08 January 2014


"Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America; A Photographic Guide" by Steve N. G. Howell", was published by Princeton University Press in 2012.  It is 483 pages and costs $45.00.

I hope I'm not stepping on anybody's toes by saying this... but if you're a serious birder, you probably own Dunn and Howell's reference guide to gulls of the Americas.  You know the one, the one that's not really a field guide but might be living in a corner of your trunk on road trips and vacations?  THE gull book.  Anyway, this review would be a lot easier if you know that book because, as it so happens, this book is very similar in many ways.

It seems like nearly every book I review has an introduction of some kind or another.  The introduction for this book though is something that actually needs mentioning.  Howell, over the course of 50 pages, lays out a very valuable resource, a very complete overview about these oceanic birds.  Here are a few categories he covers in depth, just to get you started:

What are tubenoses?
Ocean Habits
Current Systems
Thermoclines, Upwelling, and Fronts
Habitat Associations
Phylogeny, Biogeography, and Vagrancy
Taxonomy and an Identification Framework
Field Identification of Tubenoses
Flight Manner
Environmental Factors
Appearance and Topography
Plumage Patterns
Bill Structure and Color
Leg and Foot Color
Molts, Plumages, and Aging
How to See Tubenoses
Seabirds as Indicators

The introduction is dotted with photos, interesting graphics, and even extensive tables that compare wingspan and mass of some species (includes average, range, sample size, etc).  Here's an example of a graphic he includes in the introduction on flight manner:

Once you turn to a specific species account later in the book, you can expect several things.  In the case of the Audubon's Shearwater, it is 7 pages long, has a color range map, and 15 photographs spanning 3 pages.  Each species account has measurements such as length, wingspan, tail (including graduation measurements), and bill.  Other categories include taxonomy, background about the names, status and distribution, field identification, habitat and behavior, description, and molt.  Also included is an identification summary, a nice, one paragraph succinct summary of the species, where it's found, flight style, and roughly how to ID it.  Here's a look at one of the range maps, this one for Buller's Shearwater (the numbers refer to the months of the year): 

The setup of the photos is pretty much the same as in the gull book so if you're familiar with that, this will be pretty easy.  The photographs of each species are placed at the end of each species account.    Here is a rough look at some photos from the Pink-footed Shearwater account:

I really enjoyed looking through some species accounts for species I'm not familiar with at all.  For example, have you spent much time with Markham's Storm-Petrels or Chatham Albatrosses?  Probably not.

Some of you are probably wondering why on earth I'm reviewing a book about seabirds in the first place.  Those who know me well probably also know that I get wickedly seasick on just about every body of water imaginable.  It's true, if you've seen me on a pelagic birding trip, you probably saw me wrapped around the back rail with near-suicidal tendencies.  And although I might be one of the least likely people to gain years of experience out on the ocean... that doesn't stop me from seawatching from shore!

It's a rare treat to be reviewing a book like this.  As you've probably seen before, I don't mind ranting about books that I don't like.  I try to be honest, isn't that what a review should be?  But how could I be critical of this book?  I mean, I have so little field experience with so many of these species, it seems silly for me to be critical of anything here.  But like I said, it's a rare treat to be reviewing something like this, something that is actually packed with knowledge (did I mention it's nearly 500 pages long?).  In most bird-related books you pick up these days, that's not the case.  So no complaints from me!

For better or worse, I have come to expect any book by Howell to be of this quality.  And although it's easy for me to fling around summaries here on the web, you really should pick this book up off the shelf (if that's even an option) and flip through it.  It really is a wealth of knowledge and will surely be referenced for decades to come.

So, were you happy with the gull book that Howell and Dunn put out?  Just try to imagine that very valuable resource and translate it to petrels, albatrosses, and storm-petrels.  And although I'm no veteran seabird guide, I believe this book really is the best resource for these species here in North America.  It goes without saying that I'm very excited to have this book in my library and I imagine you might be as well.

I received a complementary copy from the publisher for review purposes, 
but the viewpoint expressed in this article is entirely my own.