13 April 2009

Efforts Underway to Understand Rare Owl in Far-east Russia

Adult Blakiston's Fish Owl. Picture taken in 2007. All images courtesy of Jonathan Slaght.

Rare and elusive in a wintery lair, some few Blakiston’s Fish Owl (Bubo blakistoni) exist in the remote Sikhote-Alin Mountains of far-east Russia. Here on the frontier, a team is working to document the distribution and discover how to conserve this endangered species with an estimated population of about 5,000 birds.

"Sergei Surmach, an energetic ornithologist with Vladivostok’s Institute of Biology and Soil Science, has chased these brown ghosts around Primorye’s rivers for more than ten years," Jonathan C. Slaght wrote in his article about the owl and his research, for Wildlife Conservation Magazine, March-April issue. "In 2005, Sergei and I began collaborating on a telemetry project to collect ecological information that will be the basis for the conservation plan."

Seven pairs have been monitored thus far during the 2009 survey underway in recent weeks for the Amgu portion of the owl survey, in the Amgu river drainage, including the Leonovka, Granatnaya, and Saiyon Rivers.

The party consisted of Slaght, Andrei Katkov, Shurik Popov and Kolya Gorlach. They started west of Amgu, a town on the frontier, arriving on March 9th.

Andrei Katkov, Jonathan Slaght and Shurik Popov in the kitchen of the GAZ-66, during recent field work. Picture taken by S. Avdeyuk.

"The excitement at finding the Leonovka nest," Slaght wrote in the first update sent after returning from the field in early April, "was muted by the realization that our tagged female was sitting firm, and we will not be able to attempt recapturing her until May or June, when her young chick has fledged and a capture attempt is safe. So, we refocused our efforts on her mate. He found our prey enclosure quite quickly, and we set our trap the next day. After scaring a mink away from our enclosure with a stick, the fish owl came in and was easily captured. Like most male fish owls he was calm and docile to handle, and after release he sat in a nearby spruce and hooted at us for an hour or so before flying off."

"Their chosen hunting spot was a wide section of the Amgu River, about 30 meters across, very shallow, and right on the edge of the village itself. There, with a background chorus of baying village dogs, logging trucks and ocean static, the Granatnaya family" hunt in the evening.

The team lived in their GAZ-66 vehicle, which was reliable but tinkered with.

"Kolya was constantly adjusting and tightening some hose ... I am not mechanically-oriented so do not know the exact problem," Slaght said. 

GAZ-66 at Sanyon Camp.

"Although we had been in the Amgu area for almost two weeks, we had not gone into the town itself until the afternoon of 18 March, when we drove to Vova Volkov’s banya (sauna and bath house) for a well deserved wash."

Other locales visited earlier in the season, were the Mineralnaya and Sadoga Rivers at their confluences with the Avvakumovka River, near the town of Olga, and the Serebryanka and Faata fish owl territories at Ternei, Slaght describes in two February updates. Details convey the trials of field research in remote country, and the people and places visited, and it all relates to the known Blakiston’s Fish Owls being visited.

Notable for the season: "We were constantly being harassed by county and provincial game inspectors looking for poachers, and many assumed that we were indeed poachers," Slaght said in an email.  Nothing like staying all night trying to catch an owl, then have a bunch of inspectors wake you up at 7 a.m. demanding to know where we are hiding our poached meat."

Quick Statistics (2009)
Of Seven Monitored Pairs, Number Nesting: 2
Of Seven Monitored Pairs, No. With Year-Old Juveniles: 3

The next stop was the Saiyon territory, some 20 km north of Amgu.

"We quickly found where the birds hunted and set our trapless prey enclosures. We were delighted thathere, as at Granatnaya, the pair seemed to hunt in different places, and that their year-old juvenile was with them. On 21 March we set prey enclosures at two sites, and quickly captured the male. He had a wealth of information on his back: 175 locations over six months! We caught the juvenile two days later, weighed him, and gave him leg bands."

This bird is pictured in Slaght's article in Wildlife Conservation Magazine.

Information gathered from the GPS dataloggers, "is unprecedented for the species," Slaght explained. "As of now we have good data on winter, spring and summer habitat use, but because of the limitations of rechargeable dataloggers (only last six months), coupled with the difficulty of recapturing fish owls outside of winter, we do not yet have any autumn habitat use data. At present, we have one six-month datalogger and seven year-long dataloggers on fish owls; all will be retrieved next winter."

Each unit costs about $1700 he said, and since they do not transmit, the owls need to be recaptured to retrieve the unit and its information. Two types, from a company in New Zealand are being used.

At Leonovka, though the nest was found abandoned, the female bird was captured and found to be "quite thin," Slaght said. The team retrieved the datalogger which contained information on her movement during three months and at 52 locations.

The field season ended with a "banya and banquet" on April 6.

"This was a highly successful field season; we captured ten individual owls, which is twice as many as we captured in 2008," Slaght said in his final update for the season. "We placed GPS dataloggers on eight of these birds (the remaining two were juveniles), and next winter will return to retrieve these data."

Slaght was at Ternei, finishing up final details in the country, and then at Vladivostok, before returning to Minnesota about mid-April. He will be back again in August-September to conduct habitat and prey density surveys, and again winter 2010 to check on the same birds and retrieve dataloggers with telemetry information.

"The current focus of the research is the conservation and management implications of resource selection by this species in Primorye," according to the mission statement of the Blakiston’s Fish Owl Project.

Slaght is working for a PhD. degree in wildlife conservation from the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, University of Minnesota. His advisor is Dr. Ralph (Rocky) Gutierrez.

Slaght indicated that funding for the 2009 field season has been provided by the University of Minnesota, Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, National Birds of Prey Trust, Columbus Zoo, Minnesota Zoo, Denver Zoo, Bell Museum, and a Wildlife Conservation Society Fellowship.

Links to these organizations, previous project updates, an article archive and other information about fish owls are at the project website which is maintained by Slaght.

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