Petrels, Albatrosses and Storm-petrels of North America: a Photographic Guide
In the last decade or two we’ve seen a surge of interest in the field identification of seabirds, driven in part by the popularity of ship-based cruises to remote regions of the globe and by the advent of digital photography. This has led to many new discoveries and increased sophistication in terms of our ability to identify seabirds, especially those of the petrel family.
In this highly anticipated monograph, seabird aficionado Steve Howell expertly distils our current state of knowledge of those species visiting the waters surrounding North and Central America and adds to it further. This is a photographic guide only in the sense that there are few drawings or painted plates and, instead, each species is depicted through sets of colour photographs, the majority taken by the author. The text is extensive and follows the traditional and – in my view – eminently successful layout of sequential species accounts linked together by brief overviews of the major groupings and instructive comparisons of similar species.
Coverage includes the approximately 70 tubenose species recorded off the west and east coasts of North and Central America (south to Panama), corresponding to about half of the world list. Because this includes the majority of species recorded in the Western Palearctic, the book should find an enthusiastic audience in Europe as well.
The recently extinct Jamaican Petrel and Guadalupe Storm-petrel are described in brief, but are not illustrated – a missed opportunity. A painted plate or sketch showing an educated guess of what these birds might look like under field conditions could be the spark that leads to rediscovery.
The taxonomic and name choices are reasonable and justifications are often provided. Importantly, the guide includes several recent developments such as the proposed separation of Cape Verde and Desertas [Fea’s] Petrels and various subdivisions within the storm-petrels (Grant’s, Ainley’s, Darwin’s Storm-Petrels and so on) – unfamiliar splits to many birders.
A few photos are familiar from various identification articles by Howell published in birding magazines, but the vast majority were new to me and have been carefully selected to show not only the major plumages or characteristic behaviours, but also the effects of moult, feather wear, aberrant coloration and confounding effects of different lighting conditions, all of which are highly relevant to at-sea identification.
Stylistically, most of the photos are close-cropped in-flight portraits, but occasionally we are shown wider vistas, with mixed species flocks or some intriguing behaviour such as storm-petrel rafting. This latter category might seem dispensable in an ID guide, but actually serves an important purpose by helping the reader develop a mental search image that is extremely useful in the field, and also by giving a sense of relative size that aids in picking out birds worthy of closer study. Dates, location and photo credits are given for all of the images.
While most of the photos are taken within what is considered the normal range of the species, the photos of Swinhoe’s Storm-petrel (page 437) show the same individual; a vagrant photographed off North Carolina. Again this seems a missed chance to show the effects of feather wear or viewing conditions.
Soft-plumaged Petrel has not been unequivocally recorded in the region (the controversial candidate from Arctic Norway is acknowledged in passing), but nonetheless there is a useful shot of this appealing Southern Hemisphere gadfly petrel (page 186, P22a.1) as a comparison to members of the Fea’s/Zino’s group, but for some reason it is not indexed. Appropriately, several images of White-bellied Storm-Petrel are used to illustrate key points of (subtle) difference with Black-bellied Storm-Petrel; a good candidate for vagrancy and described under Hypothetical Records (Appendix B).
Howell is a leading authority on avian moult, and this important but too frequently neglected topic is brought to the fore in many of the photo captions and throughout the main text. There is a growing appreciation for the effects of wear and feather replacement in regard to the identification of storm-petrels and other species. Indeed, we face the daunting prospect of relying on assessment of moult as a key ID feature for several cryptic species, including members of the still poorly known North Atlantic Band-rumped Storm-petrel complex.
Assessing feather age at sea can be challenging, but it has been aided greatly by the advent of digital photography and fast telephoto lenses that can produce crisp images of birds even at a considerable distance. Nowadays, ship-borne observers can fairly easily take photos of candidates for study at leisure later.
The author’s use of italics to distinguish provisional information from more firmly established data is an excellent idea, but one that is rarely applied; many speculative statements are printed in standard font. Perhaps this can be revisited in a future edition. If nothing else, highlighting areas of uncertainty in this manner will encourage others to help fill the gaps.
The production and printing is good but not outstanding. For some inexplicable reason, the page headers are placed over the inner rather than outer column, making these useful tabs harder to see. As mentioned already, the indexing is imperfect. Happily, the photos are not cropped too tightly (an unfortunate flaw in the Howell and Dunn gull guide) and are reproduced with reasonable sharpness and colour rendering. The maps are very clear, showing distribution within the coverage region but not necessarily the breeding range when this is just beyond the boundaries.
In summary, the guide provides a wealth of useful information, much based on the author’s own extensive at-sea experience, and should be in the library – or checked luggage – of every seabird enthusiast.
• Petrels, Albatrosses and Storm-Petrels of North America: a Photographic Guide by Steve N G Howell (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2011).
• 530 pages, 975 photos and figures, 66 maps.
• ISBN 9780691142111. Hbk, £30.95.
Available on special offer from Birdwatch Bookshop