Skip to content

Owls of the Eastern Ice | Jonathan Slaght | Book recommendation

February 7, 2021

[Posted by Chuck Almdale]

Among the world’s 237 species of owls – 18 Barn-Owls in Tytonidae and 219 Typical Owls in Strigidae – there are many beautiful, odd, scary, tiny, giant and mysterious owls. High on the list of owls I find mysterious and want to know more about are the Fish- and Fishing-Owls. How the devil does an owl catch fish at night? Do they see them? Hear them swimming or surfacing? Pure dumb luck? Missing a supposedly-staked-out Pel’s Fishing Owl Scotopelia peli in South Africa was a great disappointment, but seeing five Buffy Fish-Owls Ketupa Ketupui in Borneo, spotlighted at night on the Tenegang River, dropping from a perch into the water and coming up with fish in their talons, more than made up for it.

Author Jonathan C. Slaght is another for whom these charismatic owls remain an attraction and a mystery. So he decided to combine his desire to know more about these owls – specifically the Blakiston’s Fish-Owl Ketupa blakistoni – with his love of the Primorye area of far eastern Siberia, north of Vladivostok, where he’d happened to photograph the bird, and his need for a research project for his Ph.D. thesis. This book records the fun, adventure, culture, people, forest, miserable conditions and the grueling hard work he had while carrying out that project. Slaght is a wonderful teller of tales, and from here on, I’ll let his words draw you into his story.

Links to Slaight’s website and some factoids about fish-owls follow the excerpts below.

Owls of the Eastern Ice: A quest to find and save the World’s Largest Owl
Jonathan C. Slaght | Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York | 2020 | 314 pages & notes & index

By joining this expedition, I would help protect fish owls of the Samarga and also gain important experience in the art of search for them. These were skills I would apply to the second phase of the project: identifying a study population of fish owls. Surmach and Avdeyuk had compiled a list of sites in the more accessible forests of Primorye where they had heard fish owls calling, and they even knew the locations of a few nest trees. This meant we had a place to focus our preliminary searches….Avdeyuk and I would spend a few months visiting these sites and more within a twenty-thousand-square-kilometer area along much of Primorye’s coast. After we’d found some fish owls, we would return the following year and begin the third, final, and longest stage of the project: captures. By outfitting as many owls as possible with discreet backpack-like transmitters, over a period of four years we could monitor their movements and record where they went. Such data would tell us exactly what parts of the landscape were most important to fish owls’ survival, which we could use to develop a conservation plan to protect them.

How hard could it be?

Primorye is where far eastern Russia borders China, North Korea and the Sea of Japan

After a kilometer or two without incident, I heard a sudden, sharp crack reverberate behind us. I looked back. A broad sheet of ice in between our snowmobile and Tolya’s had separated from the rest of the river ice, darkening as water spread across it. Tolya slowed his machine and stood for a better view.

“You need to move now!” screamed Sergey, catalyzing Tolya into action. He pushed the engine and streaked across the wet surface as the displaced ice continued to shift. The floating sheet pressed down under him but held his fleeting weight, and he pulled up alongside us, panting and swearing. From that point on, each meander in the river brought with it a dread of what the far side might bring. We continued on, besting naleds [slushy mixture of water and frazil ice], enduring slush waves, skirting holes that had once been trail, and watching the river devour ice in our wake.

We…had just started off again when suddenly the water before us flowed free in the main current, hugging the left bank and then crossing the entire riverbed to continue flowing down the right band and out of sight around a bend. The snowmobile trail drove into the water, then picked up on the far side of a thick ice shelf. This was no naled to fumble through. We were trapped.

“Good a place as any for lunch,” said Sergey, lighting a cigarette and staring pensively downriver.

“Do you know why Tolya doesn’t drink?” John asked quietly, peering at me inquisitively over the mouth of his half-liter bottle of beer. I replied that I did not. John nodded and continued.

“He told me he was in the Altai Mountains some years back, visiting some family, and he drank too much wine on a picnic. He was reclining on the grass, looking at the blue sky above, when something inside made him wish for rain. To his amazement, the drops started falling. Tolya realized then that he had power over the weather, and decided to quit drinking because he needed to shepherd this dangerous responsibility.”

I stared at John, unsure of how to respond.

“Just when you think someone’s right in the head,” said John, drawing on his beer, “they go and say something like that.”

Female Blakiston’s Fish-Owl in the nest cavity

My movements were deliberately slow and noiseless. I was terrified of spooking the female, who was on the nest and certainly saw me approach. As the screen focused I could see she was in place, and to my relief she sat still with an air of calm. Toward dusk she perked up, catching sight of something and I heard a noise in the tree above — probably the male landing nearby. This suspicion was validated when the female ambled out of the nest and walked along a branch out of view. Then the duet began, deep and resonant and loud, just overhead.

I sat mesmerized as I listened to the owls above, hushing the sound of my heart pounding in my ears, reluctant to swallow or twitch for fear the owls would hear me and break off this captivating ritual. Even at close distance the sounds seemed muffled, as though the birds were hooting into pillows. The juvenile fish owl, clearly visible on the monitor, was a small gray sack of potatoes that waddled to and fro in the wide and flat nest cavity, shrieking. He knew food was soon, coming and unlike me, he had no patience for all this hooting.

I smiled when I thought of how the next field season would go: we’d sit in the relative warmth of an insulated blind, tucked into lofty down mummy bags with hands gripping mugs of hot tea, watching our trap sites in real time on a flickering, monochrome screen. When an owl flew in to inspect our bait, we’d know immediately and be ready. No more guessing about the nature of strange sounds in the dark and no more questions about how much cold my extremities could take before I needed to start worrying about frostbite. I had no idea how inconvenient these conveniences would turn out to be.

