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Good Reads  Ornithology  Non-Passerines  Birds of Prey

Owls of the Eastern Ice The Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl

Biography / Memoir Nature Writing
By: Jonathan C Slaght(Author)
356 pages, 8 plates with colour photos; b/w photos, 2 b/w maps
Publisher: Penguin Books
A spellbinding memoir of conservation at the edge of the world.
Owls of the Eastern Ice
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  • Owls of the Eastern Ice ISBN: 9780141987262 Paperback Oct 2021 In stock
  • Owls of the Eastern Ice ISBN: 9780241333938 Hardback Aug 2020 Out of Print #248952
Selected version: £12.99
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About this book

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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Customer Reviews (1)

  • A spellbinding memoir
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 24 Aug 2020 Written for Hardback

    Some encounters change the course of your life. For young American Peace Corps volunteer Jonathan C. Slaght, it was a chance sighting of a rare owl in the Russian Far East that turned him onto the path of wildlife conservation. Hidden behind the conservation plans and the data there are amazing personal stories that are not often told. Owls of the Eastern Ice is a spellbinding memoir of determination and obsession with safeguarding the future of this bird of prey that firmly hooked its talons in me and did not let go.

    Primorye, or Primorsky Krai, is a remote spit of land in the Russian Far East, wedged between China and the Sea of Japan, that is as bleak and forbidding as the cover of the book suggests. It is home to bears, tigers, leopards, and the elusive Blakiston’s fish owl that went unnoticed by local ornithologists for a century. But the area is not free of human pressures. The locals have a long tradition of living off the land, hunting and fishing, while commercial industries such as mining and logging are being developed. But not to the point that it has severely degraded this ecosystem. Yet. Successful wildlife conservation here requires cooperation with local interests, which requires knowledge. Owls of the Eastern Ice thus tells the story of Slaght’s PhD project from 2006 to 2010 to collect baseline data on these long-lived owls: where they nest, what landscape features they prefer, or how large their territories are.

    What sounds like a simple plan on paper – find some owls, fit them with radio transmitters, monitor where they go – hides weeks or months of back-breaking labour on a shoestring budget, endless patience, and sometimes the bitter disappointment of having nothing to show for it. Especially in remote parts of the world, even the most mundane tasks can be challenging beyond the comprehension of most Westerners (I had my brush with this as a student). So, in some ways, Owls of the Eastern Ice is the classical hero’s journey, Slaght starting out as a rookie who is not even quite sure what these birds look or sound like. During the successive three-month field seasons, he goes from fleeting glimpses of fleeing owls to catching, banding, and tagging a handful of adults, to ultimately observing intimate moments in the lives of these birds. For interested readers, endnotes will lead you to the hard biological facts published in papers and books. Here, it is his vivid descriptions that bring this mysterious raptor to live: “Breathy, low and organic, the fish owls’ call pulsed through the forest, hiding among the creaking trees and bending with the rushing river. It was the sound of something ancient and in its place.”

    A lot of what propels this book, however, is the human story. Even though Slaght has visited Primorye for years before starting this project and speaks Russian, his novice mistakes and the steep learning curve of the fieldwork make it clear that he remains an outsider. I might have called this a hero’s journey, but Slaght never pretends to be one: this is a team effort. Next to his mentor Sergey Surmach there is a motley crew of assistants and fixers with their own idiosyncrasies who share cramped sleeping quarters and all-night stakeouts; from a cynical former coal miner to a virtuoso snorer with a urine fetish. The help of locals with their own colourful backstories – hermits, hunters, and loggers – is equally crucial to making this research possible.

    Slaght’s observations of the cultural differences and the occasional misunderstandings flowing from them provide plenty of amusing anecdotes: the stubborn, manly-man Russian attitudes that not infrequently get people into trouble, the unusual Eastern European superstitions, and the local customs that often involve long drinking sessions. (Why sell bottles of vodka with a cap? “Either a bottle is full or it is empty, with only a short period between these two states.”) But Slaght never descends into mockery or disrespectful cultural voyeurism, and recognizes how crazy his calling is. The people he meets regularly wonder who in his right mind would spend the winter months in this remote corner of the world chasing after some birds.

    In many ways, the starring role is reserved for nature itself: the majestic forest taiga and the cold spine of the Sikhote-Alin mountain chain against. No mere backdrop, it rules man and beast alike, readily taking the lives of those unwary, unprepared, or just plain unlucky. Fieldwork here is a constant struggle against the elements, dictated by the changing of the seasons. The violence of the spring melt gives rise to phenomena that have no words outside of the Russian language.

    Slaght takes all these elements – the owls like a fever-dream out of a Jim Henson movie, the hardy cast of locals, and nature’s raw power – and weaves them into a memoir so mesmerizing and spellbinding that I was compelled to read this book in a single sitting. I have tried not to reveal too many details in this review so as not to spoil potential readers. I will just say that if you enjoy wilderness travelogues or books such as Schaller’s Tibet Wild or Berger’s recent book Extreme Conservation, then you will devour Owls of the Eastern Ice. The fish owls are blessed to have someone like Slaght fight their cause. And if my review did not convince you, have a look at the above book trailer.
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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.

Biography / Memoir Nature Writing
By: Jonathan C Slaght(Author)
356 pages, 8 plates with colour photos; b/w photos, 2 b/w maps
Publisher: Penguin Books
A spellbinding memoir of conservation at the edge of the world.
Media reviews

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

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