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Howell: Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America

PASPofNASteve N.G. Howell's new photographic guide covers all the procellariids, diomedeids, hydrobatids, and oceanitids recorded in (or off) the North American continent. 

Yes, you read it right: oceanitids. The taxonomy Howell uses in Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels is progressive indeed, leaving the AOU's would-be canonical classification schemes in the dust. Not only do we find the southern storm-petrels assigned to their own family, Oceanitidae, but numerous novel genera and species are at least tentatively recognized. Howell treats in full 70 taxa, with comparative discussion of many more; in contrast, the AOU lists only 61 species for its area, which, unlike Howell's region of coverage, includes Hawaii. Following Howell (and Robb et al.'s marvelous Petrels Night and Day), we now have in North America, for example, three "Cory's" and six "Manx" shearwaters, two "Fea's" and two "great-winged" petrels, three "wandering" albatrosses, and three "band-rumped" and four "Leach's" storm-petrels. And before each of those numbers is to be understood a quiet "at least": many of the species, and even some of the genera, split here may well conceal other cryptic taxa deserving of species-level recognition. There may even be two "Northern" fulmars. Howell is scrupulous and admirably clear in explaining the nomenclatural "clusters" that have long made even talking about so many seabirds so difficult.

Not to mention identifying them. But even storm-petrel identification, rightly described here as "one of the most challenging frontiers in modern birding," will be made less frustrating in most cases by the wealth of carefully chosen and beautifully well presented information in this book. The (sub)species accounts are clear and thorough, with full treatment of taxonomy, status and distribution, and similar taxa; behavior, especially flight habit, is given considerable space, and Howell's descriptions here are as clear as they are evocative. Each taxon treated is illustrated with an impressive number of often dazzlingly good photos–and, perhaps even more importantly, often with some poorer images of birds at a distance, in fog, or nearly lost in a swarm of similar congeners. The captions are marvels of concise eloquence, pointing out important characters and comparing similar species, sometimes even in the same photo. 

Particularly given the abundance of information and the very large number of photographs here, the book is very well produced. I might prefer to have seen a single type face throughout, rather than a different, larger and unattractive font for the introductory material. Typos are very few and mostly insignificant. The name of the island Trinidade is inconsistently spelled, and the caption to photo 7.11 reverses the identity of the background birds. The Christmas Shearwater is Puffinus nativitatis (not –us), and the black margin to the underwing of the Hawaiian Petrel is thin (not, as claimed in Fig. 120, "thick"). The specific epithet of the Black-capped Petrel, hasitata, is probably a misspelling not of haesitata but of hastata, meaning blade-shaped, in reference to the wings. Howell's writing is as pleasingly vivid as it is informative; still, it's unusual to see the phrase "brain fart" in print, and I'm skeptical as to whether "emotional castration" is truly behind the occasional abbreviation of the name of the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross. 

As one might expect from the author of the molt volume in the Peterson Reference Guide series, the plumages of seabirds are discussed with special thoroughness here. Howell gives us eight well-illustrated pages on the topic in his introduction, then provides dates–at least tentative dates–and details in each species account. It turns out that it is precisely that molt information that permits the distinction in the field between many pairs and trios of similar species; many of Howell's photos show this very well, making this an essential tool to help readers get their eye in for their next pelagic trip. But even if you're not going down to the sea in boats, Petrels, in its sophistication of approach and exemplary detail, may well be the most useful book you read this year. 

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Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright studied French, German, philosophy, and biology at the University of Nebraska. Following a detour to Harvard Law School, he took the Ph.D. at Princeton University in 1990. He held appointments as Assistant Professor of German at the University of Illinois, Reader in Art and Archaeology at Princeton, and Associate Professor of Medieval Studies at Fordham. Rick was a department editor at Birding from 2004 to 2008 and editor of Winging It from 2005 to 2007. He leads birding and birds-and-art tours for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, and lives in northern New Jersey with his wife, Alison Beringer, and their chocolate lab, Gellert.
Rick Wright

Latest posts by Rick Wright (see all)

  • I’ve enjoyed and beat up every Howell publication I’ve owned. Can’t wait to get my hands on this one!

  • Michael Retter

    Great review, Rick. I also enjoyed the book thoroughly and was particularly amused to read the phrase “more creative use of three-dimensional space” when comparing the flight of one storm-petrel to another.

  • The fates of all the proposed nomenclatural and taxonomic changes will be interesting to follow. If history is any guide (e.g., the Howell/Webb guide to Mexico and northern Central America, almost all of whose “renegade” splits and re-namings are now accepted), then we may see a few of these on “official” checklists in the not-too-distant future. BTW, I think the typos for Trinidade Petrel in the captions that Rick mentions were introduced by a graphic designer rather than by the author!

  • Mark

    “The specific epithet of the Black-capped Petrel, hasitata, is probably a misspelling not of haesitata but of hastata, meaning blade-shaped, in reference to the wings”
    I humbly hesitate to disagree.
    Kuhl read the Forsters’ (George & Rheinhold) reports from the Cook explorations in London at Banks library and published this bird name from a type bird from the Bullock Museum in 1820. He gave credit to J.R Forster for the name Procellaria hasitata but Forster used haesitata. Forster’s MS names were finally published by Lichtenstein in 1844 .

    Coues says haesitata meant “stuck fast… (or) I hesitate; the latter is the application in this case, the describer of the bird being uncertain about it, and therefore hesitating to name it.”

    Diu mecum haesitavi an non haec procellaria eadem esset cum Procellaria puffino at magnitudo et varii characteres evincunt hanc diversae esse speciei. (page 208, Descriptiones Animalium, quae in itinere ad maris Australis terras 1772 – 1774 suscepto collegit, observavit et delineavit Joh. Reinoldus Forster … curante Henrico Lichtenstein, 1844)

    My Google translation: A long time I wavered whether or not these were the same with Procellaria or the Procellaria called Puffins at the magnitude of this, of various characters prove to be different species. (I know terrible translation)
    I cannot find any thing about blade shaped wings in the descriptions of either Kuhl or Forster.

    I can link the originals of Forster and Kuhl but I am opposed to using link shorteners supposedly still connected with the Qaddafi family.

  • A thousand thanks for this, Mark! The quote from the Descr. anim., which I wasn’t able to find (where did you come up with it?) puts paid to my speculation very neatly. The passage reads in a better translation:

    I was uncertain for a long time whether this petrel might not be identical to Procellaria puffinus, but its size and other characters show that it is of a different species.

    So Coues is right (no big surprise!) and Howell is right (no big surprise!). And I humbly retract my spculation and assert the opposite.

  • This is really informative. Can’t wait to read the actual book. Howell is really one of my favorite writer 🙂

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