‘Owls of the Eastern Ice’ by Jonathan C. Slaght

Dear Readers, it isn’t often that I start to rave about a book before I’ve even finished it, but I am enjoying ‘Owls of the Eastern Ice’ so much that I wanted to share it with you right this minute. The author, Jonathan C. Slaght, spent four seasons trying to find the world’s largest owl, Blakiston’s fish owl (Bubo blakistonii), in order to work out a conservation strategy. His first encounter with the bird was in 2000 in Primorye, in the far north east of Russia. He describes the bird, which stands up to 28 inches tall and has a maximum wingspan of over 6 feet, thus:

…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 into a tree’.

Blakiston’s fish owl (Public Domain)

The bird’s limited range includes Japan, where it is viewed as a divine being – ‘Kotan koru Kamuy (God that Protects the Village)’. Its population in this country is still only 100-150 birds, but the numbers seem to be recovering slowly. In Primorye, where Slaght is surveying, it’s estimated that there are 200-400 birds, but they are shot by trappers, caught in hunting snares and fishing nets. Furthermore, the whole area is being eyed up by logging companies. It’s clear to Slaght that he needs to find out where the birds are and come up with some kind of plan for protected areas while there are still owls left.

It is clear that Slaght is almost monomaniacal in his readiness to suffer all kinds of privation in his pursuit of the owl. Primorye is not an easy area to work in at the best of times, but his familiarity with how to work in this part of the world helps. As he waits to board a helicopter that will take him to the village of Agzu, where his mission will start, he follows a well-honed routine to make sure that he’s able to find a seat on the over-crowded chopper:

‘I positioned myself behind a stout older woman: experience showed that my best chance of securing a bus seat was by tailing such a person, a technique not unlike following an ambulance through traffic, and I assumed this rule held for helicopters as well’.

Not that I am advocating tailgating an ambulance obviously, but there is much to be said for observing the elders of any community, who usually know exactly what to do in these situations.

When Slaght arrives, it’s clear that the accommodation is going to be, well, basic:

‘I breathed in frigid, stale air, heavy with the stench of wood smoke and cigarettes. The building had remained sealed and unheated inside since its owner had left for the forest, and the cold could suppress only so much of the room’s acquired aroma. Bits of plaster from the crumbling walls littered the floor and mixed with crushed cigarette butts and spent tea bags around the woodstove.

And then there’s the vodka. Local custom has it that if a bottle of vodka is put on the table, no one is allowed to leave until it’s empty. Whilst Slaght is a self-confessed lightweight on the drinking front, he can hold his own on that other test of masculinity, the banya, or sauna.

‘Chepelev eyed me carefully throughout the experience; he appeared to expect me to balk at the intense heat or somehow mishandle the ritual. As I emerged naked and steaming onto the banya’s icy porch, I could sense him still watching me, perhaps surprised that I had made it that far without complaint or capitulation. Had I been alone, at this point I would have stood silently enjoying the quiet of the night and my temporary inperviousness to the deep cold, but instead I scooped up handfuls of snow and rubbed them vigorously on my face, neck and chest. When I finished, Chepelev was nodding his approval.’

Now, lest you think that our author is setting himself up as some kind of James Bond figure, be reassured that he is a much more modest companion that this incident makes him seem. He is forever getting soaked to the skin in melting ice-water, fails to notice the signs of the fish owl at first, and is aware of how much he is reliant on the Russian guides and naturalists who are working with him. He is able to conjure a real sense of the strangeness of this place, the harshness of it and also the beauty. He watches as a roe deer, pursued by one of the local hunting dogs, jumps into the river, and is carried away under the ice:

‘From my low vantage point among the roots, I could see only the deer’s head – snout held high and nostrils flared-bobbing above the clean line of the river surface. The deer pushed briefly against the flow and then succumbed to it, drifting like a rudderless boat, then disappearing from view at the downstream lip of the ice…..I returned to my tree hole, stunned by the quiet violence of this place‘.

Well, it turns out that, as expected, the owls are not easy to find. They make nests in the enormous trees of the forest (another reason to be worried about logging), but these can sometimes only be spotted by a stray feather, or by the guano on the ground, which is buried by snow in the winter. The birds themselves are extremely elusive, the only sight of one usually being its enormous backside as it disappears through the trees. But they do have a very distinctive, deep, call – two notes for an individual, four notes when a male and female duet together (much as tawny owls do). I was so intrigued by Slaght’s description of the call that I had to seek out a recording for you, though you’ll have to wait patiently for the owls to call. Just pretend you’re in a Russian forest 🙂

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‘.

Blakiston’s Fish Owl duet (Audio One)
Single owl calling (Audio Two).

I think the single owl sounds rather like Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’. See what you think.

And so, with 28% of the book read, Slaght has found a nesting tree, has heard owls duetting, and has finally found an owl sitting on the nest. But for his efforts to succeed, he will need to find and capture owls so that their condition can be assessed. I have no idea if they plan to radio track the birds, and wait with some eagerness to see.

‘Owls of the Eastern Ice’ seems to me to be a perfect lockdown book, especially with winter coming on. I can’t travel, but Slaght takes me to a part of the world that I doubt I’ll ever see. He suffers all manner of physical deprivations, while I can take it all in from the comfort of an armchair with a mug of hot chocolate next to me. And I am learning about these magnificent birds almost by default, absorbing all kinds of facts. Who knew, for example, that the ‘pellet’ of a fish owl is more or less made up of bones, unlike the furry offerings of owls who feed on mammalian prey? Or that they largely hunt by wading in the water or perching on a branch, rather than diving from a height like ospreys? All in all a fascinating read, about the long, hard, patient work of a field conservationist, the people that Slaght meets and, above all, about the Primorye forest and its enigmatic fish owl.

Photo One by By Julie Edgley - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76607107
Japanese Blakiston’s fish owl flying off with a fish to give to its mate (Photo One)

Photo and Audio Credits

Photo One By Julie Edgley – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76607107

Audio One by Frank Lambert, from https://www.xeno-canto.org/155634

Audio Two by Jacob Herve at https://www.xeno-canto.org/424566

7 thoughts on “‘Owls of the Eastern Ice’ by Jonathan C. Slaght

  1. K.E.S.

    I don’t want to lower the tone, but the reference to owl calls reminded me of a bit of urban whimsy reported in one of the broadsheets decades ago, so it must be true. A woman attending a party in the same street told another woman that her husband liked to go out into the garden at night to call out to the owl, who sometimes replied. The other woman said her husband liked doing the same thing. Then the penny dropped.


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