I received a complimentary copy of Steven N.G. Howell's "Petrels, Albatrosses & Shearwaters of North America" (Princeton Press) to review, and was delighted when it finally arrived.
I spent much of the last several days flipping through it, reading sections at random and comparing it to other field guides. First of all this is a BIG book. Not only is it large and thick, but it is just packed with information. Anybody who is under the impression that this would make a good field guide should probably reconsider. Yes, this book has thousands of photographs and yes, it has detailed information on how to ID tricky species, and yes, it also has fairly detailed range maps, but this volume is clearly designed to be something else altogether. An exhaustive reference on tubenoses in North America is a gap on the bookshelf keenly felt in this day and age when more and more people taking pelagic trips come home still windblown and salty to sit down and dissect three blurry photos of a 'what the hell was that?'. Serious scientists alike will be delighted by a thoroughly referenced text which synthesizes much of what we know about the field distribution and general biology of some of these species.
The text is clear and well organized, written with precision and wit, and of course paired (rather than merely accompanied) with more photos than you can shake a stick at. Comparison shots of multiple species, and comparison shots of the same species in different stages of moult, different lighting and even through fog and in sunlight are especially nice. The one drawback of photographic guides is clearly their inability to accurately convey the 'essence' of a bird - indeed I compared many species in this guide to my favourite seabird field guide of all - Onley and Scofield's "Albatrosses, Shearwaters & Petrels of the World" and was struck by the accuracy of the drawings in depicting the 'feel' of the birds, but Howell's book makes up for this in large part by incorporating such a wide range of photographs in such varying conditions that the net result of perusing two pages of images leaves the reader with a very good 'feel' for the bird as well. Furthermore, there is absolutely no doubt that photographs have their place - for example Howell makes an effort throughout to highlight various stages of moult and differences in feather pattern at different times of year, and often uses such features to suggest which species among a pair of similar ones would be more likely in a given place at a given time. This information is of dubious use in the field, but consider how many of us really end up ID-ing problematic seabirds by subsequently poring over digital photographs taken during the encounter. In such a scenario, I think having photographs to compare with photographs is a MUCH more valuable resources than relying on painted plates - no matter how great their artistic merit or accuracy.
My one complaint about this book is (funny enough) my one complaint about Howell's other (co-authored) guide to the Gulls of the Americas. Both books feature a dizzying number of photos, both have informative and well-researched text, but both are slightly frustrating to use as a quick reference on account of their confusing and often counter-intuitive organization.
In this latest book, species are presented in a "logical" set of groupings that does not necessarily seem all that logical to me, and perhaps to other readers. This would be less of a problem if headings were more boldly marked, divisions were more clearly indicated and a quick-reference index was included on the dust-jacket or inside cover(s). As it is, I found myself either getting lost flipping around to where I though a particular bird should be, or giving up and flipping to the index to search for the page references. This gets a bit annoying when you are wanting to compare two or three species, and then you decide to check a third and fourth, and then in one description Howell suggests to compare with a fifth, etc.....
Ultimately, this complaint is about as valid as whining about the font used in a phone book If you have the time to sit down and flip through the book, you will be well-rewarded for the effort.
At the end of the day, this book stands alone as the single most up-to-date, relevant and comprehensive reference guide to the tubenoses of North America on the market, and as it covers virtually half the world's seabirds, it will probably be of use to virtually every birder in the world, although clearly a keen seabirder on either coast of North America will end up wearing their copy out sooner!
At $45.00 this is a screaming bargain. At double the price it would be a justifiable expense for any serious birder, but as it sits now, I would think anybody who is interested enough in birds to be reading this right now on Surfbirds has to ask themselves if they can afford NOT to buy this book.
An instant classic and a book unlikely to be surpassed in the next several decades. 9/10.