Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World by Onley and Scofield

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Subject: Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World by Onley and Scofield
From: "Murray Lord" <>
Date: Sat, 28 Apr 2007 10:47:37 +1000
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that this book was about to be published.  I 
have now received a copy and these are my first impressions.

First, the plates.  As soon as I looked at them, they reminded me of the New 
Zealand field guide.  Tuning to the back cover I found that was because Derek 
Onley has illustrated both.  While I'd have to say I don't find his style as 
pleasing to the eye as say Jeff Davies' pictures in HANZAB, that's not 
necessarily any reflection of their accuracy.  They are certainly better than 
the seabird pictures in most field guides, where even the best artists often 
seem to struggle.

Second, the taxonomy.  The introduction has two pages setting out how different 
some of the treatments are today, and how hard it is to apply the biological 
species concept to allopatric populations that breed on different islands.  In 
the end they decided to follow Albatrosses and Petrels Across the World 
(Brooke, 2004), except where more recent information is available.  This means 
  a.. the Wandering Albatross complex is treated as four species: Snowy 
(exulans); Tristan (dabbenena); Amsterdam (amsterdamensis) and New Zealand 
(antipodensis, of which gibsoni is treated as a subspecies);
  b.. Shy Albatross is split into three species, Yellow nosed and Royal are 
split into two;
  c.. Buller's is not split;
  d.. Vanuatu Petrel is split from White necked;
  e.. Little Shearwater is split into several species.  The Australasian birds 
comprise both Little Shearwater and Subantarctic Little Shearwater (the latter 
breeding on islands east and south of NZ); and
  f.. the New Zealand breeding Grey faced Petrel is split from Great winged 
Petrels.  The maps show both occurring off eastern Australia.  They comment 
that at some times of year precise identification of many birds in the Tasman 
sea would not be possible.
Third, the text.  There is a short text opposite the plates, which focuses on 
key ID features and is a good way of avoiding having to flick back to the main 
texts all the time.  The main texts vary from about half a page to a page, and 
include colour maps plus all the information you would expect.  So they are 
about the same length as the text in Harrison.  There is discussion of the 
variation between subspecies.  For difficult groups, e.g. prions and large 
albatrosses, there is an extra section at the start of the species accounts 
describing the best way to distinguish them.  For Wandering Albatrosses there's 
a table setting out the various plumage types (intended to be an update of the 
Gibson system).  But unfortunately it concludes that many large albatrosses 
will not be able to be identified to species level now.

In fact I noticed several groups where they said that birds can't always be 
identified to species level.  They give the impression they think a lot of 
birders are identifying birds definitely when there is no basis to do so.  
Having been on numerous pelagics where someone has called a bird with total 
confidence when I have been skeptical, I fear they may be right!  They comment 
that unconfirmed claims of Beck's Petrel in Australia are "more hopeful than 
likely".  In the introduction to the storm petrel section they say it was a 
hard section to write as "many 'facts' appear to be based on hearsay and some 
oft-repeated information is definitely wrong.  Photographs in the major books 
on seabirds are frequently incorrectly assigned to species many photographs on 
the web are either definitely wrongly identified or ambiguous to likely species 
... Many rare bird committee files were reviewed whilst preparing these texts 
and we consider there are a number of incorrectly identified storm-petrels on 
national lists...".

In the species account for Tristram's Storm Petrel they say the bird 
photographed off Sydney was "probably more likely dark phase Leach's or 
Polynesian Storm-Petrel"  [whaddya got to say about that, Tony :-)].

I'm not going comment on whether everything is accurate, first because I have 
only had a brief look at it and second, there are others who are far better 
qualified to comment than me.  But given it is very good value (my copy from 
Amazon was A$24 plus postage - Andrew Isles has it listed at $55), has all the 
rare species that might turn up here, reflects the latest thinking on taxonomy 
and takes into account the increased knowledge in the quarter century since 
Harrison's book was written (not to mention the 15 years since HANZAB), I am 
sure all keen pelagic birders will want a copy.

Murray Lord

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