Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Albatrosses, Petrels & Shearwaters of the World

I finally got around to using my Father's Day gift certificate lately and one of my purchases was the new book by Derek Onley and Paul Scofield, Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World, a Princeton Field Guide.

I really like this field guide and will probably use it on my upcoming trip to Antarctica. However, I do feel there is a bit of room for improvement. I generally do not like the softer style of illustration as done by Derek Onley but it works fairly well in this book. One area where it doesn't work is in the lack of contrast between the background and the birds on some of the plates. In particular, the large, mostly white, albatrosses are painted on a white background and it is hard to discern the bird from the background. I am a fan of small vignettes of the birds in their habitat among the identification illustrations and their are a few scattered throughout the plates which adds to the appeal of the illustrations (the best example of using vignettes in field guide plates is the Birds of Europe by by Killian Mullarney, Lars Svensson, Dan Zetterstrom and Peter J. Grant. I also consider it the best field guide I have seen).

The introductory chapters are quite good and provide an excellent overview of current seabird taxonomy. The authors do a good job of providing the reader with information on taxonomic debates with a number of species in each family of seabirds. The introductory section on seabird identification provides the best overview of seabird identification problems I have read and includes identification problems caused by conditions, lack of scale is open ocean environments, and plumage variation such as phases, morphs, age related plumages, molt and feather wear. There is also a section on conservation including a well done discussion on current threats to many seabirds, reasons to be optimistic for the future of seabirds, and ways you can help seabirds. The species accounts are generally well done and have distribution maps associated with them. I would rather have the maps with the illustrations though. I noticed a few problems with distribution maps on a few of the species I am familiar with. Despite the statement in the text that the breeding grounds of the Hornby's Storm Petrel is still unknown, the distribution map depicts the Atacama Desert as the breeding range with no indication of the uncertainty in the designation. The breeding range of the Antarctic Petrel also appears to have some errors. The text correctly states that this species breeding colonies are confined to coastal Antarctica but the map wrongly depicts a number of sub-antarctic islands in the south Atlantic as having breeding populations. These errors in the small sample of maps I am familiar with and checked leads me to wonder about the accuracy of the other maps.

Overall I feel this is an excellent field guide for these birds and I would highly recommend it for your next pelagic trip. The authors more than redeem the errors in the book with the statement that this book is not the final word on seabird ID and their encouragement to discuss the book in a friendly and enthusiastic nature over a beer or two!

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