Seabirds: The New Identification Guide: An ID Guide Review


Some people read cookbooks though they have no intention of whipping up a mushroom risotto, some people read bird guide books, even when the likelihood of actually seeing the creatures in those guides is remote. It’s intriguing, it’s fun, it’s even educational. For the past two weeks I’ve been enjoying a superb new addition to the bird guide genre: Seabirds: The New Identification Guide by Peter Harrison, Martin Perrow, and Hans Larsson. It’s an update to Harrison’s 1983 classic, Seabirds: An Identification Guide (Croom Helm, U.K.; Houghton Mifflin, U.S.), re-conceived with updated images and text (the number of taxonomic changes alone since 1983 is mind boggling), incorporating the contributions of ornithologist Perrow and avian artist and birder Larsson. There is much to enjoy and appreciate here and I only wish I could have tested out some of these species accounts in pelagic waters before writing about them (sadly, the 10,000 Birds pelagic to Antarctica was canceled this year).

SCOPE & SPECIES ORGANIZATION

Seabirds: The New Identification Guide is an identification guide to seabirds of the world, all of them. It covers 434 species across 9 orders and 18 families of birds. This is a huge increase from the 1983 edition, which covered 312 species, an indicator of how much scientific work has been done on seabirds over the last 38 years. As Harrison comments in his Preface, “I did not imagine that after I described 107 tubenoses in 1987, that number would now be upward of 170 species.” * Though some new species have been identified, most are from those taxonomic splits ornithologists are so fond of these days.

We tend to think of seabirds as mysterious long-winged creatures that spend their lives flying over oceans–phalaropes, noddies, skuas, jaegers, auks, tropicbirds, penguins, albatrosses, storm-petrels, petrels, shearwaters, diving-petrels, frigatebirds, gannets, and boobies. Seabirds: The New Identification Guide covers these, of course, and also more familiar species. Harrison defines seabirds as “birds that spend part or all of their lives interacting with the ocean (especially as a source of food) and not just migrating over it.” So, the guide also covers more familiar birds that spend some of their lives on or close to land—seaducks, grebes, skimmers, gulls, terns, loons, cormorants and shags, and pelicans. Also, sheathbills, called “honorary seabirds” due to the fact that they are only found in seabird colonies.

Plate 136: Black-footed Albatross & Waved Albatrosses © Lynx Edicions, © artwork: Peter Harrison, © Text: Peter Harrison & Martin R. Perrow, © Maps: Lynx Edicions

Species are presented in taxonomic order divided into 25 groups; the groups represent families, subsets of families, or combinations of families: Laridae is divided into three groups (Skimmers, Gulls, Terns & Noddies), the Southern and Northern Storm-Petrel families are combined, and the 102 species in the largest seabird group, Procellariidae, are divided into seven groups.  All species in every one of these groups is described even if not every single species lives on the ocean, a guideline continued from the earlier volume. This a smart decision, in my opinion, saving the authors the burden of trying to justify why a particular gull or cormorant is included or not included. There is one exception–ducks. The guide only covers seaducks, another logical decision.

The taxonomic order is described by Harrison as closely following two world classification systems: the HBW and BirdLife International Checklist of the Birds of the World and the IOC World Bird List, with adjustments for differences and incorporation of recent or anticipated splits. The order is similar to the 2021  eBird/Clement’s Checklist of Birds of the World, except for the placement of the Laridae family, Skimmers, Gulls, and Terns & Noddies, after Auks instead of before Skuas & Jaegers (and with Skimmers coming after Terns & Noddies). I was interested to see that Thayer’s Gull is maintained as a species here! The way Harrison explains it, its current “lump” with Iceland Gull is not satisfactory; he follows Malling Olsen (Danish field ornithologist and gull guide author) in keeping it as a full species “pending further study” (p. 154). Common Gull is listed separately from Short-billed Gull and Kamchatka Gull.

SPECIES ACCOUNTS

Organization of the species accounts, called “Systemic accounts,” is a great improvement over the 1983 volume. Back then species information was divided into three parts: plates, text descriptions, and distribution maps. Separating plates from text was the more traditional way of organizing identification guides and Harrison thought it gave him more flexibility and room for treatment of problematic species. He and his current co-authors have solved this problem by allocating less species to each plate (usually two, sometimes one, sometimes three), adding distinguishing field mark notes to the plates, and generally editing down the descriptive text on the opposite page, making it sharper and easier to use for identification purposes. They’ve even managed to fit in distribution maps!

