An Osprey, Until It Wasn’t



This poor bird was fed fish for WEEKS. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

The latest from my Scientific American series, East of Siberia:

In autumn, 2012, hunters found a young osprey wandering the forest of coastal Primorye. Whereas most of these fish-eating raptors had long flown south for the winter this one walked, dragging its broken wing behind it through the fallen leaves. The hunters chased the bird down, put it in a cardboard box, and brought it to Sergei, a colleague of mine they knew worked for a bird-conservation NGO. By the time the raptor reached him, however, the broken wing had fused. The osprey would never fly again.

I saw this bird for the first time a few weeks later when, checking camera traps to monitor poaching activity along the Maksimovka River, I happened upon Sergei at a field camp. He was there guiding a group of Japanese naturalists on a tour of the region. With no one to leave the osprey with at home, Sergei had brought the bird along, keeping it regularly fed with fish. As a keen angler himself, this was an arrangement that suited both man and bird well. In fact, when I arrived, I saw the large raptor sitting on a stump on the edge of camp, minding its own business, slowly devouring a trout Sergei had recently caught and hand delivered.

Ospreys are uncommon in Primorye. I’d only occasionally seen these fish specialists over the years—adults hovering, then diving for mullet or redfin in the brackish waters of river mouths along the Sea of Japan. And I’d never seen a young one before. From my vantage point across Sergei’s camp, it looked quite different from an adult but had the similar, familiar, black-and-white plumage pattern that adults did.

About a week later I saw the bird again, when Sergei’s caravan of naturalists came to the village of Ternei, where I worked at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s research center. I had offered to describe my work with Blakiston’s fish owls to them and Sergei brought the osprey, perched calmly on his arm, inside the building.

I took a look at this bird under the artificial light of the entryway. The bill didn’t seem right—not blunt and hooked like it should have been—and the whole body shape seemed off. As I scrutinized the bird a little closer it wasn’t long before the osprey farce was obvious. This was not an osprey! It bore only the most superficial resemblance to one.

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A Reluctant Participant

Boreal Owl (c) J. Slaght

A Tengmalm’s (or Boreal) owl. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

One night, while mist-netting for larger owls, my Russian colleagues and I were surprised to find a Tengmalm’s owl in our net. This diminutive bird—which for some reason reminds me of a sprinkle-covered chocolate cupcake—is better known in North America as a boreal owl. The species is scattered at low densities across the coniferous forest belt from Alaska to Ontario and Norway to Kamchatka; smudges of brown and white difficult to discern among the shadows and grey lines of the dark forests they call home.This one had likely been stalking a vole when it dropped noiselessly into our near-invisible net; a mistake we took advantage of by snapping photos, taking measurements, and collecting a DNA sample.

The owl wiggled throughout this process and chirped its indignation; a reluctant participant in our pursuit of knowledge. Upon release, he quickly melted into the forest with a turn and a few quick flaps on silent wings; alighting to roost once more among the aromatic firs.


This post originally appeared on May 13, 2015, as part of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Wild View blog.

The Unexpected Beast


Brown bear. Photograph Ⓒ Jonathan C. Slaght

A few years ago I was helping a colleague track Siberian musk deer in the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve. She was a graduate student studying the behavior of these fascinating, spritely creatures, and was in the middle of a grueling field season collecting reams of movement data from several radio-tagged musk deer.

One afternoon, in the middle of a day hike, we turned up a narrow valley dominated by Korean pine while tracking a male musk deer. This was a lush gorge bisected by a gurgling brook that further masked our footsteps already dampened by the carpet of pine needles. This stealth allowed us to obliviously approach then flush a trio of roe deer then later a sounder of at least a half-dozen wild boar.

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