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Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide

Field / Identification Guide

By: Steve NG Howell

483 pages, 975 colour photos and colour illustrations, 66 colour distribution maps

Princeton University Press

Hardback | Feb 2012 | #192451 | ISBN-13: 9780691142111
Availability: Usually dispatched within 4 days Details
NHBS Price: £30.95 $38/€35 approx

About this book

Petrels, albatrosses, and storm-petrels are among the most beautiful yet least known of all the world's birds, living their lives at sea far from the sight of most people. Largely colored in shades of gray, black, and white, these enigmatic and fast-flying seabirds can be hard to differentiate, particularly from a moving boat. Useful worldwide, not just in North America, this photographic guide is based on unrivaled field experience and combines insightful text and hundreds of full-color images to help you identify these remarkable birds. The first book of its kind, this guide features an introduction that explains ocean habitats and the latest developments in taxonomy. Detailed species accounts describe key identification features such as flight manner, plumage variation related to age and molt, seasonal occurrence patterns, and migration routes. Species accounts are arranged into groups helpful for field identification, and an overview of unique identification challenges is provided for each group.

The guide also includes distribution maps for regularly occurring species as well as a bibliography, glossary, and appendixes. This is the first state-of-the-art photographic guide to these enigmatic seabirds. It includes hundreds of full-color photos throughout. It features detailed species accounts that describe flight, plumage, distribution, and more. It provides overviews of ocean habitats, taxonomy, and conservation. It offers tips on how to observe and identify birds at sea.

"[...] Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide is absolutely required for anyone interested in the identification of these wonderful birds, and is one of the best family identification guides, period. If you have ever been, are planning to go, or even think that you might someday go on a pelagic trip, then you should get this!"
- Grant McCreary (24-03-2012), read the full review at The Birder's Library

"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. [...] Anyone who loves seabirds or who is planning a pelagic birding trip will want to own this book."
- Wayne Mones, Audubon blog

"Howell has done a tremendous job throughout this book in evoking a sense of ocean exploration and discovery through seabirds and I think that he succeeds admirably in his goal of synthesizing the present knowledge of tubenose identification."
- John Carlson, Prairie Ice blog

"Howell's introduction is perhaps the most critical and useful piece of writing at the fore of any bird guide in the past few decades because, before this, so little was written on what it means to be able to identify pelagic birds. Howell explains in great detail concepts like 'wing-loading' and how it pertains to the different species flight styles. He breaks down dynamic soaring, the process by which so many tubenoses get around the oceans. He illustrates, clearly and concisely in simple line drawings, the flight manners of several species of shearwater in both calm and strong winds. He even explains how to orient yourself on the boat relative to the wind to best take advantage of passing birds. It's truly a treasure chest full of incredible information, none of it self-evident, on best experiencing the open ocean. [...] Howell, a man who is truly fluent in tubenose, has produced the something essential here. I could not possibly recommend it more enthusiastically."
- Nate Swick, The Drinking Bird

"Seasoned pelagic veterans and landlocked birders alike will have tons to learn about North American tubenoses from this book and I know it will offer enjoyment to anyone interested in wild birds! The bottom line: This is a must-have title for any serious North American birder – get it!"
- Bill Schmoker, Brd Pics blog


"Tubenoses, the Procellariiformes, are fabulous birds, which some people consider to be the only ‘proper seabirds’. Here, for the first time, is a modern photographic guide covering all taxa recorded in North America (from Panama northwards). This amounts to about half the world’s total of 140 or so tubenose species.

If you can resist the temptation to dive straight into the species accounts, the introduction is well worth a careful read. It is informative, thought-provoking and sometimes amusing. The overview of ocean habitats, poorly understood by most of us but key to understanding tubenose distribution and occurrence patterns, is fascinating. Sections on phylogeny and biogeography are of great interest and topicality. Various tubenose forms, previously treated as subspecies or in some cases not yet formally recognised at any taxonomic level, are here elevated to species status based on new studies of genetics and vocalisations. Howell does not follow AOU taxonomy (which he describes as ‘particularly anachronistic’) but uses his own judgement to pick a more progressive course through various taxonomic papers. The end result is probably a more realistic treatment, though the uncertainty of some decisions and identifications is acknowledged. It seems as though cryptic tubenose species are being discovered all the time and these, such as those within the band-rumped (Madeiran) storm-petrel Oceanodroma castro complex, are treated as fully as currently possible. The field identification section runs to 23 pages and covers ageing, sexing, geographic variation, flight, and of course appearance and topography. A well-chosen selection of images illustrates points such as the effects of lighting and the angle of view on the appearance of the bird. Given the author’s expertise on moult, it is not surprising that this section is excellent. There are useful tips on how to enjoy (or possibly endure) a pelagic and a final section on conservation, threats and the value of tubenoses as barometers of the health of our oceans.

