Owls of the Eastern Ice

by Jonathan C Slaght

Paperback, 2021

Call number

598.97 SLA



Picador Paper (2021), Edition: Annotated, 368 pages


Nature. Nonfiction. A field scientist and conservationist tracks the elusive Blakiston's Fish Owl in the forbidding reaches of eastern Russia When he was just a fledgling birdwatcher, Jonathan C. Slaght had a chance encounter with one of the most mysterious birds on Earth. Bigger than any owl he knew, it looked like a small bear with decorative feathers. He snapped a quick photo and shared it with experts. Soon he was on a five-year journey, searching for this enormous, enigmatic creature in the lush, remote forests of eastern Russia. That first sighting set his calling as a scientist. Despite a wingspan of six feet and a height of over two feet, the Blakiston's fish owl is highly elusive. They are easiest to find in winter, when their tracks mark the snowy banks of the rivers where they feed. They are also endangered. And so, as Slaght and his devoted team set out to locate the owls, they aim to craft a conservation plan that helps ensure the species' survival. This quest sends them on all-night monitoring missions in freezing tents, mad dashes across thawing rivers, and free-climbs up rotting trees to check nests for precious eggs. At the heart of Slaght's story are the fish owls themselves: cunning hunters, devoted parents, singers of eerie duets, and survivors in a harsh and shrinking habitat.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member mpultroon
A wonderful account of the beauty of nature and the level of work required to protect a particular species. The background on the Fish Owl is fascinating and develops over the length of the book. An eye-opening first hand look at preservation.
LibraryThing member Beamis12
Eastern Russia and the search for the world's largest owl. Fish owls can be anywhere from two to two in a half feet tall, weighing up to right pounds, talons the size of a human hand. Of course I had to look them up. A book that blends, conservatism, science and fieldwork, though I would say field
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work took up the largest part. These owls are elusive, found in only certain places, under certain conditions, so the hunt was length with rare glimpses in the beginning.

The search itself, the fieldwork was fascinating. The characters that live in this part of the world include fishermen, hunters, eccentrics galore including a man who sleeps in a wooden pyramid for its positive energy. Hardy drinkers for sure. If one opens a bottle of vodka, one throws away the cap because all drink until it is empty. They encounter melting ice, blizzards, extreme coldness, this is after all a harsh place

So along with learning about the owls themselves, we learn just how painstakingly tedious and lengthy fieldwork can be. It was a fascinating journey, a well told colorful journey about the efforts of conservatism and the men who pursue this course in life.

ARC from edelweiss.
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LibraryThing member Stbalbach
Nominated for a National Book Award (ie. publisher-funded awards). The writing is sourced from daily journal notes spruced up with cliches. It jumps around in time and place too rapidly to sustain the narrative and lacks enough context. Each time something interesting comes up it is quickly left
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behind without exposition. As one reviewer noted:

"While sketching in the human background to his mission, Slaght treats his companions too summarily. He lets slip that one assistant had spent 24 years down a Siberian coal mine. What on earth was that like? Alas, we never learn ... Slaght has the astonishing commitment to withstand the rigours of this strange landscape but neither the language nor attentiveness to put his magnificent owl in context." (The Spectator, UK)

He falls into the amateur trap of documenting everything he did interesting and non-interesting - it's a field journal masquerading as creative non-fiction. The word "I" is too frequently used. Nice cover, great title, nice idea, lots of marketing, could have been better.
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LibraryThing member mchwest
Lots of research into an elusive owl and I thought I would have to slog through this book, but I love owls, and I was so wrong. Jonathan is a really good writer and kept his endless adventures interesting. I had a tough time with the names of the Russian towns, and rivers, and people, but I enjoyed
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the book thoroughly.
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LibraryThing member dele2451
Learned a lot about owls, tigers, old growth forests of the Far East, Russian hospitality, and had an enjoyable time doing it. I sincerely hope this book assists in conservation efforts for the amazing fish owls described by Slaght and would highly recommend this book to any budding biologist
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interested in field studies.
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LibraryThing member LGCullens
Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght

Having previously read The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant, with this book I've returned in my reading to Primorye, Russia. The fish owl is a symbol of Primorye’s wilderness almost as much as the Amur tiger, and as with
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the tiger the needs of fish owls and humans are inextricably linked in Primorye, indicative as it is of the connectedness of all life on our little blue canoe.

The accounting in this book is but one small conservation effort, and until a critical mass of humanity appreciates the necessity, our species designation of Homo sapiens (Latin for 'wise man') is no more than self-aggrandizement. Sorry to be so blunt, but the truth of the statement is blatantly obvious. Have we been rendered unable on the whole by our genetic makeup to recognize it? If so, our species as it currently exists will be short lived, because our excesses are altering the environment which sustains us at an exponential rate relative to natural causes.

This writing might bore strictly entertainment or fanciful escapist readers, but for readers pondering the state of the natural world that sustains us this book is entertaining in its way and very informative. There can certainly be no complaints about the quality of the writing, nor the presentation. The presentation by a valiant conservationist is straightforward, beginning with the instigation and planning of the fish owl study, the intermediate search for viable populations, then the capture and tagging of the owls for telemetry study. Along the way there is adventure, interactions with humans and wildlife, and more subtle and limited commentary than there was in John Vaillant's book about the Amur tiger.

"Primorye is, more so than most of the temperate zone, a place where humans and wildlife still share the same resources. There are fishermen and salmon, loggers and fish owls, hunters and tigers. Many parts of the world are too urban or overpopulated for such natural systems to exist; in Primorye, nature moves in a flow of interconnected parts. The world is richer for it: Primorye’s trees become floors in North America, and seafood from its waters is sold throughout Asia. Fish owls are a symbol of this functioning ecosystem, a demonstration that wilderness can still be found. Despite the ever-increasing network of logging roads pushing deeper into fish owl habitat, and the resulting threats to the owls, we continue to actively collect information to learn more about these birds, share what we discover, and protect them and the landscape. With proper management we’ll always see fish in the rivers here, and we’ll continue to follow tracks of tigers that weave among pine and shadow in search of prey. And, standing in the forest under the right conditions, we’ll hear the salmon hunters too—the fish owls—announcing like town criers that all is well: Primorye is still wild."

My apologies to those that find my commentary ruffling, but understand that I'm nearing the end of my days and am deeply saddened by how we are endangering the future of our youth and innocent life forms.
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LibraryThing member quondame
Readable but not particularly involving, more mishaps and misfits in Eastern Russia than birds, wild life, and scenery though those are all there, just not communicated with the impact of the other bits. It's good to know that a small population of fish owls exist and that the author got his Ph.D.
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and a job he wanted though I at no time felt taken on a quest.
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LibraryThing member LisCarey
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.

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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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LibraryThing member Steve38
An excellent write up of field work done for a PhD study on fish owls in the Russian far east by a young American researcher. As well as telling us about the birds he also tells us a little about the fascinating life of Russians living in such isolated communities. But the impact of the outside
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world is severed with demand from logging and mining altering the landscape and habitat substantially.
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National Book Award (Longlist — Nonfiction — 2020)
BookTube Prize (Octofinalist — Nonfiction — 2021)
Minnesota Book Awards (Finalist — General Nonfiction — 2021)




125079871X / 9781250798718

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