Petrels, Albatrosses and Storm-petrels of North America; Steve Howell (Princeton)

There is something magical about the Procellariidae – the tubenoses that wander the world’s oceans. Most birders come into relatively little contact with the group; British birders tend to experience most species as occasional distant shapes on the horizon whilst sea-watching, or perhaps are lucky enough to have experienced somewhat better views on offshore trips off Scilly or in Biscay. In North America, offshore trips are more the norm, as a result of exciting seabird areas situated several hours journey off both Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

Whilst the tubenoses are covered by standard field guides, their observation and identification often requires a rather different approach to land-based birdwatching. Views can be brief or distant, and appearances are more influenced by light and wind conditions. This book is an attempt to provide more detail about this challenging but beguiling group of birds.

The book is authoritative (as one would expect from the author of such works as A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America) and also attractive and well-produced. It is a large book, not really a field guide. The scope is to cover all species recorded within 200 miles of the North American coast (including as far south as Panama and the Caribbean). The introductory chapters are excellent, with particularly informative sections on “habitat” (i.e. upwellings, currents, thermoclines) and at-sea fieldcraft (including all-important advice on dealing with seasickness of course).

Species accounts form the bulk of the book. There are accounts for 40 petrels, 11 albatrosses and 19 storm-petrels, although the continuing flux in taxonomy of this group is acknowledged throughout, with regular discussion of the most recent research. Howell does not follow the AOU’s species limits, but tries to steer a course as he feels most appropriate. Species accounts include an identification summary; taxonomy; names; status and distribution; similar species; habitat and behaviour; description; and moult. There is a wide range of photos for each species (e.g. 18 within the Black-capped Petrel account), generally of very high quality and mostly taken by the author; each photo is also well-annotated. Distribution maps show the usual at-sea range, breeding areas and moulting areas, with indications of which areas are occupied during which months.

This excellent book is highly recommended for North American birders, but would also be of value much more widely. In a European context for example, there is very helpful discussion of taxa such as Cory’s/Scopoli’s/Cape Verde Shearwaters, Cape Verde (Fea’s), Desertas (Fea’s) and Zino’s Petrels, Madeiran/Grant’s Storm-petrels, and so on. The cost is also remarkably reasonable for the amount of information contained – well worth it! Now where are my seasickness tablets...

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