Review: 'Owls of the Eastern Ice,' by Jonathan C. Slaght

©Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

“"Owls of the Eastern Ice" by Jonathan C. Slaght. - Penguin Random House/Penguin Random House/TNS

“Owls of the Eastern Ice” by Jonathan C. Slaght; Farrar, Straus & Giroux (368 pages, $28)

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Jonathan C. Slaght had seen just one rare Blakiston’s fish owl in his life — and that one completely by chance — before rashly deciding that he would spend five years studying the elusive bird.

In 2005, Slaght had earned a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota, tracking the effect of logging on songbirds in the remote Primorye region of far Eastern Russia. Slaght, who had also spent time in Primorye as a Peace Corps volunteer, hoped to return there for his doctoral research.

For his doctorate, he was torn between studying hooded cranes, and fish owls. It was the terrain, really, that was the decider. Larch bogs — crane habitat — were hot and buggy.

Fish owls, on the other hand, lived along rivers that cut through dense forests where Amur tigers and Asiatic black bears also lived. Much better! Fish owls it was. All he had to do now was, well, find them.

“Owls of the Eastern Ice,” Slaght’s narrative of the five winters he spent in Primorye, is an absolute marvel of a book. Part science narrative, part memoir, part adventure story, it is captivating, thrilling and beautifully written.

The largest owl in the world, the Blakiston’s fish owl is both rare and endangered. It is the size, he notes, of a fire hydrant. With its small head and football body, it looks, Slaght writes, “too comical to be a real bird, as if someone had hastily glued fistfuls of feathers to a yearling bear.”

He describes the owl as “a defiant, floppy goblin” and, later, says that a pair looks like “feathered golems.” A juvenile fish owl is “a small gray sack of potatoes.” Clearly, Slaght is very fond of these strange birds.

The time to study the nesting habits of these owls is in late winter and early spring, and so, equipped with bulky old Soviet snowmobiles, cross-country skis and snowshoes, Slaght and Russians Tolya Ryzhov and Sergei Avdeyuk headed into the wilderness.

The plan for the first year was to find where the owls nested and observe their behavior; subsequent years would have them trapping the birds, attaching trackers to them, releasing them, and collecting and analyzing data.

Things, of course, did not work out exactly as planned, at least not immediately. Simply finding the owls took far more time than they had anticipated, slogging through deep snow, listening for the calls, walking the riverbanks and searching for the owls’ distinctive K-shaped footprints.

Slaght’s book abounds with vivid descriptions, colorful characters — Russian scientists, researchers and woodsy hermits — and death-defying adventures.

In what is perhaps the book’s most breathless scene, he and the Russians head out by snowmobile in early April, traversing a rapidly melting river.

“I heard a sudden, sharp crack reverberate behind us,” he writes. “I looked back. A broad sheet of ice in between our snowmobile and Tolya’s had separated from the rest of the river ice, darkening as water spread across it. … ‘You need to move now!’ screamed Sergei. … We continued on … skirting holes that had once been trail, and watching the river devour ice in our wake.”

Slaght is a terrific, thoughtful writer, and he tells his story well, with cliffhangers and drama, careful scientific observation and a dash of humor and humility.

The work is hard and often frustrating. The men spend a lot of time cold and wet, waist-deep in snow, or sloshing through rivers that fill their waders with icy water. They are on the schedule of the owls, and much time is spent simply waiting, awake all night, shivering in a tent or a blind, listening for an owl pair’s duet.

When the five years was up and it was time to head back to Minnesota for good, Slaght felt both loss and pride. “The finality of it all saddened me,” he wrote. “But I also felt invigorated: we had data, information that should help save the species.”

Fish owls, Slaght says, are symbols of the wilderness. And in years to come, “Standing in the forest under the right conditions, we’ll hear the salmon hunters — the fish owls — announcing like town criers that all is well: Primorye is still wild.”

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©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

"Owls of the Eastern Ice" by Jonathan C. Slaght. - Penguin Random House/Penguin Random House/TNS