Seabird addiction for many of us began with Peter Harrison’s Seabirds: An Identification Guide back in the 1980s and 1990s. This niche has grown in the last 30 years with pelagic trips now available from ports all over the world! As more birders are getting out on the high seas, and with digital photography advancements, our knowledge about these enigmatic creatures has grown. People working offshore, like fishermen or cetacean researchers, keep an eye out for seabirds and report them, understanding that the more we know about these inhabitants of the sea, including their movements and distributions, the more we can learn about the world they live in and how it is changing. In Seabirds: The New Identification Guide, Harrison, along with Martin Perrow and Hans Larsson, have pooled research with Harrison’s own personal knowledge to bring us this unique volume housing the seabirds of the world in one place and at your fingertips.
The introduction to this guide is incredibly helpful to orient the user. It covers the vexing taxonomy of seabirds and the difficulty posed cataloging a group that is notoriously hard to study. The use of current research and background about this research in each individual section helps the reader delve deeper into the world of phylogeny and investigate species that pique their curiosity. Twenty pages of references give us the tools to answer any questions we may have or help us learn enough to formulate more. Maps are explained so we know where the distribution information comes from. The groups covered in this guide are laid out with a representative image and short explanation and then listed again in a species inventory with page numbers—both are very helpful for ease of use. I especially like that each species has the French, German, and Spanish name just beneath the English and scientific names. For those species that have them, a local name is included as well in parentheses following the English name.
Species sections are well laid out with very helpful introductions, again allowing us to follow Harrison’s thought process about which species to include and why with references. An inventory of species heads each section such as Petrels, Shearwaters, & Diving Petrels; Skuas & Jaegers; etc., and has the breakdown of scientific names and groupings as well as notes from Harrison to help remember which is which. This will be particularly helpful for the novice seabirder who is just getting a handle on this incredibly diverse group of birds. The phylogenetic information contained in each introductory section is quite fascinating, and I love that I learned a lot about different species and how they came to be in various groups, what the fossil record shows us, and how these species are related now. I spend a lot of time reading about tubenoses but not much on loons, cormorants and shags, or pelicans, for example, so it’s possible one can learn something new just by reading all of the group introductions!
Each group description begins with a section on identification. Here the book breaks down what you should look for to identify the species in this group. Skuas and jaegers, for example, are notoriously difficult to identify, especially as you get into the different age classes. Variation just within a species can be overwhelming, so it is helpful to have a section before you even get to the plates to let you know what key criteria you should pay attention to in the field. Hans Larsson produced some gorgeous plates for this section and Harrison dedicated an entire page to each jaeger species. The arrangement here with a number of different plumages and ages is very informative and helpful. I enjoyed seeing the Great and South Polar skua plate, especially, with information about distinguishing them from one another in the summer, something we always need to be on the lookout for here in the Northwestern Atlantic.
Having just returned from my first visit to the Southern Ocean and Antarctica in March, I appreciated the introduction to the albatrosses and the note that ID challenges should not be underestimated! The notes on Wanderers and Royals are good tools to begin looking at these true ocean giants. The gadfly petrels—genus Pterodroma, previously named Aestrelata—are another challenging group of tubenosed seabirds. Harrison again gives good advice for tackling this—know before you go! Study what species might be encountered in an area you are planning to visit on a pelagic trip by looking at previous trip reports and what they have seen. Get an idea of what species are common and what are less common, know what these species look like, and make yourself a cheat sheet to have on board with you with just some of the key criteria for the birds you might encounter. This is generally a good idea anytime you’re heading offshore somewhere. As you might be able to tell by the size of this book, it’s not one you can have in your pocket to check while you’re on a moving vessel with seabirds zipping by! You might miss something while you’re looking down!
It takes a huge cooperative effort to produce a text like this. There are many people out on boats making observations and adding to our knowledge daily by publishing notes and articles or posting in online forums about seabirds, and this book acknowledges many of these individuals by name. It is refreshing to be reminded in numerous ways how important it is to use your observational skills—pay attention in the field and use your ability to communicate your sightings. Learn how to take useful photos and how to record your observations so people can use and learn from them in the future. I love that Harrison makes this a very important theme. We need seabirders who are competent and can help us push the envelope. We don’t all have to agree to help species identification and taxonomy stay current; we just have to communicate what we’re seeing. We also need people who are excited about conservation to make sure that these amazing oceanic superheroes survive for future generations enjoy.
While there are some editorial mistakes and proportional misrepresentations in some of the Procellariiformes plates (the color errors there could be due to printing), this book is definitely a new and vastly improved Seabirds containing a wealth of information in one place that you’d have to work hard to assimilate on your own. This is a guide worth having in your collection! And if you’re not a seabirder yet . . . well, you will be!
Kate Sutherland moved to Hatteras, NC in 2001 to work for Seabirding, a company that runs pelagic birding tours in the Gulf Stream and has the enigmatic Black-capped Petrel as their signature species. She is a marine biologist who also works at Duke Marine Lab and prefers life offshore.
Birding is a force for good in our society. Learning and sharing about birds translates into concern for birds and the environment, and the American Birding Association provides resources and community for all people interested in birds!