Review: Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm Petrels of North America

by Greg Neise on February 19, 2012

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When Princeton sent me a note asking if I would be interested in reviewing Steve N. G. Howell’s latest title, I of course said “yes!” … but then sat back to think about what I had just agreed to.

I’m a landlubber. My total experience with tubenoses comes from exactly one pelagic trip off California, where I saw exactly  17 individual birds comprising exactly 3 species. My home state of Illinois has not a single species of this diverse group of birds on its list. This would be challenging. But, lucky for me, Rick Wright did a bang-up job at taking a look at this new book over at the ABA Blog, so the heavy lifting’s been done for me.

I took the book out of its large shipping box, and examined it. At 4 pounds, it’s a hefty bit of literature. I don’t mention this because it’s in any way intended to be a field guide. It’s not. Although, I’m certain that there will be at least one copy aboard each and every pelagic trip in northern waters from here on out.

It’s the same dimensions and a bit heavier than The Crossley ID Guide (CROS). CROS covers about 640 species found in eastern North America. In the same amount of space, Howell covers 78 species and subspecies. This is one very in-depth and detailed tome.

I found the 50-page introduction fascinating. I normally just breeze over this part of any bird guide. I mean, I already know about bird topography, the region the guide covers (if it’s about North American birds) … and so on. But dealing with tubenoses means learning new terms like, “naricorn” or “humerals”. Everything about these birds is different, from their anatomy to their migratory and molting patterns. Howell also speaks knowledgeably and passionately about seeing these enigmatic birds and the many conservation concerns for these wanderers of the high seas.

If you have Howell’s other guide of this type, Gulls of the Americas (with Jon Dunn),  then the species accounts will be exactly what you’ve come to expect. Each species is given 6 or more pages dedicated almost entirely to field identification, with detailed range maps and lots of photos. As with Gulls of the Americas, it’s the photos that will capture your attention. I don’t know that a collection of pictures of these difficult birds—of this scope, with the outstanding captions and comparisons—has ever been assembled in one place.

Field guides talk about wing shape and structure when discussing shearwaters and petrels, but it’s very difficult to grasp with only one or two illustrations. Through hundreds of painstakingly chosen photos (most taken by Howell), we can see and understand the subtle differences that the experts describe. The species accounts also highlight each species molt, which is often the best—if not the only—way to identify some species.

I have only begun to study Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm Petrels of North America, but I can guarantee that it’s going to be next to my favorite chair for quite some time, and it should be next to yours as well.

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