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Multimedia Identification Guide to North Atlantic Seabirds: Storm-petrels and Bulwer’s Petrel

By: Angus Wilson
Posted on: 19 Apr 2012First Published: April 2012 issue of Birdwatch magazine

I have always had mixed feelings about multimedia approaches to field identification, so waited with some trepidation for the arrival of this new guide from Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher, whose adventures around the globe we’ve followed with interest. Imagine my delight to discover that instead of the ‘video with notes’ I was expecting, the guide consists of a hardbound and well-produced book and a DVD set that can be thought of as a video appendix to the book. Both components are excellent and capable of standing on their own, but it’s the combination of the extensive text paired with a comprehensive collection of still and moving images that provides the real synergy.


Mixing still images with video clips is ideal for teaching seabird identification. At sea, the views are often brief or relatively distant and identification relies as heavily on the observer’s perception of shape and movement as on the specific plumage details or structural features. This is especially true of the storm-petrels, the subject of the first in a series of four guides that will cover the tubenoses (procellariformes), sulids, pelagic gulls and jaeger/skuas of the North Atlantic. The seven storm-petrels documented in the region are discussed in depth, together with White-bellied and Matsudaira’s Storm-Petrels, considered good candidates for vagrancy. Bulwer’s Petrel is not a storm-petrel but can be mistaken for one of the larger all-dark species and is rightly included alongside its smaller cousins.


The bulk of the video footage was captured by the authors during numerous offshore excursions (‘pelagics’) into European and North America waters and beyond. Birds are shown as they would be seen from a small boat or expedition ship, and the quality of the footage is of a high standard. Obtaining useful footage of the less well-known species required considerable effort. The videos will provide ‘newbies’ (or the chronically seasick) with a reasonable alternative to at-sea experience, and even the saltiest of sea dogs will find them useful as a refresher. Flood provides the narration, which is clear and on point. There is a strong emphasis throughout the guide on thinking about what a storm-petrel is doing before using flight style as an identification tool. Is it traveling or in search mode? Has it spotted a morsel of food that will keep it over one spot? Is the bird excited or relaxed? This is something that skilled seabirders  incorporate into their thought process, but I've never seen it laid out so emphatically before. Describing the skipping flight styles of different storm-petrels is a challenge and some of the more hokey, but nonetheless informative, comparisons may cause you to crack a smile.


North American names are used rather than their UK equivalents, and so it’s Band-rumped not Madeiran Storm-Petrel, and Red rather than Grey Phalarope. Considerable attention is given to the effects of moult, the authors following the Humphrey-Parkes system favoured in North America but steadily gaining traction worldwide. These choices should have little impact on the utility of the guide, although getting used to the moult terminology takes some effort. Annotated photographs highlight key details of moult and illustrate the effects of plumage state on the wing shape, prominence of the brown carpal bar and so on. If the ‘cold’ and ‘hot’ season nesting populations of several storm-petrels are split into separate species as many predict, evaluating moult will become a vital part of the identification process.


In just the past few years, we’ve witnessed an explosion of interest in seabird identification and seabird-orientated travel. The Flood and Fisher series provides a valuable contribution to this fast-moving field. Together with other innovative guides such as The Sound Approach's Petrels Night and Day, it seems a good bet that mixed format guides will become the standard in the near future.


·       Multimedia Identification Guide to North Atlantic Seabirds: Storm-petrels and Bulwer’s Petrel by Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher, illustrated by Ian Lewington (Pelagic Birds & Birding, Scilly, 2011).


·       212 pages, 135 photos, 41 colour illustrations, 11 maps. 2 PAL-format DVDs with 120 mins running time.


·       ISBN 97895688675. Hbk, £39.99. 





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