This is the fourth and final volume in a series that sets the standard for identification of North Atlantic seabirds. As with the previous three guides in the series, species entries focus primarily on in-the-field identification but also cover abundance, distribution, taxonomy, movements (including their vagrancy potential) and a few shorter sections on their behaviour, moult and ageing. Each species account is generously illustrated with many high-quality photographs, enough to cover the entire variation within each taxon. Additional photographs of specimens and birds in the hand show the relevant details up close, while images of tricky individuals are accompanied by extensive captions to support the identification and establish the boundaries of safe and clear identification. There are also several photographs of different species side by side to allow for direct comparison. Finally, photographs illustrating behaviour, especially those aspects that are key identification-wise, are included. Many of the photographs are the best available to date for some of the treated species, such as the at-sea images of Barolo Shearwater Puffinus baroli.
Other photographs go beyond mere usefulness for identification and shine a light on the authors’ tremendous love and dedication to seabirds. Images such as the Audubon’s Shearwater P. lherminieri chicks in their nests in Bermuda, taken by legendary conservationist David Wingate just decades before the species became extinct in the archipelago, add enormous historical value to the book.
The species texts are didactic, although they can be somewhat dense at times, especially in the sections with more academic content such as the descriptions of a species’ movements. Most but not all material in the book is original. For example, some of the work has already been published by the authors elsewhere, such as the identification of Sooty Ardenna grisea and Short-tailed Shearwaters A. tenuirostris, (Brit. Birds 112: 250–263), but the vast majority has not been published previously. This includes, for example, the authors’ work on the Cory’s/Scopoli’s/Cape Verde Shearwater complex Calonectris borealis/diomedea/edwardsii. Content compiled from other publications and authors has been used very respectfully, with many of the other authors directly contacted for discussion. As a result, the conclusions reached in the book are in line with the findings published in recent years, adding details in a constructive way and bringing the reader with a special interest in seabirds a sense of coherence and of knowledge being pushed forward.
It is impossible not to draw attention to John Gale’s artwork. The images in the plates not only capture all the details of the plumage to perfection, but they convey the same overall impression as in the field – something very difficult to capture when it comes to seabirds. Undoubtedly, this is the result of meticulous study, both by the artist and by the authors of the book, who have worked together to share their knowledge.
In addition, the book comes with a USB stick containing extra material, mostly videos. Given the relevance for identification of flight action and behaviour, and how hard it is to appreciate these in photos, illustrations or descriptions, these at-sea videos are extremely useful.
The huge amount of content in this book brings only one issue: what to call it? In size and portability, it could be considered a field guide – but to cover all species in the series it would be necessary to carry around all four volumes, and the packed, concise content would be hard to get through in the field. On the other hand, for a stay-at-home reference book, a larger format would have allowed for a more natural flow in the writing with more breathing space in the layout and, of course, the chance to view John Gale’s fabulous plates at a larger scale.
This is an absolutely indispensable volume for anyone passionate about the seabirds in the region; probably the best title in the series and possibly one of the best books, if not the best ever published on the identification of seabirds. Whether you want to read the texts or simply delight in the artwork, this book will certainly help you to achieve what the authors hope: that you have as much fun learning about seabirds as they do.