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Searching for Elusive Blakiston's Fish Owls in the Ancient Forests of Primorye

Jonathan Slaght ventures into far-east Russia to locate the enormous raptors in this excerpt from his new book 'Owls of the Eastern Ice.'

Blakiston’s Fish Owl is the largest owl in the world, but that doesn’t make it easy to find. The endangered bird is a seldom-seen resident of far-east Asia, but several hundred pairs are thought to survive in the species’ epicenter: the old-growth forests of Primorye, a remote region of Russia that borders the Sea of Japan to the east and China and North Korea to its south. There, in 2000, conservationist and writer Jonathan C. Slaght accidentally flushed one of the elusive birds during a hike with a friend. 

At first, the pair wasn't sure what it was. “It was clearly an owl, but bigger than any I’d seen, about the size of an eagle but fluffier and more portly, with enormous ear tufts,” Slaght writes in his new book Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl. “Backlit by the hazy gray of a winter sky, it seemed almost too big and too comical to be a real bird, as if someone had hastily glued fistfuls of feathers to a yearling bear, then propped the dazed beast in the tree.” Months later, after consulting with experts, he confirmed the bird’s ID: a Blakiston’s Fish Owl. “It turned out that no scientist had seen a Blakiston’s fish owl so far south in a hundred years, and my photographs were evidence that this rare, reclusive species still persisted.

Slaght quickly became captivated by the primeval Primorye and its mysterious fish owls. In 2005, he completed a master’s thesis on the forests’ songbirds, and when it came time for a Ph.D. he decided to study the salmon-eating raptors. “Fish owls were like a beautiful thought I couldn’t quite articulate,” he writes. “They evoked the same wondrous longing as some distant place I’d always wanted to visit but didn’t really know much about.” There was so little known about Blakiston's Fish Owls that in order to study them, he’d have to venture into the wilderness to find them himself. In his new book, published August 4, Slaght blends adventure story with scientific discovery as he brings readers along with his team's four years of expeditions through the forests of Primorye in their search for the birds—vicious hunters, devoted parents, singers of eerie duets, and survivors in a harsh and shrinking habitat.

Excerpted from OWLS OF THE EASTERN ICE: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaght. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2020 by Jonathan C. Slaght. All rights reserved. 

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After a few days in Terney, photographer Tolya Rhzhov and I began to recover from the whirlwind of ice and chaos that had defined our time on the Samarga River. As we waited for our team members to catch up, we occupied ourselves with this unexpected free time by searching the Serebryanka River valley, near Terney, for owls. The Samarga trip had shown me what to focus on when looking for a fish owl—the type of forest, the silvery shimmer of a snagged feather within it, the scrape of a track in the snow by the river, or the tremor of a vocalization at dusk—and I needed to start generating a list of individual owls that I might be able to use in my telemetry study. These would be the owls critical to the third and final phase of the project, capture and data collection, scheduled to start next winter. It was the information we collected from these specific owls that would allow us to create a conservation plan to protect them. However, I had misgivings about how many owls I could expect to find in the Terney area. I’d spent several years birdwatching here in my Peace Corps days and had even accompanied the local ornithologist on his survey routes through the riparian forest of the Serebryanka River valley. It was specifically this kind of habitat—the forests lining the river full of large, water-loving trees such as poplar and elm—that was home to fish owls. But I’d never seen or heard one there. I assumed most of my luck would be farther north in the more remote Amgu area, where I was planning to go in a few weeks, but it made sense to at least look near Terney. I had nothing better to do and could use the practice.

I conducted my searches for owls mostly with Tolya but was occasionally joined by John Goodrich, then the field coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Siberian Tiger Project, based in Terney. John had been in Russia for more than a decade, and I had known him for six years. He thrived in the rustic environment of village life in Terney and had even Russified to some degree, as anyone would after living so long in the country. He wore a traditional fur hat in winter, kept his face strictly clean-shaven, and waited impatiently for the mushroom- and berry-picking seasons to begin. But there was not enough vodka in Russia to fully leach the rural Americana from him. In addition to introducing fly-fishing to Terney, in summer John drove around town in his pickup truck wearing wraparound sunglasses and a sleeveless T-shirt: a vision teleported from the country back roads of the American West.

