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Albatrosses, Petrels & Shearwaters of the World


By Derek Onley and Paul Scofield. Helm Field Guides, London, 2007.

240 pages, 45 full-page colour plates and other illustrations.

ISBN 978-0-7136-4332-9.

Softback, 19.99.

In 1983, Peter Harrison published his pioneering Seabirds: an Identification Guide followed in 1987 by a companion photographic guide. He brought into the living room an incredible array of seabirds, many of which live their whole lives beyond the ocean horizons seen from land. For many of us the urge to go to sea to witness them became utterly irresistible. Tubenoses Procellariiformes soon became the star attraction. The fact that Harrison’s illustrations and photographs barely resembled what we saw did little to dampen enthusiasm.

Seabird identification progressed, but no field guide emerged on tubenoses of the World with substantive improvements upon Harrison. Thus, anticipation was high on publication of Onley and Scofield. When delivered I ripped off the jiffy bag and flicked through the colour plates. My goodness, they actually look like the real thing! Crikey, some plates illustrate worn and in-moult plumages just like birds we observe! A speed read of several species accounts revealed a parsimonious text covering essentials of field identification.

The paperback is well organised and text clearly written. All discussion is informative, yet succinct. The book is comprehensive, yet of reasonable size and weight, and comfortably fits even a small rucksack. The price for what you get is most reasonable.

The introductory text begins by listing 137 species along with subspecies, abbreviated ranges, and links to plates. Next comes the hoary unresolved ‘taxonomy and the species debate’ with an introduction to main issues and an explanation about why matters cannot easily be resolved. Then a summary of characteristics and taxonomic relationships is given for the four tubenose families; Albatrosses, Storm-petrels, Diving-petrels, and the wide-ranging Petrels and Shearwaters.

Subsequent text on identification covers fundamental issues of the modern era. Pros and cons of digital photography are rehearsed and we are reminded to look at birds as well as photograph them! Problems of weather, lighting and sea conditions are highlighted. Sections on size and plumage follow. Impact on appearance caused by worn plumage is well done and supported by helpful illustrations. Moult analysis is introduced (1) as a means to separate difficult-to-identify species, and (2) to explain impact of moult on plumage, flight jizz, and identification. Flight jizz and wing moult are dealt with in perfunctory fashion and warrant greater emphasis. For example, close to home Wilson’s and European Storm-petrels fly side-by-side June-August when many Wilson’s are in wing moult resulting in less accomplished, more fluttery flight reminiscent of Europeans.

Conservation issues follow. A short section on ‘smell and sight’ and ‘chum and chumming’ is missing, needing just a page or two. Such matters nowadays are so much a part of everyday pelagic trips. In total the introductory section is 26 pages long and is followed by plates, then species accounts.

Each species account builds upon foundations established in opening sections. Information is given about taxonomy, distribution, behaviour, jizz, size, plumage, moult and wear, and identification including confusion species. Supporting plates illustrate species and confusion species side-by-side, some in worn plumage, others in wing moult. It all ties together rather neatly.

As a crude ‘test’ of species accounts and illustrations I concentrated on identification problems that vexed me in the past. I found in the main Onley and Scofield would have been of value. For example, they explain well how to differentiate between Wandering and Royal Albatrosses. They go beyond Harrison’s and Gibson’s approaches to separating the Wandering Albatross taxa by developing eight typical plumages. They make the separation of non-juvenile Northern and Southern Giant Petrels straight-forward. Helpful tips are given for prion identification. Separation of Procellaria petrels from each other and like petrels and shearwaters is dealt with in a systematic fashion. I could go on …

On first read I had issue with some text or illustrations, not surprisingly with North Atlantic tubenoses where I am most experienced. Madeiran Storm-petrel illustrations should show a greater bill bulk and straighter trailing edges to wings. Contra to Onley and Scofield, Madeirans do come to chum and routinely associate with fishing vessels, at least off St Helena. Contra to Onley and Scofield, it is not usually impossible to see yellow webbings of Wilson’s Storm-petrel in the field, which we see routinely off Scilly as a result of chumming methods employed. Underwing differences that separate Scopoli’s from Cory’s Shearwater are explained in vague terms, ‘Scopoli’s has a less extensive dark tip to the underwing’, and could be more informative, ‘Scopoli’s diagnostic underwing feature is dark bordered white inner webbings to primaries giving the impression of white fingers extending beyond underwing coverts into the primaries’.  The debate over field separation of Fea’s and Zino’s Petrels needs fuller coverage. And so on.

I have now used the book for over a year. In so doing I have encountered a number of further errors. The book is far from perfect. That said, Onley and Scofield do not claim to have written the final word on tubenose identification. Indeed, they invite criticism to help them enhance future editions. Whatever, this book is by far the best available on the market that covers all of the World’s Tubenoses and still offers a value for money purchase.

Bob Flood

Original version published in British Birds