Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan Slaght

Blakiston’s Fish Owl (Bubo blakistoni)

During the holidays I read “Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl” by Jonathan Slaght. The University of Minnesota scientist describes his doctoral research of Blakiston’s Fish Owl in far eastern Russia. When I was living in Japan I became interested in Kamchatka, Sakhalin Island and the region north of Vladivostok. Slaght spent 3 winters capturing and tracking fish owls in the Primoye province of Russia.

Blakiston’s Fish Owl as the title states, is the world’s largest owl species. They are found along rivers in northern Japan, Russia and perhaps in China as well. Due to logging and overfishing, they are endangered in Russia and the goal of Slaght’s research was to understand their needs and to preserve their habitat. It is quite difficult to study these birds. They are nocturnal and can only be captured during the winter when there is limited river hunting areas. The deep snow, cold temperatures, lack of infrastructure and generally hard culture of far eastern Russia made for gripping reading. Slaght endured a lot of get the information he needed. Slaght and his team of local researchers find the owls through listening for a low tone duet call between male and female owls around sunset. The owls need old growth, hollow trees near a river to nest so they would first scout suitable areas. They were quite ingenious in figuring out how to find and catch and release these secretive owls.

They discovered fish owls are most likely to be found in valley forests close to multi-channeled rivers and they stayed near areas where rivers didn’t freeze year-round. Their average home range was about 15 square kilometers. In the winter, they stayed close to these ice-free areas (7 square kilometers) and in the autumn, they would follow the migrating fish and expanded their range to 25 square kilometers.

Protecting their habitat is the big challenge to overcome to protect them. The 800 or so pairs of fish owls in Russia live in the flat, river valleys where logging companies, fishermen and hunters build roads. It was good to hear that Slaght was able to work with logging companies to limit the amount of roads and bridges they made. I would love someday to visit the Sikohte-Alin Biosphere Reserve where much of his research was focused.

The contrast of the fate of the fish owls in Japan and Russia was also interesting. In the early 1980s Japan, the fish owls were reduced to less than 100 birds, down from 500 breeding pairs in 1900 due to logging and hydroelectric dams stopping salmon migration up rivers. The government stepped in to protect them, including artificially feeding them in stocked ponds. Because of the small population and Soviet inertia, the fish owl was not threatened in Russia until much more recently. Hopefully, Slaght’s research will help preserve them in Russia.

I highly recommend this book. It took me away from Tashkent and reading of Slaght’s adventures during cold, winter evenings brought me much pleasure.