Owls of the Eastern Ice

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.
$28, 368 pages. Available here.


JONATHAN SLAGHT, a modern-day knight-errant, adventures deep into the forests of the Russian Far East and returns with a magnetic account of conservation science wrapped in a literary thriller. From the first paragraph of this propulsive narrative, Slaght chronicles his years-long campaign in Primorye, Russia, where he studies the endangered Blakiston’s fish owl, a sixto ten-pound magisterial behemoth of a raptor that feeds solely on fish.

Slaght’s main mission is to formulate conservation guidelines that may save the uncommon species from loss: of the enormous, damaged but still standing trees it requires for nesting and of the highly particular waters that provide its food. (The owls hunt only rivers that don’t freeze over, and the region’s radon springs work perfectly for the purpose.) The dreadful enemy is usually the same in any tale recounting the quest to save a rare animal: humans in general, with our penchant for decapitating habitats.

The first fish owl specimen was collected in 1883 in Japan, the first Russian nest discovered in 1971. (The birds on Hokkaido, a few hundred miles across the Sea of Japan, are now protected.) Ten years later, Russia had only an estimated three to four hundred pairs.

Slaght began his study of them for his doctoral dissertation in 2006. He was starting from scratch—he had never even heard the singular duet a mating pair exchanges on the winter air, “so synchronized that many people, hearing a fish owl pair vocalize, assume it is one bird,” until well after he had committed his career to the fate of the birds. He and his colleagues learn through trial and error which capture methods work best, and where and in what types of tree nests are likely to be made.

It is, of course, the error part that makes for the most beguiling reading, and Slaght does not stint on suspense: Will he survive successive nights in cramped quarters with the assistant who snores with Shakespearean expressivity? Will their snowmobile make it over suddenly melting ice, which risks trapping them for what might as well be forever? Why does a transmitter stop working—is the owl in danger? Will the new and expensive GPS units that replace the transmitters give up their secrets after a year of waiting to find out? And what did he eat at a hunter’s cabin that made it necessary to brave the latrine in the middle of the night in Amur tiger country?

By his fifth year in this wild outback, after many perils, Slaght attains harmony with his work, and with this feathered other. In the Serebryanka River Valley, the place he feels most at home away from home, he is able to give himself fully to the joy of seamless being. He settles into the meditative pleasure of deep observation, the art that cannot be improved upon, neither with technology nor stopwatch or calculator. He is content with knowing “all I needed was patience and fish, and the rest would take care of itself.”

The subgenre to which the book belongs is the well-worked search-for-the-last-of-the-species, an automatic thriller. This is not to say the category is cheap. Rather, it’s been made unfortunately timeless, credibly bearing reiteration until the end of Earth. The tension is built in to the premise of trying to save an animal whose misfortune is to live in a region rich in desirable resources. In Primorye, that’s salmon, timber, fur-bearing animals, and deer. We know what the odds are in a tale of this type, and they’re rarely good. Because we are the odds.

After his last season in the field, in 2010, Slaght saw photographic proof that the most studied owl of his group of individuals, tagged and followed for years, had been killed by a car on a recently widened road. Although Slaght takes pains to be optimistic—his career as Russia and Northeast Asia Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society is essentially predicated on hope—he admits the “threats to fish owls in Primorye could all be linked by a single common denominator: roads.” Once built, roads are rarely unbuilt.

If hard-won knowledge, personable affect, devotion to cause, ability to withstand deadly local custom such as the “vodka vortex,” and solemn appreciation for one mysterious and private bird count toward success, then Jonathan Slaght has already saved the fish owl. O



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Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of five books of nonfiction, most recently The Secret History of Kindness. She lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York.