In the primeval and largely untouched forests of Primorye, near the borders of Russia, China and North Korea, there lives a rare bird with a two-metre wingspan called the Blakiston’s fish owl. There are probably fewer than 2,000 of them worldwide. The Russian ones are legally protected, but only 19 per cent of their Primorye habitat can say the same. Another 43 per cent is now leased out to modern logging companies.
Active conservation efforts have been thus far hampered by a lack of information. Few Russians have ever seen a fish owl (the first nest was not discovered until 1971), and there is little to no scientific literature on them. In 2006, then-postgrad biologist Jonathan Slaght and his experienced field assistants realised they didn’t even know how to sex the animals. ‘We were largely starting from scratch,’ he laments – before committing the four years of his PhD to learning about them, finding them and ultimately tagging some for tracking purposes.
Bird-spotting this is not. Primorye is ‘a place where winds howl through the funnelled valley, bears are more common than people, and help is on the other side of a mountain.’ In winter, temperatures routinely descend below -30ºC.
The owls are easily ‘flushed’ by the approach of humans, so even without incident, Slaght’s work is cold, dark, and often silent. This is a seriously committed lifestyle, if only for the few months of the year between the depths of winter and the full onset of spring melt. Throw in the friendly neighbourhood alcoholics, the barter economy, breakdowns, tigers, an assistant with a urine fetish, a village called ‘Hell’, storms, suspicious former Soviets, kit malfunctions, North Korea, and a man who lost a testicle to a fish owl, and you’ve got yourself ‘a trifle on paper but an ordeal in reality’.
Just as well, for reading purposes, as we are some way into the book before Slaght locates a fish owl, let alone catches one. But the picture comes together as his (re)search progresses. With its well-paced, engaging narrative, Owls of the Eastern Ice is an entertaining memoir of an extraordinary type of fieldwork, as well as an informative and much-needed voice for the fish owl. Slaght describes the whole adventure as the ‘application of persistent pressure to a question until the answer finally emerges’. Modestly, he omits to mention that one also needs a highly publishable write-up.