Petrels night and day/reviews

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Magnus Robb, Killian Mullarney and The Sound Approach have produced something rather special in Petrels Night and Day. It is one of those rare books that when opened instantly captures the reader’s attention and is hard to put down. The text offers a compelling mixture of travelogue, species accounts, sonograms and taxonomy, all beautifully composed in Robb’s distinctive and easy to read writing style. The text is animated by numerous true to life photographs and a series of 17 edifying plates by Mullarney that illustrate the species concerned (except Swinhoe's Storm-petrel). This is a must-have book! For a more detailed review, see below:

Cory's & Scopoli's Shearwaters by Killian Mullarney Balearic Shearwater by Killian Mullarney British & Mediterranean Storm-petrel by Killian Mullarney
Above: a selection of just three of the 17 stunning plates by Killian Mullarney from Petrels night and day. The original plates from the book measure 28cm x 20 cm and are without doubt the most accurate and life-like of this group published to date. There's not doubt that these are at the cutting edge and incorporate much new and important identification-related criteria. 

Ashley Fisher


By Magnus Robb, Killian Mullarney and The Sound Approach. The Sound Approach, Poole, Dorset, 2008.

300 pages, 17 full-page colour plates, many colour photographs, and 127 sonograms of sound recordings presented on two CDs.

ISBN-13: 978-90-810933-2-3.

Hardback, 34.95.

Petrels Night and Day text is written by Magnus Robb, sounds are recorded by Magnus Robb et al, and colour plates are painted by Killian Mullarney. It is the second volume in The Sound Approach project masterminded by Mark Constantine who fashioned the first introductory volume and project style. The book covers 15 forms of petrel Procellariidae and 10 forms of storm-petrel Hydrobatidae that are encountered in the Northeast Atlantic. The 25 forms are dealt with in 12 chapters: Gadfly petrels, Bulwer’s Petrel, Calonectris shearwaters, Little shearwaters, Manx Shearwater, Mediterranean shearwaters, Northern Fulmar, White-faced Storm-petrel, European storm-petrels, Leach’s Storm-petrel, Band-rumped storm-petrels, and Swinhoe’s Storm-petrel. The 22 Northeast Atlantic breeders (if we include Swinhoe’s) are thoroughly seen to through an informative text, quality sound recordings and sonograms, ample-sized colour photographs, and superb colour plates. Each of the three southern ocean breeders, Great and Sooty Shearwaters and Wilson’s Storm-petrel, is introduced mainly through colour plates incorporated within the chapter of a near relative.

Petrels Night and Day comprises an impressive set of elements as summarised above, but the book as a whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. It is unique, it is enigmatic, and it offers a truly engaging experience. The book combines the arts and sciences in a way that I have barely previously encountered in ornithology and never before with Tubenoses Procellariiformes. 

For each petrel form, Magnus Robb through words creates vivid images of his experiences of the remote locations he visited to record them. The reader travels with Robb learning the history of the petrels, meeting the people of the islands, sitting down for dinner and wine with islanders, scrambling across rocky terrain and over-hanging hair-raising cliff faces, witnessing spectacular moody scenery; and then, seemingly always in the remotest of locations, witnessing the sounds of petrels by night, some eerie, some sorrowful, and some downright amusing to the human ear.  Superb colour photographs, many occupying a full-page, suggest images for Robb’s narrative. The reader is left with a sense of having been there, followed by a realisation that one hadn’t, followed by an urge that one must go there as soon as possible.

Each species account flows smoothly from social and aesthetic experiences to analytical and factual discussion of the sounds of petrels by night through sound recordings and sonograms. Sonograms assist the listener to better understand the structure and texture of petrel calls and facilitate comparison with calls of similar forms. The reader/listener is encouraged to take this step forward and by so doing to get to grips with the taxonomic proposition of the book (see below).

Some identification nuggets for petrels by day are scattered throughout the text, but consolidated and amplified in the pleasing colour plates of Killian Mullarney. Indeed, the colour plates alone offer a handy identification kit with some new criteria and guidance on how to separate some of the more difficult species groups like Calonectris shearwaters, Mediterranean shearwaters, and Little shearwaters. Some colour plates show all likely confusion species side-by-side. An example is shearwaters in typical flight profile comparing Manx, Yelkouan, Balearic, Sooty and Cory’s. Such guidance extends into the newly proposed four cryptic Band-rumped storm-petrel species (see below). As with the text, the colour plates incorporate wonderful vignettes that transport the reader into the situation; a Desertas Petrel returning to the only known breeding island Bugio (set in the background), a Cory’s Shearwater on a nest in a cave, a flock of swimming Bulwer’s Petrels ‘exploding’ off the sea surface in all directions when approached too closely.

