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.

An Osprey, Until It Wasn’t

 

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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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