Blakiston’s Fish Owl is the largest owl in the world, but that doesn’t make it easy to find. But in fish owls this disc is poorly defined. The creature took to the air, hooting its displeasure. At first, Slaght was unsure what kind of bird was flapping away from him. They are dishevelled masses of woodchip-brown plumage, electric yellow eyes and long and floppy ear tufts like the leaves of a fern. Mongabay: What are the key threats to the fish owl’s survival? Remote as it was, I didn’t think this was nearly exotic enough for fish owls. Orders Families Genera Species. My checklists; Birds. And I realized I was probably never going to see one because they were so cryptic. Although little known, even in Russia, Blakiston’s fish owl is actually the world’s biggest owl – at least on average, according to Slaght. Big mammals are at risk in the world’s poorest countries, even within parks, ‘Nature is next’: Q&A with Finance for Biodiversity’s Simon Zadek, A Chilean archipelago rivaling the Galápagos fends off invasive species, Sexual harassment rife in Vietnam’s conservation sector, survey reveals, Fueled by impunity, invasions surge in Brazil’s Indigenous lands. But Jonathan Slaght wants us to envision a different creature, a giant bird sweeping through the night skies of this remote wilderness in his new book Owls of the Eastern Ice (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020). Fortunately, he had snapped a few grainy photos which he sent to an ornithologist friend who confirmed it was indeed a Blakiston’s fish owl. Before the age of 16, I’d only lived in the United States for two years. One time I was out in the field with a colleague and we looked over, and 200 meters away there was something in the tree. The fish owls of Primorye had been shielded from a similar fate by Soviet inertia, poor infrastructure and a low human population. Primorye is also the nexus of the boreal and subtropical biomes. I’d just spent two weeks in Primorye in the Russian far east – a wild, mountainous province bordering the Sea of Japan, China and North Korea. Search. I immersed myself in the pages of this intoxicating world, turning from one remarkable species to the next, not knowing the English names of any of them, and struggling to decipher the Russian text with my pocket dictionary. I flipped through to figure out what was going to be there, and what were the possible rarities. Some fish these owls catch are quite large. I was smitten but, as with a celebrity crush, I knew I’d never meet one in real life. Before the age of 16, I’d only lived in the United States for two years. Blakiston’s Fish Owl, named after the English naturalist Thomas Blakiston, is the world’s largest owl, weighing up to a hefty 10 pounds. Traversing Russia’s remote taiga in pursuit of the Blakiston’s fish owl The Blakiston’s fish owl is the world’s largest owl, ranging from the eastern woodlands of Hokkaido, Japan, to the Primorye territory in the south of Russia’s Far East. But the free market that had emerged in the 1990s bred wealth, corruption and a covetous eye focused keenly on the untouched natural resources in northern Primorye, thought to be the bird’s global stronghold. The tigers are using the rivers as travel corridors. When he returned home, Slaght scanned an old field guide but didn’t think “the floppy goblin” matched any animal contained within. In Primorye, nature moves in a flow of interconnected parts. Although it appears to have a large breeding range, the owl has habitat requirements that limit the world population to a few thousand individuals. If you block off a road or limit how vehicles can travel on a road, then you’re reducing the number of people who are going to take in a minivan full of nets and set those along the river. Instead they rely heavily on sight to hunt, crouching motionless on a riverbank, waiting for a ripple in the water to pounce on a passing fish. I’d just spent two weeks in Primorye in the Russian far east – a wild, mountainous province bordering the Sea of Japan, China and North Korea. They’re sandy brown in color and their whole presentation is floppy. When one imagines Russia’s snow-covered taiga, a Siberian tiger is the creature that may most often pad silently through the conifer forests of the mind. Jonathan Slaght has devoted decades to preserving the largest owl species in the world. People access wilderness areas by road. How could it be that this bird of mystery, found only in the remotest of forests, was on the edge of Lazo with its hoot blending among the sounds of passing trucks and baying village dogs? The human population is so low here that tracks of tiger or bear can be more common along the sandy beaches than human prints. Every day, Mongabay reporters bring you news from nature’s frontline. Thankfully, my few grainy photos, after calm and collected inspection, confirmed the sighting. Image courtesy of Jonathan Slaght. Leaving my family for long stretches is hard, no question, but I thrive on the work I do. In Japan, where they don’t have these same fishing pressures, the owl’s reproductive output is basically twice as high. You’re going to stop the people from going in and harvesting trees. You’re going to stop fish owls being hit and killed by cars. As a rule, owls are famous for their silent flight and hypersensitive hearing, both adaptations that fish owls lack – as their prey is underwater, a silent attack is unnecessary. All these more southern species get up there and that’s where they stop because after that it just becomes the boreal forest. They’re improbably big. Mongabay: In your book you say that the fish owl is as much a symbol of Primorye as the Siberian tiger. English Russian. Visual: Sergey Gafitski. Before the Russians came to dip their nets in the rivers and harvest trees, Manchurian and indigenous populations did the same. We depend on support from users like you. I'd like to help cover the transaction fees of 0 for my donation. (And scientists once observed an owl catching a baby Nile crocodile!) There’s a lot of unsustainable salmon harvest going on. The plumage is so dense that any time the wind hits them they’re just a wave of floppiness. But it was worth it. The guy I’m with was like, “Is that a bear?” I pulled out the binoculars and said, “Nope, that’s a fish owl.”. People will care about something they know about and if they care about it then maybe we can have a world where both of us still exist. Today, Slaght is one the few people in the world who studies fish owls, and serves as the co-founder of the Blakiston’s Fish Owl Project, as well as being the Russia and Northeast Asia program coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society. There are three species of salmon that run on the rivers — that’s a direct relationship.