When wildlife researcher Jonathan Slaght was a young Peace Corps volunteer in the Russian Far East, he caught a brief glimpse of a Blakiston's fish owl. It was the furthest south the species had been documented in over a hundred years, and a chance encounter that would change his life.
In Owls of the Eastern Ice, Slaght tells the story of his decades-long quest to safeguard the world's largest owl from extinction in Primorye, a remote Russian province dominated by Ussuri taiga forest, the only place in the world where brown bears, tigers and leopards co-exist. The fish owl lives exclusively along the rivers of Eastern Russia, Northeastern China, and Japan's Hokkaido Island, and can best be tracked in the winter snows, so very little is known about it. Now Russia's evolving fortunes, logging interests and climate change present new threats to the owl's survival.
In this breath-taking nature and adventure story, Slaght recounts his experiences pursuing the owl through its forbidding territory, during months-long journeys covering thousands of miles, so that he and his fellow researchers can learn how to protect this endangered giant. Along the way he spends time with the Russians who inhabit the taiga and must survive in the harshest and most isolating of conditions. As much a portrait of the world's most extraordinary owl as of the Russian Far East itself, Owls of the Eastern Ice is a timely meditation on our relationship with the natural world and what it means to devote one's life to a single pursuit.
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Jonathan Slaght is considered one of the world's foremost experts on the Blakiston's fish owl. He is the Russia and Northeast Asia Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society and has spent more than 20 years travelling and living in the Russian Far East. He translated Across the Ussuri Kray: Travels in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains (1921) by Russian explorer and naturalist Vladimir Arsenyev, and his writings, research, and photographs have been featured in The New York Times, in the BBC World Service, Smithsonian Magazine, and Audubon Magazine. Slaght currently spends about three months of each year in Primorye and the rest of the time with his wife and two children in Minneapolis.
– The Times Nature Book of the Year 2020
– Winner of the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
– A Finalist for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award
"[...] Slaght focuses on what it took to conduct the field work and collect the necessary data to learn about what the fish owls need for survival. The book is not a scientific monograph, but instead concentrates on the human side of data collection in a remote, climatically challenging area where even the simple logistics of getting from point A to point B were difficult. As a veteran wildlife biologist myself, I was reminded of just how hard and time consuming it is to gather the accurate (and sufficient) data needed for the robust science underpinning a defensible conservation strategy. The book is both superbly well-written (it has rightly won several awards) and a terrific combination of Soviet history, sketches of local characters and natural history. It is often beautiful and lyrical, [...] It is one of the best written books covering the adventures in studying wildlife that I have read in years."
– Rick Spaulding, Ibis
"A terrifically exciting account. Even on the hottest summer days this book will transport you to a land of dark and snowbound forests running with radioactive rivers."
– Helen MacDonald, author of H is for Hawk
"Excellent [...] The brutality of human habitation is counterpoised with the brutality of the natural world. The reader becomes, like the author, "stunned by the quiet violence of this place.""
– Clement Knox, The Times
"This is a tale of man's endurance, determination and perseverance in search of this elusive and beautiful creature [...] wonderful"
– Bill Bailey
"The remarkable story of one man's heroic quest to save the astonishing fish owl. If only every endangered species had a guardian angel as impassioned, courageous and pragmatic as Jonathan Slaght."
– Isabella Tree, author of Wilding
"A gripping account of the author's obsessive quest to save one of the world's most magnificent birds."
– Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex and author of A Sting in the Tale
"A vivid dispatch from the front line of conservation, Owls of the Eastern Ice is engrossing and uplifting; an inspiring story of vital work undertaken with utter determination in wild and distant places."
– Horatio Clare, author of Orison for a Curlew
"Slaght's story reveals the patience and determination of a true conservationist. And the ears and eyes of a poet. Above all, he makes the people, wildlife and landscape of the Russian Far East come alive for armchair travellers. I haven't enjoyed a book on remote Russia as much as this since Ian Frazier's Travels in Siberia"
– Sophy Roberts, author of The Lost Pianos of Siberia
"True epic. A powerful, passionate and highly readable reflection on the wildness both inside us and out there in the forest."
– Charles Foster, author of Being a Beast
"A fascinating account of one man's quest to conserve the magnificent fish owl of Eastern Asia, this is a book that feels both urgent and relevant."
– Christopher Skaife, author of The Ravenmaster
"From the very first pages, Slaght grips readers with vivid language and tight storytelling [...] The cast of characters he brings to life - both human and avian - illuminate the delicate symbiosis of the natural world and shed a welcome light on the remarkable creatures that are too little known. Top-notch nature writing in service of a magnificent, vulnerable creature."
"A detailed and thrilling account of efforts to conserve an endangered species [...] Slaght evinces humor, tirelessness, and dedication in relating the hard and crucial work of conservation. Readers will be drawn to this exciting chronicle of science and adventure, a demonstration that wilderness can still be found."
– Publishers Weekly
"A thoroughly engaging read which will appeal both to those specifically interested in owls, as well as those with a wider interest in the natural world. Will make armchair and keyboard conservationists envious and uncomfortable in equal measures"
– John Gray, The International Owl Society
"This is an epic tale of hangovers, violence and obsessive ornithology. It is a superb depiction of a far-flung corner of the world where bears, tigers and men battle with relentless environment and each other. It is a powerful antidote to saccharine nature writing; Slaght encounters such a host of pickled gritty characters that you could imagine the Coen brothers adapting it for the screen."
– The Times Nature Book of the Year