Fishing for a Living

2 Yr Old Blakistons Fish Owl Female_JSlaght
I have a soft spot for this particular Blakiston’s fish owl. I first discovered her when she was just a few days old, covered in a bright white down, still blind, and unreservedly helpless. I saw her again the following winter when the vulnerable chick had bloomed into a confident juvenile. She pounced for fish in the shallow water and scraped at the pebbly river bottom hoping to dislodge a hibernating frog. And here she was another year later, at the age of two, still living with her parents.

This unusually long pre-dispersal period—the time between when an owl leaves the nest then strikes out to find its own territory—is a testament to the hard lives these globally-endangered birds eke out in the harsh climate of the Russian Far East. For comparison, young great horned owls in North America leave their parents’ territories just a few months after first fluttering out of the nest.

Fishing for a living isn’t easy, especially if the rivers you rely on are largely frozen for a good portion of the year.

This text originally posted 01 October 2014 at:

Rags of Bone

Tree Salmon 1
This text was originally published 13 October, 2014 as part of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s WildView Photo Blog series.

It was the depths of winter in the southern Russian Far East, and I was making my way through the soft whiteness and open forest towards the Avvakumovka River on a morning hike. I stumbled over an unseen obstacle along the way; a log I assumed, but when I looked down was taken aback. There was a frozen salmon peeking out of the snow. I stared at it curiously. I was at least half a mile from the river: why had I just kicked a salmon? I continued on.

When I reached the river I understood. There were countless fish carcasses visible in the patches of open water; the remnants of a massive keta salmon run that had ascended the Avvakumovka River the autumn prior. And there were eagles everywhere: mostly white-tailed sea eagles, but also Steller’s sea eagles and the occasional golden eagle. They fought like siblings over the salmon carcasses: one bird would rise into the air with a dead fish, and three more would chase it. Occasionally a salmon was lost in the struggle, spiraling earthward and snagging in the fingers of forest canopy before reaching the ground.

By the end of that morning hike I had discovered a total of three salmon carcasses hanging from the trees; rags of bone twitching in the breeze.

A Dog that Hibernates

This text was originally published 04 February, 2015 as part of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s WildView Photo Blog series.

Raccoon dogs are quirky beasts. Despite sharing an uncanny resemblance to the raccoons of North America they are in fact true dogs, and represent the surviving line of an ancient lineage now otherwise extinct. Given this distinctive pedigree, raccoon dogs exhibit behaviors atypical of other, more modern dogs and are unique among canids in their propensity to hibernate in winter. They also climb trees. Raccoon dogs are native to East Asia where they forage under cover of darkness and thicket eating just about anything they can, from berries to birds to fish.

This particular raccoon dog had been found as a small pup; alone and shivering next to the road on the outskirts of the village of Ternei in the southern Russian Far East. She was brought inside, warmed and fed, and over time grew too tame to safely release back into the wild. Rather, she became part of the family. Her love of fish became evident as, instead of hibernating in winter, she would accompany her human foster mother on ice fishing trips to the mouth of the Serebryanka River. Here, the brazen raccoon dog would snap up the flopping smelt pulled one after another from the darkness of an ice hole, while adjacent fishermen huddled on their tackle boxes, jiggled their lines, and stared at the spectacle with mouths agape.