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

To: "'Murray Lord'" <>, <>
Subject: Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World by Onley and Scofield
From: "Alastair Smith" <>
Date: Sun, 29 Apr 2007 16:50:58 +1000
I found this review by Fatbirder

Albatrosses, Petrels & Shearwaters of the World by Derek Onley & Paul
Scofield Helm Field Guides 2007 ISBN 9780713643329

This book covers the 137 currently accepted species of the avian order
Procellariformes, found across the oceans of the world. They are usually
divided into four families; albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters, storm
petrels and diving petrels. Many are exclusively marine birds spending the
majority of their lives as sea and only coming to land in order to breed.

The publisher says that ".the guide offers concise information set opposite
Derek Onley's elegant illustrations, a format designed for easy
identification in the field; at sea, at close range and over distance - an
essential companion for those interested in pelagic seabirds."

Whilst I agree that the illustrations are elegant and the information full
and detailed and, so far as my limited knowledge allows an opinion,
accurate, I would challenge that this is the best format to use as a guide
in the field.

This format has been around a long time and, as a library reference is
excellent. However, its not the best format for field use. as, in the field,
one wants close proximity of confusion species; those whose ranges overlap
etc. rather than the correct taxonomic order which is followed in most

Not only would this be hard work to arrange it will, inevitably take up more
space as plates would need to be less crowded and the brief accounts facing
such pages should, at least, carry the distribution maps. No doubt the
format used saves paper and is one we are all used to but that doesn't make
it the best for ID. A good compromise would be to give each of the 137
species a page to itself with the species account facing it; this would
amount to 274 pages and adding in intros etc would mean the book would have
to be around 300 pages instead of the 240 in this volume and that would up
the price too. I doubt it would be too expensive or too heavy to take into
the field and would probably be easier to use to narrow down the possible
candidates if stumped.

Having said that this is a very fine piece of work and the high quality
paper and print add to its great feel. Moreover, it has one feature I have
rarely seen in other guides - the species accounts mention jizz - which is a
real bonus for species most often seen at long distance in windy weather
when colour, shape and size can all be obscured. Furthermore, plumage wear
and moult are mentioned too, a lesson other guides might want to follow. It
is good to see this guide covering all the world species and splitting up
the unwieldy and aging 'Seabirds' which was one of the very first in this


-----Original Message-----
 On Behalf Of Murray Lord
Sent: Saturday, 28 April 2007 10:48 AM
Subject: Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World by
Onley and Scofield

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 that:
  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

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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