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Monday, 5 March 2012

Product Review: PETRELS, ALBATROSSES & STORM-PETRELS OF NORTH AMERICA - A PHOTOGRAPHIC GUIDE

PETRELS, SHEARWATERS & STORM-PETRELS OF NORTH AMERICA by Steve N.G. Howell

Wow, this exciting tome thudded down onto my doormat at the weekend and what a publication it is. With heavy rain all day on Sunday I was able to absorb its contents without worrying what I was missing outside. This is a Photographic Guide by an acclaimed field ornithologist and writer and is a collaboration of the minds and field-skills of J. Brian Patteson, Kate Sutherland and Debra Shearwater. It is a well-produced, neatly presented and nicely formatted hardback running at just under 470 pages and fully details the large shearwaters, small shearwaters, Atlantic Gadfly Petrels, Pacific Gadfly Petrels, North Atlantic and vagrant Albatrosses and both the white-rumped and dark-rumped storm petrels.

Each group of birds is introduced by a summary of its characters, at times with overviews and photographs treating in detail some of the more challenging identifications, followed by individual species' accounts. Each species documented is enlightened by an excellent field identification section and then supplemented by annotated images where appropriate. Easy-to-read and use maps enhance the main text as do sections on status and distribution, fully utilising all up-to-date information.

The Introduction section runs for 50 pages and is an essential ingredient of the publication, being excellently written and produced in a format which is easily understood. There then follows the main meat of the publication - the species' accounts. No less than 58 species are featured, some six pages on average being devoted to each one. A large selection of photographs are featured and these, in the main, are well chosen and highly representative. Frustratingly, some of the images have come out a little darker than expected in the printing process but this is a minor quibble.

I cross-checked a few entries with peer-reviewed identification papers (Scopoli's Shearwater for example) and was very pleased with the results, the information being offered being of a high quality and seemingly accurate in fine detail. The authors have certainly done their homework with this guide. I was very pleased too to see all of the proposed taxonomic changes incorporated and these highly distinct forms treated separately and well documented (eg, the Fea's Petrel group).

Although I know it is essentially a Photographic Guide, I do feel the publication would have benefited further by the inclusion of plates, such as the exceptional and outstanding one of the small shearwaters on page 147.

This is a truly essential guide for seawatchers and keen birders on both sides of the Atlantic, even though it is written in the main for a North American audience. It is a particularly well-written guide that should be used as a primary reference for those studying these mysterious sea-dwellers.

It is published by Princeton University Press and is available direct or from retail outlets - the UK price at present £31.00 plus postage & packing.