Remarkable Bird Discovery in Russia

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Nordmann’s greenshank on the nest, the first time this has been seen in more than forty years. Photo courtesy Philipp Maleko

I’ve been quite busy the last year working on my fish owl book for Farrar, Straus, & Giroux (and Penguin in the UK), so have been a little quiet on these pages.  Popping my head up to share some remarkable bird news out of Russia.

It was just reported that a Russian-American team of biologists found the nest of a globally-endangered Nordmann’s greenshank (Tringa guttifer).  What’s amazing about this find is that, until June 2019, only a single person in the entire world had ever seen one of these nests. Dr. Vitalii Nechaev found five nests in 1976, but not a one had been seen since then.

Nordmann’s greenshank, one of the most endangered shorebirds in the world, is thought to have a population of fewer than 2000 individuals, and they nest only in Russia. They have experienced a steep population decline in recent decades, linked largely to habitat destruction and illegal hunting in Southeast Asia where they spend their winters.

Their nesting habitat is quite remote, which is one of the reasons it’s taken more than four decades for a nest to be rediscovered. To reach the site, the ornithologists took a motorboat along the Sea of Okhotsk coast, then walked inland several kilometers through coastal wetland teeming with bears.

Please see the recent New York Times article for more details. Let’s hope this discovery will lead to more revelations about this endangered species that can help protect it from extinction.

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Goral on the Cliffs

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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.

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.

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2017 End of Year Summary

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The pair of Merlins that nested near my house in 2017. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

Another good year! In total, I worked on 19 stories (down from 22 in 2016).

The most important writing development of 2017, without question, was finding a home for my Blakiston’s fish owl book manuscript. Or, should I say, two homes: the manuscript was picked up by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux in the United States, and Penguin secured rights in the United Kingdom. This is a natural history travel adventure—a non-fiction account of my first five years searching for and studying this endangered species. I’m looking forward to spending some of 2018 working with my editor to revise and refine my 115,000-word text (~400 pages). I’m guessing the book will come out in 2019, but we’ll see.

Thanks for reading in 2017….let’s see what happens in 2018!

Books: 1 under contract, 1 in print

  • My account of fieldwork with Blakiston’s fish owls, tentatively titled “Owls of the Eastern Ice,” was picked up by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux in the United States. Penguin UK secured rights in the United Kingdom.
  • My 2016 translation of Vladimir Arsenyev’s Across the Ussuri Kray (Indiana University Press) continued to garner solid reviews in 2017, including Times Literary Supplement and Slavonic and East European Review.

Web Articles: 14

  • Scientific American: 4 entries into my East of Siberia series (14 to date), as well as an OpEd about tigers for Global Tiger Day
  • Audubon: an article about the threat of bird hunting in Southeast Asia to critically-endangered Spoon-billed sandpipers
  • Mongabay: an article about how tigers adapt to varying environments across Asia
  • Wild View: 6 entries for this Wildlife Conservation Society photo blog (30 to date), including one that made the Top Ten List for 2017
  • Medium: an article for Earth Day 2017 about the need for science-based decision making in conservation.

Print Articles: 1

  • Minnesota Conservation Volunteer: a short article about a pair of Merlins (small falcons) nesting a stone’s throw from my back porch in Minneapolis

Scientific Articles (in print): 1

  • Oryx: Slaght, J.C., B. Milakovsky, D. Maksimova, I. Seryodkin, V. Zaitsev, A. Panichev, and D. Miquelle. 2017. Anthropogenic influences on the distribution of a Vulnerable coniferous forest specialist: habitat selection by the Siberian musk deer Moschus moschiferus. Oryx doi: 10.1017/S0030605316001617

Scientific Articles (accepted but not yet in print): 2

  • Slaght, J.C., T. Takenaka, S.G. Surmach, Y. Fujimaki, I.G. Utekhina, and E.R. Potapov. 2018. Global Distribution and Population Estimates of Blakiston’s Fish Owl. Chapter in Biodiversity Conservation Using Umbrella Species, Springer (scheduled for March 2018)
  • Slaght, J.C., S.G. Surmach, and A.A. Kisleiko. Ecology and conservation of Blakiston’s fish owl in Russia. 2018. Chapter in Biodiversity Conservation Using Umbrella Species, Springer (scheduled for March 2018)

Television Appearances: 2

  • News interview (in Russian) with OTV about my Arsenyev translation (Across the Ussuri Kray, Indiana University Press, 2016).
  • News interview (in Russian) with VestiPrimorye about my Arsenyev translation (Across the Ussuri Kray, Indiana University Press, 2016)