One man’s lifelong hunt for the world’s largest owl

Jonathan Slaght spent his twenties facing frozen rivers, blizzards and hermits in wildest Russia in search of an elusive bird. His book about the adventure is one of the most intriguing reads of the year. 

Jonathan Slaght
Jonathan Slaght with a fish owl. Image: Penguin

On paper, a 300-page book detailing a four-year field study of owls sounds a little, well, niche. And yet, Jonathan Slaght’s book, Owls of the Eastern Ice: The Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl is one of the most intriguing – and enrapturing – books of the year. Helen MacDonald, known for her unlikely hit H is for Hawk, said that Slaght’s quest “changed her”. The book has won glowing, breathless reviews. The Minnesotan-based ornithologist was growing weary of the endless international interviews, until he realised that this wasn’t a usual level of attention for debut authors. “That changed my outlook a bit,” he admits, from his home office via Skype. “That this was a good problem to have.”

It’s certainly a far cry from the events of the book. Owls of the Eastern Ice is, as the book’s subtitle would suggest, a hunt for an elusive creature that lead Slaght and his motley crew of Russian field assistants to endure blizzards, borderline starvation, snowmobile catastrophe, frozen river crossings, hectic helicopter rides, bizarre hermits and stomach-churning levels of ethanol consumption over four brutal winters in Primorye, “a coastal talon of land hooking into south into the belly of Northeast Asia”.

It’s a strangely thrilling story of sleepless nights spent capturing owls and cold days subsisting on boiled sweets and determination, of rattling around in dilapidated vehicles. There are whole weeks when little happens but snowfall and snoring. Or, as Slaght tells me, “being in a truck with a load of stinky weirdos”. Slaght’s book is about owls in the same way that Moby Dick is about a white whale: it is a quest narrative of wildly adventurous proportions.

'It’s almost like they don’t care what anyone else thinks about it. They’re unapologetic in who they are.'

Blakiston’s Fish Owl is the largest in the world – standing at a metre tall, with a two-metre wingspan and weighing five kilograms – and one of the most ungainly. It defies usual owl stereotypes: no flat facial disc, no streamlined silent flight. Because the fish owl, as the name would suggest, eats fish, it can be as loud and cumbersome as it likes over roaring water.

And it is. “They are awkward birds,” says Slaght. “They knock branches off trees as they fly by because they’re so big. Seeing one on a riverbank, if a gust of wind comes past it’s almost like seeing loads of little explosions because their plumage is so dense,” he continues, interrupting himself with onomatopoeic illustrations. “They lumber along the banks. And for me that just makes them more interesting. It’s almost like they don’t care what anyone else thinks about it. They’re unapologetic in who they are.”

They are also one of the world’s most little-known birds. Existing only in the wildest reaches of Russia and Japan, Slaght’s PhD research comprised most of the scientific study of the owl ever done. Slaght was 19 when he first saw one. It was 2000 and he was in Primoye during three years with the Peace Corps, teaching local children English and leading them on birdwatching trips. He said he “fell in love” with an animal that “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.”  

The fascination shaped the rest of Slaght’s life. He explains that while his fellow students were writing theses on “very fine-tuned details” of species of North American birds, his boiled down to “‘catch a few, see what they do’. It was very basic, because that information just wasn’t there.” A case in point: when Slaght and his field assistants first capture an owl – an endeavour, that, in itself, takes two winters – they cause themselves months of confusion because they don’t know how to correctly identify the bird’s sex.

Such misdemeanours were central to Slaght’s story. While he deliberately keeps much of his personal life out of the narrative (there is a passing reference, about a third of the way in, to Karen, Slaght’s now-wife, then-girlfriend, to whom he must return to Minnesota to marry), it is made richer by the inclusions of near-misses and mistakes. Among them: poor snowmobile driving, futile battery-pack carrying and the time he gave himself 36 hours of food poisoning by “drinking and cooking with radon water… eaten a medallion of sausage that had fallen and then rolled on the disgusting floor of the [campervan] GAZ-66… used my knife to open the belly of a dead frog I found then… washed neither my hands nor the knife before… cutting and eating some bread. And all of this since morning.”

In 2016, Slaght translated Across the Ussuri Kray: Travels in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains, a 1921 book about Primorye in Russian by explorer Vladimir Asyenov. “He was very honest about his experiences, about being lost and being vulnerable and being afraid,” explains Slaght. “I kept thinking about that as I was telling my own story. I need to show that I’m not the great white saviour who’s out doing all these macho things. I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m just trying to figure it out as I go along.”

'If there’s a lightning strike the whole place could go'

For all the japes, though – the hip-waders full of ice and the string of storybook characters who choose to live alone in the most remote corner of the world (one comes to understand why Slaght would write that “meeting a person in the woods was usually a bad thing”) – Slaght’s mission was an important one: to form a conservation programme that would protect the fish owls from the emerging logging industry in the area, safeguarding the entire ecosystem, which included salmon, bears and tigers in the process. At the book’s close he writes that their analysis has shown that there are twice as many owls in Primorye as was estimated in the 1980s. His practices have also been adopted by researchers in Taiwan, to protect more owls there.

Slaght’s field research concluded in 2010, and while he and “The Sergeys” – the field assistants who accompanied him on that first expedition – have been back most years since to implement conservation changes (such as installing enormous nesting boxes for the birds, whose habitat of centuries-old trees is threatened by logging), fish owls now comprise “5%” of his work with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

I ask what has changed over the past decade, and Slaght says that logging roads have increased massively: “There were 150 kilometres of road in 1984, and no threat to fish owls. Now there are 4,000 kilometres of road – and just 10,000 people living there,” he says. “There are still tigers, still fish owls, still bears, still salmon. But the threats are now much more acute”. Among them is climate change; Owls concludes on an enormous storm breaching the area in 2016 and decimating 40 per cent of the forest with it. “It’s a tinderbox now,” he says, “if there’s a lightning strike the whole place could go.”

But the fact Slaght’s book exists – and has captured such imagination – has given the fish owl a platform many endangered species could only dream of. And there’s more work being done, too: “We’re getting more serious about finding a graduate student to do a new project,” he says, meaning that more of the fish owl’s mystery may yet be unravelled – and freeing Slaght to go on whole new adventures.  

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