Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jon Slaght reviewed

Owls of the Eastern Ice Book Cover Owls of the Eastern Ice
Jonathan Slaght
Penguin Press UK
August 04, 2020

A field scientist and conservationist tracks the elusive Blakiston's Fish Owl in the forbidding reaches of eastern Russia
The Blakiston's Fish Owl, the largest species of owl on earth, found only in the far northern regions of Russia, Japan, and Korea, is also perhaps the most mysterious. Only a handful of scientists have attempted to study them, but a chance sighting changed the course of Jonathan Slaght's life--sending him on a five-year journey to study these enigmatic creatures.
In Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl, American researcher and conservationist Slaght takes us to the Primoriye region of Eastern Russia, where we join a small team for late-night monitoring missions, on mad dashes across thawing rivers, drink vodka with mystics, hermits, and scientists, and listen to fireside tales of Amur tigers. Most captivating of all are the fish owls themselves: vicious hunters, devoted parents, singers of eerie duets, and irrepressible survivors in a harsh and shrinking habitat.
A rare glimpse into the everyday life of a scientist and the subjects of his deep fascination, Owls of the Eastern Ice is a testament to the determination, creativity, and resolve required by field research and a powerful reminder of the beauty, strength, and vulnerability of the natural world.

Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jon Slaght starts with an introduction to the author’s interest in the area and the owls. It includes his memories of his first sighting of a Blakiston’s fish owl even though at the time he did not know what he had seen. This is about both the owl – the largest and one of the rarest in the world – and the Primorye area of eastern Russia. Until I read this I confess I had never even heard of the area. I did do some research and found that it really is at the far eastern end of Russia; it is both remote and fairly wild. It is a forested region with a diverse range of important wildlife. There is a real threat though from logging activities.

As an American in this remote region the author is a curiosity to locals; as someone looking for birds even more so. This book is in part the story of Slaght’s PhD research project. Having encountered a Blakiston’s fish owl he is taken with the idea of learning more. However he really is starting from scratch as very little is really known about the owl. There is a small population in Japan where they had been studied to some degree however the author was the first person to really look properly at (and look for) the owl in Primorye.

Maybe the first comment I should make is that this really is a very readable and accessible book. For something that was a PhD project remarkably so. I found myself reading this more as though it was a book of fiction. I became caught up in the highs and lows of the quest. Initially this consist of simply finding any owls at all. Some of the people working with Slaght had come across them peripherally but real information is very thin on the ground. After that the task is to catch, weight etc, tag and put on transmitters on some owls in the populations identified. It’s fair to say that none of this is remotely simple!

In addition to the wilderness feel of the area the weather can be very poor. Much of the work was carried out in the late winter/early spring months in snow (and during snow). Rivers were often frozen so finding places these owls could actually feed can be challenging. There are some scary adventures here. Equally some of the people were at best a little unusual. These are tales of a primeval place and sometimes almost primeval people. Much alcohol is drunk as matter of course. The living conditions are frequently less then 1 star never mind 5 star. I found the book both fascinating and entertaining. At one point Slaght reflects on how little they actually know about the owls and then reminds himself while this is true they know more than anyone else about the owls in the region and Russia generally.

The book ends with the conservation work undertaken and proposed for the owls and the area. There are thoughts on this generally as well as the fish owls in particular. Mine was a proof copy however I would have loved to have seen a map of the area. Equally the bird itself is quite remarkable and so some pictures of it would have been appreciated by this reader at least. However I really did find this a good read and I would recommend it to anyone who finds the general idea of this appealing.

For me this book is about peering into the “wild” and sometimes the “wild” looks back and bites…!

Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review