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

January 23, 2012
by

Learning birds is like learning a language.  When you come across someone who’s exceptionally good at it, it looks effortless.  But for the rest of us, perhaps those of us whose knowledge of a foreign language is merely cursory, each phrase and word needs to be run through your native language before responding, haltingly, in an often futile attempt to be understood.  See, language fluency, particularly in individuals who are fluent in multiple languages, actually rewires your brain such that this awkward middle step is unnecessary. Response is reflexive rather than calculated, and the brain is plastic enough to allow for comprehension without the crutch of translating it twice and more, oftentimes it’s so subconscious that the speaker is not even aware that they’re doing it and is unable to explain how it happens.

Obviously a great deal of effort is required to make this subconscious switch.  You have to put in a lot of time with grammar and syntax, and speak with native speakers for hours, before you can be considered truly fluent.  It’s the same way with birding.  Skilled birders, those who have spent hours in the field and spent lots of time with their field guides, or with the sighting reports in the quarterly journals of their state ornithological societies, or with North American Birds, respond to what they see and hear in much the same intuitive way that language speakers do, and are often equally unable to explain what they just “know”.  Their brain is rewired to speak fluent bird, and like the ability to speak a foreign language, anyone, given enough time and effort, can get there even if it seems impossible.

The thing is, this is most relevant to terrestrial birds, those birds that share their land-based ecosystems with human beings.  There’s another suite of birds that, by virtue of their rarity, their peculiarity, and, mostly, their inaccessibility, must remain foreign for most birders.  And it’s a true shame too, because they are among the most fantastic birds on the planet, true masters of their domain and consisting of some of the most eccentric, formidable, and mysterious species you could hope to find living in a world that very few birders get the opportunity to explore at length.  I’m speaking, of course, of the tubenoses.

Few ornithologists are as well-versed in the pelagic world as Steve N.G. Howell, widely considered to be one of the world’s experts on the field identification of this enigmatic family of birds. His widely anticipated photographic guide, Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America, comes at a time when interest in pelagic birds and their distribution into North American waters is at an all-time high.  The pelagic realm is often considered to be the last great horizon in the study of North America’s birdlife, and it’s shocking how little we know about these birds’ lives and how many surprises are left to discover.  One of the great appeals of pelagic birding, at least in this birder’s opinion, is the fact that nearly every single trip offshore offers the possibility for something completely new and unexpected, there are few places on earth for which one could say the same.

That said, identification of pelagic species is notoriously tricky, with a constantly moving platform, cryptic species, and uncertain taxonomy conspiring to overwhelm even the most ambitious seabirder.  Worse, most identification of pelagic species is not done by close examination of salient field marks – a rocking boat often makes that difficult – but by more esoteric criteria.  Flight style, frequency and buoyancy of flaps, distance of glides, among others, are of paramount importance.  These are the sorts of things that are not impossible, but very very difficult for most birders to grasp in the few hours per year allotted to them offshore.  And too often these clues to identification are given the short shift in traditional field guides.  Birders deserve better, and in Howell’s new book, they’ve finally got it.

So much has been left unsaid and unknown with regard to tubenose identification that Howell has a lot of catching up to do.  And catch us up, he does.  This, beyond the amazing and comprehensive species accounts, more than the stunning photos of even the rarest birds, in addition to the exhaustive treatment of the very latest in tubenose taxonomy (and trust me, there’s a lot there), is worth the price of admission, so to speak.  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.  And, it must be said, none of it is dry reading.  The prose is eminently engaging, written by someone who is very clearly thrilled to have an outlet for this wealth of knowledge.  It’s immediately clear that this is useful information too, as you’d expect.  I’ve been on several trips offshore here in North Carolina, and while I consider myself to be a passable pelagic birder (and really only the last couple times I’ve been out have I felt more or less comfortable), I’m struck by the realization that I’ve been seabirding with a handicap.  In reading this book I feel as though a veil has been lifted from my eyes and I can’t wait to get out again to put into practice what I’ve learned in only the week I’ve had it.

If I have any complaints, it’s that I wish some of the photos were larger.   There are a few plates throughout that feel as though there is wasted white space that could have been better filled by enlarging some of the photos to better see some of the subtler aspects of plumage, and subtle plumage aspects is the name of the game a lot of the time.  With the profusion of high quality photos throughout, however, this lament seems a bit petty.  Larger photos would necessitate a larger book after all, and this one is already very substantial as it is.

It would be easy to pigeon-hole this book as one just for pelagic enthusiasts, and make no mistake, every birder with even a passing interest in offshore birding needs this book in their library; there is simply nothing like it.  But pelagic birds are an invitation to a world few birders are aware of, and even fewer know well.  This book offers the best opportunity to learn about these incredible birds short of spending the sort of time at sea that Steve Howell does.

Howell, a man who is truly fluent in tubenose, has produced something essential here.  I could not possibly recommend it more enthusiastically.

Thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy

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2 Comments
  1. January 29, 2012 8:49 pm

    An outstanding review!

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