Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide

Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide. Steve N.G. Howell.

Cloth 2012 $45.00 ISBN: 9780691142111 520 pp. 975 photos and figures. 66 maps.

Perhaps the best way to begin this book review is to repeat a quote that Howell included in the front pages - "The cure for anything is salt water - sweat, tears, or the sea." from Isak Dinesen because this book certainly made me feel the need for a salt water cure for my longing to be at sea, observing these birds again, this time with this book in hand.

Howell packs so much information into this book. It begins with the Preface, a concise overview of our knowledge of seabirds in general and continues in the "How to Use This Book" section where Howell explains the general outline of this work, including how the book will treat the confusion of common names this group of birds has accumulated as a result of their rather dynamic taxonomic status, names often at odds with current AOU standards. However, I think that H0well presents "a realistic course" through this confusion with the taxonomy and common names he uses. My favorite is the use of Steller's Albatross for the species currently known as the Short-tailed Albatross; a name that epitomizes Howell's belief in using names that "evoke a sense of ocean exploration and discovery". Even the Acknowledgements contain an impressive list of who's who in seabird knowledge from throughout the world.

Early on Howell recommends that the reader takes time to read the Introduction, but this plea is in the "How To Use This Book" section, which like the Introduction, is an often overlooked part of any book so I am going to repeat the recommendation here - READ THE INTRODUCTION. Howell's Introduction is a excellent primer on tubenose birds, oceanography, taxonomy, field identification, bird topography, molt and conservation. All of this is discussed in the context of the seabirds he focuses on in this book, but so much of the information can be applied to birds and birding done away from the ocean that this is well worth the price of the book by itself, even if you never see a tubenose in you life.

However, this book isn't even close to being done with the good stuff at the end of the Introduction. Howell follows with seventy species accounts of the species of petrels, albatrosses, and storm-petrels found within 200 nautical miles of the North American shoreline from Alaska to Panama, including the Caribbean. This is nearly half of the currently recognized tubenose species in the world. Each species account is thorough and includes a species overview of identification summary, taxonomy, names, and status and distribution sections, followed by a field identification section that includes portions on similar species, habitat and behavior, and a description of the bird in flight and on water along with molt information. Following the text is a series of photos depicting the species and often similar species as well. Also included is a distribution map. Often the species accounts also open with an evocative photo depicting the species at a distance. The species accounts are full of identification tips gained from what I can only imagine are countless hours at sea observing these birds. Tips such as noting the relative heavy body and narrow wings of the Hawaiian Petrel for navigating the windy North Pacific versus the lighter body and broader wings of the similar Galapagos Petrel which inhabits less windy tropical regions. Howell has also included a couple of my favorite tidbits of seabird history including the inland record of the Manx Shearwater in Montana and the fact that Steller's Albatross used to breed in the Caribbean.

This book is large and heavy, which somewhat limits it's usefulness in the field, but I am willing to overlook this given the density of information contained within. My only other wish for this book was something that I probably wouldn't have noticed if Howell hadn't pointed it out for me. In the Townsend's Shearwater account Howell has inserted a plate of this shearwater and three similar species painted by one of my favorite field guide artists, Ian Lewington. When I saw this plate I wished that there would have been more of them in this book, just to illustrate what the idealized versions of the different species might look like to compare with the excellent selection of photos. But the book is already big enough and I am not sure what Howell would be able to give up to include more information and keep the book size somewhat manageable.

Howell has done a tremendous job throughout this book in evoking a sense of ocean exploration and discovery through seabirds and I think that he succeeds admirably in his goal of synthesizing the present knowledge of tubenose identification. He has also succeeded in fueling my desire to experience the magic of pelagic birding again, to be back on the ocean and wonder about the lives of these iconic and mostly little know wanderers of the open ocean.

1 comment:

Steve Bodio said...

Just gave it a rave for the next Living Bird-- though my short space is frustrating!