the endangered Blakiston’s fish owl took him to remote Russia, where he spent time camping out in 30-below-zero conditions to conduct his research.

“And whenever I would shift a little bit, the condensation from our breath had frozen inside the tent and it would rain down, and I could feel it hit my nose, and I would think ‘what am I doing here?’” he said.

Slaght recounts the experience in his new book “Owls of the Eastern Ice.”

Jonathan Slaught holds tight to a fish owl.

The son of a diplomat, Slaght first visited Russia as a teenager. He learned Russian and later fell in love with the area known as Primorye. It abuts China on the west, and North Korea to its south, with Japan across the sea to its east. It’s covered with dense forests, is home to Siberian tigers, snow leopards and what was to become his obsession, the Blakiston’s fish owl.

“It’s basically eagle-sized,” he said. “So, it’s about the same heft and wingspan as a bald eagle.”

It’s so reclusive very few people ever see them. Slaght says they look like goblins, especially when they are on the ground.

“When you see them walking along they don’t look like birds,” he said.

Slaght saw his first fish owl by chance when he was out for a hike. The bird was hundreds of miles further south than experts believed it lived.

Years later, when Slaght was looking for a Ph.D. project he decided to track the birds to get better data on their range. It was 2005 and Russian lumber companies were eager harvest as much timber as possible, which was bad both for the owls and the long term sustainability of the local economy.

“And so that was really the idea,” said Slaght, “To get a better grasp on what’s happening with this bird, what this bird needs to survive with respect to natural resources, and then develop recommendations for management of those resources in a way that benefits both human needs and the needs of the birds.”

Slaght’s project had to be done in the dead of dangerously cold winters, when the birds pair up and nest. They had to keep an eye open for tigers, bears and wild boar, in a region so remote that having a vehicle breakdown was potentially a fatal problem.

Slaght and his Russian crew had to come up with an efficient way of capturing the owls to fit them with tracking devices. It took several cold, wet months to develop a workable trap. They’d catch owls at night while the birds fished narrow stretches of open water near hot springs.

A fish owl nesting

The crew’s knowledge of fish owl courting behavior helped: mating pairs sing duets which let them know what the owls were doing.

“It’s a four-note call, where the male does the first and the third note. The female slides in with the second and the fourth,” Slaght said. “And it is so synchronized that even people who know birds assume that it’s one bird doing this.”

When Slaght and the crew heard the duets begin, it meant the birds were close to each other and getting ready to hunt. The researchers knew they had minutes to bait their trap with live fish and set it to catch owls the bait attracted. When the duets stopped they had to hide because that meant the owls were about to take to the air.

The crew got really good and collected solid data, which is now being used to try to protect the birds.

A virtual release reading for “Owls of the Eastern Ice” will be hosted at 7 p.m. Tuesday by the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis. The book is a rollicking portrayal of the grandeur of the Russian wilderness and the unique human characters Slaght met there.

Minnesota-based ornithologist and wildlife researcher Jonathan Slaught

He said the book is the product of the stress he was under speaking Russian all the time. He’s extremely fluent, and has translated Russian books into English.

But he found the strain of living and working on a project in Russian a real challenge. To preserve his mental health he set aside an hour each day to write in his journal, in English.

“It was liberating to be able to sit and type what I actually thought for just one hour a day, and then I could also use that to gripe about idiosyncrasies about my team mates. It was cathartic.”

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