Steller’s Sea Eagle: King of the Air

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Steller’s sea eagle in the southern Russian Far East. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

So large is the Steller’s sea eagle that occasionally, on a frozen bay, one of these birds can be mistaken for the hunched form of an ice fisherman. It is the bulkiest of all eagles, weighing up to twice as much as a bald eagle, and soaring over the coasts of northeast Asia on a seven-foot wingspan. The plumage of a Steller’s sea eagle is an exercise in contrasts: deep blacks cut by lines of crisp white behind an enormous, bright orange bill.

These are salmon eaters, mostly, but they also hunt some of the common bird species in their range, such as gulls and murres. In winter many individuals are drawn south as far as the Sea of Japan, where they seek out concentrations of rotting autumn-run salmon. That’s where I saw this one, along the Avvakumovka River in Primorye, Russia, where it had its pick from thousands of decaying Keta salmon clogging the shallows and pools of that waterway.

Sometimes, Steller’s sea eagles scan the coastal forests for carcasses of deer that succumbed to the rigors of winter or were killed by predators. Occasionally, they get too close to an Amur tiger’s kill, and their bodies are found broken in the snow where the tiger flung them, these kings of the air felled by the kings of the forest.

 


This post originally appeared 16 November 2017, on the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Wild View photo blog.

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Email Auto-Replies: Bring Your ‘A’ Game

Yesterday, Tim Herrera of the New York Times posted an article about email auto replies which, after soliciting submissions, included a number of reader entries.

That this simple article elicited enough of a reaction for me to write a rebuttal of sorts is somewhat surprising: we’re talking about email auto replies here. But my point is that an opportunity was missed. Most submissions were, quite frankly, banal.  Auto replies are inherently boring and mechanical–why not inject a little creativity into them?

I’m not saying everybody should do it–auto replies would become tedious very quickly if the quirky autoreply became the norm–but I do think it’s a shame that New York Times readers whiffed on the opportunity to display some ingenuity.

Find below a sample of my email auto-replies from the past few years. My key points are  places and dates–those have to be included and factual. Any other details are at the mercy of whatever comes into my brain as I stare at the blank auto reply screen.


May 21-June 6, 2015: I will be leading an ethnographic expedition to the southern Russian Far East from May 21-June 6, 2015 to explore patterns of Dutch colonization and seek the lost city of Hotte. Please accept my apologies for any delays in correspondence that result.

July 21-August 4, 2015: Jonathan Slaght got on the wrong plane and ended up on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Given his lack of local savvy and an impeding series of cultural misunderstandings, it is likely he will not find his way out until August 4th. Thank you for your patience.

Feb 11-March 10, 2016: Jonathan Slaght, sweaty, tired, and not paying attention, is probably about to fall into a river while looking for fish owls in Russia. Email access between now and the middle of March will be spotty, at best, and he will likely be wet and cold. Thank you for your understanding.

Jan 7-Jan 23, 2017: Jonathan Slaght, in the middle of a Jan 04-23 trip that includes the Bronx Zoo, a conference in Singapore, and inter-tidal mudflats in Myanmar, is trying to understand why he thought he could fit all he needed into a single carry on.

Feb 14-March 01, 2017: Jonathan Slaght, having decoded a mysterious message engraved on a ring bequeathed to him by a wealthy stranger, is following the clues. His journey will take him to the exotic Russian Far East where, between February 14th and March 1st, he will face grave dangers unlike any he has ever seen. Obviously, his replies to your emails may be delayed.


So come on! Have a little fun every now and then. Your bored co-workers will thank you.

The Fragility of Field Plans

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Sometimes your truck makes it across the frozen river, and sometimes it doesn’t. Photograph courtesy Anton Gabrielson

When our truck broke through the ice of the Funtovka River, it nearly sank the 2012 field season.

The river wasn’t particularly deep, maybe four feet at that spot, but the open water was a sufficient barrier to prevent the rest of our caravan—a pickup truck and a snowmobile—from following suit. The truck, a formidable Kamaz, scraped back to shore among shrieks of metal grinding through ice, leaving a splintered bumper and shattered headlights to float slowly downstream in the slushy water.

It was nearly dark and we’d been on the road all day. Defeated, we doubled back and found a spot out of the wind where we cleared some snow and set camp. We had everything we needed to be here for up to a month of winter fieldwork: sacks of rice, potatoes, pasta, and cans of meat. The river would provide drinking water and fish.

From here to the Ugolnaya River some forty miles west was a selection of transects that we intended to walk daily, counting fresh deer and wild boar tracks in the snow to estimate their abundance. The original plan was to set up camp about twenty miles further down this old logging road—in the middle of the study area—and drive the pickup truck or snowmobile out to our transects each day.

But now, by punching a hole in the Funtovka River, we had blocked our only path forward. Nothing could cross here until the river refroze, and it would be a while—maybe more time than we had—before the ice could bear the significant load of the Kamaz. Packing wood into the Kamaz’s stove, we went to sleep. I’d worry about next steps in the morning.

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