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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Long-tailed goral. Photograph (c) WCS Russia/Sikhote-Alin Reserve

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.

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The pair of Merlins that nested near my house in 2017. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

Another good year! In total, I worked on 19 stories (down from 22 in 2016).

The most important writing development of 2017, without question, was finding a home for my Blakiston’s fish owl book manuscript. Or, should I say, two homes: the manuscript was picked up by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux in the United States, and Penguin secured rights in the United Kingdom. This is a natural history travel adventure—a non-fiction account of my first five years searching for and studying this endangered species. I’m looking forward to spending some of 2018 working with my editor to revise and refine my 115,000-word text (~400 pages). I’m guessing the book will come out in 2019, but we’ll see.

Thanks for reading in 2017….let’s see what happens in 2018!

Books: 1 under contract, 1 in print

  • My account of fieldwork with Blakiston’s fish owls, tentatively titled “Owls of the Eastern Ice,” was picked up by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux in the United States. Penguin UK secured rights in the United Kingdom.
  • My 2016 translation of Vladimir Arsenyev’s Across the Ussuri Kray (Indiana University Press) continued to garner solid reviews in 2017, including Times Literary Supplement and Slavonic and East European Review.

Web Articles: 14

  • Scientific American: 4 entries into my East of Siberia series (14 to date), as well as an OpEd about tigers for Global Tiger Day
  • Audubon: an article about the threat of bird hunting in Southeast Asia to critically-endangered Spoon-billed sandpipers
  • Mongabay: an article about how tigers adapt to varying environments across Asia
  • Wild View: 6 entries for this Wildlife Conservation Society photo blog (30 to date), including one that made the Top Ten List for 2017
  • Medium: an article for Earth Day 2017 about the need for science-based decision making in conservation.

Print Articles: 1

  • Minnesota Conservation Volunteer: a short article about a pair of Merlins (small falcons) nesting a stone’s throw from my back porch in Minneapolis

Scientific Articles (in print): 1

  • Oryx: Slaght, J.C., B. Milakovsky, D. Maksimova, I. Seryodkin, V. Zaitsev, A. Panichev, and D. Miquelle. 2017. Anthropogenic influences on the distribution of a Vulnerable coniferous forest specialist: habitat selection by the Siberian musk deer Moschus moschiferus. Oryx doi: 10.1017/S0030605316001617

Scientific Articles (accepted but not yet in print): 2

  • Slaght, J.C., T. Takenaka, S.G. Surmach, Y. Fujimaki, I.G. Utekhina, and E.R. Potapov. 2018. Global Distribution and Population Estimates of Blakiston’s Fish Owl. Chapter in Biodiversity Conservation Using Umbrella Species, Springer (scheduled for March 2018)
  • Slaght, J.C., S.G. Surmach, and A.A. Kisleiko. Ecology and conservation of Blakiston’s fish owl in Russia. 2018. Chapter in Biodiversity Conservation Using Umbrella Species, Springer (scheduled for March 2018)

Television Appearances: 2

  • News interview (in Russian) with OTV about my Arsenyev translation (Across the Ussuri Kray, Indiana University Press, 2016).
  • News interview (in Russian) with VestiPrimorye about my Arsenyev translation (Across the Ussuri Kray, Indiana University Press, 2016)