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

I have never been on a pelagic trip, but I have very definite aspirations in that direction. I want to go completely out of sight of land and see what that feels like. I am predicting a unique and interesting feeling.

So, this aspiration led me to an interest in this recently published book (January, 2012) from Princeton University Press that I am reviewing in this post.

By Steve N. G. Howell

My initial impression upon examination of this book is that these birds require a lot of experience to identify. Just leafing through the book you can quickly see that plumage-wise, all of the birds are white, black, and various shades of brown and gray. In addtion these birds are out there swirling around on the vast open ocean, with lighting conditions changing constantly. These facts lend themselves to a challenging identification. So the question becomes does this book address this challenging identification scenario? The answer to that question is the crux of this review.

I went immediately to an obviously important subsection of the Introduction: Field Identification of Tubenoses. One diagram caught my attention right away:

Fig 29. Diagrammatic representation of flight manners of Sooty, Pink-footed, and Buller's shearwaters in calm and strong winds (short vertical lines represent bursts of wingbeats). In calm, the heavy-bodied Sooty proceeds with hurried bursts of deep wingbeats followed by relatively long, low glides, whereas the light-bodied Buller's proceeds with a few quick, flicking wingbeats followed by relatively short, buoyant glides. Across a strong wind, Sooty towers high and steeply whereas Buller's wheels relatively low to the water. Pink-footed Shearwater flies between these extremes.

So right away I see that identification of these birds requires a different observational mindset. He mentions "flight manners" - one has to become tuned into concepts like this in preparation for a pelagic trip. Also, being aware of environmental conditions is very important - e.g. is it windy or calm? This obviously affects how the birds fly (i.e. handle the conditions) and different birds with different body types handle things with a distinctive "flight manner". These are relevant observational skills that are addressed in the book - excellent!

This subsection on Field Identification goes into a great deal of detail on the characteristics of these birds to look for in the field (e.g molting birds). He even says at the beginning of the subsection:

"Although what follows may seem an almost overwhelming amount of information to digest, there's no rush. Time spent watching tubenoses and gaining experience is a key to identifying them with confidence."

One aspect of the book that I find helpful is pictures with two similar species that you are likely to find together coupled with a discussion of their differences:

Fig 146 This Wilson's Storm-Petrel (left) and this Leach's Storm-Petrel (right) are both white-rumped species but exhibit a number of differences...[remaining text discusses the differences].

I chose a species more or less at random (Galapagos Shearwater) to see how the description is handled by the book.

The species description starts with the particulars on size, wingspan etc. The text that follows has sections on

  • Field Identification Summary
  • Taxonomy
  • Names
  • Status and Distribution (Includes map)
  • Field Identification (subsections on Similar Species, Habitat and Behavior, Description (Ages similar and On the water subsections)
  • Molt
The text is followed by three pages of photographs (shown below). These photos illustrate the nuances of identification in detail.

So back to the question at hand: Does this book adequately address the challenging identification scenario that pelagic birds represent. My conclusion is a resounding yes!!!! You can see by the quality and relevancy of the details presented that the author is experienced and knowledgeable (not to mention dedicated) when it comes to the identification of North American tubenoses and he passes this expertise along in the book. I would say anyone wishing to prepare for a North American pelagic trip would be very well served by the acquisition and study of this authoritative book.


Winged Stilt


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