Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm Petrels of North America – a Review

I became fascinated with Sooty Shearwaters after watching them – from shore – off Monterey Bay at the end of September. They were part of a mixed feeding flock, which enabled me to see their unique behavior. When in flight, they barely skimmed the water with shallow wing-beats and then would suddenly plunge into the water to feed. I returned home wanting to learn more about them.

The letter from Princeton University Press that accompanied the review copy introduced Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide by Steven H.G. Howell, as a “must-have resource for your next trip on the briny deep…”

Even though I don’t willingly participate on pelagic bird-watching trips due to extreme motion sensitivity, I found the book fascinating and enlightening.

Howell provides detailed descriptions to aid in field identification of the three main families of “tubenoses” – Petrels, which includes shearwaters, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels. The nostrils of this group of seabirds are encased in one or two tubes on their hooked bills, thus the term tubnose. As seabirds, they spend their entire life on the ocean, with the exception of breeding, which normally occurs on off-shore islands.

One of the most interesting sections of the book was the description of ocean habitats, currents, and the nature of water masses that influence food supply and consequently the distribution of seabirds at different times of the year. There is a discussion, with diagrams, of the influence of wind on flight behavior.

Howell also provides information on the threats to seabirds and how they serve as an index of marine ecosystem health. His photo of plastic that had been ingested by an Albatross reminded me of an exhibit I had seen in a marine museum in Hawaii illustrating the devastating effect of plastic in the ocean on seabirds.

A section of the book is also devoted to helping the reader have a successful pelagic trip, as well as strategies for observing pelagic species from land.

I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who wants to participate in serious pelagic birding, as well as ‘land-lubbers’ who want to gain a more in-depth appreciation of the inter-relationship between ocean habitats and related factors and the birds that live there.

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