The bird above with piercing yellow eyes is a Blakiston’s fish owl. It’s the largest owl species in the world, crashing through branches as it flies, nesting in massive and ancient trees.
It is also endangered. Fish owls eat fish, mainly salmon, year-round, and frogs when they can’t get fish, so they need rivers as well as old-growth trees. Their habitat is threatened by logging and fishing, poaching and roads and dams. It’s believed there are fewer than 1,000 pairs of Blakiston’s fish owls in the wild, and almost none of the birds in zoos.
Jonathan Slaght, the Russia and Northeast Asia coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society, saw his first fish owl in his early 20s. He has been their champion ever since. At the time, Slaght was serving in the Peace Corps in Primorye, a province in Russia’s Far East. The quick pictures he snapped were proof that fish owls were still there. No scientist had seen one so far south in 100 years.
Most of Primorye is pristine and wild. It’s a place Slaght has been enchanted with since he saw it from the air during a trip with his father, a U.S. diplomat, as a teenager.
“I saw the sun glinting off a sea of rolling green mountains, lush, thick, and unbroken,” he would later write. “Dramatic ridges rose high, then dropped into low valleys … I saw no villages, no roads, and no people.”
Five years of fieldwork, and the birth of a book
Slaght’s love of Primorye and his fascination with fish owls, a bird he once described as “a beautiful thought I couldn’t quite articulate,” combined to set his course.
For five years, he studied fish owls, spending months each year doing fieldwork in Primorye. Most were during the frigid winters, when the owls, who are experts at hiding despite their size, left K-shaped tracks in the snow. He made fish owls the subject of his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and funded his fieldwork with grants.
In Primorye, Slaght worked with Russian field assistants. They lived together, three at a time, in a two-room apartment built on the back of a Russian GAZ-66 flatbed truck equipped with a wood stove, but not a bathroom. At other times, they camped or stayed in remote cabins. It wasn’t glamorous and it was often dangerous – Primorye is also home to Amur tigers, grizzly bears and shady characters – but Slaght couldn’t wait to return, year after year.
He kept a detailed field journal and did a lot of writing in the GAZ-66.
“One of the reasons I started writing the field journal was being able to have a half-hour, forty minutes, or an hour each day to sit in the corner of the truck, put in earplugs and express myself in English,” he said in conversation earlier this week. “The other 23 hours of the day were me with my fourth-grade Russian. I derived immense pleasure from trying to say things in the most specific way that I could, using the English language.”
His writing went beyond field notes. “It wasn’t all science. It was interactions with weird characters. They were censored a little bit. I didn’t say everything.”
Slaght also took a lot of photographs. “That became extremely helpful in being able to describe things. My notes would say, ‘I went to Vova’s cabin.’ I’d go to my photos and here’s a picture of what it looks like inside Vova’s cabin.”
By 2016, a draft of a book based on his field notes was in the hands of a literary agent. In 2017, he signed with Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the U.S. and Penguin in the U.K.
“Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl” will be released Tuesday, Aug. 4. The Museum of Russian Art will host the official virtual book launch. If we weren’t in a pandemic, we could gather at TMORA, shake hands with Slaght, buy a book and have him sign it. But there is one benefit to a Zoom. People in Russia have registered. This could go global.
That fact is causing some anxiety for the author. “I have several book talks planned,” Slaght said. “I’m definitely getting greater geographical reach. I feel I need to have a couple of different talks now instead of saying the exact same thing with the same punchline. What if there’s someone sitting there thinking, ‘Uhhh, he told that joke in Tucson’?”
Rivers of vodka and the slog of scientific research
There’s no shortage of stories for Slaght to choose from. The book is populated with colorful characters like Andrey Katkov, who regularly drives off the road, and Shurik Popov, who climbs trees in his stocking feet, looking for fish owl nests. Anatoliy, a hermit with idiosyncrasies, proves to be a generous and welcoming host, sharing his cabin with Slaght and his team. Viktor Chepelev also shares his cabin – and sleeps in a plywood pyramid for “energy.”
Slaght writes of fires and floods and stampeding boars. A really disgusting bug that climbs off a fish owl and into Slaght’s beard. (Even he calls that “a horrifying experience.”) And vodka. Rivers of vodka. When someone brings out a bottle of vodka, the rule is to drink it all. Often, vodka bottles in Russia don’t have caps, just thin sheets of aluminum over the top, because once the bottle has been opened, a cap won’t be needed.
