Camping in Siberia: On the trail of the world’s largest owl

American biologist Jonathan C. Slaght joins Russian ornithologists in studying the habitat of the endangered Blakiston’s fish owl.

Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers
“Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl” by Jonathan C. Slaght, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 348 pp.

In Russia’s far east, a land of frozen rivers and towering forests, an American biologist pushes his way through hip-high snow in search of the world’s largest living species of owl. He stops, listening to the duet of a pair Blakiston’s fish owls. Their call is a low-frequency rumbling, he writes, one that seems to come from the forest itself. It’s a sound that is easy to miss if there are other distractions, such as wind rustling through leaves, or slush running down an otherwise frozen river, or Russian logging trucks tearing down another path into the birds’ habitat.

It is a sound Jonathan Slaght had strained to hear for years, ever since he first visited the Primorye wilderness in his late teens, accompanying his father on a business trip. As he writes in “Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl,” he fell in love immediately with the dramatic ridges and low valleys of this Russian frontierland – and its mysterious, elusive birds. 

“For me, fish owls were like a beautiful thought I couldn’t quite articulate,” he writes. “They evoked the same wonderous longing as some distant place I’d always wanted to visit but didn’t really know much about.”

For the next decade and beyond, Slaght chased this thought. He spent three years in Primorye in the Peace Corps, and then returned as a PhD student from the University of Minnesota. His goal, he writes, was to better understand the owls’ habitats so he and others could help guide conservation efforts in the face of increasing resource extraction in the region. Although fish owls are an endangered species and protected by Russian law, it was impossible to develop a conservation plan without knowing what the birds actually needed to survive.

And so, with a collection of eccentric field assistants, a variety of snow-ready (and occasionally duct-taped) vehicles, and a willingness to follow wherever tracks led, Slaght delved into the wilderness.

“It was one thing to sit comfortably ... and talk about finding fish owls,” he writes, but “the reality of the process – the cold and the darkness and the silence – was another thing entirely.”

Indeed, in Slaght’s capable hands, the scientist-as-adventurer narrative brings readers into a strange land. There, ornithologists find lodging deep in remote cabins with spies-turned-hermits, they float trucks across rapids, and they snowmobile across frozen rivers already dangerously scarred by melting slush. He and his fellow scientists are stranded on riverbanks, in snow drifts, and rough border towns; they face failures and frostbite. But they also, slowly, discover critical information about the fish owl.

It is this portrait of scientific research, as much as the story of the search for one fragile species, that centers “Owls of the Eastern Ice.” Slaght’s book does not end in any great dramatic revelation or climax. But readers will appreciate the dedication that such research takes, the kind of single-mindedness that once led a graduate student to spend months in a frigid sleeping bag, watching a tree where he believed there might be an owl.

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