Thursday, 2 January 2014

Pterodroma Petrels: a birders review



12th August 2001: simultaneously the best and worst day of my life. The best because I was fortunate enough to have booked a place on the Scillonian pelagic from Penzance, which steamed out into the Atlantic for 8 hours before we turned around and returned to Cornwall. During those 16 hours at sea we saw many oceanic specialities, the highlight being an extremely rare pterodroma petrel, a Fea's Petrel, at the time only the 3rd ever recorded in the UK. It followed the ship for 1 hour 20 minutes, the longest encounter with this species in British waters and it probably always will be. 

That day was also the worst in my life as the first 8 hours were violently rough and I was acutely, chronically and repetitively seasick. I still recall the horror of seeing two virtually undigested seasickness tablets nestling on a bed of vomit at the bottom of my seasickness bag: I was at sea unprotected. I threw down more and more anti-seasickness pills, but couldn't keep them down before my stomach regurgitated everything in it. The scenes on the ship were apocalyptical. There were bodies lying everywhere, unable to move. I entered the toilets and there were legs protruding from each of the three cubicles. As the ship rolled over another huge Atlantic swell, a wave of vomit swept from one side of the toilet to the other, lapping up against the legs of those throwing up in the cubicles. I was in hell. Bill Oddie, a fellow sufferer, captured it perfectly. First, you are afraid that you are being so ill, you may die. Then, as the sickness continues, you become afraid that you won't die. Because the horror seems as if it will never end. However, eventually the sea calmed, the sun came out and the living dead rose from the depths of the ship and began seawatching. 

The pterodroma petrel seen from the Scillonian that day in August was announced to the ship with the immortal words "Soft-plumaged Petrel in the wake!". I still shiver at recalling the words. I have to confess at the time I had no idea what a Soft-plumaged Petrel looked like, although I knew of Fea's Petrel. I scanned the sea behind the ship and immediately came across a slim long-winged bird shearing in high arcs in front of the horizon, pale body contrasting with dark underwings. It flew like nothing I had ever seen before. I tried, inadequately, to capture it in my primitive sketches from the time:

It was my first pterodroma. Pterodroma identification and taxonomy was also pretty primitive in 2001, hence the tannoy announcement of "Soft-plumaged Petrel". For Christmas this year I received a copy of Pterodroma Petrels by Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher. This book illustrates how much has changed in the intervening thirteen years. 

Books on bird identification have to tread a careful line. Some become far too technical and dry. I had some doubts that I would be ploughing through pages of technical data and wing formulae, so I did not immediately throw myself into this guide. However, on Boxing Day, I found myself temporarily alone on a sofa and so tentatively picked up "Pterodroma Petrels". 90 minutes later I was still so completely engrossed, I was refusing requests for help with cooking, childcare and entertainment, without thought of the (inevitable and long lasting) consequences. It is a fabulous read. 

The species accounts open with full page photos of the relevant petrel. All the photographs are frame filling, pin sharp with a narrow depth of field blurring the background and are often beautifully lit. Every feather can be seen. Now lets stand back and consider how these images were captured. Pterodroma Petrels are masterful fliers of the open oceans. They don't sit at the back of a boat like an Albatross, waiting for someone with a standard lens to lean out of the boat and take a picture. They arc past like bullets and even more so in high winds, when of course your boat will be being thrown all over the place. Photographing pterodroma petrels is about as hard as bird photography gets. And as for capturing video images, it is perhaps the ultimate HD challenge. 

I have some experience in photographing pterodroma petrels. Although admittedly very early in my bird photography life. In November 2007 I visited Reunion Island, in the Indian Ocean, which lies between Mauritius and Madagascar. At the time of my visit there were no online images of the local pterodroma petrel, Barau's Petrel, at sea. I expressed an interest in heading out to sea in order to attempt some photographs and my then partner's brother, who lived on the island, managed to arrange a boat charter. Unfortunately it was on a small yacht. The type of boat that tips vertically on its side to change course and has a long heavy boom that swings across the deck, easily decapitating anyone silly enough to attempt to point a 400mm lens at a passing seabird.  It was an interesting 3 hours at sea. I saw hundred's of Barau's Petrels, none moving at less than 60 mph, all of them arcing past our boat as it careered through a heavy swell. Photography was near impossible. It was like trying to photograph mosquitos from a moving rollercoaster. I nearly lost my head on a number of occasions. I took several hundred pictures of Barau's Petrel but none came out. The two below were the best of a poor bunch:


I have also tried to photograph Pterodroma petrels off the Australian coast. The results weren't much better. Great-winged Petrel:

However, the images in Fisher and Flood are simply superb. Martin Garner provides some lovely sketches too. If you want perfect field photographs of pterodroma petrels, don't look at mine, buy their book. After the initial photographs for each species there is a range map, often based on the latest geolocater data. This sometimes produces some interesting results: Zino's Petrels - there may be as few as only 65 pairs left after recent fires on their breeding mountains - but they get everywhere! Geolocater data from satellite tagged birds show they forage as close to 150 miles from Ireland and nearly as far north as Iceland. The authors think that this species is perhaps a more likely vagrant to north west Europe than Cape Verde form of Fea's Petrel. One of many hidden insights within the book is that Haddoram Shirihai thinks the 2009 vagrant Varanger pterodroma is a Zino's, not a Soft-plumaged Petrel, although Flood and Fisher do not agree.