But the heart of the book is the secretive, elusive, scruffy-looking fish owl, and Slaght’s intent to craft a conservation plan to help ensure its survival. To do this, he must learn what the bird needs to survive. He must find fish owls, trap them, tag them, fit them with tracking technology, release them, trace their movements, study the data, and return again and again. He must plan and wait and fail and start over.
Slaght is probably the first person ever to write about handling a wild adult fish owl. While the book is an adventure story, it’s also a realistic look at the slog of scientific research.
“When I give talks at universities, I try not to glamorize the fieldwork,” Slaght said, “so these kids who are thinking about degrees in wildlife understand that it’s not all catching bears and staring at waterfalls. There’s a lot of inconvenience, a lot of discomfort. For me, that was important to get across. So people don’t read the book and say, ‘Now I’m going to go save salamanders!’ and then are sitting in a downpour in Tennessee, cursing the day they read my book.”
Rave reviews and humility
The book has earned rave reviews from readers, including Helen Macdonald, author of the New York Times best-seller “H is for Hawk.” For the Guardian, she wrote, “‘Owls of the Eastern Ice’ reads like a modern-day grail quest: a tale of one man’s travels through a daunting landscape of snow and ice and radioactive rivers, searching for an animal that seems all ghost.” Before, Macdonald didn’t really get owls, but “this book has changed me. I have become an ardent fan.”
What was the hardest part about writing this book? “Writing about myself,” Slaght said. “I consider myself a private person. I don’t like telling people my birthday. I think that’s too much. During revisions, I’d get comments from my editor, like ‘How do you feel? Put your emotions in here.’ It made me uncomfortable to do that, to be honest. I think it makes it a better book, but there was some discomfort on my end from revealing even little details.”
Slaght can live in a forest for months, ford freezing rivers in waders, push trucks out of snow, track tigers (not in this book, but in his other work as a wildlife biologist), and – this really happens – pull an adult deer at risk of drowning from a river by its antlers. But he doesn’t portray himself as a hero or a he-man. He took inspiration from Russian explorer and naturalist Vladimir Arsenyev, who explored Primorye more than 100 years ago and whose book, “Across the Ussuri Kray,” he translated.
“I felt there were some parallels between us – wandering off in the woods and being honest about our capabilities. He got lost all the time, and he would say, ‘I got lost, it was terrible and these guys came and saved me.’ I tried to be very cognizant of that, in writing a story that was also speaking for Sergey Avdeyuk and Shurik Popov and Andrey Katkov. I wanted to make sure to keep my role in the story as accurate as possible. There are many times when Sergey Avdeyuk was in charge. He would make the right decisions. I didn’t get stuck somewhere because he knew what to do.”
What was the easiest part about writing this book? Slaght replied, “It’s kind of the opposite of what I said before. Describing how I feel when I see a fish owl. I feel like it’s so wondrous. Even now, I almost never see them. They’re so good at hiding from people. Every time I see them, it’s almost like the first time. It’s just … awe. How big they are. How can that be a real bird? It’s easy and fun for me to describe how I feel around a fish owl. Everything about them is so compelling.”
The safest place on the planet?
Slaght planned to return to Primorye this spring, but COVID-19 put a stop to his travels. “In early March, I went up to Alaska. I was supposed to go to China at the end of March, South Korea in April, then Primorye. I went to none of those places.” He turned an upstairs closet into a home office.
He worries about funds being available to continue his work. He worries about the Columbus Zoo, which has supported fish owl research since 2008, and the Bronx Zoo, where the Wildlife Conservation Society has its offices, and the Minnesota Zoo, where the sea otters require fresh seafood. “It’s really important to get those doors open in a safe way and bring a little money back,” he said.
He misses Primorye. “One of my motivations is to put a spotlight on this area and show people what a magical place it is. I feel like the area has tremendous potential for something like ecotourism, done in a way that benefits everyone. These are really small villages, and their economies are relatively poor, but they’re surrounded by a wealth of nature.”
In late April, walking through his Minneapolis neighborhood, Slaght thought of the fieldwork being done without him by men he calls his friends. “Ironically,” he wrote later, “even with bears coming out of hibernation, Amur tigers on the prowl, and no help in case they get in trouble, they are in possibly one of the safest places in the world right now. It’s a natural form of extreme social distancing.”
The virtual book launch for “Owls of the Eastern Ice” will take place Tuesday, Aug. 4, from 7-8:30 p.m. It will include a short presentation about fish owls and a conversation between Slaght and Star Tribune books editor Laurie Hertzel. Free. Register here. Signed copies of the book are available from Moon Palace Books.