Sunday, February 12, 2012

Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm Petrels of North America - a Review - 12 Feb 2012

Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide
Steve N. G. Howell

Cloth / 2012 / $45.00 / £30.95 / ISBN: 9780691142111
520 pp. / 7 x 10 / 975 photos and figs. 66 maps.
eBook / 2012 / $45.00 / ISBN: 9781400839629

When Princeton University Press announced the publication of this book I couldn't wait to get my hands on a copy.  A guide devoted entirely to what I consider a 'last-frontier' of birding: Petrels, Albatrosses and Storm Petrels.  The added bonus is that it is written by one of the foremost authorities on these winged wonders, Steve N.G. Howell!

This book covers approximately 76 spp. of Procellariiformes, or 'tubenoses', of which approximately 70 of the 140 spp. worldwide occur in North America.  Species accounts are divided into Albatrosses, Petrels, and Storm Petrels. Howell includes a preface on how to use the book, which includes such things as tables of wingspan and body mass for all of the species covered. Field-identification tips are provided by the author himself, exept where other sources are cited.  Species accounts include: identification summary, taxonomy, names, status and distribution, maps, field identification, similar species, conservation status, habitat and behavior, description, molts, notes and photos.


The extent of my pelagic birding experience has been those long hours sitting on a balcony of a cruise ship travelling to such destinations as Alaska, Hawaii, Mexican Riviera, and the Caribbean.  Unfortunately for me, most of these trips were along routes completely devoid of pelagic birds.  If I did see birds, they tended to be mostly-dark specks on the horizon, or just out of view of my spotting scope or binoculars.  If I was fortunate enough to see something close enough to the ship to photograph, I was then forced to rely on the local field guides to provide a possible identification: Peterson's Western Birds of North America, Birds of the West Indies, etc.  Most of the time an identification might be made solely on the guides range map or status.  With Howell's book, I now feel that a pelagic neophyte like myself has a chance to better identify some of these birds.

The first 50 pages of Introduction is perhaps the most important part of the entire guide for anyone not fluent in tubenose identification and distribution.  It is well written and worth reading over several times.  Howell describes the biology of tubesnoses, ocean habitats (and how they affect behavior of pelagic birds), and spends a good deal of time on taxonomy, which he describes as 'following a long and tortuous path, with much debate about whether separate populations are species or subspecies'.  A description follows of each of the families of Petrels (Procellariidae), Albatrosses (Diomedeidae), Northern Storm-Petrels (Hydrobatidae), and Southern Storm-Petrels (Oceanitidae).  He then follows with a section on Field Identification of Tubenoses, which includes hints on how to ID birds based on their shape, flight behavior, and overall appearance and topography.  Molts, plumages and aging of birds is also covered.

Pink-footed Shearwater(?), Alaska, July 2007 ©J.S. Jourdan
The remainder of the book is dedicated to species accounts for each of the individual families of Petrels, Albatrosses and Storm-Petrels.  Here, range maps and plenty of photos help to sort out identification of these birds on the water.  Its probably me, but somehow my copy of the book tended to show photos that seemed to be slightly off on color balance: many of the photos seem to have more of a browner vs. grayer tone, or purplish vs. bluish tone that may simply be a result of digital processing.  It certainly doesn't take away from the quality of the photos, which are excellent and extremely sharp considering the author's shooting conditions.

One omission I was slightly disappointed in was the lack of drawings or photos of species considered to be extinct.

Overall, though, this book will no-doubt be considered as a must-have resource, and definitive guide for anyone interested in Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America.  Congratulations, Mr. Howell! And thank you, Princeton University Press for the chance to review this wonderful and valuable resource!

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