John was deeply inquisitive when it came to wildlife, and even though he was a tiger researcher, he was eager to assist with fish owl surveys when he had the free time to do so. On an evening in mid-April, lacking any of the recordings from the Samarga River, I mimicked fish owl vocalizations for John’s benefit, including the four-note duet and a two-note call by a single bird that I’d learned from Sergey. I wouldn’t be fooling any fish owls with my crude hoots, but the most important thing to know was the cadence and the deep pitch—nothing else in the forest sounded like it. The common owl there, the Ural Owl, had a higher three-note call, and the other owls likely to be heard in the region—Eurasian Eagle Owl, Collared Scops Owl, Oriental Scops Owl, Brown Hawk Owl, Tengmalm’s Owl, and Northern Pygmy Owl—all had higher and easily recognizable calls. The fish owl was unmistakable. Once John had a good understanding of what to listen for, we headed out. He drove Tolya and me 10 kilometers west of Terney to the confluence of the Serebryanka and Tunsha Rivers. The road split here to follow each river, and the habitat looked perfect for fish owls, with plenty of shallow river channels and large trees. Given the ease of access, this would be a great location for us to study owls, should we be lucky enough to find them.

There wasn’t a lot to initial fish owl surveys like this. We simply drove the dirt roads parallel to rivers and paused to listen for the characteristic calls. We did not need to get too close to the river itself; in fact, it was better if we didn’t, as the rush of flowing water would make it harder to hear anything else. John left Tolya and me by the bridge, then continued some five kilometers farther up the Tunsha. We agreed to meet back at the confluence 45 minutes after dark. I wore a camouflage jacket and pants, more to blend in with the locals than with my surroundings. I walked the dirt road in one direction and Tolya headed in the other. I felt my pocket to make sure I had my hand flare. This was for protection: It was spring and the bears were out. As a foreigner I could not carry a firearm, and bear spray was difficult or impossible to find. Hand flares, designed for distressed Russian sailors and reliably available in Vladivostok, were activated by pulling a string to release a deafening, meter-long pillar of molten fire and smoke that lasted several minutes. In most cases, this shock-and-awe approach was enough to deter any dangerously curious bear or tiger. But if it wasn’t, the flare could also be used as a weapon. John Goodrich had once used one in this way: On his back and pinned by a tiger chewing holes in one hand, John used his other hand to press this knife of fire into the animal’s side. It ran off and he survived.

I’d gone maybe half a kilometer when I heard the duet. It echoed from upriver, in the direction I was walking, a four-note hoot perhaps two kilometers away. This was the closest I’d been to vocalizing fish owls and the clearest duet I had yet heard. The sound rooted me to the spot. Certain noises in the forest—a deer bark, a rifle shot, even a songbird warble—are sonorous eruptions that catch one’s attention immediately. The fish owl duet was different. Breathy, low, and organic, the call pulsed through the forest, hiding among the creaking trees and bending with the rushing river. It was the sound of something ancient and in its place.

A reliable way to pinpoint the location of a distant sound is triangulation, a simple process that requires only a few bits of information and enough time to gather it. In my case I needed a GPS to record where I was when I heard the owl, a compass to note the direction the hoot came from (called a “bearing”), and the time to collect multiple bearings before the owls stopped calling or moved. Later, on a map, I could plot my locations with the GPS points and use a ruler to draw a line to follow each respective bearing. Where these lines intersected was the general location the owl had been calling from. In principle, three bearings are often considered the minimum number needed, putting the sought-after location within a triangle of space formed where the bearings cross (hence “triangulation”).

I had to work fast: breeding fish owls often start their duets at the nest but soon move off to hunt. If I could gather three bearings, I’d have a good chance of finding the nest tree. I took a quick bearing, recorded my location with my GPS, and ran up the road. A few hundred meters up the dirt track I stopped short, heart pounding, and listened again. Another duet. I took another compass bearing and GPS location, then ran some more. By the time I reached a third location, the birds were quiet. I waited longer, ears straining, but the forest was still. I finally understood how I had been living in Terney near fish owls for so long and hadn’t registered their presence: I had to be outside at just the right time under just the right conditions. Given how the duet folds into other sounds, if there had been some wind or even someone talking nearby, I might have missed it.

