Petrels Night & Day

Petrels Night & Day
After the huge success of our first title 'The Sound Approach to Birding' , we're delighted to present to you the next exciting title in the series highlighting the adventures of Magnus Robb, sound recordist and composer, with The Collins Field Guide illustrator Killian Mullarney.
£34.95

This is a comprehensive exploration of the petrels of Europe and North Africa.
You can listen to previously unpublished digital stereo recordings of 23 species of
petrels nesting on islets, islands and coasts of the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

You will learn how to separate them by ear, with the help of clearly annotated sonagrams.
You can read the author’s tales of making the recordings, and learn where to go to
experience the birds.
There is a series of full-colour plates and photographs for birdwatchers and especially
seawatchers. Many of the photographs were taken at the same time as the recordings.
Most importantly, read how the latest research is leading to the recognition of new
– European – species, some of which are exceedingly rare.

With 130 recordings spread out over two CDs, the sounds of Petrels Night and Day
‘illustrate’ the text in addition to excellent quality photographs and illustrations by
Killian Mullarney that appear throughout.
The second title in The Sound Approach series continues to set the benchmark
for understanding bird sounds, regardless of the reader’s ability and experience.
Written and illustrated by enthusiasts so be warned: this book could be the start of
a serious obsession.

Samples:

Manx Shearwater Image Small
Manx Shearwater
A male and female call to each other while flying through a forested gorge
 
Corys Shearwater Image Small
Cory's Shearwater
Thousands flying over a large colony in Selvagen Grande, Selvagens
 

Reviews

BRITISH BIRDS

British Birds

 

British Birds

 

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.

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!

Robert L. Flood

BIRDWATCHING

Birdwatching

 

PETRELS NIGHT AND DAY BIRDWATCHING REVIEW AUGUST 2008

 
If the idea of a book about some obscure seabirds which you may have never seen, and may not wish to see, sounds a bit dull. You couldn’t be further off the mark. Though I’ve dabbled a bit in watching shearwaters and the odd petrel on many pelagic trips, the theoretical idea of reading about them in depth and perhaps trying to follow arguments about splitting species based on calls at night did not tickle my fancy.

I was wrong. This is an excellent book and includes a pair of brilliant CDs.

It is a guide to the petrels and shearwaters of the Western Palearctic, inevitably incorporating masses of sound information (sonagrams and recordings), some new illustrations and photographs. But it is so much more than that.

Magnus Robb takes us on adventure after adventure to obscure, bleak unknown territories (some on islands I’d never heard of) to see, and more importantly, hear and record some of the most poorly-known birds of the region. Each of the 23 species gets its own chapter in a diary-style account, beautifully written and evocatively portrayed – and if he doesn’t capture your imagination with his words (which he will), you can transport yourself to the locality by closing your eyes and playing the wonderful recordings.

The words are a picture of clarity, and the arguments for those splits I mentioned 9such as the gadfly petrel complex) well constructed, readable, and even enjoyable. The writing is backed up by some wonderful new artwork by Killian Mullarney and a scattering of excellent photographs, of people, birds, and places – many of which deliver great atmosphere, complimenting the recordings. Of the latter, my favourites are the misty, bleak and jagged breeding habitat of Zino’s Petrel in Madeira abd the evening gathering of hundreds of Cory’s Shearwaters over Selvagem Grande.

This is a great book for any birdwatcher – readable, listenable, look-at-able, elevated to essential for any European sea-watcher.

BIRDGUIDES

Birdguides

The Sound Approach burst on to the birder’s book market in 2006 with the remarkable pioneering volume The Sound Approach to Birding. Largely down to the work of The Sound Approach founding fathers Mark Constantine and Arnoud van den Berg, the first Sound Approach work was a revelation and the collective work combined anecdote, scientific theory and practical field experience in a manner seldom, if ever, encountered before. Crossbills, for one, will never ever sound the same again following on from the thoughts and ideas suggested by The Sound Approach.

