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Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C Slaght review – an extraordinary quest

Drinking ethanol and saving the world ... an old-school, tautly strung adventure in pursuit of the largest species of owl Jonathan Slaght has the best author photograph I’ve ever seen. Pale, bearded, dressed in black, he gazes at the camera with forbidding intensity. Behind him are snowy woods and running water. Arms crossed, hands deep in a pair of unwieldy leather gauntlets, he holds against his chest a huge owl. Its feathers are shaggy and wet, and from its mouth protrudes the tail end of a silver fish. There’s something puppet-like about this creature, like a living Jim Henson creation, but it also resembles a beast pulled straight from the pages of a medieval bestiary – which is fitting, because Owls of the Eastern Ice reads like a modern-day grail quest: a tale of one man’s travels through a daunting landscape of snow and ice and radioactive rivers, searching for an animal that seems all ghost. A confession: I’ve never understood why so many people are obsessed with owls. I once cared for a rescued barn owl, and while it was a beautiful creature, possessing a cat-like hauteur and strangely human face, it was about as rewarding to interact with as a porcelain statuette. But I’m happy to report that this book has changed me. I have become an ardent fan of the largest living species of owl, the Blakiston’s fish owl. Huge, elusive and endangered denizens of the deep forests of Japan, China and the Russian far east, these marvellously odd birds wade through icy water to catch fish, sing in low, hooted duets, possess a thick layer of insulating fat, a wingspan that can top six and a half feet, and have been venerated as gods by the Ainu of Hokkaido. Continue reading...

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