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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A Brief Encounter with a Goral

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The cliffs above Khuntami Beach in the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve, Primorye, Russia. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

A dense carpet of stunted Mongolian oak gives way to cliff and then to ocean in the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve. Languid waves massage the sands of Khuntami Bay below, while somewhere inland a wildfire smolders and pushes an ashy haze towards the Sea of Japan.

 

Moments before I took this photograph there was a crashing in the nearby vegetation, and a long-tailed goral burst from the low shrubs and onto the rocks to assess if I was friend or predator. This stocky, goat-like species has a very small global population, with most of the six hundred or so in Russia distributed along the coastal cliffs of Primorye. Goral are expert mountaineers capable of precise vertical movements along seemingly-sheer cliffs with speed and efficiency.

The beast panicked when it recognized me as human, and with a few hurried scrapes of hoof on rock it disappeared down a steep precipice and out of sight.

The Unexpected Beast

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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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