A Spoon-Billed Curiosity

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A Spoon-billed sandpiper skin from the Yelsukov Collection in Russia. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

This Spoon-billed sandpiper hatched somewhere in the Arctic of northeastern Russia, in the spring of 1988, a diminutive fluff camouflaged among the tundra vegetation. A few months later she flew south for her first winter, aiming instinctively for the intertidal mudflats of Southeast Asia.

About two thousand miles into her journey—still in Russia—she found herself on a wide, sandy beach washed by the Sea of Japan. It was the first day of September, and she was mixed in with other migrating shorebirds, some possibly making this trip for the first time as she was. Someone else was on that beach that day: a young boy named Anton, and Anton had a slingshot.

The sandpiper never made it further south.

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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.

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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