Cover Image: Owls of the Eastern Ice

Owls of the Eastern Ice

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Member Reviews

A well-written and fascinating book which describes the ecosystem of eastern Siberia, with especial emphasis on the rare Blakiston's fish owl. The author, a conservation scientist, paints a vivd picture of the people, animals and plants who co-exist in the region, and how they have adapted to its harsh physical environment.
It has left me hoping that this wilderness will not be spoiled either by over-exploitation or by climate change - or both.
With many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for giving me a copy in exchange for this honest review.
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Far away from everywhere is where the author went to find fish owls. The Russian wilderness is vast and can be furious, but with a good team it’s easier to overcome problems. In this intriguing and well-written book about researching fish owls the story follows a young man, planning his dissertation, to remote Russia where he tries to capture fish owls, familiarizes himself with their nest trees, to finishing his studies, and continuing with his life.

I like the quirky characters who are sometimes so Russian, that I thought I was reading fiction. The interest in new people that is overwhelming, the vodka drinking locals, and the suspicious minds, are great to read about, and even better, they are real people. 

This type of books focus more on the journey, not the science, as it should. You can almost  feel the subzero degrees during the cold and dark, while sitting in an ice cold car looking for something you might not find, or at least will not be easy to find. It’s clear, precise, easy to read, and if you are interested in wilderness, wildlife, and what a scientist’s journey to find facts and figures can be like, this might be the book for you!
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Jonathan C. Slaght is an American wildlife researcher, who based his Ph.D. studies on the little known Blakiston's fish owl. This elusive bird is only found in specific areas such as the remote Primorye forests of Russia near the border with China and North Korea. Over a period of years, Jonathan Slaght studied and collected data from a number of nesting pairs in this region.	

Tracking and recording the data that has proved so essential to safeguarding the owls' survival meant spending months at a time living and working in hostile conditions, often in temperatures below -20 degrees Celsius. Vehicles often broke down or got stuck, roads and rivers were rendered impassable, or melting ice blocked the way and forced inland detours.	

The Primorye region is beautiful, but its remoteness lends its own challenges; however, the fish owl seems ideally suited to life in the harsh and sometimes inhospitable environment, managing to adapt with the changing seasons in order to survive, as do the human inhabitants.	

Slaght formed good-humoured relationships with his fellow researchers and field workers, essential when you are living and working in such close proximity. Their persistence and dedication was patently clear and the findings have resulted in much more being known about fish owls, their habitats, and behaviour; consequently, better knowledge has led to increased protection and prevented vital habitat such as nesting trees being destroyed by logging companies.	

The use of tracking and trapping methods is described in detail and what seems straightforward in the planning stage often proved far more difficult in reality, at least to begin with. As time progressed, these methods were refined and led to greater success.

Slaght's prose is never dry and he provides several humorous anecdotes about his Russian companions, some of whom come across as real characters. I often found myself chuckling in places at the antics described, many including vodka and surreal conversations. You can easily understand why Slaght fell in love with this part of Russia, and it isn't just because of the wildlife.	

This is a wonderful book that will certainly raise interest in this beautiful creature.	

I was sent an advance review copy of this book by Penguin Press UK (Allen Lane), in return for an honest appraisal.
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‘Owls of the Eastern Ice’ is a fascinating and entertaining account of studying the world’s largest species of owl in the wilds of Russia. For anyone who enjoys reading about nature and travel, there is never a dull moment. Slaght’s prose is simple yet vivid, serving his narration well, and his descriptions of the owls themselves as well as the many quirky Russians he encounters or work with are cracking. I often found myself smiling or chortling. 

Slaght covers the highs and lows of his and his colleagues’ work, and you can’t help but admire his dedication – though his love and passion for the Russian wilds are clear. The narrative is also sprinkled with morsels of local history, which I appreciated.

The book is also incredibly interesting to read in terms of its science – trapping, telemetry, and surveys of the owl’s habitat and prey. The Blakiston’s fish owl was so little-studied at the time that Slaght started (at least, the Russian population), and no doubt much existing knowledge has to be owed to him. Helpfully, although most of the book’s events took place ten years ago or earlier, an epilogue provides something of an update on the species’ current situation in Russia. 

I hugely enjoyed the book, and I very much hope it will help to raise more awareness of this endangered species.

(With thanks to NetGalley and Penguin for a copy of the ebook, in exchange for an honest review)
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Such an enjoyable book.  The joys, trials, tribulations, difficulties of studying owls in far east Russia.  I wasn't sure what to expect, but am so glad I read it.  'Owls of the Eastern Ice' is funny, uplifting, and proves that a rare species can survive, and survive well in extraordinary circumstances.  They are about 2000 in the world, but they don't know how rare they are, and are surviving in one of the world's wildernesses.

Jonathan Slaght is an American biologist by training, but his writing is not dry, scientific; it is totally accessible to anyone.  It is the story of his field trips, and research.  My only 'criticism', comment is that I would have liked some photos - of both the owls, and their environment which, in some cases, sounded beautiful.
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This fascinating book starts with an introduction to the author’s interest in the area and the owls.  It includes his memories of his first sighting of a Blakiston’s fish owl even though at the time he did not know what he had seen.  This is about both the owl - the largest and one of the rarest in the world - and the Primorye area of eastern Russia.  Until I read this I confess I had never even heard of the area.  I did do some research and found that it really is at the far eastern end of Russia; it is both remote and fairly wild.  It is a forested region with a diverse range of important wildlife.  There is a real threat though from logging activities.

As an American in this remote region the author is a curiosity to locals; as someone looking for birds even more so.  This book is in part the story of Slaght’s PhD research project.  Having encountered a Blakiston's fish owl he is taken with the idea of learning more.  However he really is starting from scratch as very little is really known about the owl.  There is a small population in Japan where they had been studied to some degree however the author was the first person to really look properly at (and look for) the owl in Primorye.

Maybe the first comment I should make is that this really is a very readable and accessible book.  For something that was a PhD project remarkably so.  I found myself reading this more as though it was a book of fiction.  I became caught up in the highs and lows of the quest.  Initially this consist of simply finding any owls at all.  Some of the people working with Slaght had come across them peripherally but real information is very thin on the ground.  After that the task is to catch, weight etc, tag and put on transmitters on some owls in the populations identified.  It's fair to say that none of this is remotely simple!

In addition to the wilderness feel of the area the weather can be very poor.  Much of the work was carried out in the late winter/early spring months in snow (and during snow).  Rivers were often frozen so finding places these owls could actually feed can be challenging.  There are some scary adventures here.  Equally some of the people were at best a little unusual.  These are tales of a primeval place and sometimes almost primeval people.  Much alcohol is drunk as matter of course.  The living conditions are frequently less then 1 star never mind 5 star.  I found the book both fascinating and entertaining.  At one point Slaght reflects on how little they actually know about the owls and then reminds himself while this is true they know more than anyone else about the owls in the region and Russia generally.

The book ends with the conservation work undertaken and proposed for the owls and the area.  There are thoughts on this generally as well as the fish owls in particular.  Mine was a proof copy however I would have loved to have seen a map of the area.  Equally the bird itself is quite remarkable and so some pictures of it would have been appreciated by this reader at least.  However I really did find this a good read and I would recommend it to anyone who finds the general idea of this appealing.

For me this book is about peering into the "wild" and sometimes the "wild" looks back and bites...!
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