In terms of identification, this is a difficult group of birds, most of which are unfamiliar to the vast majority of birders. Few ever undertake a pelagic journey at all, and for those who do, it involves mostly three or four hour excursions from well known coastal locations. There are not many among us who are fortunate enough to have the resources and the time to take extended sea voyages.
So it is good advice in the introduction that many species have of necessity to remain unidentified. It is not a mark of inadequacy to admit that one cannot always identify a bird; quite the contrary in fact. It is cogently stated by the authors that you are watching "from a moving platform while watching moving subjects over a moving surface." Add to this, lack of familiarity with the subjects, similarities in plumage of several species, and perhaps a touch of queasiness brought on by not having proper sea legs, and the potential for humility is great! It is better to have witnessed a petrel sp. than never to have seen a petrel at all.
I was quite amused by the wry comment, "Many people, even including men, would likely look at the instruction manual before using an unfamiliar electric kitchen or workroom tool. Yet the introductions to bird books often seem to go unread, even though they represent instruction manuals that enable you to use your tool more effectively."
Do not skip the introduction to this book; there is simply too much valuable information in it, and a thorough reading of this section will materially assist you in deriving maximum benefit from the pages that follow.
The widespread use of various forms of chemical analysis since Peter Harrison's landmark work in 1987 means that the revisions to taxonomy are little short of staggering. The tubenoses, for example, have expanded from 107 to in excess of 175. DNA analysis tells a story no amount of morphological or behavioural observation could ever reveal - and it is likely not over yet.
The photographs are in many way remarkable. I have taken part in a few pelagic experiences, the most memorable being in the Benguela current off the southern coast of Africa and in the Humboldt Current thirty to forty kilometres off the west coast of Chile. It probably is not difficult to convince you that trying to keep one's balance in a small boat heaving in the ocean swell with birds appearing and disappearing with frustrating regularity, is not the ideal way to take pictures.
But there is nothing quite like a pelagic and this book has captured much of the excitement of it. Seeing a penguin ashore is a wonderful experience, life-changing almost, but seeing them gliding through the ocean waves with grace and ease, truly in their element, is an encounter that transcends all else.
This is a thoroughly worthwhile book, well researched and well executed by two seabirds experts of great renown. If only they had been my companions on my pelagics..........
Ocean Birds of the World: A Photo Guide
Steve N. G. Howell and Kirk Zufelt
Paperback - $35.00 - 9780691175010 - 360 pages - 368 colour plates - 114 maps - 5 3/4" x 8 1/4"
Publication date: 20 August 2019