Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide,
Steve N. G. Howell, Princeton University Press, 2012

Tubenoses are tough. The members of this order of highly pelagic seabirds offer birders one of their thorniest identification challenges because they are all similarly shaped and colored, and because most of us don’t get to see them very often. When we do see them it is most often from the vantage point of a wind-raked, wet, violently rocking boat deck where the very real possibility of throwing up on our binoculars causes us to, at least occasionally, wonder about our priorities. But we gladly swallow the expense, endure the discomfort, and embrace the challenge because seabirds are among the most beautiful, most compelling, and most interesting birds in the world. Because they cover so much geography, they have a lot to tell us about our world and what we are doing to it.

Learning to identify seabirds requires more time in the field, and more time studying field guides than do most other orders of birds because the field conditions are often so challenging. Investing pre-trip time in studying a good field guide will pay handsome dividends in the field.

There have been only a few truly useful guides to seabird identification. The classic has been Peter Harrison’s “Seabirds: An Identification Guide,” which is overdue for a serious updating. Now comes Steve Howell’s gorgeous “Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America.” Seabird devotees everywhere will rejoice over its publication because there is nothing like it. Howell has specialized in illuminating a few of the toughest subjects in birding. His past guides to “Gulls of the Americas,” and “Molt in North American Birds” have set a very high bar – a bar he easily clears with his newest “Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm Petrels of North America. The book includes a huge number of excellent photos illustrating each species in all of their plumages. (Until now, I would not have believed it possible to obtain so many high quality photos of seabirds.) The species descriptions are comprehensive, scholarly, and usable. Howell has also included an outstanding introduction in which he discusses seabird phylogeny and ocean habitats, field identification, and conservation.

Anyone who loves seabirds or who is planning a pelagic birding trip will want to own this book.

Wayne Mones
January 23, 2012

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