Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Steve Howell Raises Bar with Tubenose Book

Last Friday I finally got my hands on Steve Howell's latest masterpiece-
Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic
Guide. As the dust jacket proclaims, this is "the first state of the
art guide to these enigmatic seabirds." That is no exaggeration. Steve
has been working on what we have come to call the "tubenose book" for a
long time. He has probably spent a thousand hours on my boat over the
last six years alone. And he lives in California, where he has been a
popular leader on pelagic trips for at least a couple of decades. In
addition to the requisite experience for writing this book, Steve has
also seen all but a few of the world's tubenoses including several rare
and critically endangered species. Best of all, however, Steve is a
superb teacher and writer. So for those who are eager to learn about
these birds, we now have an excellent text.

Steve has authored several highly regarded bird books in the past,
including his epic Mexican guide, a guide to molt, and books about
hummingbirds and gulls. Depending on the publisher, however, those
books were not always organized to full advantage. The gull book, for
example, had photos in the front and text in the back- a rather
inconvenient arrangement. The tubenose book, however, has photos
running throughout which is a tremendous advantage, especially to those
of us with attention difficulties. There is rather long introduction
(nearly 50 pages), but unlike so many dry, tedious "intro's," this one
is highly readable. The introduction is also essential reading for
most, because it presents (in a nutshell) the basic set of instructions
necessary if one is to truly learn these birds. Having been involved
with pelagic birding for so long now, it is difficult for me to relate
to some of the perceptions of landlubbers when it comes to seabirds.
Therefore, I suspect Steve's introductory section will be like cracking
our code for some birders. Without such a comprehensive introduction,
this would be more of a book for old salts.

As Steve says, it is tempting to just open the book and look at the
pictures. That is, of course, just what I did. It is amazing to me,
what Steve has done as a photographer in making this book. There are
literally hundreds of excellent photos, and Steve took the vast majority
of them in less than five years! There is no question that this state
of the art work would not be what it is without the advances in digital
imaging. Without a reliable autofocus camera with which to take
thousands of photos for the cull, it would not have been possible to
produce this book competitively in a reasonable amount of time. I'm not
knocking Steve as a photographer and I do not mean that anyone could
have done the same quality work with a digital camera. But there is no
question that it would have been a lot harder and more expensive to do
with film. Steve has also made careful choices with the photos and his
captions do a lot of the teaching, so you CAN learn a lot by just
looking at the pictures.

To skip the text, however, would be a big mistake. Steve is an engaging
writer and he has done a very effective job in communicating his
knowledge here. The reader is rewarded with concise presentation of the
latest word in taxonomy, status, distribution, and identification of
some 76 taxa of seabirds. This book presents some of the first readily
accessible information about cryptic species of "Band-rumped"
Storm-Petrels in the Atlantic, and what have been called "dark Leach's
Storm-Petrels" off the West Coast. Thorny ID problems such as Cory's
and Scopoli's Shearwater and Fea's and Zino's Petrel are tackled. And
with photos running throughout the family and species accounts rather
than in a separate section, these discussions are easy to follow and
comprehend. There are also excellent range maps for all of the
regularly occurring species.

In short, this new "tubenose book" is absolutely indispensable for
anyone who plans to look at pelagic birds off the East Coast, West Coast
or the Gulf Coast. And it would be very interesting reading for those
who have done a lot of pelagic birding in years past, to see what we
have learned over the last couple of decades.

I cannot claim to be an impartial reviewer in the case of this book.
Along with Debi Shearwater, both Kate Sutherland and myself are given
credit by Steve as collaborators. But I am finding it hard to find much
fault with this book, which itself was written by one of the toughest
reviewers of bird books we know today.

This book is available through the Princeton Press website-