Long-tailed goral. Photograph (c) WCS Russia/Sikhote-Alin Reserve
The Khuntami Cliffs are a cathedral of rock. They rise slowly from inland to crest like an enormous wave frozen just before crashing into the Sea of Japan. It’s been a favorite spot of mine in the Sikhote-Alin Reserve for years now; I’ve seen everything from nesting Eurasian eagle owls to Pacific swifts here, watched Minke whales in the sea, and seen tracks of wild boar, Asiatic black bears, and Amur tiger in the sand along Khuntami Bay below.
The Khuntami Cliffs, in the Sikhote-Alin Reserve, as seen from inland. Credit: Jonathan C. Slaght WCS
It was these latter beasts—the bears and the tigers—that were on my mind a few autumns ago, when I neared the top of the cliffs and something big and unseen exploded in movement from the nearby vegetation.
The mystery creature had only been a few meters away in a stunted, chest-high oak grove before it flushed and, given the wind that day, apparently had not heard or smelled me until I almost kicked it. Instead of a predator, however, I saw prey. A long-tailed goral burst from the bushes to clamber onto a vantage point to assess me as friend or foe, its hooves clicking like high heels on the rock.
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.
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.