Thursday, February 02, 2012

Review: Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America

The bird blogosphere has been buzzing with the release of another new field guide. One blog has already proclaimed it a strong contender for the best bird book of the year; other blogs have also been strong in their praise for the guide. This is a guide to the tubenose order, Procellariformes. This order includes storm-petrels, albatrosses, fulmars, petrels, shearwaters, and diving-petrels (the latter not covered as they occur outside the book's geographic range). Tubenoses as a group are named for the horny tubes that encase their nostrils. Since tubenoses live at sea for most of the year, they must drink saltwater to survive, and they excrete the excess salt through their nostrils.

The new field guide, Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide, by Steve N. G. Howell, is a hefty tome. In fact, it is far larger and heavier than I expected and competes with The Crossley ID Guide as the heaviest field guide in my collection. It is so large and heavy that it is an unlikely candidate for field use. Instead, this is clearly a book best used as study guide at home in preparation for pelagic trips and a reference for identifying seabirds from notes or photographs following sightings.

While the hefty size will discourage field use, it accommodates a wealth of information. The heart of the book are the species accounts. These are grouped by family (petrels, albatrosses, and storm-petrels) and further divided into groups of similar species. (For example, petrels are grouped into shearwaters, gadfly petrels, and other petrels, each of which are subdivided further.) Each of the groups and subgroups is prefaced with an introduction laying out which features are most useful for identification and warning about identification pitfalls. The species accounts themselves are lengthy, with an emphasis on distribution and separating the species from similar species. Each account is accompanied by a range map showing the breeding and nonbreeding ranges (with arrows showing movements and numbers for what months they appear) and photographic plates. The plates are a major strength of the guide, with numerous, beautiful photographs for each species, showing a full range of variation. It must have taken a substantial effort to gather so much visual documentation.

When examining a new field guide, it is tempting to skip the introduction and turn straight to the plates. With this new tubenose guide, it is definitely worth reading the introduction unless you are already an expert at seabird identification. The introduction includes notes on the taxonomy and life histories of tubenoses, as one would expect. The book does not strictly follow the AOU Checklist, which Howell describes as "particularly anachronistic," but instead tries to present current taxonomy as represented in scientific papers. Since tubenose classification is currently in flux, the number of ordering of species in the future seems likely to differ from both the current AOU Checklist and Howell's presentation. Howell notes which taxa are the most uncertain. Advice on tubenose identification, and how it is affected by conditions at sea and molt patterns, follows the discussion of taxonomy.

The introduction also includes a primer on ocean habitats and how those affect the life histories and distribution of seabirds. This may not be obvious to the landbound birder – it was not obvious to me, anyway – but the seemingly uniform surface of the ocean conceals a variety of habitat types underneath. These habitats are affected by currents, temperature gradients, and other factors, and some are far more abundant in food sources than others. Where the best food sources are can shift from day to day, and along with them, where the most seabird diversity can be found.

Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide, by Steve N. G. Howell is a must-have for birders with a strong interest in pelagic birding and desirable for birders living near the coast, as some tubenose species may be seen from land on occasion. Land-locked birders will probably find the guide less useful, but it will still be of interest for learning about the birds that make their living on the ocean.