The meat of the book, some 450 pages, comprises the family and species accounts, which are grouped into sections such as large shearwaters (Ardenna and Calonectris), small shearwaters (Puffinus), and Atlantic and Pacific gadfly petrels. Each group has an introductory section giving common features of the group, key things to concentrate on for identification to species and comparative photographs of them side by side on the same pages. Some particularly tricky subgroups, such as the Audubon’s shearwater Puffinus lherminieri complex (here including Audubon’s P. lherminieri, Boyd’s P. boydii and Barolo P. baroli shearwaters), are given additional mini overviews.

The species accounts also cover taxonomy and nomenclature, which is interesting but inevitably becomes repetitive for species within a genus (Pterodroma means ‘winged runner’ – with 18 taxa covered in this genus, I should now remember this!). Status and distribution is covered at some length including breeding areas and migration routes, with the greatest detail concerning the status in North America. This detail is summarised in clear maps that show migration routes and seasonal distribution in North America, covering significant parts of the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans for relevant species. Field identification is summarised in a short paragraph at the start of each account with a much more detailed treatment including habits, behaviour, ocean-by-ocean comparisons with similar species, and moult. There is a mass of well-referenced information here, and it repays close study. The numerous photographs are a key part of the book, of course, and many readers will go straight to them. The number of images per species is usually around 10–15 but with as many as 27 for the polytypic and polymorphic northern fulmar Fulmarus glacialis. A handful of taxa have fewer: five for Zino’s petrel Pterodroma madeira (but 13 for Fea’s P. (fea) fea/desertae); five for the distinctive but extremely rare (in the region) Hornby’s storm-petrel O. hornbyi; and none for just one species. The last is the Critically Endangered Mexican endemic Townsend’s shearwater Puffinus auricularis, which instead has a lovely plate by Ian Lewington comparing it with Newell’s P. newelli, manx P. puffinus and black-vented P. opisthomelas shearwaters. The great majority of photos are good to excellent. Usually fairly closely cropped, they show birds in a variety of positions and from various angles. Nearly all species are also shown on the water, as they will often be encountered on a calm pelagic. Smaller images of the birds in the context of a seascape or alongside likely congeners are included for most species. In total they convey as good a sense of what the bird must look like at sea as is possible from still images. The fact that such a high proportion of the photos were taken by the author is a testament not only to his photographic skills but his massive at-sea experience accrued over many years. Captions are beautifully concise, the uncharacteristic error on that for fig. 120, Hawaiian petrel Pterodroma sandwichensis, where ‘thick’ should presumably be ‘thin’ is one of very few mistakes I have been able to track down.

Having seen only just under half the birds covered, I am unable to comment on the detailed accounts of many of them, but for those I do know they are accurate in technical detail with eloquent and evocative descriptions of flight actions. In a British context almost all species that might be encountered are covered, with the notable exceptions of balearic Puffinus mauretanicus and yelkouan P. yelkouan shearwaters. The accounts of, for example, Scopoli’s Calonectris (diomedia) diomedia and Cory’s C. (diomedia) borealis shearwaters (with a total of 24 images); Fea’s/Desertas and Zino’s petrels; and Barolo shearwater should prove most useful. Cape Verde shearwater C. edwardsii, which has occurred as a vagrant off North Carolina, is also treated in full and should perhaps be on our radar.

The author’s knowledge and love of his subject is reflected in a superb book, which will hopefully inspire more people to get out on the oceans, learn about these magnificent birds and contribute to their conservation. For around £30 it is very reasonably priced – anyone with an interest in seabirds will want to buy it and then start planning their next pelagic!"

- John Martin,


List of Species Covered xi
Preface xiii
Acknowledgments xv
How to Use This Book xvii
Format of the Species Accounts xvii

- Introduction 1
- What Are Tubenoses? 1
- Ocean Habitats 5
- Current Systems 6
- Thermoclines, Upwelling, and Fronts 6
- Habitat Associations 10
- Phylogeny, Biogeography, and Vagrancy 13
- Taxonomy and an Identification Framework 14
- Family Procellariidae: Petrels 17
- Family Diomedeidae: Albatrosses 19
- Family Hydrobatidae: Northern Storm-Petrels 20
- Family Oceanitidae: Southern Storm-Petrels 21
- Field Identification of Tubenoses 21
- Age, Sex, Individual, and Geographic Variation 21
- Flight Manner 24
- Environmental Factors 28
- Appearance and Topography 30
- Molts, Plumages, and Aging 38
- How to See Tubenoses 45
- Conservation 46
- Threats to Seabirds 47
- Seabirds as Indicators 48
- Species Accounts 51-454

Abbreviations and Terminology 455
Appendix A. Recently Extinct Species 459
Appendix B. Hypothetical Records 461
Literature Cited 463
Index 481

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Steve N. G. Howell is an acclaimed field ornithologist and writer. He is an international bird tour leader with WINGS and a research associate at PRBO Conservation Science in California. His books include the "Peterson Reference Guide to Molt in North American Birds" and "Hummingbirds of North America".

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