2017 End of Year Summary


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)

Walking Rivers with Tigers


Sergei walks a frozen river while looking for signs of fish owls in the adjacent forest, and ever-encountering tiger tracks. Photograph Ⓒ Jonathan C. Slaght

My most recent post at Scientific American:

Why do tigers always seem to turn up when I’m looking for owls?

My Russian colleagues and I spent about a month surveying for Blakiston’s fish owls in the Sikhote-Alin Reserve this winter, but mostly what we found was snow, cold, and tiger tracks. In fact, if we had been searching for tigers instead of fish owls, our expedition would have been a resounding success.

Fish owls are remarkable birds. Disheveled and determined, they hunt for salmon in even the coldest of Russian winters. We were expecting to find four or five breeding pairs in the reserve, a 4,000 km2 area of pine- and oak-covered mountains interspersed with clear, cold rivers. On paper the wide river valleys peppered with behemoth old-growth trees looked like perfect fish owl habitat, with good nesting opportunities and rivers roiling with fish. There are three species of salmon here: cherry, keta, and pink—some of the fish owl’s favorite prey.

To survey for fish owls, we spent our days walking along the frozen rivers searching for signs of them—feathers clinging to branches or tracks in the snow near patches of unfrozen water where they may have fished—and we spent our nights listening for their calls.

But in the end, after more than a month of skiing or snowmobiling nearly 150 km of river and pushing through tangles of riverside forest, we only found two nesting pairs. That’s a lot of time in the cold for such a paltry result. The problem was unfrozen water: we found very little. And where there is no flowing water, fish owls cannot fish.

We were accompanied not just by silence and the crunch of snow underfoot in these weeks without owls; we had the shadows of tigers to keep us company.

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Where There Is No Tractor


No matter how prepared I think I am, nature will find a way to knock me down a peg. Photograph © J. Slaght

This post first appeared on 16 March, 2016 on Scientific American.

One of my favorite Russian sayings, roughly translated, is that the better your off-road vehicle, the further you’ll have to walk to find a tractor to pull you free when you get stuck.

I consider this phrase regularly during each Blakiston’s fish owl winter field season. We purposefully seek out the hard-to-reach places; the quiet corners of Primorye these secretive owls might be found. We cross narrow mountain passes, struggle through gauntlets of willow along overgrown forest roads, and gun it across rivers of uncertain ice integrity. The waters are not usually very deep, but it’s never pleasant to break through.

Inevitably though, we do find ourselves stuck, or come across others in need of tractors. I spent much of February 2016 looking for fish owls with a team of three Russians led by Sergei, a fish owl veteran and an extremely resourceful fellow in the field. Three instances the past few weeks reminded me of this.

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