Walking Rivers with Tigers

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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

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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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Clean Water & Healthy Living

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Shurik draws water from a thawing river channel. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

This post first appeared 01 March, 2016 on Scientific American

Despite nearly twenty years of experience in the Russian Far East, I unambiguously remain an outsider here. I am clumsy on backcountry skis, I’m a terrible fisherman, and I am unable to repair a vehicle with scraps I found lying about (or at all).

These are glaring character flaws among the outdoorsmen of the region; the men and women who populate the few villages scattered among the mountains of pine and oak in the province of Primorye. But in my time working here to conserve Blakiston’s fish owls, Amur tigers, and other animals, I’ve forged ties with locals who love the wilderness here with the same focused determination I do. These biologists, hunters, and fishermen have made me feel welcome; we work together to keep this place wild. And by now my shortcomings are largely ignored.

The purpose of this blog series is to shed light on this little-known corner of the world by offering short vignettes of wildlife, fieldwork, and life in this land of breathless beauty.

The story that follows is from the 2009 winter field season, when my Russian partners and I camped out along the Saiyon River in northern Primorye, just a few kilometers from the western shores of the Sea of Japan.

We spent nearly two weeks there watching the resident pair of Blakiston’s fish owls hunt for salmon and trout in the clear waters. These stout, enormous birds would wait in ambush along the riverbank then lunge into the shallow water with outstretched wings and a surprisingly delicate pounce.

Our goal was to observe the behavior of both the resident male and the resident female; but as each bird had its own preferred hunting spot at different sections of river, we set up two different observation blinds. I usually manned the downriver Saiyon blind where the female hunted, one reason being that I preferred the solitude. The upriver blind was closer to our main camp, an industrial-sized Kamaz truck with a custom-built two-room living compartment secured to the flatbed.

Given that nights dipped to the mid-minus thirties Celsius, those working out of the upriver blind usually succumbed to the temptation of the wood-heated sleeping quarters in the truck for rest once fish owl observations ceased. The drawback of this warmth was the crowd; a human sardine can of sleeping bags, snoring biologists, and the pervasive stench of the long-unbathed.

I welcomed the quiet of the lower Saiyon blind where, alone a kilometer from camp and wrapped in a sleeping bag and sipping warm tea, I would watch the female owl fish via remote infrared camera then tuck deeper into my sleeping bag and drift off to sleep once she disappeared.

Another, perhaps less romantic reason for preferring the downriver blind was the fact that a series of radon hot springs flowed into the Saiyon River close to the upper blind. This meant that any drinking water collected near there was, well, radioactive. At least at the downriver blind this radiation was diluted by a kilometer of gurgling river.

Our time at Saiyon saddled the winter-spring divide, with snow and ice melting measurably by the day. One afternoon toward the end of our stay I approached my regular ice hole by the downriver blind to find it considerably expanded by the spring thaw. Now visible, just a meter or two upstream of where I’d been collecting my drinking water for the last week-and-a-half, was the twisted carcass of a drowned roe deer. It had clearly been there all winter.

A low, guttural noise of abject repulsion escaped my throat. Which was worse: radiation water or dead deer water?

I moved a bit upstream and dipped my cup.