Time to look very closely at accepted UK records of Fea's Petrel? Well, perhaps not. Identifying Zino's from Fea's (the generic term for Cape Verde and Desertas Petrels) in the field, perhaps the heart of this book, is still far from easy. Flood and Fisher claim it is the hardest identification call in the field. Some, if not many, birds will go unidentified to species level. The reality is that good photographs of the head, underwing and primary moult will be required, possibly with video of the bird to capture flight action and proportions. In the UK context, this is only likely to happen in a close encounter with a small boat, containing birders with cameras. Which means that it is most likely to occur on a pelagic run out from the Scilly Isles. In which case Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher will probably be on board, so you could just ask them, "was that a Fea's, Bob?". 

Incidentally, one of the hidden advantages (for me) of having the accompanying DVD was that I learnt that Fea's Petrel is pronounced "fay-ers", not "fee-ers" petrel. And Trindade Petrel really is pronounced "Trin-dad-dee Petrel". So I would be able to ask "Is that a Fee-ers Petrel, Bob? Whereupon Bob would probably respond, "it's a Desertas Petrel, you idiot" as Fea's Petrel is simply the generic term for the hard-to-identify-at-sea subspecies pair of Desertas and Cape Verde Petrel.  Confused? You won't be, just read the book. 

The use of photographs of confusion pairs of species after the individual species accounts is extremely useful. The concise text draws out the differences between similar species of pterodroma, but also between other confusion species (skuas and some shearwaters). The similarity between Great Shearwater and Black-capped Petrel is also illustrated. How long before there is a claim of this attractive pterodroma from the south-west?

The use of case studies of "controversial" records to demonstrate the identification process is fascinating. The authors apply their forensic identification technique to the 2002 Hatteras Petrel, the 2009 Varanger Petrel and the 2005 Gwennap Head petrel. If one follows the advice of Flood and Fisher there is a first for North America (Trindade Petrel), the Azores (Zino's Petrel) and Britain (Trindade Petrel) for the respective rarities committees to contend with. 

Some species of pterodroma petrel are only surviving with careful management. The history of Bermuda Petrel and Zino's Petrel lifts their respective species accounts out of technicality and into very readable non-fiction. 

The book describes itself as being a multimedia identification guide. Two DVDs are included, securely attached in square plastic pockets inside the front and back covers, which hold the discs securely, unlike the first Sound Approach book in which the (albeit wonderful) CDs kept falling out. These DVDs add an essential element to pterodroma identification, as they illustrate flight action and proportions in a way that photographs or painted plates cannot. They also give glimpses into seabirding culture. I particularly like the way the authors have kept the soundtrack running in a close approach with a Bermuda Petrel (the ultimate North Atlantic pterodroma with perhaps only 300 pairs remaining). As the bird passes the side of the boat one of the birders on board can be heard screaming "Holy Jesus!" with such volume, shock and passion, it is almost as if a pelagic Second Coming was indeed taking place. 

One of my very few quibbles with the book also involves its voice. The use North American terminology does not sit entirely comfortably with me. I can handle the use of abbreviations. I spent most of early 2013 reading Richard Crossleys field guides in preparation for a trip to Canada. The authors use abbreviated forms for all the species throughout the book, for example:

"We scored a pterodroma grand slam - TRPE, FEPE, two BEPEs and 34 BCPEs" (p177). 

As only 10 species are covered and there is an alpha code glossary included, it is easy to work out which species are referred to. TRPE = Trindade Petrel; FEPE = Fea's Petrel; BEPU = Bermuda Petrel; BCPE = Black-capped Petrel. However succumbing to the North American terminology for skuas rankles a bit. And why is it Pomerine Jaeger, but South Polar Skua? Is there an inconsistency in North American birding terminology here? Clearly the publishers, if not the authors, have one eye on the American market and one can understand that. Personally I would have preferred British terminology from British authors and a British publisher. 

But the real test of the book is how will I do in the quiz on the second DVD? Has the book increased my pterodroma identification skills? Before reading this book I would have only been able to identify Fea's Petrel. Indeed it was one of the few North Atlantic pterodromas I was anything like familiar with. The quiz is not for the faint hearted. Or for those that feel seasick. After a single quick read the book and a single watch of both DVDs I got about two thirds of the species correct on the intermediate level quiz. Admittedly with much use of the pause button. There is no beginner level (unlike in the author's previous book "Storm & Bulwer's Petrels") in a concession to the difficulty of pterodroma identification. I did not attempt the advanced level quiz, but I am confident my score would be zero. 

Overall this is a fantastic book, very readable, full of passion, pictures and prose. It sets new standards for the field identification of seabirds and continues the essential multimedia experience that the authors began in "Storm and Bulwer's Petrels". This book is very highly recommended. Even if you do live in Oxfordshire.

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