An American scientist chronicles his travels through remote Russian landscapes to study the elusive and endangered Blakiston’s fish owl.
From the very first pages, Slaght, the Russia and Northeast Asian Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society, grips readers with vivid language and tight storytelling. His many months trekking through the icy wilderness to find and track rare fish owls—the largest owl on Earth—inform a narrative that blends field research, personal journey, and adventure writing. Part of the book’s success lies in the author’s ability to present the stakes and draw out the tension therein, making what could be a dry tale of bird-watching a compelling story of the necessity of conservation. In this case, the stakes include the owls' disappearing habitat but also Slaght’s livelihood. “Fieldwork is often regular repetition of challenging or unpleasant activities,” writes the author, “an application of persistent pressure to a question until the answer finally emerges.” In the bitter cold terrain of eastern Russia, it’s that much more difficult. Throughout the book, Slaght lives up to his rugged-conservationist persona as he writes of helter-skelter snowmobile trips circumnavigating rushing rivers of ice, vodka-soaked encounters with village locals, and solitary, achingly beautiful nights observing the majestic owls firsthand. He is an engaging writer who imbues each scene with an intimate sense of place. “The nights dragged on,” he writes, “a deep winter stillness perforated by occasional firecracker-like pops: ice expanding in tree cracks as air temperatures plummeted after sunset. The adult female fish owl was like a ghost. We heard her vocalize with her mate almost every night, but she appeared onscreen only once, when she hit our snare but pulled the knot free before we reached her.” The cast of characters he brings to life—both human and avian—illuminates the delicate symbiosis of the natural world and sheds a welcome light on the remarkable creatures that are too little known.
Top-notch nature writing in service of a magnificent, vulnerable creature.