A Blakiston’s fish owl. Image (c) Jonathan C. Slaght

The transition from winter to spring always brings out a curious mixture of emotions in me. For years, April had meant the end of a field season, weeks of cold and discomfort spent with my local colleagues in the Russian woods, sometimes a hundred or more kilometers from the nearest human settlement, sleeping in a wood-heated truck and eating what fish we could catch through ice holes in nearby rivers.

We were in the forest looking for Blakiston’s fish owls, the largest owls in the world, an endangered species that lives in some of the hardest-to-reach corners of northeast Asia. Our goal was to study fish owls to learn how to protect them. Winter was the best time to find these cryptic birds as we could see the tracks they left along snowy river banks as they hunted for salmon.

Spring was the annual, clear end point for my work in Russia: the thaw made river ice unsafe to walk or drive on, and the sun’s renewed warmth softened the frozen mud of forest roads, making them impassable. While I loved my long bouts in close contact with one of the world’s most mysterious birds, spring brought deliverance. I’d bested another winter. Soon, modern conveniences such as electricity, indoor plumbing, and sidewalks would be mine once more to treasure and, gradually, take for granted.

While I no longer devote every February, March, and April to Russian forests, the project has continued. The work is truly collaborative, and my colleagues Sergey Surmach and Sergey Avdeyuk have become good friends.  At first neither they nor I could do this work independently, but now they are in the woods more often than not without me. We continually expand our knowledge base of this enigmatic species, and this year I’d planned to rejoin the team.

But as the coronavirus’s insidious tendrils gripped more and more of the world, it quickly became clear that this season’s expedition would leave me behind. I remain in Minneapolis, inside a closet I recently converted to my office, taking turns with my wife to manage our two children while trying to maintain some semblance of order.

On a recent walk through my neighborhood, with a rain-sleet-snow mixture swirling through the bare branches of the maples that line my street, I turned into the wind, welcoming the ice as it stung my face. It reminded me of the end of a field season. I knew this was winter’s last assault, a threatening posture to project strength and hide weakness. I thought of Sergey and Sergey in the forest on the other side of the world, possibly evaluating a swollen, muddy river to decide if they can cross it, or maybe free-climbing a 30-foot poplar to a fish owl nest to see if there are precious chicks inside. Ironically, even with bears coming out of hibernation, Amur tigers on the prowl, and no help in case they get in trouble, they are in possibly one of the safest places in the world right now. It’s a natural form of extreme social distancing.

April blended to May unnoticed from my windowless office/closet, and I feel sadness for the ice and snow that passed. But excitement wells in me as I await news from the two Sergeys, stories of owls found and new discoveries. And most importantly I am comforted knowing that the remarkable fish owls are still being studied and protected, an ongoing mission that even this pandemic cannot reach.

This post originally appeared as part of the “East of Siberia” blog at Scientific American.

Jonathan Slaght’s memoir of his work with Blakiston’s fish owls will be released August 4, 2020, from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in the United States and Penguin in the United Kingdom. Pre-order in the USA now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, or my local bookseller, Moon Palace Books. UK readers can pre-order from Waterstones and Amazon.

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Sergei walks a frozen river while looking for signs of fish owls in the adjacent forest, and ever-encountering tiger tracks. Photograph Ⓒ Jonathan C. Slaght

My most recent post at Scientific American:

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.

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No matter how prepared I think I am, nature will find a way to knock me down a peg. Photograph © J. Slaght

This post first appeared on 16 March, 2016 on Scientific American.

One of my favorite Russian sayings, roughly translated, is that the better your off-road vehicle, the further you’ll have to walk to find a tractor to pull you free when you get stuck.

I consider this phrase regularly during each Blakiston’s fish owl winter field season. We purposefully seek out the hard-to-reach places; the quiet corners of Primorye these secretive owls might be found. We cross narrow mountain passes, struggle through gauntlets of willow along overgrown forest roads, and gun it across rivers of uncertain ice integrity. The waters are not usually very deep, but it’s never pleasant to break through.

Inevitably though, we do find ourselves stuck, or come across others in need of tractors. I spent much of February 2016 looking for fish owls with a team of three Russians led by Sergei, a fish owl veteran and an extremely resourceful fellow in the field. Three instances the past few weeks reminded me of this.

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