Wildlife researcher Jonathan Slaght’s account of his five-year doctoral study of the elusive Blakiston’s fish owls of far eastern Russia is due out next week, delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. The memoir recounts rigorous field research juxtaposed on eccentric locals, daunting winter weather and the haunting loveliness of a truly remote wilderness. Below is a conversation with him in late March at his home near Lake Nokomis. It has been edited for length.
Q: What attracted you to field research?
A: It’s extremely romantic, experiencing wilderness as fully as possible. There are only so many places where few people have been in this century. Some places I went to for fish owls, I was the first foreigner, possibly ever. Beyond where the road ends is just remote and unexplored.
Terney, one base of operation, is the same latitude as Minneapolis, 45 degrees. There’s four seasons, the autumns there are just as beautiful as they are here. The Siberian tigers at the Minnesota Zoo — this is where they live.
Q: And what is compelling about Primorye, Far East Russia?
A: A tiger researcher friend has a favorite beach in Primorye. He says, “It’s the kind of place where you’re more likely to see tiger prints in the sand than a human print.” Any time you set off on a hike, you never know what’s going to be around the corner. Maybe a bear, maybe one of innumerable unique wildlife species. The human population density of Terney County is 1.2 people per square kilometer, pretty low. There’s these little pockets of people. Everything else is wilderness.
Q: Describe the research working conditions.
A: Snow depth is variable, on average 2 feet. We walk around on those hunter skis — relatively short and relatively wide. Planks of wood, essentially. The coldest it ever really got was about 20 degrees below, Fahrenheit. Every year, there was always a sustained period of cold. And blizzards. Some people think it’s the worst time to be out in the forest, February to April. We’re in the dead of winter. Living in a truck.
Q: How did you dress for the work?
A: I wore layers for most of the season. On top of that, a fleece, essentially all I needed during a normal day walking in the woods. I always had a down jacket and a wind layer in my backpack in case I needed to add those.
I wore a light liner glove on my hands with extremely heavy North Face down mittens. They were the warmest thing I could find. They just finally wore out. I had them for more than a decade.
Q: After your repeated failure to live-trap the owls, why didn’t you give up?
A: Well, we were actually stuck at that site. Our vehicle was stuck in the snow. We were literally trapped at this cabin. What else are you going to do? Just keep trying. The bigger picture is, it was my degree and I needed to collect that data. It was going to be challenging. I thought it would be a little bit easier than it was.
Q: Blakiston’s fish owls are rare and endangered. How can you justify intruding into their lives, running the risk of injury or death?
A: The researcher has to decide that what they’re doing justifies that intrusion. I saw our work could benefit their species. What we learned from studying the owls for a couple of years is being implemented as protective policy. The only way to get that data was to intrude. It was a risk worth taking. I’m glad that we did it.
Q: Describe the role of the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center in your research.
A: They were really helpful. At the center I was able to practice putting transmitters on great horned owls. They taught me how to move in on a trapped bird, how to grab it and restrain it safely; how to hold a bird while blood’s being drawn and how to draw blood.
The center had 10 owls in little dog carriers. They’d open one carrier. I’d look in. There was this great horned owl waiting for me. The longer you hesitate, the angrier it’s going to be, so the second, the second the opportunity presents itself, you grab it as fast as you can.
Q: Did you keep a journal in Primorye? Your stories are vivid and detailed.
A: Absolutely. My whole world there was in Russian, living in a truck with Russians, speaking Russian. For about an hour a day, I’d get in the corner of the truck and write the experiences of the day. It was a way to use English, my native language. I speak Russian fluently, but I’m not extremely articulate. It was liberating to be able to sit down and write in English and, you know, complain about the idiosyncrasies of a co-worker or worry about how the traps weren’t working.
Q: Did prior experience hone your mental toughness?
A: Russia is not an easy place to live, even in town. I was in the Peace Corps there for three years. It’s an ever-present hardship. That’s good preparation for field work.
Q: What are you doing now?
A: My official title is Russia and Northeast Asia coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society. A fair chunk of my job is grant writing. Grants for tiger, bear and leopard research. I also do fish owl work, that’s ongoing. And migratory bird work, trying to coordinate programs to protect specific species, like spoon-billed sandpipers.
Q: Are you hopeful for the future of the owls?
A: (long pause) I am. Most of their range is still almost fully inaccessible by humans. Where there are no people, the owls are safe. The Russian government is taking more of an interest in conservation. The primary logging company is owned by the Japanese, who view fish owls as a symbol of wilderness. They don’t want to do anything that’s bad for owls, bad for nature.
Q: In light of all the bad news of a damaged environment, what keeps you going?
A: In my presentations on fish owls, I end with a slide of an incubating owl in an artificial nest box. A lot of what I do is very abstract. We think we are helping nature, but we really don’t know. But this is not abstract: Someone nailed a box to a tree and now there are new fish owls in the world.
Sue Leaf is a freelance writer and author of the new book, “Minnesota’s Geologist: The Life of Newton Horace Winchell.” She lives near Center City, Minn.