The result is a beautiful, symmetrical layout, accented by blue labels and headings, a blue bar on top of the text page, the blues, greens, and sometimes yellows of the maps and the grays, brown, blacks, whites, and occasional yellow or red bills of the species images. The image of the Black-footed & Waved Albatrosses page really doesn’t do it justice, maybe because you can’t see the page separation and the margins on each side of the text. There has been thought given to the need for blank space to frame the text and the artwork.

Each bird group section begins with a one-to-eight-page introduction to that specific group and its identification process, listing taxonomy (order, family, genera, species using common names); summarizing taxonomic history and issues (if any), key conservation issues (if any); shared group characteristics (size range, distribution, behavior, migration patterns); and most importantly, “Identification” sections detailing methods and features essential to narrowing down and putting a name to the bird. If you are studying in anticipation of a pelagic, these are the sections to read. The authors understand that views of seabirds are usually under less than optimal conditions–the bird is far away, it’s moving, only one side may be visible, and then it’s gone. The Identification sections provide guidance on how to look and what to look for and how to analyze these factors. When spotting auks in flight, for example, we are advised to look at the “flight jizz,” also whether the bird is flying singly or in a flock and, if so, how the flock is formed. Add to that pattern of plumage and size and shape of bill.

The auk identification process is pretty straightforward. Other families are more complicated and these introductory sections are correspondingly longer and amazingly more detailed. The Albatrosses section, for example, is six pages long and includes three large schematic diagrams comparing the upperparts of the great albatrosses at multiple age stages. There is also a very nice comparison of the head and bill patterns of adult mollymawks, the medium-sized albatrosses. This is the kind of material that makes this book special and essential for seabirding.

Plate 101: Pomarine Jaeger © Lynx Edicions, © artwork: Hans Larsson & Peter Harrison, © Text: Peter Harrison & Martin R. Perrow, © Maps: Lynx Edicions

Species accounts of individual birds are arranged with an eye for species which may be confused with each other, so each plate generally shows “two related or similar-looking confusion species” (p. 18), even if sometimes the “confusion species” are not closely related. Species with complicated molts and plumages, like many of the gulls, albatrosses, and jaegers, get one page. And some species are combined three to a page, which makes a lot of sense when you’re comparing Southern, Northern, and Eastern Rockhopper Penguins.

Each page starts off with the plate number (the primary means of locating a species in the book), common name or names of the subject species, and a brief paragraph summarizing the relationship of the species depicted, distribution and range, and taxonomic notes, including notes on subspecies, morphs, and hybridization. The individual species accounts (I feel like we’re drilling down to get to those, but they’re really easy to find and read) start off with common name, scientific name, and names in French, German, and Spanish. Consideration is given to differences in English common names, with ‘Common Loon,’ for example, also being captioned ‘Great Northern Diver.’ This is a change from the 1983 guide, where British usage predominated.

The following section encapsulates a chapter of biological facts into one dense paragraph–breeding location, breeding time of year, nesting notes, timing of fledging, migratory routes to and from breeding areas, staging locations, foraging locations, and more. This is interesting ‘stuff’ in itself, but also important to the identification process. “Identification” is the next section, facts on plumage, adult and juvenile, flight patterns, significant behavior, patterns and features to look for, brief descriptions of vocalizations. Black-legged Kittiwake, for example (a bird that has been sighted early in Queens recently), is a:

 “Medium-sized, 2 to 3-yr gull, with ‘dipped-in-ink’ black wing-tip. Quick flight action with stiff wing-beats. Shears in high winds. Dips/plunges, often amongst auks. Short ‘kja’ and nasal ‘kitt-i-wak’ long call (shorter/lower-pitched in pollicaris) at colony” (p. 94).

The description then goes into detail about adult (breeding and nonbreeding), juvenile, and immature plumage. The next section, “Confusion Species,” summarizes how to differentiate Black-legged Kittiwake from Red-legged Kittiwake, Little Gull, and Ross’s Gull. This is helped by the placement of Black-legged Kittiwake on the same page as Red-legged Kittiwake.

