My personal experience with any of the species covered in this excellent new field guide to Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America is limited to a few pelagic trips off the NJ coast and California, plus the unexpected bounty of Tropical Storm Nora that dumped hundreds of storm-petrels along the Colorado River on the western edge of Arizona many years ago. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the quality of this new book that overflows with information, range maps, and photos of birds that require more work to see than many birders ever encounter. These species are truly birds of the world’s oceans and to see them properly requires time spent on board boats of varying size and stability staring at gray water and distant horizons.
Getting the most from pelagic birding requires a lot of preparation and study of the birds so that fleeting views of gray and white birds can be turned into identifications and checks on life lists. Howell’s book is a great resource for anyone planning a trip at sea to observe these species. At almost 500 pages it is a substantial reference. It is not something I would try to use while looking at a storm-petrel off the rail of a tossing deck – it is just too big and heavy to be easily handled in such a situation, and an expensive book to risk losing or getting wet. On a larger boat or longer trip I’d want a copy to review during periods of inactivity (and if you’ve ever been out off the Atlantic coast you know how long those periods can last), but even then I’d keep it safe in the cabin as much as possible.
The heart of the book is the abundance of quality photos of these birds. Mostly flight shots (with a few photos of birds at rest on the water and even a couple on land presumably near nests), they show the birds from all angles and with excellent detail. I’ve got to commend the photographers for their skill in capturing so many excellent images. I had briefly thought about including one of my own modest photos of a Black-footed Albatross or a Black Storm-Petrel with this post, but my shots from the 80’s and 90’s don’t come near the quality of those in Howell’s book.
I suspect that two photo technologies have made a large contribution to the quality of the images: auto focus and digital capture. Taking photos of small moving targets from a moving platform can be difficult, and it definitely got easier as auto focus improved on modern cameras (I was still shooting with a manual focus 400/5.6 lens when I was chasing these birds). Digital has three obvious advantages over the days of film: cranking up the ISO to 800 or 1600 or even 3200 (ISO 200 was “fast” for film); large capacity memory cards for digital cameras that can record many hundreds or even thousands of images without needing to be changed out (compared to the 36 shots on each roll of film); the knowledge that each shot via digital is essentially free (film plus processing made every slide cost 25-30 cents) so the photographer can blast away to improve the odds of catching the bird in focus, in good position, and properly exposed while discarding all the failures.
If I was heading to sea today to see and photograph these birds I’d still bring along A Field Guide to Seabirds of the World by Peter Harrison, and leave the Howelll book on shore if the boat was small, space was limited, or rough water was expected. It is much smaller and lighter. It has photos (and even a few paintings where photos weren’t available) from the days of film, and a handy handy section of B&W drawings making direct comparisons of the various tubenoses (a feature missing in Howell’s book).
I can’t imagine any blog such as this doing a comprehensive review of Howell’s Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America: it is just too packed with knowledge and other hard-learned information. I recommend this book to anyone interested in these unique birds (and shouldn’t all birders fit that category?). From Princeton University Press, 2012.