Apparently Anatoliy had worked as an informant for the KGB for a period in the early 1970’s as a sailor in the Soviet merchant marines. It was not uncommon for Soviet citizens to be asked to inform on their peers, especially those traveling abroad. In fact, one estimate suggested that by the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, up to five million people could be considered informants.

Katkov recounted the first time he had ever seen a fish owl. “I formed a mental image of a majestic creature living in only the most immaculate of environments: roosting in a snow-covered pine, then dropping into the clear water of a mountain stream to grip an enormous salmon.” He paused and laughed. “Want to know the first time I saw one? I was driving with Sergey to Amgu last spring to recapture the Kudya female. It was almost midnight, and it was absolutely pouring rain. As the road took that last big turn at the base of the Amgu Pass, the headlights illuminated a fish owl. It was sitting on the side of the road on a discarded truck tire, its feathers flat from the pouring rain, and it was choking down a frog! Not what I was expecting, I can tell you that. Not very regal!”

International Women’s Day was always on March 8 and had been a major national holiday of prime importance in Russia since 1917. It was international in the sense that it was observed globally, but with the greatest vigor in Russia, former Soviet states, and communist countries such as Cuba. Men spend this holiday, often just called “the Eighth of March” in Russia, heaping flowers, chocolates, and opulent praise upon the women in their lives. Declarations of appreciation can be so hyperbolic that they don’t translate well culturally, as evidenced by a recent exchange at the University of Wisconsin. There, Russian students visiting on International Women’s Day wished their female American counterparts success in childbirth and thanked them for their patience with the sterner sex. The women, deeply offended and unsure of how to respond, nearly reported the Russians for sexual harassment.

As I approached the river, three carrion crows cawed excitedly from the forest edge. Two of them flew over to me, circled, then returned from where they had come. I followed their flight with my eyes and caught motion among the pines below: a wild boar. Had the crows purposely alerted me to its presence, hoping to feast on the offal a hunter typically leaves behind? I watched the wild boar amble along and out of sight, unaware that he had been betrayed.

Link to website Of Johathan C. Slaight.
In addition to the usual biography, contact information, book blurbs and upcoming events, it has the following films:
Book Trailer for Owls of the Eastern Ice
How big is a Fish Owl?
How wild is Primorye?
Plus it has songs and calls of Blakiston’s Fish-Owl:
Duetting pair
Young fish owl, begging parents for food
Fish Owl Courtship

Fish- & Fishing-Owl factoids
If the data seems a bit skimpy, it is. More research is on this unusual group of owls is needed.
Information from Handbook of Birds of the World.

Blakiston’s Fish-Owl Ketupa blakistoni.  Length 60-72cm, Wingspan 180-190cm, Weight 3500-4300 gm. Nocturnal, fishes from perch, log or bank; fish large and small, crabs, crayfish, frogs, birds up to grouse-size, occasionally bats in flight.
Four subspecies:
K.b. piscivora
– Western Manchuria
K.b. doerriesi
– Southeast Siberia, extreme Northeast China & North Korea
K.b. karafutonis
– Sakhalin Island
K.b. blakistoni – N Japan (southern Kuril Islands and Hokkaido)

Brown Fish-Owl Ketupa zeylonensis. Two subspecies. Range: Turkey – Sri Lhanka – Southeast China- IndoChina. Length 50-57cm, Weight 1105gm. Nocturnal, fishes from perch or wading; also frogs, crabs, crayfish, snakes, lizards, rodents, birds and large insects.

Tawny Fish-Owl Ketupa flavipes.  Range: Himalayas – Taiwan – Indochina. Length 48-55cm. Nocturnal, fishes from perch; also crayfish, crabs, rodents, lizards, large beetles, and large birds.

Buffy Fish-Owl Ketupa ketupui.  Four subspecies. Range: East India – Indochina – Indonesia – Borneo. Length 38-44cm. Smallest fish-owl. Nocturnal, fishes from perch; also frogs, crustaceans, reptiles, large aquatic insects, small mammals and birds, carrion.

Pel’s Fishing-Owl Scotopelia peli. Range: Sub-Sahara Africa. Length 55-63cm, Wingspan 150cm, Weight 2055-2325gm. Nocturnal, fishes from perch 1-2m high; also frogs, crabs, mussels, large insects. Prey probably detected from surface ripples, acoustical cues probably not used.

Rufous Fishing-Owl Scotopelia ussheri. Range: Sierra Leone – Ghana. Length 46-51cm, Wingspan 150cm, Weight (1 male) 743gm. Nocturnal, fishes from perch, sometimes wades from bank.

Vermiculated Fishing-Owl Scotopelia bouvieri. Range: Cameroon – Angola. Length 46-51cm. Nocturnal, fishes from perch 1-2m high; also frogs, crustaceans, small birds and mammals.

And, for comparison, what used to be considered the largest owl in the world, until Jonathan Slaght captured and measured a particular female Blakiston’s Fish-Owl:

Eurasian Eagle-Owl – Bubo bubo. Length 60-75cm, Wingspan 160-188cm, Weight one male 1500-2800gm, female 1750-4200gm.

  1. Tom Hinnebusch permalink
    February 10, 2021 10:51 pm

    An excellent book. Well written and intriguingly interesting. I highly recommend it.


  2. February 7, 2021 3:55 pm

    Thanks for this, Chuck.I look forward to reading it. Best,Enid HayflickNewport Beach

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: