I love all kinds of wildlife and I don’t think there is anything cooler and wilder than Blakiston’s Fish Owl. The largest owl in the world was in the news a few years ago when Jonathon Slaght’s research into these magnificent animals described their need for old-growth, riparian woodlands (see a NY Times article here: Angier 2013 the Owl Comes into its Own COVER 26FEB2013). In the manner of so many unsung wildlife heroes, Jonathan continues to work in the field, year after year. So without further ado here’s a Q&A with Jon. Thanks, Dr Slaght!
Please tell us how you came to be an expert on a very rare owl in the Russian Far East.
While I would love to say my reason for getting into Blakiston’s fish owl conservation was something noble or romantic, in reality the decision boiled down to money and convenience.
In about 2005 I started looking for a good topic for a Ph.D. study in Primorye, a province in the southern Russian Far East, a fascinating region where I’d already had a decade of experience. I knew that I wanted to provide some insight to one of Primorye’s rarer and more secretive nesting bird species, but was having trouble narrowing in down. Since funding runs the conservation show I figured it would be hard to secure a series of grants to study something like the drab and decidedly-unsexy Pleske’s warbler, so I’d settled on one of two more charismatic species: the Blakiston’s fish owl and the hooded crane.
Right about the time I was mulling this over, I went on a 40-km hike that weaved extensively through a larch bog, which happens to be hooded crane nesting habitat. Hopping from hummock to hummock with a heavy pack was indescribably tedious, and I realized that more of the same was in store if I opted to study cranes. So fish owls won.
How would you describe Blakiston’s Fish-Owl [BFO] (Bubo blakistoni) to those unfamiliar with this species? By the way, what common name do you prefer? Blakiston’s Eagle-owl? Blakiston’s Fish-Owl?
I call them “Blakiston’s fish owl.” It is important to note these birds (now Bubo but until recently in the genus Ketupa) are distinct from “fishing owls.” Fish owl species (there are four of them) live in Asia, while fishing owl species (there are three of them) live in Africa.
Fish owls are impressive creatures. Think of a great-horned owl: brown with ear tufts, and then triple its mass. Fish owls weigh up to 9 pounds. They have yellow eyes, stand at about 2.5 feet tall, and have 6 foot wingspans.
I just finished a draft of a book I wrote about my fish owl fieldwork, and really like my first physical description of a fish owl there:
“The buff brown plumage of his chest, speckled with darker lateral stripes, made the bird seem almost like an extension of the tree branch itself, a stout protrusion come alive and vengeful. When he hooted, the white patch of his throat bulged, and his ear tufts, erect and ragged and massive and comical, swayed with every movement. ”
Interestingly (& a bit ironically), for a bird that lives in some of the coldest areas on Earth, BFO’s rely on open water for hunting during the winter. Do BFO’s defend these ice-free stretches or have you seen any evidence of owls taking over/losing prime fishing spots?
Fish owl pairs defend their territories year-round, and seem to center their home ranges around sections of river valley that have the sweet spot of both giant trees (for nesting) and open water (for hunting). I have not observed an outside owl muscling one of the resident pair out, which is the only way I could envision a resident owl losing its fishing spot. Not to say it can’t happen—only that I have not observed it or heard of it happening elsewhere.
BFO’s walk along the water’s edge hunting for salmon and other fish or they drop onto prey from a low perch near the water. Have you ever observed them hunting in a more active manner (like an osprey, for example)?
I have personally not, but nearly all of my observations of fish owl hunting are in winter, when they employ the hunting strategy you describe. Sumio Yamamoto, the grandfather of fish owl conservation in Japan, published an excellent book in 1999 called “Blakiston’s Fish Owl.” While written in Japanese, the book includes a number of insightful graphics, including one depicting a wide range of hunting strategies used by fish owls, including the full-body plunge reminiscent of an osprey dive.
In addition to reproducing slowly, BFO’s rely on old growth forest in riparian areas (something that your research has shown). What kind of conservation challenges does this pose for the species?
The conflict that typically pops into people’s heads when they hear “owl” and “old-growth forest” is the spotted owl controversy in the Pacific Northwest. The issue with fish owls in Russia is fundamentally different. The huge old-growth trees that fish owls require to provide safe nest sites are usually commercially-useless and are not targeted for extraction. So there is no direct conflict between logging and fish owls. However, since the trees have no economic value they are often cut down for makeshift bridges or removed in “sanitation cuts.” So a big part of the conservation push is just making sure that logging companies know that fish owls need those trees and they should not be removed.
The rapid exploitation of natural resources in your study area is well-documented. In addition to direct habitat loss from logging, what other threats do BFO’s face? Are they persecuted by locals?