I’ve heard some birders say that sections like “Confusion Species” are of little use. I disagree. For birders like me, inexperienced with observing and noting upperpart colors or white patches behind the eyes and unable to keep this all in my head for more than a few minutes, this is essential material. The authors note when there is no reason to confuse the bird with other species because of location and range. They also reiterate how to distinguish subspecies, information already contained in the main account. Harrison writes in the introductory section “How To Use This Book”: “The basis of distinguishing confusion species is personal field experience gained over the past 60 or more years of sailing the world’s oceans during which all but one of the more than 430 species contained in this volume have been observed.” He also credits the identification literature on seabirds that has been written over the past decades and, for gulls, the work of Klaus Malling Olsen. I am very happy to have all this knowledge summarized and articulated and spelled out for me.

The distribution maps are taken from Lynx’s HBW and Birdlife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World (2014), with updates for recent splits. They range greatly in scale, reflecting the diverse ranges of the birds, and are meant to be overviews depicting breeding, not breeding, and resident areas.

Plate 122: Adélie & Chinstrap Penguins © Lynx Edicions, © artwork: Peter Harrison, © Text: Peter Harrison & Martin R. Perrow, © Maps: Lynx Edicions

PLATES

There are more than 3,800 images in Seabirds, and though that initially sounds like hyperbole, it seems accurate once you start looking at the 239 plates. Each species is depicted in all of its gray/black/brown/white glory, in plumages varying by age, gender, and subspecies. Most images appropriately are of the bird in flight, with underside and upperside sides; there is also at least one image of the bird in the water or standing, and vignettes of the bird as it appears at a distance, illustrating its ‘jizz.’ Harrison notes that due the constraints of the page not every image is in scale. Text notes adjacent to the images label age or stages, gender when needed, subspecies, and significant identification features. This is also where you’ll find measurements–length and wingspan and weight, derived from a number of expert sources.

There are many images and image notes on each plate, as you can see from the sample pages above. I’m sure it was a challenge fitting them all on the page in a way that is comprehensible to the user, like a jigsaw puzzle without the helpful edges. All the birds face right (with some exceptions, like the elegantly posed, back-to-back adult breeding Common and Thick-billed Murres) and the flying images can always be followed in a pattern, even when they interspersed with the smaller vignettes. I particularly like the placement of the tropicbirds, Ivory Gull, Southern Fulmar and Snow Petrel on colored paper; it shows off their light beauty and gives the eye some relief from the white backgrounds of most of the species accounts. Interestingly, all the plates in the 1983 volume used colored backgrounds, and I’m curious about the reason for the change–economics or a change of thought in how to present the artwork? I did find it sometimes difficult to know which text note goes with which image and wished for arrows (not big arrows, just little icon arrows). But, when I read the notes more closely I realized that they often apply to more than one image. This is a guide that demands attention, that optimally will be studied closely before one’s birding excursion and then consulted again during the voyage or sea watch.

Although Harrison did all the artwork for the 1983 title, he enlisted artist Hans Larsson for terns, gulls, and skimmers–the Laridae family. Born in Gambia, raised and living in Sweden***, Larsson illustrated three major guides before this one, all authored by Klaus Malling Olsen: Terns of Europe and North America (PUP, rev. ed. 1995), Skuas and Jaegers (Yale Univ. Pr., 1997), and Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America (Helm, 2004). He ended up doing the artwork for a bit more–the seaducks, gulls, terns & noddies, skimmers, and skuas & jaegers–a total of 93 full-color plates created over ten years.

The images appear to be totally original and not re-purposed drawings from previous works. The artwork combines technical excellence with artistic elegance. Looking at his plates on the American Herring Gull (like the European Herring Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull presented in two parts), I am amazed at how deftly he portrays the many plumages of this four-year gull, especially in the first two years, a multifaceted progression of brown-white-gray patterning. There are so many images of each bird, much more than in the plates of the earlier books (which understandably spread out the artwork over multiple pages), yet Larsson adeptly makes all the images fit without feeling crowded.

