Book Review: Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America by Steve Howell

Reviewed by Stephen J. Bodio
July 15, 2012
Book Review: Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America by Steve Howell
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Dunlap’s In the Field mentions the rise of the specialized guide. Howells’ Petrels is one of the best and most specialized. It is not only a model guide; it taught me more about the tube-noses than anything I have ever read, while showing how to sort out this mysterious family. One thing: Dunlap calls physically large field guides “shelf books,” but make no mistake, this enormous volume, the biggest field guide I have yet seen, is meant to be taken into the field or, rather, the high seas, on a boat. You don’t see these birds from the land.

Most field-guide writers wish you would read their prefaces before you look at the pretty pictures; Howell makes a real case. His subjects don’t live in particular spots. They are nomads, dependent on such phenomena as ocean currents, and even more esoterically, on “thermoclines, upwelling, and fronts.” Without understanding these physical processes or the seasons of ocean ecosystems you might burn a lot of gas looking for these birds.

After some taxonomy, useful in sorting out groups of species for identification, Howell passes rapidly over such things as flight patterns to present 400 pages of amazingly useful photographs. Though maritime-born, I find such birds as shearwaters or petrels more difficult than fall warblers; telling one from another is like being deaf and trying to distinguish between Empidonax flycatchers. In uncertain light, from an unstable platform, you look at the fast-moving silhouettes of racing, tilting creatures as they dip and wheel and slip behind waves, while your binoculars accumulate salt spray. Your quarry might be nearly invisible in the fog: see Figure 4 on page 86, a ghost of a Buller’s Shearwater, laughably described as having a “striking” plumage pattern. Unusual for a photo guide, many illustrations seem to be chosen and arranged to be in the same positions for comparison—like Peterson! It helps. Look at the six examples of various species of storm-petrels with white rumps on pages 356–7, all in clear sunlight, and tell me if you can distinguish one from another. At least with this book you will have a fighting chance. If I were giving stars I would give this 10 out of 5, and I live in the desert.