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.
This post first appeared on Scientific American as part of my East of Siberia series.
Years ago I conducted songbird research at the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve: summers of sweat, field camouflage, and pulsing masses of biting insects in this humid, temperate rainforest. There were only two of us on the field team, me and a botanist—a bright, friendly woman who described the vegetation at the same study plots where I recorded the vocalizing bird species.
Our goal was to document how songbird communities changed when a forest was selectively logged. We’d sit quietly under enormous pines at designated locations, up to a dozen of them in a morning. Occasionally we’d find bird nests but most of our detections were vocalizations: melodious song from birds unseen in the dense vegetation. I’d scribble down the exotic-sounding names of species like Siberian blue robin, Mugimaki flycatcher, and Asian stubtail.
Our work was based out of remote research cabins in the reserve, and we’d move from one location to the next every week or two when we’d completed all the necessary bird surveys. Late in the season we arrived at Perevalnii, an area of Korean pine forest near the Sikhote-Alin divide, and found a cabin of typical construction for the reserve.
It was a cozy, single room of hewn log walls with an aging iron woodstove and two single-person sleeping platforms separated by a narrow table. The ceiling was low to trap the heat in winter, and the walls were studded with nails to hang bags of rice, salt, and anything else edible—a precaution to keep food safe from the rodents who also called this cabin home. Two futon mattresses, brought inside when needed, hung over a support beam in the covered vestibule to air out between use and to keep rodents from nesting among their soft innards.
We fell into our routine when arriving at a new place. I piled some firewood near the woodstove then hung a mosquito net from the door frame, while the botanist took inventory of supplies left by past visitors.
I rolled out my air mattress onto one of the narrow sleeping platforms, laid my sleeping bag upon it, and got ready for bed. It was only dusk but this was the field season: we had a very early morning ahead of us. But I was not in bed for long.
Why do tigers always seem to turn up when I’m looking for owls?
My Russian colleagues and I spent about a month surveying for Blakiston’s fish owls in the Sikhote-Alin Reserve this winter, but mostly what we found was snow, cold, and tiger tracks. In fact, if we had been searching for tigers instead of fish owls, our expedition would have been a resounding success.
Fish owls are remarkable birds. Disheveled and determined, they hunt for salmon in even the coldest of Russian winters. We were expecting to find four or five breeding pairs in the reserve, a 4,000 km2 area of pine- and oak-covered mountains interspersed with clear, cold rivers. On paper the wide river valleys peppered with behemoth old-growth trees looked like perfect fish owl habitat, with good nesting opportunities and rivers roiling with fish. There are three species of salmon here: cherry, keta, and pink—some of the fish owl’s favorite prey.
To survey for fish owls, we spent our days walking along the frozen rivers searching for signs of them—feathers clinging to branches or tracks in the snow near patches of unfrozen water where they may have fished—and we spent our nights listening for their calls.
But in the end, after more than a month of skiing or snowmobiling nearly 150 km of river and pushing through tangles of riverside forest, we only found two nesting pairs. That’s a lot of time in the cold for such a paltry result. The problem was unfrozen water: we found very little. And where there is no flowing water, fish owls cannot fish.
We were accompanied not just by silence and the crunch of snow underfoot in these weeks without owls; we had the shadows of tigers to keep us company.