Excerpted from Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2020 by Jonathan C. Slaght. All rights reserved.
The fall traps did not pan out. Either the resident fish owls were not interested in the frozen marine fish we offered as lures or the birds were unwilling to walk under the suspicious netted domes to investigate them. At about two o’clock one morning, a few days after the blizzard ended, Sergey and I sped three kilometers on the snowmobile in response to a beeping trap transmitter, only to discover a false alarm: ice had caused the net to sag and this tugged on the string that activated the beacon. Sergey, tired and frustrated and cold, kicked at the frame, breaking it, then threw the remains into the forest. Thus concluded the fall trap experiment.
The capture learning curve was steep. There were multiple nuances specific to each trap and to each capture site. Since late February, we’d had a few very near misses. When we started out the season, we thought that four owl captures seemed like a reasonable target, but I was ready to backtrack on that goal with the realization that simply learning how to safely and efficiently catch these birds would be success enough for me for this year. If we had one or two captures to show for it at the end of the season, after all these failures, I would be satisfied. We were well past the midway point of the field season; if the weather held, we’d have three, possibly four, weeks left before the capture window closed. After that, spring would bring unstable ice, rising waters, and unsuitable conditions to trap fish owls.
The pattern of no owls, poor sleep, second-guessing, and general stagnation continued on for more than a week. I felt trapped, more so knowing that we really were trapped. Even if we wanted to throw up our hands, leave, and start fresh as we had when we left Serebryanka, we could not: our truck was still stuck in the snow a kilometer and a half away. I tried changing my outlook. We’d still made some progress this year, even if we hadn’t caught any owls. It had been arrogant of me to think we could stroll up to some of the least-studied birds in Northeast Asia and assume they’d hand us their secrets.
It was right around this time, when I’d come to terms with our failures, that we caught our first owl. Anatoliy slapped me on the shoulder and told me he knew it all along—all I had needed to do was change my attitude. But in reality, we’d improved our trap. Up until this capture, we’d placed our noose carpets along the riverbank in areas we hoped the owls would land, which was inefficient. Our modification, something novel enough that we were able to later publish a description of it in a scientific journal, coaxed the owls to land where we wanted them to. We created a prey enclosure: an open-top mesh box about a meter long and thirteen centimeters tall, constructed from material left over from our noose carpets. We placed the box in shallow water no more than ten centimeters deep, sprinkled the bottom with pebbles so that from above it looked like any other stretch of river, and then filled it with as many fish as we could catch—usually fifteen or twenty salmon smolt. Then we set a single noose carpet on the closest part of the riverbank. The owl would see the fish, approach for a closer look, and get caught.