THE TEMPERATE RAINFORESTS OF PRIMORYE become dense and green in summer, a vastness lost on those within it. Visibility can drop to almost zero along shrub-crowded game trails, where dew-drenched grasses cling like needy toddlers and spider webs tangle in the unshaven faces of those pushing through. Animals, resting nearby in the daytime heat, crash away unseen, and a discordant symphony of birdsong pulses from the canopy. Everything is immediate and aromatic; a box packed tight with vegetation, dirt, sweat, and humidity.
Not the kind of box you want to be in with a tiger.
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.
It was one of those early spring days in Ternei; too cold to comfortably sit outside. But it had been a long winter and we were determined to enjoy the above-zero temperatures. With sweaters and jackets covering our hunched shoulders and knit caps obscuring our heads, a dozen of us huddled around platters of smoked salmon, barbequed meat, and vegetables to celebrate winter’s passing. Moonshine added warmth for those who wanted it.