Harrison himself is not an artist by trade (according to his bio, he started out as an architect). The artwork for his first Seabirds guide got mixed reviews. He has improved, in my opinion. The artwork is cleaner, more concise, and shaded with more detail and gradation. In some cases, he appears to exaggerate certain traits, the ‘spectacles’ of Audubon’s Shearwater, for example. But, I have to qualify this criticism by saying that I am not a seabird enthusiast and can only rely on photographs in other guides for a critique. I also thought that the funny, uneven head of a 1st winter Thick-billed Murre was exaggerated, and then found photos showing just that! Seabirds, especially species like storm-petrels and shearwaters, are extremely challenging birds to illustrate. Many look alike (even more so than shorebirds and sparrows), differentiated by only features like ‘dusky’ underparts or brighter covert bars. The value of Harrison’s artwork lies in his decades of experience. He has seen every seabird he draws, and probably seen most of them multiple times. These plates also appear to be original works, both in terms of the drawing, inking and image arrangement.

Seabirds was a much anticipated work and, as often happens these days, as soon as it was published errors were found. Corrections can be found on the Lynx website–a label error on Tropicbird Plate 116 and mis-assigned captions on the Black and Common Scoter plate; the latter page has been re-formatted and can be downloaded from the website (and will presumably be part of future printings). I am very happy that the publisher has taken responsibility for these errors and used social media to correct them immediately.

INTRODUCTORY MATERIAL

The Introductory material is excellent and essential. If like me you want to know how the sausage gets made, the Preface and Acknowledgements give insight into Harrison’s history with seabirds and the production of both his guides. The “Introduction” is indeed that, an introduction to the species themselves which I think should be accessible to beginners and experts alike. The listing of the 25 bird groups provides insights into the commonalities within each group and the physical, geographical, and breeding diversities of seabird species; it also serves as a broad table of contents to the plates and species accounts.

The two-page section on “The basics of seabird ID” serves as a concise yet detailed tutorial to the unique practice of ‘seabirding’–seawatching from land, on a boat for a day, or on a cruise. One must prepare, pay attention to ‘jizz,’ habits, size, molt timings, and plumage details. Add photos, bullet points, and a few diagrams and this would be a handy book in and of itself. Harrison is positive but pragmatic, he notes that even with the best research, enthusiasm, and skill, there will be times that identification is not possible. “That is just the nature of seabirding” (p. 17).

“How to Use This Book” goes over the types of information in the species account, the sources for items like wingspan length, abbreviations, and the type of aging terminology used. I wish all guides had a ‘how to use this book’ section like this. There is also a “Glossary of terms” (mostly anatomical features) and diagrams of “Seabird topography” (this is supplemented by a diagram of gull topography in the introduction to the gulls species accounts).

There is also a brief geography lesson, entitled “Where in the world?” in which Harrison explains the maps of the oceans that begin and end the book (on the inside covers) and, in slightly different form, in the section itself. The maps show the 117 locations cited in the book, mostly islands, some maritime areas, located in oceans, seas, gulfs, and bays. Harrison brings it all together in slightly overwhelming text that explains which of these areas are important for migration, for breeding seabirds, which contain the most seabird diversity–in other words, if you could travel, where should you point your boat? I have one quibble with the maps. I understand the importance of positioning them as endpapers, but I don’t understand why it’s necessary to use them as endpapers in the front and in the back. The back inside covers would have been a great place for a quick index. Because, even with the back index and Species Inventory (described below), an identification guide can’t have too many indexes.

BACK OF BOOK MATERIAL

The back of the book is simple: “References” and “Index.” The 22-page list of scientific articles, monographs, federal reports, ornithological checklists, and proceedings (approximately 440 citations) is a testament to the amount of scientific expertise that went into Seabirds: The New Identification Guide. It’s incredibly impressive, with articles ranging from the 19th-century description of a Guillemot species from The Auk to a 2021 article on Southern Giant Petrels depredating Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatrosses on Gough Island from Polar Biology. The “Index” indexes species by common and scientific name, plus orders and families as they appear in the group introductory sections. Major species names (i.e., Tern, Penguin) are bolded and order and family names are in all capital letters, which helps one find the term they need.

