Book review: Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America

2 02 2012

Most of the benefits of being SEANET Director and blogger are spiritual or emotional. From time to time, however, a tangible reward falls into my hands. Such is the case with a copy of Steve N.G. Howell’s new volume, Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America which arrived courtesy of Princeton University Press. Clearly, they recognize the far-reaching impact of the SEANET blog.

Since I have received this complimentary book, I have been perusing it with an eye toward reviewing it for you, dear readers. While I certainly have not fully read all 400 plus pages, I have found myself looking through it with some regularity. It has a pleasant heft, and a fine aesthetic. More importantly, of course, is the quality of the content in this ambitious field guide. The guide primarily utilizes photographs to illustrate distinguishing characteristics of each species, and to point out useful characters in differentiating similar species. Howell strikes a good balance between scientific thoroughness in his descriptions, and approachability and clarity for those not familiar with the wonky jargon in many reference works. As a result, this book should prove useful to the seabird cruise enthusiast and the field biologist alike.

Photographs emphasize the appearance of these seabirds in flight or resting on the water, but the volume is also of considerable use to those of us looking to identify the carcasses of beached birds; Howell includes photos of preserved museum specimens, as well as drawings of detailed field marks like undertail coverts or rump color. Photos of birds in flight clearly show both upper and underwing patterns–another excellent feature for beached bird enthusiasts.

Range maps are clear and visually appealing, and include not just breeding and winter ranges, but also migration routes, when known. Overall, Howell has walked a solid line between thoroughness and clarity, without overwhelming with infinite plumage variations or rarities. An approachable text for anyone with a particular interest in these fascinating birds. For casual birders, or those who rarely venture out to sea, it’s probably more fire power than is really necessary. I am pleased to have a copy on my shelf, and have already put it to use in writing my upcoming Field Guide to Beached Birds of the southeastern US.

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