American Birding Podcast



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.