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Sunday, January 22, 2012

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

Trying to see and pick out the field marks on a tiny warbler hidden among the leafy canopy of a tree is one of the harder tasks to be undertaken by a birder. An even harder task though may be that of pelagic birding, trying to distinguish between the almost identical species of petrels, for example, while standing on a moving boat in the middle of the ocean.

Petrels, Storm-Petrels, and Albatrosses live their lives on the wing, over the oceans of the world, and those who would add them to their life lists must venture out upon the briny deep in order to see them. Moreover, these are birds that are all colored in shades of black, white, and gray, many with few distinctive field marks. They are mostly fast-flying and difficult to get a good look at even under ideal conditions, but conditions on a pelagic birding trip are often not ideal and birders need all the help they can get.

Along comes Steve N.G. Howell to provide some of that help. He is an acclaimed field ornithologist and writer and an international bird tour leader with WINGS. He obviously knows these seabirds, in the family known as tubenoses, very well indeed. He has written a book which should be very helpful, I think, to anyone planning a pelagic birding trip.

Now, I am a simple backyard birder and so I may not be the best person to review this book, but it seems very comprehensive to me. The author spends time explaining about ocean habitats and about the latest developments in taxonomy relating to these birds. He arranges his species accounts of birds into groups for comparison and contrasting in ways that should prove helpful for identification in the field. Key identification features such as plumage variations related to age and molt and the manner of the individual species' flight patterns are included as part of the detailed species accounts. Photographs of the birds in question help to illustrate key features.

This guide also includes information about seasonal occurrence patterns and migration routes, as well as distribution maps. The author offers useful tips on how to observe and identify birds at sea.

Reading passages of this book, one gets a sense that Howell has a real passion for these birds and that he wants to pass that passion along to others. It is obvious that he genuinely loves the ocean and its inhabitants and that he wants his readers to share that love. I think that anyone planning a pelagic adventure who picks up this book will find it very useful in getting to know these enigmatic birds and in making the most of their time on the ocean.

(A copy of this book was provided at no cost by Princeton University Press for the purposes of my review.)

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