Petrels night and day

And now the same can be said for the shearwaters and petrels that are dealt with in this glorious volume. Think you know a lot about your seabirds? It is almost guaranteed that whatever you know, you’ll learn more and more from this book. Lead author Magnus Robb shares the same evangelical spirit in Petrels night and day that Mark Constantine displayed so clearly in The Sound Approach to birding—almost every turn of the page reveals a deep-seated love and passion for the subject, coupled with an immense knowledge too. It’s a style that is rarely seen in other identification works (perhaps understandably so) but it suits the mood, and the subjects, so well in this book that every time you dip in to it, you just can’t help yourself in reading a little more, and a little more after that.

Petrels night and day is a comprehensive delve in to the sounds and appearances of some 23 species of petrels (including shearwaters) that are found around the coasts, islands and islets of the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Throughout the volume, superb annotated sonograms accompany the text, along with detailed breeding distribution maps, and the two CDs that come with the book feature 127 recordings (of exceptional quality) of the most unearthly noises made by any birds across Europe. Along with outstanding text, sonograms and audio recordings are stunning photographs and delicious plates too; and if this wasn’t enough, the book also takes the listener—it is a Sound Approach guide after all—into the reasoning behind the recognition of several “new” species which, as the book states, are indeed “exceedingly rare”.

So, to the meat on the bare bones mentioned above. This is a work full of the very choicest cuts: a book of Kobe beef proportions in parts—not least the sound recordings. The collection gathered here (covering gadfly petrels to Mediterranean shearwaters on Disc 1 and Northern Fulmar to Swinhoe’s Storm-petrel on Disc 2) is instructive and informative in equal measure but, arguably, more than any other group of birds in the Western Palearctic, the most eerie, melancholy, ethereal and other-worldly collection of sounds that you could imagine from the natural world. Forget those overused howling, barking foxes and hooting, screeching owls so loved by editors of British detective shows: for a genuinely spooky, almost unsettling, always compelling, wildlife soundtrack, take the time to listen to the two CDs provided here. Settle down, lie back and be transported away to a mysterious land where your imagination can paint the wildest of pictures. And if the aesthetic charms are too much for you, then listen, absorb and understand just how important these sound recordings are in the acknowledgement of at least two new species of (what used to be) Madeiran Storm-petrel, and the recognition of Mediterranean Storm-petrel as being distinct from British Storm-petrel. The work that the Sound Approach have put into the collection of this amazing soundtrack really is something to behold—as is the written word of Magnus Robb, which also speaks to the reader in a style that is almost unique to the Sound Approach collective. “Descriptive” seems rather a trite way in which to describe some of the most engaging words written on bird identification. The first-person accounts that Robb writes are funny, charming, revealing, and full of the most detailed, focussed identification knowledge. His personal journey in understanding these birds soon becomes our journey too:

“Judging by the loud duets coming from all sides, many of them found their mates waiting in their burrows. I was thrilled by the loudness of some calls coming from under a rock just a few metres away. Deafeningly loud or muffled and distant, there was no longer a second without a call or an echo of a Cory’s”.

“On two occasions, we saw feeding behaviour that resembled an ecstatic dance. Suddenly the normal flight was interrupted by a frenzied pivoting on a certain spot, switching back and forth, while thrashing the surface with wingtips and feet. I guess the performance lasted maybe 10 or 20 seconds, but I couldn’t say exactly because I was completely mesmerized” (on White-faced Storm-petrels).

Writing such as this is a rare treat to experience in a book which is “only” an identification guide. And it isn’t just the emotional connection that Robb manages to convey so well: the depth of information (both historical and current) given is superb too. The opening account of Zino’s Petrel sets a standard that remains consistent throughout—and the trials and tribulations that the Sound Approach went to, at times, to obtain recordings and photographs is the stuff of comic-book heroes.

To go along with the soundtrack and text are the outstanding plates, painted by another Sound Approach stalwart, Wexford’s Killian Mullarney. Killian’s work has long pressed all the right buttons for me—his work in The Collins Bird Guide remains some of the finest bird illustrations we have seen and, aside from his Collins Guide counterpart Dan Zetterström, it is hard to imagine a better illustrator at work. Having recently been fortunate enough to “pick up” a couple of close Cory’s Shearwaters on a seawatch off my home patch in north Norfolk, it was to Killian’s plate in Petrels night and day that I turned first when I got home. The feather-perfect detail and impeccable capture of shape and feel were a crisp reminder of the image locked in my mind’s eye after 12 hours of gazing out across a lead-grey North Sea. And that sense of crispness and understanding of the subject remained throughout, as the sumptuous Mullarney plates invoked the memory bank to recall fly-by Fea’s Petrels off the beach here at Cley, touching-distance Great Shearwaters in the waters off Scilly, my first Leach’s Storm-petrel on the Cornish coast 25 years ago, Wilson’s Storm-petrels coming to chum off the MV Chalice out in the Western Approaches with seabird guru Peter Harrison exuberant on the ship’s rails, and a winter-time encounter with Barolo’s Shearwater around the Canaries.

Barolo’s Shearwater? Yes, that’s one of the species that encapsulates the cutting edge that this book puts itself on. The Sound Approach have taken the bull by the horns and, with the benefit of all of their detailed fieldwork, felt confident enough to present the listener and reader with several new (often rather cryptic) new species. In book order, we find the gadfly petrels now split from two to three species (Zino’s Petrel and Fea’s Petrel are now joined by the deeper-billed, slightly larger than Fea’s, Desertas Petrel). The often-discussed taxonomic status of the Cory’s Shearwater complex is tackled head on: as expected, it’s three species from one (Cory’s, Scopoli’s and Cape Verde). Barolo’s and Boyd’s Shearwater (so long regarded as identifiable subspecies of Little Shearwater) are now recognised as separate species; but it is within the storm-petrels that the gloves really come off. Mediterranean Storm-petrel must be the biggest surprise within the 300 pages of this book—the diagnostic voices largely responsible for this new addition to the birding world, but not far behind are the two additional “Band-rumped Petrels”—Grant’s Storm-petrel and Monteiro’s Storm-petrel joining Madeiran Storm-petrel and Cape Verde Petrel. As with every other species in the book, all of these are given plenty of room to breath and explain themselves—with pictures, illustrations and, of course, sounds all stating a compelling case for specific status.

Some birders may argue that “what’s the point” of a bunch of seabirds that can only be identified by voice or moult and wing shape. They wouldn’t be able to tick them on a seawatch at St. Ives or Bridges of Ross. Such negativity should be ignored and those dissenting voices should be urged to hush and the minds of the doubters should be encouraged to see the much broader, more vivid picture. As the book points out (when discussing the Mediterranean shearwaters), three ancient species of Western Palearctic shearwaters have become extinct and it would be unthinkable to see that scenario emerge again. And with Balearic Shearwater that threat is so very real—one study in 2002 suggested a span of just 40 years before the species’ demise. The first point of those cryptic seabirds is that they exist at all.

Petrels night and day carries high the banner of the pioneering birding spirit, and lives up to all of the audacious thoughts and actions of its first-born sister volume. The combination of The Sound Approach, Magnus Robb and Killian Mullarney is irresistible and if there is a better bird identification guide published this year, I can’t wait to see it. No matter where you live, town or country, coast or moor, make the effort to invest your money in this relatively inexpensive volume and marvel at the sounds and sights of, comfortably, the best bird book of 2008.

OCEAN WANDERERS

Ocean Wanderers

Every once in a while there comes a book that breaks the mold, radically changing our expectations of what a good bird book should be. Petrels night and day: A Sound Approach guide is one such book.

PNAD as I shall refer to it henceforth, is part audio-guide, part field-guide, part natural history and part travelogue. In 300-pages, it covers the twenty or so tubenoses (petrels, storm-petrels, fulmars and shearwaters) that nest in the Western Palearctic [WP] faunal region, ostensibly the western North Atlantic and Mediterranean. I hesitate to quote an exact number of species because the authors take an innovative, but well-considered, approach to the taxonomy. Some of the proposed splits rest on firmer foundations than others, but more on this anon.

 

Written primarily by Magnus Robb with painted plates from his collaborator Killian Mullarney, the book is truly a team effort with further seminal contributions from Arnoud van den Berg and Mark Constantine, co-founders with Robb of a new publishing endeavor and natural sound archive known as The Sound Approach, Réne Pop and several others. A supporting cast of seabird experts and conservationists provide additional input, assistance in the field and the freedom to quote their unpublished findings.

As a bird guide, PNAD defies convention in almost every aspect starting with its 20 x 29 cm landscape format that is more typical of books on fine-art, architecture and such like. The production quality is very high; the book feels wonderfully solid in the hand, with beautiful color reproduction on the many photographs, maps, diagrams and painted plates. The narrative thread follows a quest to explore and understand the tubenoses of the WP region through their vocalizations and other field observations. A whopping 127 separate audio recordings are provided on two compact discs (CDs), the majority collected by Magnus Robb, a musician and sound engineer by training. The recordings are meant to be listened to as the book is read and are integral to the text. Carefully annotated sonagrams are included and help the uninitiated to pick apart the decidedly unfamiliar noises. I’m not fluent in these depictions of complex sounds and to my naïve eyes, most could as easily depict the Loch Ness monster hovering in the watery depths as the chatters and purrs of a storm-petrel in its rocky crevice. I suppose I can follow the more obvious trends but I’m quite blind to the meaning of the finer structure. Robb’s explanations of the complex traces are wonderfully clear and revealing. Color is used to good effect, for example when multiple birds (males and females) are calling to one-another. Like most birders, I can usually hear the similarities and differences in natural sounds but struggle to remember them, let alone transcribe them. Working through a few of the many recordings, gave me a whole new appreciation for the strange and haunting noises associated with petrel or shearwater colonies.

In spite of the title, the book is much, much more than a guide to vocalizations. It is in truth a sweeping natural history guide covering many aspects of tubenose biology, ornithological history and the pure pleasures of experiencing amazing birds in the wild. Through wonderfully evocative photographs and descriptions, we are transported to some extraordinary places. In the Egadi Islands off Sicily, we follow Arnoud van den Berg and Réne Pop as they swim from a small boat into dank caves used by Mediterranean Storm Petrels (Hydrobates melitensis), following the waft of ‘petrel scent’ to find the birds roosting on slipperly ledges in the semi-darkness. Wow! That sounds like fun. Elsewhere, we are introduced several times to the arid hills and coastlines of the Cape Verde Islands, a fascinating archipelago located several hundred miles off the coast of West Africa, as well as to the greener slopes of the even more remote Azores in the mid-Atlantic.

Killian Mullarney’s eighteen painted plates occupy a full page each, a generous format that does justice to his exceptional artwork. All too often publishers fail to provide sufficient space to showcase outstanding artwork or photographs – not so here. Throughout the plates, there is a strong emphasis on field identification with vignettes showing birds alighted on the water, at their borrows and in flight, often in company of species as they would be in the field. Some of the shearwaters are shown under different lighting conditions to emphasize the effect that direct sunshine or heavily overcast conditions can have of plumage features. Manx Shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus) for instance, can look quite plain faced in very direct sunlight, suggesting one of the Little Shearwater complex. Well-chosen photographs scattered through the text reinforce many of the points illustrated in the plates. The under-appreciated similarities between dark Balearic Shearwater (Puffinus mauretanicus) and Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) is clearly shown in the plates on pages 138 and 157. The potential for confusion with Short-tailed Shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris), a Pacific species that has made it to the Gulf of Mexico and perhaps beyond, might also be borne in mind.

While most of the species will be quite familiar to birders on either side of the Atlantic, there are number of subdivisions (splits) that guaranteed to spark healthy discussion. It is no surprise that ‘Little Shearwater’ of old is duly separated into two taxa; Barolo’s Shearwater (Puffinis baroli) nesting across the European sector of Macaronesia and Boyd’s Shearwater (Puffinis boydi) of the Cape Verde Islands. These are really quite different beasts and the dual treatment will be helpful to many birders struggling to keep up with the explosion of new knowledge on the small black-&-white shearwaters. Unfortunately, Audubon’s Shearwater (Puffinis Iherminieri), an abundant breeder in the Caribbean and routine dispersant northwards along the Gulf Stream as far as New England, gets only the briefest of mentions; understandable I suppose, but a fuller treatment would have rounded out the comparisons, increased the appeal of the book to the North American audience and might perhaps lead to sightings in WP waters.

It is gratifying to see that Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel (Oceanodroma monorhis), a recent but well-documented addition to both the WP and North American avifaunas, gets full treatment, including an opportune account of how the first Atlantic bird was discovered through its unfamiliar vocalizations on the Portuguese island of Selvagem Grande in June 1983 by Paul James and Hugh Robertson. This, as it turns out, was not a freak occurrence but one of several birds to be captured over the years on this one island and Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrels have now been found at many other locations in the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean, with at-sea sightings in the Western Atlantic.

From the pattern of recoveries, there seems a strong likelihood that Swinhoe’s are attempting to nest, at least occasionally, on Selvagem Grande, if not elsewhere. By coincidence, during the final stages of the book’s preparation, researcher Rafael Matias recaptured the original 1983 bird on 21 August 2007. This celebrated male Swinhoe’s must be at least 25 years old and sound recordings and photographs of the resilient ol’ timer are included. Venturing farther afield, I enjoyed the account of visits by Messrs van den Berg and Pop to a sizeable Swinhoe’s colony on Chilbaldo, an islet off the coast of South Korea. Robb makes a good case for the need to search large British Storm Petrel colonies, which he argues may be better for Swinhoe’s than colonies of large species such as Leach’s Storm Petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa) or Band-rump types (Oceanodroma sp.).

While detailed coverage is focused on breeding species, the most abundant migrants into the region, Great Shearwater (Puffinis gravis), Sooty Shearwater (Puffinis griseus) and Wilson’s Storm Petrel (Oceanites oceanicus) are illustrated and discussed at length. This is not so for three deep-water gadfly petrels that have occurred in the WP, Black-capped Petrel (Pterodroma hasitata), Bermuda Petrel (Pterodroma cahow) and Trindade Petrel (Pterodroma arminjoniana) which get only the briefest of mentions. This is a pity because of their similarities to other species and strong likelihood of reoccurring in the WP and there are even hopes that Bermuda Petrel may one day nest on the Azores. Perhaps a future edition could incorporate a painting showing the thrilling trio? If Killian feels he lacks sufficient field experience to do them justice, but perhaps the publishers (aka his pals) will summon up the dough to send him to North Carolina for a month or two or better still, to the Atlantic and Caribbean breeding grounds of each of these dynamite gadfly petrels.

Distinctions are drawn between Fea’s Petrel (Pterodroma feae) of the Cape Verde Islands and Desertas Petrel (Pterodroma deserta) of Bugio in the Desertas Group and possibly the Azores to the northwest. As Robb points out, “almost everything we known about the breeding biology of ‘Fea’s Petrel’ actually refers to Desertas Petrel”. The two look very similar but nest in different seasons and also differ in several measurements. There may be subtle differences in plumage coloration as well but like the morphometrics, this will be extremely difficult to apply at sea due to the vagaries of lighting and lack of direct comparison. Currently it is only the appreciably deeper bill of Desertas Petrel (average 12.9 mm compared to 11.9 mm for Fea’s), discernable in good photographs, that inspires hope for pelagic birders. Zino’s Petrel has a shallower and shorter bill and is likely to seem much stubbier (peg-like) than either Fea’s or Desertas. Hopefully, these issues will be resolved soon because a number of experts have made dedicated chumming trips off Madiera this past season and photographed candidate birds. The vocalizations of the three are distinctive and to Robb’s ear there are interesting similarities between Desertas and Bermuda Petrel.

The subdivision of Band-rumped Storm Petrel will spark the most vigorous debate. For more than a decade, scientists and other ‘seabird cognescenti’ have been ruminating over the taxonomy of the pantropical Madeiran/Band-rumped storm petrels and a significant body of genetic and ecological data to support the splits has been accrued. It has been argued that there are upwards of eight distinct populations spread across the Atlantic and Pacific basins worthy of full species status. In PNAD, Band-rumps are split into four species: Grant’s Storm Petrel (no scientific name assigned yet), Monteiro’s Storm Petrel (ditto), Madeiran Storm Petrel (Oceanodroma castro) and Cape Verde Storm Petrel (Oceanodroma jabejabe). Grant’s is a cool season (August-March) breeder of the Azores, Berlengas, Canary Islands, Madeiran archipelago and Selvagens. The name was new to me and was apparently proposed by Steve Howell to honor the late Peter Grant in lieu of a new species of gull. I believe Atlantic Storm Petrel has also been floated. Monteiro’s refers to the hot season (March-September) breeder found on the Azores and appropriately honors the late Luis Monteiro, a seabird biologist and conservationist from the University of Azores. Mark Bolton (A Rocha Field Study Centre, Portugal) and colleagues have submitted a formal scientific description of Monteiro’s Storm Petrel but I don’t know if it has been accepted for publication yet.

Reasoned arguments are made for the occurrence of several of these ‘band-rumps’ in North American waters during the non-breeding season and this is supported by photos and descriptions of birds taken in US waters that exhibit noticeable plumage and structural differences. Many of the birds studied off North Carolina in the summer (May-August) could be Grant’s but Cape Verde Storm Petrel, a partial cool-season breeder needs to be considered. Obviously there is much work to be done, not only from the waters around the breeding sites but also from the Gulf Stream off the US and in the Gulf of Mexico. Specimens of birds driven inland by tropical storms may be of value in piecing the story together. The cryptic complexity of the Band-rumps will resonate with pelagic veterans, many of whom have struggled to understand differences in jizz that are not easily attributable to molt. The realization that more than one species might be present is exciting and will galvanize future offshore trips.

At this point in the review, I can imagine overworked members of regional or national checklist committees reaching for the aspirin or whiskey bottle. Tempers have flared in the past over the treatment of extralimital sightings of Fea’s Petrels because of the perceived difficulty in ruling out the much rarer Zino’s Petrel. Clearly, the arrival of Desertas Petrel on this tempestuous scene, which is probably even harder to distinguish from Fea’s than Zino’s, will churn the waters further. Identifying the ‘new’ storm petrels will be equally challenging in the field. That said, some of them are decidedly rare and from a conservation standpoint, discovery of their non-breeding ranges through field observations is of paramount importance. Do any occur, I wonder, in the oil and gas fields of the Gulf of Mexico? I believe that Desertas Petrel, Mediterranean Storm Petrel and Cape Verde Storm Petrel have been elevated to full species status by the Dutch DBA/CSNA, but I am not aware of other authorities that have endorsed (or even debated) the splits.

Seabirds very often nest in dramatic and inspiring places, and through the pages of PNAD we are escorted to many remarkable locations around the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea. In the opening chapter, we climb up into the jagged 2,000 m (6,562 ft) peaks of Madiera, rocky pinnacles that literally rise above the clouds. Among the crags and rocky slopes surrounding the very highest point, Pico de Areeiro (32.7354°, -16.9289°), some 65-80 pairs of Zino’s Petrels (Pterodroma madeira) – perhaps the entire world population – make their nests. A stunning image of this unworldly and seemingly inhospitable landscape dominates page 14. Zino’s Petrels visit on most nights from late March to late August and in spite of the remoteness, local guides are available to take visitors to listen to petrels calling in the darkness. A permit is required (make sure your guide has one) and needless to say, any use of tapes or spotlights is totally inappropriate.

Further on, we are treated to the sensory spectacle of 10,000 pairs of British Storm Petrels (Hydrobates melitensis) nesting alongside the ancient stone stairway of Skellig Michael, off County Kerry, Ireland (51.7706°, -10.5389°) and to the expansive fields of White-faced Storm Petrel (Pelagodroma marina) burrows on Selvagem Pequena (30°, -16°). With such a mouth watering list of places to visit the front cover ought to be stamped with a prominent warning label along the lines of, “Caution! Readers may experience feelings of intense wanderlust. If this occurs, drink plenty of fluids and consult your doctor/travel agent for further advice”. But this of course is the point, get out there and explore some of Europe’s most remote places guided by the musky scent and surreal calls of nesting shearwaters and petrels.

A recent seabird book that draws fair comparison to PNAD is Hadoram Shirihai’s The Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife, which combined conventional field guide material (standardized species accounts, plates, range maps and so on) with a superb collection of photographs illustrating the environment as well as the birds and other animals. As with PNAD, Shirihai’s book is further enriched with an abundance of geographical and historical material that most readers find equally fascinating. The writing style of PNAD is more accessible than a typical academic text but is still rich in scholarship. Factual information is backed up by citations that link back to more than 200 references, the majority from the primary scientific literature. Hopefully many readers will be inspired to visit these additional writings as well as travel to see the birds and locations with their own eyes. The final chapter on Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel sets out some innovative ideas about the inshore movements of storm-petrels during the hours of darkness and the ecological relationships between different species, offering a call to arms as it were to discover the migration route from the Indian Ocean and perhaps prove that this asiatic petrel is actually reproducing in the Atlantic.

Executive Summary: This remarkable book rolls the notions of a field guide, natural history survey and audio guide into a single volume and enthusiasts of every experience level will find much of value. Those planning monographs of other bird families (or faunal regions) may consider a similar multifaceted approach.

Species Covered: Zino’s Petrel, Fea’s Petrel, Desertas Petrel, Bulwer’s Petrel, Cory’s Shearwater, Scopoli’s Shearwater, Cape Verde Shearwater, Great Shearwater, Barolo’s Shearwater, Boyd’s Shearwater, Manx Shearwater, Balearic Shearwater, Yelkouan Shearwater, Northern Fulmar, White-faced Storm Petrel, European Storm Petrel, Mediterranean Storm Petrel, Leach’s Storm Petrel, Grant’s Storm Petrel, Monteiro’s Storm Petrel, Madeiran Storm Petrel, Cape Verde Storm Petrel and Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel.

SURFBIRDS

Surfbirds

I could not hide my pleasure when ‘The Sound Approach to Birding’ was published two years ago – it was my bird book of the year by miles. So when I heard the first mutterings about the impending publication of this book, I was certainly excited, and now here it is!

I have taken a little while to review it, not for any real reason other than I simply wanted to take my time, enjoy all of the tracks, read and re-read the text, and absorb some of the many implications it has for the identification, naming (!) and taxonomy of ‘petrels’. Make no mistake, this is a vitally influential book and will affect the way we see the species it treats; there are also implications for many other petrel species not treated within it – and approaches to their taxonomy.
Those species it does treat are the following:-
The ‘gadfly petrels’ – Zinos’, Fea’s and Desertas Petrels
Bulwer’s Petrel
Canonectris shearwaters – Cory’s, Scopoli’s and Cape Verde Shearwaters
Little Shearwaters – Barolo’s and Boyd’s Shearwaters
Manx Shearwater
Mediterranean Shearwaters – Balearic and Yelkouan Shearwaters
Northern Fulmar
White-faced Strom Petrel
European Storm Petrels – British and Mediterranean Storm Petrels
Leach’s Storm Petrel (Wilson’s discussed on plate)
Band-rumped Storm Petrels – Grant’s, Monteiro’s, Madeiran and Cape Verde Storm Petrels
Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel

Many of the names above may not be familiar to some, as they reflect the taxonomic implications that the book (in part) discusses, but it clarifies the situation well and is worth getting for this reason alone. I am not sure I like the lack of hyphen in the word ‘storm-petrel’ – if there is a ‘petrel’ then these should be surely ‘storm-petrels’. Anyway, this is by the way, and nothing more than semantics, so let’s get onto the book.

The main bulk of the text is written by Magnus Robb, and is partly a personal journey through the circumstances surrounding the recording of the birds, and partly a discussion of the various sounds recorded. I found that I liked his style very much and was greatly envious of many of the circumstances in which he found himself, but also of his musicians ear, helpful when picking out the subtleties of some of the variation in calls, etc.. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited some of the places, and many of my own memories and reflections were stirred. The following two extracts give a good taste of some of the prose Robb uses to express his enthusiasm for the subject:-

‘Bulwer’s Petrels Bulweria bulwerii are entirely silent in flight, and the only thing you might hear as they fly in from the sea is a faint whispoer of their wings. Against the roar of the surf on the rocks, they can go easily unnoticed, until one crashes against your limbs, head or clothing.’

‘Imagine the thrill of being alone at dusk on a tiny islet, certain that you are about to be blown way in a blizzard of White-face Storm Petrels Pelagodroma marina. Sitting watching the sun go down over the north coast of the Cape Verdean island of Boavista …..I could hardly wait for the night to begin.’

Once the scene has been set, the chapters move on to a discussion of the recordings. When listening to them it is best, as Robb suggests, to put on a pair of good headphones, block out all of the surrounding noise, and close your eyes. Take in the noise of the sea or the pulsing of the wings, then the haunting calls of the birds as they make contact, sometimes emerging out of the night sky. They are wonderful recordings, crystal clear, and full of movement. However, they are more then mere evocations and all link up to a discussion in the text with sonograms that go with them – the sonograms are annotated, helping to understand the various layers involved and sometimes the subleties of how to listen to them.

Take, for example, the first chapter on Fea’s, Zino’s and Desertas Petrels: we have four recordings of the first two and three of the last. Nearly all of the recordings have sonograms and text describing the various features, and in the first paragraph on the Desertas we are introduced to the idea that Desertas Petrels should be treated as separate from Fea’s for various reasons (timing of breeding, biometrics, probably DNA, and ‘differences in their sounds suggest that Desertas may actually be the most divergent member of the group’). Like the sounds themselves, this book has many layers, and I had to read this again, with my mind inevitably raced to the question, so if this is taken on board what are being seen of the coasts of Britain?

When I listened to the recordings, I can hear that Fea’s and Zino’s are (as I wrote in my notes) alike but different; they clearly have the same dog-like howling or baby-crying elements, but were subtle in their variance. Robb helped me to understand their noises, on a more sophisticated level, though I couldn’t help but put my own more simplistic interpretations to many noises: for example, Bulwer’s Petrel sounds like a dog barking in a cardboard box; Cory’s Shearwater calls like in a Punch and Judy show – aah, I thought, that’s the way to do it!

Breaking the text and sonograms are some amazing photographs by various photographers, and excellent plates by Killian Mullarney. The photos are either of the magnificent landscapes in which these incredible creatures choose to breed, or largely flight portraits of them at sea. These portraits go undiscussed, though amongst the plates, there are a few informative pointers to the field identification of the various species – there are exceptions such as the first tentative steps towards separating characters of Mediterranean and British Storm Petrels. Being someone that works visually, I might have liked more, however, as I keep remindind myself this a Sound Approach guide so the emphasis is bound to be on the voice – perhaps a littler bit more on field ID might have helped.

This book has great depth, and yet is very enjoyable to read and to use. In more ways than one, this is a ground-breaking book, and I have not even mentioned the four-way split of what we used to call Madeiran Storm-petrel – you will simply have to get the book and read it all for yourself. There are many questions I will now have to answer: what were those storm-petrels I saw off the coast of the Algarve four years ago? Surely, it was Madeiran Storm-petrel I saw off Madeira with Luis Dias in 2007?
I cannot recommend this book highly enough, it is fabulous in every respect! Below are some links to The Sound Approach website, through which you can order the book.