A Must-Have Resource for Global Seabirding

March 10, 2020

A review by Kate Sutherland

Oceanic Birds of the World: A Photo Guide, by Steve N. G. Howell and Kirk Zufelt

Princeton University Press, 2019

360 pages, softcover

Howell and Zufelt have undertaken a monumental task. Not only have they compiled a worthwhile collection of striking photographs of our global assortment of seabirds, they have also taken the time to wade through the most vexing taxonomy and put it all into a sensible, useful format. I would recommend beginning at the beginning, which many of us often fail to do whenever we receive a new field guide, instead jumping in and reading random species accounts and looking at photos. The preface and introduction to this guide are unrivaled, and truly set the stage for all that follows. A “seabird,” as defined in this guide, is a bird that spends its life at sea and makes its living at sea, using land out of necessity to mate.

After you finish the introduction, you might want to flip right to the appendices, to get a feel for what it means to have a guide to oceanic birds of the world. Familiarize yourself with areas you may have never even heard of, much less thought about needing a guide for. Then take the time to really read and understand the taxonomy used here. Howell and Zufelt take the liberty of recognizing a number of provisional species in this guide, noting that for many seabirds, different nesting populations are likely valid “splits.” Seabird taxonomy is in flux, and a number of cryptic species differ in vocalizations, chemosensory perception, and breeding phenology. Many of these species come and go in the dark on nesting islands, so they don’t need the visual cues that our familiar land birds use. Unraveling the connections and relationships are a bit more difficult with seabirds, especially since evolution itself is fluid. These species are changing even as we study them.

Once you have an understanding about how the guide is set up and what you might find in the way of new or unfamiliar names, is it actually easy to use in the field? I had just received my copy of the guide before leaving on a NOAA cruise from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, as the seabird observer. What a perfect opportunity to field test this guide! There were a few people aboard who were familiar with these species and a number that were not familiar with them at all. I was able to use the guide easily with the handy pictorial contents just inside the front cover and share information about species that we encountered by handing the guide over to anyone, open to the relevant species account.

Many field guides have a long section on identification criteria. This guide, however, makes it very simple. The necessary characteristics are right on the photo plates with the birds, highlighted in yellow; they are succinct, and any additional notes are given there as well. You can then find the common name, scientific name, and measurements in the written section. Information about nesting locations and seasons are also given there along with any other necessary facts. Range maps are given for those species that might not be as well known, or to illustrate different nesting locations for cryptic or similar species.

The book’s photos are brilliant, the organization is perfect for use in the field, and the species accounts can be read with ease—so what else makes this field guide one that you must have in your collection? The wealth of information about each family or other grouping of seabirds is unparalleled for such a compact book. Howell and Zufelt have taken the time to introduce each section of the guide so that is useful and educational for both novices and seasoned ocean travelers.

For example, “Gadfly Petrels and Allies (42+ species in 4 genera)” begins with an overview about how the authors treat this group, what habits at sea unify the many species, and ID challenges. Then Howell and Zufelt break these out into groups of “Small White-bodied,” “Larger White-bodied,” and “Dark-bodied” so that you can quickly and easily locate the pages you need for that gadfly that just zipped down the side of the boat. Each of these sections is further introduced with notes about features to note and how to reach that species identification, or when to perhaps leave a bird simply identified to a group. The authors give you hints and clues about potential ID challenges, for example Fea’s vs. Zino’s petrels. There are useful sections outlining how to separate such species at sea, fully illustrated with photos showing individuals in positions that could lead to confusion, then pointing out differences that will help you differentiate between similar species.

As a guide who takes people offshore to look at seabirds, I admit that I was most curious about the species we regularly see offshore from Hatteras, North Carolina, where I am based. I was especially interested in how Howell and Zufelt chose to deal with some of our more “taxonomically vexed” species such as the Band-rumped Storm-Petrel. So I was pleased to see an entire page dedicated to the “Leach’s Storm-Petrel Complex vs. Band-rumped Storm-Petrel Complex” with detailed information about each of these on the pages before and following. Leaving some of the band-rumpeds we see offshore from Hatteras unidentified to “type” can be frustrating for me and for our participants, especially since these cryptic species have been split years ago by birders outside the U. S.

Howell and Zufelt acknowledge in the introduction to this complex that “field ID characters remain to be elucidated,” and that some of these species may not be separated easily, if at all, at sea. Digital photography and more at-sea data collection are essential to broadening our understanding of seabird species and distribution. The “Black-capped Petrel Complex” is another example of how much we still have to learn about species that seem initially straightforward in their identification. We know that two “types,” treated here as two species (White-faced Petrel and Black-faced Petrel), exist and occur regularly in the Gulf Stream waters off the East Coast of the U. S.—but how do they differ? And where do the large number of intermediate birds fit in this picture? At-sea tagging of the two types of Black-capped Petrels, a project led by the American Bird Conservancy, is one way that our knowledge about little known but regularly seen species is growing. As Howell and Zufelt write: “While today these views may seem radical, we suspect in years to come our approach may be viewed as quaint and conservative.”

Oceanic Birds of the World: A Photo Guide is a must-have for anyone interested in seabirds. It is not only a true field guide, but also a companion for those days when the winds and seas might preclude a trip offshore. I learned a lot by reading the family/group accounts and studying the species accounts. The photography is incredible and useful for the identification criteria it is used to illustrate. Many photos are included to give the reader insights to the incredible world of seabirds. I also agree with the scope of the guide: Seabirds should be considered as those birds that spend the majority of their lives in the open ocean. More than anything, this book made me yearn to put it to use—and that means going places I’ve never been and looking at seabirds I never dreamed I’d see, much less identify!


Kate Sutherland moved to Hatteras, North Carolina, in 2001 to work for Seabirding (seabirding.com), a company that runs pelagic birding tours in the Gulf Stream and has the enigmatic Black-capped Petrel as their signature species. Kate recently returned to university to earn a bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology, and she prefers life offshore.