The Khuntami Cliffs are a cathedral of rock. They rise slowly from inland to crest like an enormous wave frozen just before crashing into the Sea of Japan. It’s been a favorite spot of mine in the Sikhote-Alin Reserve for years now; I’ve seen everything from nesting Eurasian eagle owls to Pacific swifts here, watched Minke whales in the sea, and seen tracks of wild boar, Asiatic black bears, and Amur tiger in the sand along Khuntami Bay below.
It was these latter beasts—the bears and the tigers—that were on my mind a few autumns ago, when I neared the top of the cliffs and something big and unseen exploded in movement from the nearby vegetation.
The mystery creature had only been a few meters away in a stunted, chest-high oak grove before it flushed and, given the wind that day, apparently had not heard or smelled me until I almost kicked it. Instead of a predator, however, I saw prey. A long-tailed goral burst from the bushes to clamber onto a vantage point to assess me as friend or foe, its hooves clicking like high heels on the rock.
A RAVEN MOVES ACROSS the unblinking Arctic sky, a prize in its bill. This treasure is an egg, possibly from one of the duck nests I’d seen nearby on the coastal Alaskan tundra. Perhaps the raven intended to crack this Arctic pearl right away or, more likely, it planned to cache it in an underground crevasse for later. The permafrost here, like a refrigerator, keeps eggs cool for months until ready to eat.
There are many pirates in the Arctic bird world — jaegers and gulls among them — but ravens, notorious egg thieves, stand unrepentant in their own category. Arctic terns migrate twelve thousand miles only to lose their nest to ravens; pintail ducks avoid foxes, hunters, and innumerable dangers on migration across North America only to have a raven spirit away every egg they lay. Given the scatter of eggshells left in their wake, it’s easy to feel sympathy for the victims of ravens.
But it’s also hard not to admire ravens for their ingenuity. These are intelligent birds; in their quest for protein-rich eggs they track the movements of breeding adult loons to find clutches concealed among the hummocks, and even follow researchers such as myself — conspicuous on the open tundra — to zero in on hidden duck nests. Ravens are thieves of necessity, doing what they must to survive in the Arctic.
This story first appeared on the Wildlife Conservation Society’s WildView photoblog.