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

Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America, by Steve  N.G. Howell
Princeton University Press, 2012
483 pages, $45 hardcover
ABA Sales / Buteo Books 13535
Tubenoses – well-adapted birds that spend most of their lives soaring over the open ocean – are shrouded in more mystery than any other group of birds.  Not only are their habitats so inaccessible, but distinguishing between cryptic species makes them a true frontier for ornithologists and birders alike.  Anyone who has been on a pelagic trip can’t help but fall in love with these incredible creatures, but uncovering the story behind these birds can be quite a challenge.  The field guides we are most familiar with seem to lack helpful identification tips on seabirds; even the internet is surprisingly useless when it comes to tubenoses.  Luckily, we have the excellent Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm Petrels of North America to help us out.


Steve N.G. Howell is well-known for writing fascinating specialty bird guides, and Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm Petrels of North America is no different.  To say that the book is filled with information would be an understatement – the range maps, descriptions, identification tips, and behavior are addressed with much detail.  As a result, it is fairly dense and may be less accessible to the casual birder than some of Howell’s other books, such as the dream-inducing Rare Birds of North America. However, any fan of tubenoses should own this guide.  Howell reasons that identification at sea cannot rely on minute details like we use on tricky land birds.  Instead, he focuses our attention on “size, structure, flight manner, overall plumage pattern,” and more.  Details can be gathered from photos after the fact (known to many as “chimping”), but knowing what to look for while out on the ocean is essential.  Petrels will arm the observer with a powerful tool to identify the 70 or so species found in North American waters, but like any good tool, it requires both experience and practice to be used to its full capacity.

Wilson's Storm-Petrel

Wilson’s Storm-Petrels are among the most abundant tubenoses in the East. Photo by Lucas Bobay

The introduction covers tubenose taxonomy, as well as general identification tips ranging from flight style to bird topography.  There are helpful diagrams labeling the parts of the birds in order to establish the common language of seabird identification.  If you need a refresher on where p10 is, or what scapulars are, this is the place to start. This topography comes up time and time again when viewing pelagic species, and thus it is thoroughly covered.  Petrels also features an in-depth description of tubenose habitat, with information on upwellings, thermoclines, and other areas where these birds tend to congregate.  There are also tables describing the habitat associations of the species in the book.  The most interesting part of the introduction, at least for me, were the pages outlining the molting process.  Again, Howell uses a table to show the molt strategies of many species, and there are diagrams showing the molt schedule of a few selected birds.  Knowledge of wing molt is ever-increasing and is often used in identifying similar-looking species. As a result, the hefty amount of information in this section is quite useful.
One of the first things I noticed after diving into Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America was the rather progressive taxonomy Howell uses. The recent AOU split of Shy Albatross, which occurred after the publication date, is one such example, though the book also describes the races in the “Band-rumped Storm-Petrel” complex, the forms of Herald Petrel, and more. This is fortunate, as it will keep this guide relevant as pelagic taxonomy is sorted out by the authorities in coming years. Every image (and there are a lot) included in Petrels offers substantial information and it’s obvious that Howell carefully selected each one. Side-by-side comparisons of similar species at the same angle offer help with tricky IDs (e.g. Sooty vs. Short-tailed shearwaters, Fea’s vs. Zino’s petrels, etc.), which are all extremely helpful and accompanied by detailed captions.
Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America is organized roughly by taxonomy and by appearance (and a few groups are split up by geographic range). The main sections of the book are – believe it or not – Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels, which are subsequently divided into subgroups. As a result, I find the book fairly easy to navigate. Each section has several introductory pages before the species accounts, describing the characteristics of the particular group of birds as well as addressing some identification concerns.

Pterodroma Petrels, like this Black-capped Petrel, can fly by in an instant, making identification at sea tricky.  Photo by Lucas Bobay

Species Accounts occupy most of Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America, forming the backbone of the book. To begin each account, the information is compacted into a short “identification summary,” which goes over the range, habitat, and essential identification information. After this brief introduction, Howell proceeds to describe each species with great detail. He addresses taxonomy, Latin name origins, status, range, habitat, behavior, and molt timing. Many photographs, taken at different times of year and in different stages of molt, accompany each profile. Every tubenose species that occurs in North America is described in this way, even accidentals. Howell gives body length, wingspan, bill length, and pretty much any other feature you can think of.
The end of the book includes two appendices, one for recently extinct species (like the Jamaican Petrel) and another for hypotheticals (such as Little Shearwater). Additionally, there are a few pages defining the abbreviations and terminology used frequently throughout Petrels.
Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America is so thick with information I can’t possibly describe it all in one review.  Every time I open the book, I learn something new.  The verdict: if you are into pelagics, advanced bird identification, or bird science, you should definitely purchase this book.  You won’t be disappointed – Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels is nothing short of excellent.  (Disclaimer: may make you spend money on a few extra pelagic trips).