USABILITY

Like all good guides, there are multiple ways to access material: Table of Contents, Introduction (the listing of family groups), Species Inventory (pages 28-30), a table of species organized by family and their corresponding plate numbers and book pages, and the Index. This means that if you know the exact name of a species, you can find it immediately using the Inventory or Index; if you know the family or genus, you can find it using the Table of Contents, Introduction, Inventory, or Index; if you’re unsure what you are looking for, you can scan the thumbnail images in the Introduction. Also, if you scan the book (my preferred way of finding things though it takes much longer), the family name is given in the upper right corner of the text page and the species names are clearly labelled in large blue capital letters below. I love reference books that allow users to find information in ways that suit them best, allowing for diverse cognitive styles. The only additional method I could wish for is colored tabs on the sides of the pages. But I don’t want to be greedy (maybe next edition?).

AUTHORS

I’ve already given some background about Laridae artist Hans Larsson. Martin Perrow is the third co-author of Seabirds. A professional ecologist specializing in wind farm studies and an enthusiastic birder from Great Britain, Perrow offered his editing services to Harrison on an Apex Expedition to New Zealand’s subantarctic islands and ended up a full member of the Seabirds team. Although this was relatively late in the book process (don’t forget, this is a book that was decades in the making), Harrison credits Perrow with casting a structured editing eye and pencil to the text, written at different times over the years, and with tightening, restructuring, and updating the taxonomy.

Peter Harrison, the visionary behind this guide and its predecessor is known as the world’s foremost seabird writer, expedition leader, and oceanic birds conservation advocate. He’s even discovered and described a seabird species, the Pincoya Storm-petrel. In addition to the identification guides, he has written Seabirds of the World: A Photographic Guide (1987, 1996). He is also a co-founder and guide for an adventure travel company called Apex Expeditions, so you actually can travel to Antarctica with Harrison (assuming we can travel in the near future and you have deep pockets) to look for penguins, petrels, and albatrosses. More importantly, he has worked hard through speaking, fundraising, and projects with his wife, explorer Shirley Metz, to raise awareness of the precarious position of seabirds, which he terms “the most threatened bird group on the planet” (p. 8) and seabird homes like South Georgia. This book is perhaps the best conservation awareness tool he could have created.

CONCLUSION

Seabirds: The New Identification Guide by Peter Harrison, Martin Perrow, and Hans Larsson is a landmark book. An identification guide that approaches handbook depth, it offers up-to-date species and seabird family knowledge in a structured way, aimed at giving the birder the tools and skills needed for quick and accurate identification of species in the field. This is not a field guide, it is too large for a pocket and too heavy for a backpack (at least for me), but then again, seabirders seldom hike, and there is no reason the book can’t be brought onto a boat or kept on a seawatching bench.

This is a specialized reference book for intermediate and advanced birders interested in travel and pelagic birding. Beginning birders who are just dipping their toes into their first pelagic journeys may want to wait because this is an expensive purchase. Field guides like Sibley’s and National Geographic provide the basic information needed for beginners and many intermediate birders. There are also guides like Steve N. G.  Howell and Kirk Zufelt’s Oceanic Birds of the World: A Photo Guide (PUP, 2019) and Howell’s pragmatic Offshore Sea Life ID Guides for the West and East Coasts (PUP, 2015). However, if you want to study seabird identification in depth, in the context of increasingly complicated taxonomies and an exploding world of ornithological study, from ornithologists and artists who have devoted their lives to observing and documenting these birds, then Seabirds: The New Identification Guide is the necessary resource. It’s an incredible book. As far as the cost, it’s September, the end-of-year holidays are almost upon us and soon-to-be-classic bird books are worthy additions to any birder’s wish list.

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* Preface, page 8. I’m assuming that the reference to 1987 is to Harrison’s book Seabirds of the World: A Photographic Guide, first published in 1987 by Princeton University Press.

** All quotes from Introduction, page 11.

*** Larsson’s website gives a very brief bio and some examples of his beautiful water olors, mostly gulls but also other birds and nature scenes. His Instagram site is also a source of images and information about his current activities.


Seabirds: The New Identification Guide
Peter Harrison, Martin Perrow, Hans Larsson
Lynx Edicions, June 2021, 600p.
hardcover, 15.6 × 23.5 cm; 239 plates with 3800+ color illustrations; color distribution maps
ISBN-10: 8416728410; ISBN-13: 978-8416728411
Available directly from Lynx (75.00€); Buteo Books in the U.S. ($89); NHBS (£74.99)

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