The Egg Thief


A RAVEN MOVES ACROSS the unblinking Arctic sky, a prize in its bill. This treasure is an egg, possibly from one of the duck nests I’d seen nearby on the coastal Alaskan tundra. Perhaps the raven intended to crack this Arctic pearl right away or, more likely, it planned to cache it in an underground crevasse for later. The permafrost here, like a refrigerator, keeps eggs cool for months until ready to eat.
There are many pirates in the Arctic bird world — jaegers and gulls among them — but ravens, notorious egg thieves, stand unrepentant in their own category. Arctic terns migrate twelve thousand miles only to lose their nest to ravens; pintail ducks avoid foxes, hunters, and innumerable dangers on migration across North America only to have a raven spirit away every egg they lay. Given the scatter of eggshells left in their wake, it’s easy to feel sympathy for the victims of ravens.

But it’s also hard not to admire ravens for their ingenuity. These are intelligent birds; in their quest for protein-rich eggs they track the movements of breeding adult loons to find clutches concealed among the hummocks, and even follow researchers such as myself — conspicuous on the open tundra — to zero in on hidden duck nests. Ravens are thieves of necessity, doing what they must to survive in the Arctic.

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This story first appeared on the Wildlife Conservation Society’s WildView photoblog.

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An Unlikely Pair

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A cinereous vulture and a Steller’s sea eagle, both juveniles, meet at a kill. 

Like old friends meeting for lunch, a cinereous vulture and a Steller’s sea eagle pose for a camera trap set along a game trail in the Sikhote-Alin Reserve in Russia.

While both cinereous vultures and Steller’s sea eagles are winter visitors to this corner of the southern Russian Far East, it’s possible that these two individuals had never encountered a member of the opposite species before. Steller’s sea eagles move south in winter from far northern places in Russia like Magadan and Kamchatka, but are relatively uncommon this far south. Cinereous vultures come east mostly from Mongolia, and are rare this far north along the Sea of Japan with no more than a few dozen records in the reserve since the 1960s.

This might explain the eagle’s submission to the vulture — it had perhaps never seen another raptor so large — so it waited patiently for the vulture to finish eating before moving in to feed. What makes this encounter all the more remarkable is that it was captured completely by chance: when a deer was killed (or simply died) along the game trail, this camera happened to be in the perfect place to document the interactions of this unlikely pair.

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This post first appeared at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Wild View photo blog on March 30, 2018.

2017 End of Year Summary

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The pair of Merlins that nested near my house in 2017. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

Another good year! In total, I worked on 19 stories (down from 22 in 2016).

The most important writing development of 2017, without question, was finding a home for my Blakiston’s fish owl book manuscript. Or, should I say, two homes: the manuscript was picked up by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux in the United States, and Penguin secured rights in the United Kingdom. This is a natural history travel adventure—a non-fiction account of my first five years searching for and studying this endangered species. I’m looking forward to spending some of 2018 working with my editor to revise and refine my 115,000-word text (~400 pages). I’m guessing the book will come out in 2019, but we’ll see.

Thanks for reading in 2017….let’s see what happens in 2018!

Books: 1 under contract, 1 in print

  • My account of fieldwork with Blakiston’s fish owls, tentatively titled “Owls of the Eastern Ice,” was picked up by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux in the United States. Penguin UK secured rights in the United Kingdom.
  • My 2016 translation of Vladimir Arsenyev’s Across the Ussuri Kray (Indiana University Press) continued to garner solid reviews in 2017, including Times Literary Supplement and Slavonic and East European Review.

Web Articles: 14

  • Scientific American: 4 entries into my East of Siberia series (14 to date), as well as an OpEd about tigers for Global Tiger Day
  • Audubon: an article about the threat of bird hunting in Southeast Asia to critically-endangered Spoon-billed sandpipers
  • Mongabay: an article about how tigers adapt to varying environments across Asia
  • Wild View: 6 entries for this Wildlife Conservation Society photo blog (30 to date), including one that made the Top Ten List for 2017
  • Medium: an article for Earth Day 2017 about the need for science-based decision making in conservation.

Print Articles: 1

  • Minnesota Conservation Volunteer: a short article about a pair of Merlins (small falcons) nesting a stone’s throw from my back porch in Minneapolis

Scientific Articles (in print): 1

  • Oryx: Slaght, J.C., B. Milakovsky, D. Maksimova, I. Seryodkin, V. Zaitsev, A. Panichev, and D. Miquelle. 2017. Anthropogenic influences on the distribution of a Vulnerable coniferous forest specialist: habitat selection by the Siberian musk deer Moschus moschiferus. Oryx doi: 10.1017/S0030605316001617

Scientific Articles (accepted but not yet in print): 2

  • Slaght, J.C., T. Takenaka, S.G. Surmach, Y. Fujimaki, I.G. Utekhina, and E.R. Potapov. 2018. Global Distribution and Population Estimates of Blakiston’s Fish Owl. Chapter in Biodiversity Conservation Using Umbrella Species, Springer (scheduled for March 2018)
  • Slaght, J.C., S.G. Surmach, and A.A. Kisleiko. Ecology and conservation of Blakiston’s fish owl in Russia. 2018. Chapter in Biodiversity Conservation Using Umbrella Species, Springer (scheduled for March 2018)

Television Appearances: 2

  • News interview (in Russian) with OTV about my Arsenyev translation (Across the Ussuri Kray, Indiana University Press, 2016).
  • News interview (in Russian) with VestiPrimorye about my Arsenyev translation (Across the Ussuri Kray, Indiana University Press, 2016)