Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght

by Team Riverside
Owls of the Eastern Ice book cover

Paperback, Penguin, £10.99, out now

Ice, snow, owls: sold.

Naturalist and PhD student Slaght goes to Primorye in remotest Russia in 2006 to research and protect the world’s largest owl, the Blakiston’s fish owl (see excellent pictures in Helen Macdonald’s rave review, here – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jul/22/owls-of-the-eastern-ice-by-jonathan-c-slaght-review-an-extraordinary-quest).  Slaght describes it: “Backlit by the hazy gray of a winter sky, it seemed almost too big and too comical to be a real bird, as if someone had hastily glued fistfuls of feathers to a yearling bear, then propped the dazed beast in the tree.” 

This is an account of work at the sharp edge of conservation and research.  Slaght is working at a time when local economies are changing rapidly.  Logging and free market ventures are expanding into areas of remote and limited fish owl habitat, and it becomes imperative that conservationists work out what the threats are, and what opportunities exist to protect the owl.

This is travel writing as much as nature writing.  Slaght conveys how quickly the ancient forest and surrounding environment can change, from conditions that are beautiful and wild to extreme and life-threatening.  There are rivers and pools warmed by radon, Amur tigers hunting, hermits and wilderness.  Endurance is required to get through the hardships he and his colleagues face in finding, tagging and relocating the owls over several years.

Literally toxic masculinity features, as hunters and others working in the area sometimes engage in extreme drinking to forge trust with strangers like Slaght, who not only is an outsider but also an American and an ornithologist.  Several times he’s part of a party that must not break up until the vodka bottle is empty, and sometimes the ‘vodka’ is ethanol.  But he gets to work alongside committed lifelong conservationists and assistants, and finds that people will often help him and his colleagues when they need it most.

The owls are known locally as “the owls who ask for a fur coat”.  In Russian when a pair sing to each other, it sounds like each is saying “I want a fur coat”.  Owls of the Eastern Ice is a truly engrossing and transporting book.

Review by Bethan

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