Although not specifically persecuted, fish owls face some bizarre threats given their size and food preference. Here are a few examples:
- Fish owls look forward to salmon runs just as much as anglers, and when poachers set nets across rivers at night to trap the migrating fish, fish owls are attracted to the wriggling salmon, get tangled in the nets themselves, and drown.
- As the road network expands in Primorye and the quality of those roads improves, people can drive faster along more roads. Fish owls hunting for frogs along roadside ponds in Primorye in spring have been hit and killed. This is a big problem in Japan that is only just starting to show up in Russia.
- Fish owls can be cryptic and mysterious, so even people who spend a lot of time in the woods (such as hunters) can be surprised when they see one. I’ve heard of hunters being perplexed by the massive form of a fish owl in a tree and shooting it just to see what it is. Since fish owls mate and defend territories for life, the loss of one member of a pair can result in no reproductive output for many years.
How would you describe the temperament of BFO’s, especially near their nests?
These birds are surprisingly docile, both in hand and at the nest. They typically do not aggressively defend a nest the way some other owls do.
Do the local corvids and other songbirds mob BFO’s?
They sure do; the crows anyway. In fact, I once observed a carrion crow and a Eurasian buzzard taking turns mobbing a fish owl. It was bizarre—the crow would dive at the owl, and then the buzzard.
What other owl species are found in BFO habitat and what sort of interactions do they have with the big owl?
Let’s see. There are 13 species of owl found in Primorye: Eurasian pygmy owl, Tengmalm’s [or Boreal] owl, Eurasian scops owl, collared scops owl, brown hawk owl, northern hawk owl, short-eared owl, long-eared owl, Ural owl, great grey owl, Eurasian eagle owl, Blakiston’s fish owl, and the occasional snowy owl. Of these, I have seen or heard all but three of these (short-eared owl, long-eared owl, snowy owl) in or near the riparian forest habitat where fish owls are found. Ural owls are probably the most common. However, I have never witnessed any direct interactions between these different owl species.
What other wildlife do you encounter in your study area?
The wildlife in the region is fantastic. I regularly encounter wild boar, roe deer, red deer, and sika deer. I often see tracks of Eurasian otter, raccoon dog, badger, red fox, and sable. Tracks of brown bear, Asiatic black bear, and Amur (or Siberian) tiger are less common but I see them as well. As for birds along the coast, white-tailed sea eagles are ubiquitous, and Steller’s sea eagles are uncommon but certainly around.
Was there one BFO that you encountered that had a great impact on you?
There was one female that I tracked for five years, and it showed me how tough life is for a fish owl. You alluded earlier to the fact the fish owls have low reproductive output; in fact fish owls do not breed every year and invest considerably into the growth of one or two chicks (usually one). So if a fish owl lays an egg in Year One, that chick grows up and is cared for in Year Two, then the resident pair of fish owls will lay another egg in Year Three. I observed two years in those five where this female fish owl attempted to breed but something happened that aborted the effort, so breeding was put off until the following season. The first abort occurred in a year when fish densities seemed low, and we suspected the bird simply did not have the fat reserves to endure the physically-taxing breeding/incubating/rearing periods. She acted like she was going to lay an egg, but never did. In another year, a large branch fell in a storm and landed in the nest cavity after she had laid an egg, causing her to abandon the nest because she could no longer fit in it. We removed the branch, but she did not lay another egg. Eventually, this fish owl was fatally struck by a car along the recently-widened road that ran past her territory.
The years I had into a window of her life simply underscored how hard it is to be a fish owl. Even in the absence of the direct conservation threats that ultimately killed her (vehicle collision), she was only able to successfully breed twice in five years. [This is the bird that was on the cover of The New York Times’ Science Times on February 26th, 2013].
Are you optimistic about the future for BFO’s?
I am, yes. One reason is that a tremendous amount of prospective habitat for these birds in Russia (along the western shores of the Sea of Okhotsk in the north Pacific) is almost entirely inaccessible to humans. If we can keep the people away, fish owls have a future.
I am a bit worried about their future in Primorye, the province I work in, given the recent proliferation of roads and intense resource extraction (trees and salmon) there.
What can people in the West do to help save this magnificent bird?
My organization (the Wildlife Conservation Society) is actively pursuing several avenues to bolster fish owl conservation in Russia, and honestly the best way for someone to directly impact fish owl conservation is to support those efforts financially.
- We are working with other NGOs in the region to identify areas within logging concessions that are important to fish owls (nest sites, hunting sites) and excluding those areas from harvest by the concession holder.
- We are working with the Amgu Logging Company and the Ternei County Forest Service to close down unused logging roads, which will minimize the chances of vehicular collisions, poacher access, and unnecessary fish owl deaths.
Anyone interested in learning more can contact me directly at email@example.com
On a personal note, what’s it like being an American wildlife biologist working in Russia’s “Wild East”?
In a word, “unpredictable.”