A Blakiston’s fish owl slept. He’d roosted near his nest tree; immobile on a branch that swung out over a narrow mountain gorge in Japan’s Shiretoko Peninsula. These birds are highly endangered here, with fewer that two hundred remaining on Hokkaido Island, and I was helping a Japanese colleague check their nests.
In Russia it’s rare to get this close to fish owls. I’m usually pushing through snow or snapping twigs in the understory when I look for their nests, announcements that give these shy birds plenty of time to slip deeper into the forest unnoticed. Here, the tapered valley amplified rumbles from the river below, and the softness of pine needles underfoot masked our approach.
Eventually sensing something was amiss, the owl swiveled his head in our direction then, realizing the danger, spun on the branch and crouched to get a better view of us through the clutter. He may have been high in the tree, but on this steep slope we were eye to eye. He hooted once, likely as an alarm to his partner on the nest that the perimeter had been breached, then dropped with open wings to sail across the gorge. He perched there, continuing to watch us from that safe distance, until we moved on.
Canon 7D Mark II