Monday, August 9, 2021

Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl, by Jonathan C. Slaght (author, narrator)

Tantor Audio, ISBN 9781494547790, October 2020 (original publication August 2020)

As a fledgling birdwatcher, Jonathan Slaght, in the far eastern Russian province of Primorye, saw, and managed to get a picture of, a very large, and unfamiliar, owl. When he sent the picture to experts, they identified it as a Blakiston's fish owl, the world's largest, and most elusive, owl.

When Slaght took that picture, the fish owl had not been seen that far south in a hundred years. Its range stretches from Hokkaido, Japan, to Primorye in Russia, and it's both elusive and endangered. Slaght was working towards his Ph.D., and had found his research topic--very little was known about Blakiston's fish owl, and it's endangered. Learning more about both the bird itself, and its habitat needs, to create a conservation plan, would be an excellent project.

In this book, he tells us of his winters in remotest Russia, tracking extremely elusive birds, learning, first of all, just how little is known of them when he starts, including the fact that they have no clue how to sex the birds correctly. They nest in big, old trees, preferably with a side hole--a really large one, because this are very big birds. They're not migratory; they stay in their territories year-round, and only breed on average every two years. Their hunting territories are large, but they stick close to the banks of the rivers,

The birds are fascinating.

Tracking, catching, tagging, and releasing them in a far eastern Russian winter, over several years, is physically and emotionally stressful.

But some of the most entertaining parts of the book are about the people--his Russian field assistants, but also the locals who put them up, make sure they have supplies, tell them about the risks and opportunities, who are quite bemused by the fact that they're studying birds...and who, in the course of their hospitality, always bring vodka, and believe that a vodka bottle once opened, does not need its cap ever again, because the company keep drinking until it's empty. The Russian banya--a steam room with wooden benches, followed by going out to cool off with bracing applications of snow--becomes and important way of connecting with a skeptical local who can provide some assistance.  There are wild stories about survival in this region of extreme winters, and colorful characters who can be both incredibly challenging and incredibly welcoming and helpful.

It's well worth your time. You'll learn about the Blakiston's fish owl, far eastern Russia, and just how hard naturalists work, often in dangerous conditions, to both learn about and preserve endangered species.


I bought this audiobook.

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