Saturday, May 24, 2008

Albatrosses and petrels across the world.

Here's a book I find myself turning to again and again. Every time I need to look up some salient detail about the tubenoses (albatrosses, shearwaters, petrels, storm-petrels and diving-petrels) this is my first stop.

The book divides into two parts, the first covers basics questions of petrel biology and second presents a systematic survey of all 126 extant species of Procellariformes, distilling huge amounts of information on taxonomy, identification, breeding biology, distribution, and population trends. Species accounts often begin with an interesting paragraph on the discovery or naming of the species, sometimes highlighting taxonomic uncertainties. The book is not intended as a field guide, and consequently, the identification sections are fairly basic with little discussion of appearance at sea, flight style, changes due to wear and so on. Vagrancy is sometimes mentioned but not always and is generally omitted from the range maps.

The author Michael Brooke is an accomplished scientist and lecturer based at Cambridge University's Museum of Zoology and has spent the last thirty years studying petrel ecology and conservation biology. His name is virtually synonymous with the Manx Shearwater, on which he has written an excellent monograph, and he has authored numerous scientific papers on shearwaters and gadfly petrels. These studies that have taken him all over the globe and provided hands-on experience with many of the species described in the book.

Brooke's scholarship is evident throughout. He is not afraid to articulate his own opinions about taxonomy or nomenclature but like a good scientist, his opinion almost always comes with a justification. The chapters on petrel biology are perfused with his driving curiosity. He is not just interested in the facts (how many, where and when), he wants to know WHY petrels do what they do and how this fits into the bigger picture, meaning the ecology of marine environments. Many of these questions seem to have lodged in my brain only to pop out in some unexpected (but usually highly appropriate) circumstance.

Artist John Cox provides 16 color plates illustrating the major plumages and color morphs of all 126 species. The plates are gathered together as a block at the center of the book but fortunately the maps are inserted into the individual species accounts. [Older birders will remember that lumping the maps together away from the text was a troublesome bug in the design of Peter Harrison's ground breaking seabird guides.] Cox's shearwaters, petrels and storm petrels are really very successful, with some of the albatrosses less so. Occasional vignettes showing habitat (e.g. Wedge-rumped Storm Petrels cavorting in daylight over a rocky islet in the Galápagos or the Providence Petrels high above Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea off Australia) are a pleasant addition.

The one NEGATIVE about the book, and unfortunately it is HUGE one, is the astronomical price! Fortunately, you can get copies for significantly less than the hair-raising retail price, but come on OUP, what are you thinking?? Granted these hardback volumes are well constructed and include a series of nice color plates, but so are many books nowadays. I have never understood why every volume (there are 12 or so) of the excellent Bird Families of the World series commands such as steep price and it is a great pity because it keeps these wonderful volumes out of reach of the principal readership.

The bottom line is that for the serious seabird enthusiast, this is a must have. Those with more general interests might want to snap up a discounted (or used) copy if they can find it. Otherwise, you might stick with awesome Handbook of the Birds of the World, volume 1 (del Hoyo et al. Lynx Edicions).

Title: Albatrosses and Petrels Across the World (Bird Families of the World)
Author: Michael Brooke
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Publication Date: 2004.
Hardback, 499 pages, 16 colour plates and numerous line drawings by John Cox, numerous maps.
ISBN 0-19-850125-0
Retail Price: £110.00 (UK), $208.45 (US)

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