Petrels Night and Day puts forward taxonomic changes by promoting a number of forms from subspecies to species. Fea’s Petrel becomes Fea’s Petrel and Desertas Petrel. Cory’s and Scopoli’s Shearwaters are treated as separate species as are British and Mediterranean Storm-petrels. And the Band-rumped complex becomes four species; Grant’s, Monteiro’s, Madeiran, and Cape Verde Storm-petrels. A basis for this taxonomy already exists in the literature variously in terms of biometric differences, spatial and temporal separation, different breeding habitats, and some DNA work. Petrels Night and Day makes a further compelling case through a detailed study of vocalisation. However, those trained with the eye might argue that these forms look so similar that it is hard to accept they are distinct species. The retort of those trained with the ear is that reproductive activity happens in the dark where ‘how you sound’ counts, not ‘how you look’. Speciation is much more likely to be reflected in sounds than looks. This argument offers an explanation to the apparently disproportionate number of cryptic Tubenose species.

If accepted, there are wide-ranging consequences of these taxonomic developments. They are certainly very exciting for researchers and pave the way for a variety of further studies; for example, breeding biology, life history, and indeed further studies of vocalisation. Yet, for every day field observers the new taxonomy poses something of a headache. For instance, the following table that summarises Petrels Night and Day on Band-rumped storm-petrels highlights both the cryptic nature of the proposed species and several gaps in knowledge pertaining even to rudimentary field identification. Whether these four forms can be separated reliably in the field is a question yet to be answered and any answers that may be forthcoming probably are some time off. However, fellow field observers, we must not blame the messenger for the ‘bad news’. Rather, let us pick up the gauntlet in our brand of study.








Azores, Madeira, Selvagens, Canaries, Berlengas

Madeira, Selvagens, Canaries (rare)


Cape Verde





Low 1,000s?

Breeding dates


Late-Mar-Oct, one month later Selvagens


Oct-Jun, possibly two seasons, changeover Mar


Little or no tail fork

Short tail fork sometimes visible

Tail longer than Grant’s, fork twice as deep

Probably little or no tail fork


Narrower than Cape Verde



Broader than Grant’s

Upperwing-covert bars

Ends well short of carpal joint

Indistinct, ends short of carpal bar

Extends to carpal joint, relatively pronounced

Indistinct, ends short of carpal bar

Uppertail-covert band


Narrow but variable

More prominent than Madeiran




Rather heavy


Proportionately long


Large, shorter wing & tail than Monteiro’s

Smaller in wing, tail, & tarsus than Grant’s

Large, longer wing & tail than Grant’s

Smaller than Grant’s & Monteiro’s

Primary moult adult

Feb-early Aug

Presumed Aug/Sep-Feb


Presumed Mar-Dec

There are very few points where I take issue with the text. Regarding field identification of Zino’s Petrel, I do not get the logic that it is reasonably ‘safe’ to identify clearly large-billed Gadfly petrels in Madeiran waters as Desertas Petrel, but not so clearly small-billed ones as Zino’s Petrel. I find it presuming to suggest that the large-billed Gadfly petrels in British waters in autumn are most likely Fea’s Petrel from Cape Verde rather than Desertas Petrel from Bugio, based on breeding season (Fea’s in the winter, Desertas early autumn) and relative population size (there are more Fea’s). The occurrence of a large-billed Gadfly in August could just as easily be explained, for example, by northward incubation foraging flights of Desertas Petrel as it could by a roaming off-duty Fea’s Petrel. Such points are minor though.

There is scope for a second edition of Petrels Night and Day if resources permit. I would like to see the three southern ocean breeders given separate and full treatment. Incorporating Northwest Atlantic breeders and visitors too would increase the book’s appeal to the North American market.

In summary, the book we have now is sumptuously produced and invaluable. Magnus Robb has composed magical and informative text and sound. Killian Mullarney has crafted endearing and instructive artwork. And Mark Constantine has started something completely different and much welcomed in The Sound Approach. In this era of largely boring field guides and dry journal ornithology, The Sound Approach offers a new and exciting brand of learning and in this book applies it to perhaps the most enigmatic of bird groups. We are offered an opportunity to liven-up and get animated with Petrels Night and Day. I say we take it!

Bob Flood

To read a review by S. N. G. Howell, author of the forthcoming Albatrosses and Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide Click here

The Scilly Pelagics team highly recommend this book and have teamed up with The Sound Approach, if you would like to buy a copy (shipped to UK addresses only), simply click on the link below: