Multimedia Identification Guide to North Atlantic Seabirds: Pterodroma Petrels – Book review

by Dani Lopez-Velasco

Pterodroma Petrels: Multimedia Identification Guide to North Atlantic Seabirds

by Bob Flood & Ashley Fisher


If I were asked to describe the new Pterodroma guide in just a few words, it would be simple: It´s an extraordinary piece of work that, amazingly, has even surpassed the impressive quality of the previous Multimedia Identification Guide, and thus is a must-have for any serious birder, no matter what their interest in petrels is.

On their second ID Guide to be published in the series North Atlantic Seabirds (the first one being Storm-petrels & Bulwer´s Petrel; with 2 others to be published in the future), Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher stick to the same general and highly innovative idea of combining moving video footage with photos, illustrations and text. All together, this guide approaches well the idea of how a “perfect” field guide should be.

The book,  which is over 300 pages long, and its accompanying 2 DVDs cover 9 species of Pterodroma Petrels: Trindade, Kermadec, Atlantic, Great-winged, Bermuda, Black-capped, Soft-plumaged, Fea´s (with Cape Verde and Desertas Petrel treated as two different subspecies of Fea´s Petrel, but both with their own accounts)  and Zino´s Petrel. To aid ID, species/taxa are presented in an order that places similar-looking species side by side, which I find very useful.

The first few pages are an overall introduction to the guide, in which the authors comment on various aspects of the book. The first section, Species Covered, reviews the taxonomy and status of nine Atlantic Pterodromas. Then comes an Overview about morphology, biology, conservation and other interesting Pterodroma issues. On the extensive, 30 pages long, Identification section, there´s  a whole deal of general information on the authors´s approach to Pterodroma ID, and aspects like jizz, size, plumage, flight behaviour and structure, which will be covered under each species account in the next section, are all fully addressed in great detail. I particularly liked this section, and I strongly recommend everyone going through it at least a couple of times.

The fourth section, Species Accounts, describes each species in great detail, starting with a range map (including approximate months in which the species is supposed to be in each area of its at-sea distribution), followed by taxonomy,  other names, conservation status, population size, Atlantic range (including number of records for some of the rarer species), main characteristics and molt.


The amount of information under each species is truly impressive, and its clear that the authors have done a great deal of work to put all the available and disperse published information together. I am sure even the most acknowledged petrel experts will learn quite a few things after studying this section. I was surprised to learn that, for example, after the authors´s thorough review of at-sea sightings of Trindade Petrels in the North Atlantic, they found out that there´s an obvious reversal in morph ratios when comparing at-sea records  (most of them referring to dark morph birds) with Trindade island birds (the only known breeding colony in the Atlantic, where almost 2 thirds are pale morph birds!). Some explanations, like another unknown colony in the Atlantic dominated by dark morphs, are given, but as for now the puzzle remains unsolved.

Also of great interest is the information and plates on the 2 forms of Black-capped Petrels, mostly based on Steve Howell´s et al research. Everyone should take good note of this, as in the near future both forms might end up split. And If you are lucky enough to come across one of these highly desired pterodromas while on a pelagic in the WP (in the Azores most likely, as Killian Mullarney already did a few years ago…), you will want the bird to be properly identified to form level, which is not always as straightforward as it could seem.

I found few mistakes/errors in this section and they were only minor ones, for example, the Spanish Black-capped Petrel was seen c. 200 miles to the NWest of Fisterra, (thus in the Atlantic), not to the North East, as its written under the WP records section, as that would have meant it had been seen inside the Bay of Biscay, which wasn´t the case. But that´s about it, so the review work must have been very efficient.

Surely one of the best things of this book are the photographs, with over 350 used, many of them previously unpublished, and I know first-hand that the authors spent a considerable amount of time trying to get as many to suit their needs as possible.

Mike Danzenbaker´s stunning pics of the almost mythical Cahow, or Bermuda Petrel, taken  recently during  Bob´s pioneering pelagics off Bermuda, are definitely the best ones ever published of the species. Chris Sloan´s Trindade and Black-capped Petrel shots off  Hatteras are also mouth-watering staff,  and some of Brent Stephenson´s Kermadec Petrel and George Reszeter´s Fea´s pics are also amazing.  The pics of a Fea´s together with a Black-capped, and a Zino´s with a Bulwer´s, on page 49, are particularly impressive, and well worth seeing.

But It´s not just about the quality of the images though. In my opinion, one of the best things of the guide is the use of quite a few pics showings mid-range pterodromas, exactly as you would see them from a cruise ship or from  a headland. It´s of course nice to see high quality pics, showing plumage detail, but unless the bird comes to the chum, or makes a close pass, it will be difficult to see minor details as shown on full-frame photos. Therefore I think it´s really useful to also combine them with this kind of “lesser-quality” images (such as those on pages 32, 36-37), as they will show the general appearance and basic field features, those you will first see when the bird is distant (as will usually be the case!) better than any other image.

The second half of the book is focused almost entirely on identification, with a very comprehensive section on its own called Confusion Groups and Confusion Pairs. This section compasses species taxa that are sufficiently similar to cause confusion, and a very through and detailed review of all ID features that will help set them apart is given.

There are many comparison pictures, depicting similar looking species, side by side, in the same angle and posture, through the book, and particularly so in this section. For example, no less than 12 photos of Black-capped and Bermuda Petrels appear under that particular account (and yes, as you will see, some cahow can look surprisingly similar to hasitata!). I find  this very useful and much appreciated, as I think the easiest and quickest way for the brain to pick out differences between 2  similar species from photos, and help you create your own “mental image” of what to look for, is by having photographs of both species together, side by side. This also saves the reader a lot  of time, as you don´t have to go through endless  pages to reach photos of the other similar looking species.

The Fea´s complex account, mostly focused in the separation of Zino´s and Fea´s (Desertas and Cape Verde) is definitely the most comprehensive one ever published in a book, and will greatly help rarities committees to assess and reassess some of their records.  Most, but not all, of the information provided under this account is based on seabird guru, Hadoram Shirihai´s and colleagues, findings, which resulted in the groundbreaking paper  (in my opinion, one of the best ever ID papers written) published in BW in 2010.  In the Pterodroma book, Flood and Fisher give 5 main criteria, which, on a more user-friendly and a bit less-overcautious approach, will allow observers to identify a good percentage of Fea´s and Zino´s, provided good pics are taken.  Having said that, it must be stressed that the challenge in separating Fea´s and Zino´s at sea can´t be overstated: size and structure can easily fool us (i.e, in my experience, sometimes Fea´s Petrels can look surprisingly slim, light-built and smallish, and due to light refraction in the sea, underwing can falsely look whitish), so that´s the reason why good pictures are essential.  The possible extreme white-winged Zino´s -Bermuda Petrel pitfall, which probably wouldn´t have  come to mind to most seabirders a few years ago, is well covered with pics too.

If only, I did miss a bit of text (even if a short paragraph) on what a Fea´s-type Petrel looks like from land, i.e. on a seawatch, when most European sightings take place, with comments on first impressions, how to separate distant birds from a Cory´s or a Manx, which I´ve seen happening (remember that  with little wind, Fea´s-type Petrels might not fly like pterodromas at all, and depending on the light, the white underwing of some shearwaters can loook dark, etc..). This might not be worrying at all for experienced seabirders, but it might have been useful for more novice birders with little experience.

I particularly liked the inclusion of both Great Shearwater vs Black-capped Petrel and Sooty Shearwater vs Trindade Petrel on the Confusion Groups section. I´ve discussed  with friends many times both cases while on seawatches and pelagics in NW Spain, so It´s great to see them included here. I think most of us have wondered whether, for example, a distant B-C Petrel would be easy to pick out on a seawatch (don´t forget than some Great Shears can show complete and broad white collars, extensive white on the uppertail coverts, lack of brown in the belly, and with strong winds can fly quite pterodroma-like), or if a dark Trindade would easily stand amongst Sooties. Thus, the extensive information on these 2 cases can be particularly helpful for European and North American observers. It´s good to know  well in advance what to look for when confronted with any mega-rare seabird, so studying these things can make the difference of either nailing it or leaving it as possible, a nightmare for all of us!

Eleven interesting and varied insets are also included within the book, covering various issues. A few are well worth mentioning. Two deal with conversation (“Saving the Bermuda Petrel”  and “Saving the Zino´s Petrel”) and are truly inspiring. While reading them, you almost feel transported to the exciting moment when both species were rediscovered, after many years thought to be extinct. A good deal of information on the critical recovery programs, essential for the  survival of these 2 endangered species, is also given.

Reagarding ID, the short one on the “Snowy-winged Petrel” seen by Shirihai et al off Madeira addresses the various explanations for this odd-looking bird, favouring the aberrant option. I am not entirely happy with this, as the pattern (both underwing, face and upperwing) doesn’t seem to me like that of an aberrant bird, but as for now, no one can´t know what the right option is.

A long inset on the highly debated “Varanger Petrel”, seen by Graham Catley in Varanger, N Norway, in June 2009, is also included, in which the authors comment in depth on the features of the bird, and the pros and cons for the bird being an acceptable Soft-plumaged Petrel (S-p P).

I can´t consider myself an expert in Soft-plumaged Petrel, but, still, I think, unlike other people, that this bird is a Soft-plumaged Petrel,  an acceptable one indeed, and I have the strong feeling that the first impression with this bird is the right one. Given how important this record is (a first for the North Atlantic) I want to include here are a few personal thoughts which might be worth considering, involving some of the points of the text which  I don´t fully agree with (even though we both reach the same important conclusion, that the bird is a S-p P). I can of course be wrong, in fact I might probably be, but here are my thoughts anyway…

First, Regarding the “rarity” status of the possible candidates, I think its important to take into account that  2 other mega-rare seabirds which range in the Southern  Atlantic, on the same areas as Soft-plumaged Petrels, have already made it to Norway (this is quite relevant in my opinion) : Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, and Cape Petrel.  With  so far no other records of any other Pterodroma petrels (Fea´s/Zino´s) in the Norwegian coast, I would say that the chances of a “strayed” Zino´s  up in Varanger are probably pretty similar to those of a “lost” Soft-plumaged.  i.e, I´d say a Zino’s Petrel  isn´t more likely as a candidate as a Soft-plumaged Petrel.

As for molt, bleaching and wear, not much is know on moult/wear/bleaching on these Pterodroma petrels (in fact, all moult schedules of Zino´s, Cape Verde, Desertas…. are merely assumptions. And how much is known on variation in wear patterns of Soft-plumaged Petrel? Just take gulls. I love gulls too, and spend a lot of time with them. The variation of wear on the same species (consider my local Yellow-legged Gulls for example), at the very same spot is incredible. Some birds are in pristine plumage in early winter, and others are already very bleached and worn. Same species, same place, different patterns of wear.  I assume the same could apply to Soft-plumaged Petrel too. So, taking that into account, as well as the fact that a lost Soft-plumaged Petrel in the North Atlantic could easily show atypical wear patterns, I  think it´s probably a bit unsafe to say that “the state of bleaching and wear doesn´t fit with a typical Soft-plumaged Petrel”.

I don´t fully agree either with some of the  comments referring to the  question “what are the chances of an extreme vagrant being anomalous?, mostly because It doesn’t seem that  extremely  “anomalous” to me for being a S-p P, (i.e: it´s not an albino bird (now that would be really anomalous..), It doesn’t have fully white underwings, it doesn’t have a broken breast band… etc.). So, even if it does have a couple of relatively atypical features, I wonder myself if it´s really that worrying…

Anyway, as a summary I would say the “strong” pointers for Soft-plumaged Petrel (apparently complete breast band,  compact structure and general shape, head pattern, restricted white throat, seemingly lack of contrast between tail/UTC and back, etc…) are much stronger than the “strong” pointers to feae complex. Their degree of evidence, as called in statistics, seems much higher to my eyes.

So, to sum up. I think the analysis of the bird is a really detailed, in depth, and, overall, extremely accurate one. I also understand that, being very strict and critical, then if a couple, in my opinion, relatively minor, atypical features, are considered, then it could be stated that this is not an acceptable Soft-plumaged Petrel, especially being a first for the North Atlantic. But, nevertheless, I still think that Bob and Ashley are right in reaching the conclusion that the bird is a S-p P,  and that the Norwegian Rarities Committee has also done well in taking the risk and accepting it as a first for Norway.

Back to the book, several  plates with color illustrations for each species/taxon, by Martin Elliott, are included. I think using color plates instead of black and white drawings, as in the previous Multimedia Guide, is a notable improvement. Elliott´s work  is overall pretty good, real and accurate, although I do find a lesser degree in detail compared to Ian Lewington´s or Killian Mullarney´s drawings.

Following the main text are a long references list, acknowledgments, appendices and an ID jogger (a complete bullet point summary of the key ID features of all North Atlantic pterodromas).

And, to finish, we have the most innovative and groundbreaking part of the book, and the one that sets it apart from all other seabird guides and makes it really “special” : the 2 DVDs.

There´s no other bird group in which a conventional guide might be less useful in terms of identification as in seabirds. On 99 per cent of the times, you won´t be able to see fine plumage details on a seawatch. Don´t expect to see the brown belly of a Great Shearwater or the long tail streamers of a Long-tailed Skua. That´s what birders on their first seawatches expect to see, and usually leave rather disappointed, and also incredulous, when they realize those features aren´t needed for a right ID of a distant bird. Seeing the “M” pattern on the wing/back of a Fea´s type Petrel from land (one of the first , if not the first, things that one expects to see after looking at the plate in the field guide, as was my case before seeing my first one) isn´t always easy, especially due to lighting, and there are other much more striking features when seen in the distance, whatever a guide says. That´s why plates aren´t so useful with seabirds, and the reason why the DVD of the whole series of Atlantic Seabirds series are so important. They provide with “real-life” encounters with the petrels . Explaining in words the way a pterodroma flies is a personal and not an easy thing to do, and, in my case, if I had never seen one before, I would struggle in forming an accurate mental image of their flight after reading various flight descriptions. So this is the reason why footage is essential, helping observers to experience them as if they were at sea, but from the comfort of their homes! It´s true that, unlike in Storm-petrels, flight is not crucial for separating one species of pterodroma from another, as their general jizz and flight is quite similar, but, still, it will give you an idea of what they look at sea, greatly improving the chances of picking one up if you haven’t seen one before.

Given how difficult is to see, let alone film pterodromas at sea, its a remarkable achievement that the authors have managed to cover all species treated in the book. The footage, bearing in mind it´s amateur, could be rated as good to very good, especially for the purpose its been done: be representative of the pelagic families treated by the books. Although sometimes a bit shaky,  the important thing , and what we all want it for, i.e, to assist ID and bring to life a bird in motion, has been successfully achieved, and the authors should be congratulated for it.

The commentary  and clips of the DVDs focuses mostly on ID; but 2 sets of interviews are included and most welcome: one with David Wingate and Jeremy Madeiros, talking about  the Bermuda Petrel rescue project on Nonsuch Island, Bermuda, and, another with Frank Zino about the conservation history of Zino’s Petrels in Madeira.

Regarding the edition, the book has been designed and laid out by the authors, but, nevertheless, they should be proud of how it has turned out, looking highly professional. I am particularly impressed by the printing, as the photos look very good, better than on many professional publishing house books.  My only minor criticism would be that it can be difficult and time-consuming, at times, to find certain sections or species, as there´s no obvious species name / section name on top or bottom of each page, which i think would have greatly helped  in finding each species or section quicker. Perhaps they might take note of this for future books.

As a summary, this groundbreaking guide certainly provides the most comprehensive, updated and detailed treatment of arguably the most desired of all Atlantic seabirds: Pterodromas, or Gadfly Petrels as are also called, with a very extensive collection of photographs and a wealth of useful information, mostly based on the authors´s own very extensive at-sea experience. For those of you who don´t know them,  Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher pioneered pelagic trips from the Scillies in the early 2000s, where amongst other things, discovered that Wilson´s Petrel was a regular migrant off the islands in late summer, as well as found several first for Britain during their trips. Bob also co-rediscovered the New Zealand Storm-Petrel, thought to be extinct for many years, and has been on hundreds of pelagic trips all over the world, so his background with tubenoses is clearly enormous. Apart from that, you can feel that both authors are not just interested in seabirds, but love them and have a real passion for their conservation too, which has been well reflected in the book.

No matter whether you live inland or in the coast, if you are more of a raptor or gull fan than a seabird enthusiastic, or even if you get seasick and dont plan to go on any pelagic trip in your life, this book is a must-have, and it should be on the shelf (and along on the boat!) of any serious birder. I can assure you it will surpass even your highest expectations.

You can order your copy here 

Thanks to the information on the Pterodroma guide, as well as on Shirihai´s work,  we can say that this Fea´s Petrel nicely captured by David Monticelli on our last pelagic off Lanzarote is most likely a Cape Verde, given underwing score of 0-1, intermediate bill size and shape, state of plumage, etc.. One of the first candidates in the WP outside the Cape Verdes

Thanks to the information on the Pterodroma guide, as well as on Shirihai´s work, we can say that this Fea´s Petrel nicely captured by David Monticelli on our last pelagic off Lanzarote is most likely a Cape Verde, given underwing score of 0-1, intermediate bill size and shape, state of plumage, etc.. One of the first candidates in the WP outside the Cape Verdes

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