A review by Tom Johnson
Multimedia Identification Guide to North Atlantic Seabirds: Pterodroma Petrels, by Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher
Scilly Pelagics, 2013
316 pages and two DVDs, $69.95—hardcover
Few birds are as amazingly tough, enigmatic, beautiful, athletic, and rare as the gadfly petrels. The Multimedia Identification Guide to North Atlantic Seabirds: Pterodroma Petrels is a new reference to 10 taxa of these fascinating birds found over the Atlantic Ocean. The guide consists of a 316-page book, illustrated with numerous excellent photos and painted plates, and two DVDs with videos and voice-overs to teach about petrel identification.
This is the second installment in Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher’s Multimedia Identification Guide series, following the authors’ widely acclaimed Storm-Petrels and Bulwer’s Petrel (2011). From a North American perspective, this guide supplements other references treating species that have occurred off our Atlantic coast: the Black-capped Petrel, Bermuda Petrel, Trindade Petrel, Fea’s Petrel (both the Cape Verde and the Desertas birds), and Zino’s Petrel are all treated in depth. The authors are from the United Kingdom, so there’s an overall British “flavour” to the text, but the book is of true utility anywhere in the North Atlantic, covering as it does such potential vagrants as the Atlantic Petrel and Kermadec Petrel—common species in the South Atlantic that might be expected to occur in the North Atlantic one day. Though the technical identification focus might make it seem to cater only to the hard-core seabirding crowd, the clarity and beauty of this guide make it accessible to any birder or ornithologist with even a passing interest in the subject.
The obvious benchmark works for comparison are the Flood and Fisher’s own 2011 Storm-Petrels and Bulwer’s Petrel and Steve Howell’s 2012 Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America. The format of the new guide closely follows that of the authors’ earlier volume, offering in-depth analysis of a small group of target species, complemented by video sequences with interpretive voice-overs drawing the viewer’s attention to key characters and nuances of flight style. Because the flight styles of the various Pterodroma petrels are relatively uniform in comparison to the unique flight habit shown by some storm-petrels, the videos here are not quite as important, but they are still effective at reinforcing characters discussed in the text, conveying a sense of the birds’ dramatic movements, and affording the viewer practice in developing those critical search images that we would otherwise spend years in the field acquiring.
Howell’s Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America has, of course, a much broader taxonomic focus than the present book, but both titles cover most of the same Pterodroma species. As neither has yet been documented from North American waters, Howell does not treat the Atlantic Petrel or the Soft-plumaged Petrel in detail; both are included in Flood and Fisher. It should also be remarked that the two works treat different taxa of the “Great-winged Petrel,” with Howell focusing on records of the “Gray-faced Petrel” from Pacific North America and Flood and Fisher on the nominate “Great-winged Petrel.”
By concentrating exclusively on the Pterodroma petrels, Flood and Fisher are able to provide more complete information about the identification and variation of those target species than is found in Howell 2012; furthermore, the variety and quality of photos of the gadfly petrels are better in Flood and Fisher’s new volume. Of course, the tight scope of the book also means that the reader has no opportunity to compare the various Pterodroma with full accounts of some of the look-alike shearwaters, as is afforded by Howell. Fortunately, the authors here do address, helpfully if briefly, such transgeneric identification issues as the Black-capped Petrel vs. the Great Shearwater or the Trindade Petrel vs. the Sooty Shearwater; they even branch out to discuss the potential for confusion of jaegers and skuas with the Kermadec and Trindade Petrels.
I find the texts in the new guide clear, compelling, and extraordinarily detailed. The discussions of difficult identifications both acknowledge the relevant literature and add the authors’ interpretations and clarifications: For example, they refute previously published accounts to the effect that Kermadec Petrels had been documented in the North Atlantic.
Extra space is given to groups that pose identification problems, the most notable of these the “feae complex,” comprising the Zino’s Petrel and the two subspecies of the Fea’s Petrel. The authors even take up case studies of particularly vexing identifications like the Norwegian record of a Soft-plumaged Petrel and the Zino’s Petrel from North Carolina (coming soon to an AOU list near you). Editing and manuscript review was clearly a priority for the authors, and I have noticed only very minor errors in my use of the guide: in one case (p. 177), the waters off North Carolina are referred to as the “northeast Atlantic” instead of the “northwest Atlantic.”
While I am impressed with the clarity of the text, the lack of a subject place marker on each page is a bit baffling. If you’re searching for an important detail in the text, the absence of a header or footer makes it a minor struggle to relocate key sections without resorting to the table of contents. Both Howell and the new Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching demonstrate the effective use of such guides on each page, and I rely heavily on them when seeking out specific information.
