Monday, January 30, 2012

Review: Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America

Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide by Steve N. G. Howell. 2012. Princeton University Press. Cloth. $45. 520 pages. 7 x 10 inches. Shipping weight 4 pounds. 975 photos and figures. 66 maps.

If you want only a field guide to seabirds north of Mexico, then the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th Edition, is the only seabird guide you need to own.

However, if the sea and its specialized birds draw you to them, you'll love the treasure trove of seabird identification tips and extensive taxonomy treatments found in this scholarly, and weighty, volume. If you want to know the status, distribution, and identification of all the Procellariiformes from Panama to the Arctic, including all vagrants, then this highly anticipated book won't disappoint. If you are interested in the latest Taxonomy then this book is for you. If you are planning your next pelagic trip to the Gulf Stream in order to search for Cape Verde or Desertas Petrels or taking a cruise off western Mexico in the hopes of spotting Ainley's or Townsend's Storm-Petrels then this is a 'must-have' book.

The first 50 pages is a thorough Introduction, covering such topics as What are Tubenoses?, Ocean Habitats, Taxonomy, Field Identification, and Conservation.

The bulk of the book is the species accounts. The main headings for each species include an Identification Summary, detailed Taxonomy, Status and Distribution, and a large map showing detailed at-sea range and time of year when most frequently present.

For seabirders, the Field Identification section is wonderful. The detailed and thorough Similar Species subheading discusses how to tell each species from look-a-likes. It then goes on to describe Habitat and Behavior, and detailed plumage Descriptions, including differences between younger and older birds, and males and females, if different. A section on molt timing is useful in separating age-classes, as well as cryptic species that may look very similar but breed, and thus molt, at different times of year. Each species account has numerous photos, most by the author, with highly informative captions.

East Coast birders will not find any additional species from the Caribbean that don't reach North Carolina. However, both common and rare seabirds of western Mexico add 3 shearwaters, 5 gadfly petrels, 5 albatrosses, and 2 storm-petrels to the birds in your "North American" field guide.

I didn't find any errors in this well-researched textbook. In a work such as this it is nearly inevitable that a photo is mislabeled. But I didn't notice anything--a tribute to good editing.

You may notice that some of the Similar Species sections get repeated. The species account for Bird A tells how to separate it from Bird B. The species account for Bird B repeats nearly the exact same information to tell it apart from Bird A. I don't know any other way to do it without changing the way the species accounts are formatted. But it is such a large book that one would think a different way might have been found in order to save space.

I checked for rare bird sightings on the West Coast. The only "oversight" I noted was the failure to acknowledge a 2002 sight record of Juan Fernandez Petrel accepted by the Oregon Bird Records Committee.

Unlike the trivialities above, however, the quality of the printing is a concern to me. Many of the photos have too much red hue. In some instances gray skies are a touch pink, blue waters are purplish, sooty-gray birds are overly reddish-brown. The photos are still very usable for identification, but rather than a highlight feature to really make this book stand out, the uneven color balance for this "photographic guide" becomes a distraction to me. Perhaps it won't bother you.

In summary, this is a 'must-have' ID textbook for serious seagoing birders.