Slaght's plan is spend several seasons locating pairs of owls, then tag and trace their movements over the next few years. Plans, of course, seem very straightforward when they are written in the comfort of offices. But the reality of the cold, desolate and wet wilderness makes things very difficult indeed. Slaght could not have succeeded without a supporting cast of conservationists and colleagues. These men (and they are all men) have more experience than he does, and are more knowledgeable of the surroundings. They know locations, people and, crucially, the owls. They are also wonderfully eccentric. Slaght quickly learns to drink vodka - visitors who come to their hut to see the America inevitably bring a bottle of vodka with them. Slaght learns that Russian vodka often only has a foil cap. Once opened the bottle is always drained - why would you need a screw on lid? At one celebration when he has finally managed to tag an owl, Slaght gets very drunk and wakes with a terrible hangover. It turns out the guests that night had brought cleaning fluid not vodka.
Fish owl's are fascinating creatures. They live off fish and seek a space with open water, nesting in the trunk of a dead tree nearby. They have a unique mournful cry that a pair will duet together, and look (from both the pictures in this book and Slaght's description) like a bedraggled grumpy bird that Slaght describes at one point as looking like "feathered golems". They are also huge - as big as eagles.
Primorye is wilderness, but it is being opened up by loggers. The logging companies threaten the bird's landscape but ironically often provide the support infrastructure that the conservationists need. Slaght recognises that he has to work with the companies to protect the owls and, together with his colleagues, seems to have some success. There is a similar convoluted relationship with the hunters of the region whose actions threaten not just the owls, but also the rarer tigers.
Oddly enough, for a book focused on fish owls, I felt that I wanted to know more about the birds themselves. They are elusive and I suspect few people who read this book will have heard of them before. But because Slaght focuses on the story of his studies, we tend to learn about the owls as he does. It means that the totality isn't really brought together.
It's possible to read Owls of the Eastern Ice on many levels. It is firstly a fascinating insight into the hard work, science and boredom that goes into much crucial conservation work. It is also an entertaining travelogue of the type that opens up an entirely different community to outsiders eyes, though Slaght is not so crude a writer that this feels patronising or obtrusive. Finally it is a study of a rare and endangered animal that helps us understand how wider capitalist economics can threaten and transform an entire landscape. I highly recommend this fascinating read - even if you've never heard of Blakiston's Fish Owl before.