My other minor gripe involves abbreviations. I find the use of four-letter codes (ATPE for Atlantic Petrel, etc.) throughout the text disruptive of the reading experience. I suspect that the use of these codes was a space-saving measure, but it only serves to compromise the clarity of the authors’ text.
The quality of the photographs, by a range of top photographers, is superb; all of the taxa treated in the guide are represented by sharp, well-lit images of birds in flight and at rest. Mike Danzenbaker’s Bermuda Petrel photos are phenomenal, and photos of similar caliber are presented for each species in the guide. As someone who spends a lot of time photographing seabirds from ships and understands the difficulty of taking good photos of Pterodroma petrels, I am amazed by the dedication and skill that are so obvious in the images presented here. In addition to field photos, shots of museum specimens highlight key differences in wing patterns (such as those between the Kermadec and Trindade Petrels), and in-hand photos of live birds emphasize the differences in bill structure between such closely related taxa as the Zino’s and Fea’s Petrels.
Martin Elliot’s lovely paintings of petrels in flight and at rest add some of the elements found in a traditional field guide; these images are accompanied by bullet points emphasizing the important field characters all on one page. Elliot’s painting, while differing somewhat from Ian Lewington’s nearly photographic realism in the plates for Storm-Petrels and Bulwer’s Petrel, works very well to convey plumage detail while maintaining the broad strokes of proportion and structure.
The identification sequences included on the first DVD are a mix of still photos and video sequences with voice-over by Bob Flood. While all of the stills are top notch, the video sequences are of variable quality. While cinema buffs might think some of them so shaky as to be borderline unwatchable, I find the shots highly useful in the context of field identification. The “amateur” quality of the video is freely admitted in a disclaimer, with an explanation that will resonate with anyone who has ever raised a camera, or even binoculars, on a moving ship. Indeed, the video very much represents typical at-sea encounters with Pterodroma, emphasizing patterns and contrast and highlighting the difficulty of resolving fine details without the aid of still photography. For viewers missing freeze-frames in the video, remember that you can always hit “pause” to take a longer look at a particular petrel pose.
I am a bit perplexed by the use of video to explore the same features already emphasized in the text; for example, the head and wing patterns of the Zino’s / Fea’s complex are found in the text and in the DVD. The DVD time dedicated to these redundancies could have been more effectively devoted to slow-motion sequences or freeze frames.
Another highlight of the guide’s video material is the second DVD’s section treating the history of human interactions with the Bermuda Petrel and the Zino’s Petrel. The narration—by David Wingate (godfather of the Bermuda Petrel), Jeremy Madeiros (Conservation Officer and the Bermuda Petrel’s current guardian), and Frank Zino (along with his father, responsible for much of the knowledge of Zino’s Petrel on Madeira)—drives home both the fragility of seabird breeding systems and the resilience of Pterodroma even when the deck is so heavily stacked against them.
The video narrative of the Bermuda Petrel traces the transition from David Wingate’s role in the species’ rediscovery, habitat stewardship, and nest site innovations to Jeremy Madeiros’s recent translocation and geolocation projects; these individuals have made a true difference in the conservation of a species. For the Zino’s Petrel, Frank Zino paints an impressive picture of the struggle of the tiny population on Madeira to overcome a plague of introduced housecats and a human-caused fire that spread across the breeding area in 2010. Neither the Zino’s Petrel nor the Bermuda Petrel can be said yet to enjoy anything like long-term security as species, but these examples of discovery and conservation give us real reasons to hope and to act.
The Zino’s and Bermuda Petrel stories, combined with helpful flight video of all taxa and even some illustrative discussion of far-flung Atlantic islands, really round out the guide and give the viewer a very good taste of these special birds. The print portion of the guide can easily stand alone as a fine treatment of an enigmatic group of seabirds, but in combination with the two excellent DVDs, this is a full experience that you won’t want to miss.
The knowledge and passion of Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher saturate their new guide to these birds, and it’s gratifying to know that several more additions to the Multimedia Identification Guide series are on their way. With its scope limited to ten taxa that are very difficult to observe without a voyage far out of your way, this guide is a specialty work. In spite of its rather high cost, this volume is a fantastic resource that will be appreciated far beyond its target audience of seabird specialists. This is exactly the sort of inspired work that can transform even the most steadfast landlubber into a desperate seabird addict, while also providing an exemplary target toward which future authors can aspire.
Tom Johnson is the Photo Quiz Editor at Birding. He studied biology at Cornell University, and is currently surveying seabirds from NOAA ships off the east coast of North America. Tom’s passions include long walks on the beach, dinner by candlelight, and immature hybrid gulls.
Johnson, T. 2014. “Pterodroma Petrels” [a review of Multimedia Identification Guide to North Atlantic Seabirds: Pterodroma Petrels, by Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher]. Birding 46.1: 66.