I was heartened by my two bearings. Depending on their accuracy, they might lead me to a nest tree. I waited a little longer for another vocalization, which did not come, then backtracked along the road, gravel crunching underfoot as I walked in the dark, elated. Tolya and John both wore their own smiles, as both reported hearing owls. The birds Tolya detected were certainly the same Serebryanka pair I had heard, based on his descriptions, but the owls John had heard were different: He had heard a duet from the opposite direction. My list of potential study animals had, in the course of an hour, gone from zero to four birds. The fact that we heard pairs, not just single birds, was most encouraging. A single bird might be a transient, but pairs were territorial. These were owls we could possibly catch and study next year.

That night, I plotted my bearings on a map, then entered the coordinates of their intersecting lines into my GPS. The next morning, Tolya and I drove the dusty and potholed road back to the Serebryanka River to follow the gray arrow on my GPS wherever it might lead. Progress was soon blocked by the wide, fast-flowing river, which we had not reached the night before. The owls must have called from the far side of it. We wrestled into our hip waders and approached the main channel of the Serebryanka, which was about 30 meters across. Both upriver and downriver the water was too deep to wade across, but here it was not, varying in depth between the knee and the waist, clear water rushing over a substrate of smooth, fist-sized stones and smaller pebbles.

In Primorye, a river even only knee-deep can deceive the uninitiated into the expectation of an easy crossing—the Serebryanka’s current, like those of the Samarga and other coastal waterways here, can be formidable. Its swiftness manhandled us as we waded through it. Pebbles eroded underfoot if we paused too long in one place to scout the course forward. Once we had reached the far bank, we found ourselves among a network of small islands interlaced by lesser channels; covered by lush, old-growth forest of pine, poplar, and elm; and fringed in the most flood-prone areas by curtains of willow. The GPS led us to the largest of these islands, one encircled by lazy backwaters more swamp than stream, its upland dominated by a grove of colossal poplars rising from a bed of shrubs tangled among the decaying remains of their wind-fallen brethren. My binoculars scanned from one gaping cavity to the next among them; the number of potential nests was almost overwhelming. At the center of these gangly trees stood a graceful pine, like a belle surrounded by intimidated suitors. It was a robust and healthy beauty with a stout trunk of red bark that rose and then disappeared under a green skirt of branches. There, clinging to a bough, I saw a fish owl feather trembling in the imperceptible breeze.

I waved to attract Tolya’s attention, and we walked toward the pine, transfixed. Although its dense branches should have shielded the tree’s base from the elements, there was something underneath that blended with the surrounding and melting snow. This was the carpeted whitewash of fish owl excrement—a lot of it—intermingled with the bones of past prey. We’d found a roost tree. Fish owls prefer roosting in conifers like this pine, a place that provides some shade during the day when they sleep and protection from wind, snow, and the attention of roaming crows eager to harass. I saw instantly that fish owl pellets were unique: these were not the gray, sausage-like regurgitations that other owls produce. As most owl species eat mammals, their pellets are made of bone wrapped in a tight package of fur. When a fish owl regurgitates the indigestible remains of its prey, however, there is nothing to keep the bundle of bones together. They were pellets in name only.

Roused by our find, Tolya and I gave each other the Russian version of a high five, which was a handshake. Fish owls do not use habitual roosts as reliably as some other owl species, and to find one so well used was a rarity indeed. However, a roost was also a strong indication that a nest tree was nearby; when the female sits on the nest, the male is usually somewhere close to guard her. We spent the rest of the morning craning our necks at the cavities high above, all cavernous and ranging in height from 10 to 15 meters, looking—without luck—for some clue of which tree might hold a fish owl nest. We had stumbled upon a secret place for these fish owls, well protected from prying eyes among the river islands and the swamp.

OWLS OF THE EASTERN ICE: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl, by Jonathan C. Slaght, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pages, $28. Buy it online at Macmillan.

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