Home Books Owls of the Eastern Ice: by Jonathan C. Slaght

Owls of the Eastern Ice: by Jonathan C. Slaght

Blakiston’s fish owls are a seemingly impossible creature. A gigantic owl, exponentially larger than its closest kin, these rare and little understood birds live in some of the remotest areas of Eastern Russia and Japan, subsisting on, as their name would indicate, fish and living in massive trees several hundred years old. Given their size, they require ample living space – hence the ancient trees they call home – and plentiful supplies of fish. Because of this and due to their non-migratory nature, they tend to live in relatively confined areas near rivers that manage to avoid freezing in the subzero temperatures thanks to underground sources of radon gas that warm certain sections of rivers that would otherwise freeze solid.

It’s a very specific set of criteria that limit the size of their habitat and, as they pair off and claim delineated territory as their own, they can be fairly easy to study once you’ve located a pair. The trouble is finding them amidst the massive stretches of forest in the Primorye Province in far Eastern Russia. Such is the starting point for Jonathan C. Slaght’s engrossing Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl. As a graduate student from Minnesota who learned of the Primorye region and its increasingly rare resident populations of fish owls through time spent in the Peace Corps, Slaght’s infatuation with the area is rooted in both a love of the outdoors and fascination with this particular segment of the avian family tree.

The combining of these twin passions helps make Owls of the Eastern Ice far more than simply another examination of a species on the brink and individuals attempts to save what little may remain of both specifies populations and existing habitat. While conservation of fish owls obviously plays a major role in the narrative, Slaght also marvels at both the natural world and this particular species’ ability to continue to exist in the face of overwhelming odds, as well as those individuals who live so far removed from modern society as to almost be an endangered species themselves. From hermits to hunters to genuine oddballs, Slaght encountered all manner of humanity in his search for the fish owl in the Primorye Province.

These individuals become almost as engaging as the quest to locate and capture for study fish owls. Given their immediate distrust of foreigners, these Russian recluses more often than not prove to be a hard sell on Slaght and his motives, despite being aided by men from the remote regions in which the studies were conducted. Copious amounts of vodka are consumed throughout in order to maintain a mutual bond and sense of trust, often leading to scenes reminiscent of that in Jaws when Quint recounts his time on the USS Indianapolis. And while not all the stories are necessarily harrowing – there are tiger attacks and a near-fatal mishap at sea that are particularly pulse-pounding – they all share a commonality in their love of and respect for the natural world.

This part of Slaght’s journey takes up the first two-thirds or so of the book, all while attempting to not only locate fish owls, but make successful captures in order to begin what is intended to be a five-year study of the animals. After having spent time setting the scene and bringing the reader along to the remote, snow-covered areas of Primorye Province, painting vivid pictures of both the scenery and the struggle to locate and capture fish owls, these sections dealing almost exclusively with the heart of the study can’t help but feel massively rewarding. Here we are brought face-to-face with the massive owls, learn more than anyone ever has about their habitat, habits and ability to continue to survive in the face of mounting odds. Before Slaght’s research, almost nothing was known about the fish owls of Eastern Russia, thus making Owls of the Eastern Ice not only a gripping travel and adventure narrative, but also wildly informative on the titular subject.

Part groundbreaking ornithological study and part Jack London-esque adventure story, Owls of the Eastern Ice offers a remarkable, modern-day armchair travelogue that is both incredibly informative and engaging and a wildly entertaining read. It’s a fine line that not many more scientifically-minded writers manage, but Jonathan C. Slaght does so here with aplomb. Owls of the Eastern Ice is nothing short of thrilling, fascinating and destined to become a modern classic of the genre.

Summary
Part groundbreaking ornithological study and part Jack London-esque adventure story, Owls of the Eastern Ice offers a remarkable, modern-day armchair travelogue that is both incredibly informative and engaging and a wildly entertaining read.
80 %
A quest indeed

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