Here in Montana, petrels and albatrosses are not usually on the birding radar. Their foreignness and distance have only served to intrigue me. I imagine a giant albatross dynamically soaring amongst of crowns and troughs of mid-ocean swells. I can almost feel the salt-laden mist needling at my face. Heck, I might even be a little bit sea-sick. All of this is nothing more than a daydream. I have never seen a tubenose (the catch-all name for all petrels, albatrosses, and storm-petrels) in the state…nobody has, except for a handful of observers on the VENT tour in May 2004.
Denver Holt and Brennan Mulrooney were co-leading the tour, and they had their group scanning the productive waters of the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge. They scoped the usual masses of American Coots, Double-crested Cormorants, and Western Grebes. Next to a displaying pair of Western Grebes, they noticed an odd black and white bird swimming. To their astonishment, it was a seabird, a Manx Shearwater. This bird had absolutely no earthly business being in the Mission Valley of western Montana. If anything, it rightfully should have been flying over the Atlantic somewhere or maybe, just the Pacific. It definitely shouldn’t have been within nearly 500 miles of the refuge. There were no strong weather systems that could have presumably pushed the hapless bird across the Cascades, across eastern Washington/British Columbia, and over the first Rocky Mountain ridges. All the tour participants got their looks, the leaders reported the bird, and no one else ever saw Montana’s first and only Manx Shearwater. It disappeared into the ethers of Montana birding lore, an item on the checklist that will, in all likelihood, go unchecked.
|Manx Shearwater, Lake County, MT, Ninepipe NWR 30 May 04 © Brennan Mulrooney – Images from SurfBirds|
Steve N.G. Howell cannot be commended enough for this information dense and throughly enjoyable text. I have to admit it, I usually skip the preface and introduction sections of most books, but Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America has some the best information in the first 51 pages. Building up from an understanding of ocean currents and how they create a variety of habitats that are fairly invisible to a land-lubber like me. Then, the summary of tubenose taxonomy follows. The relationships between species and even who are the true species in this large and diverse group of living beings is more than confusing. Everything is changing so rapidly. Many subspecies or presumed morphs have been spun into full species. It is a life lister’s paradise as splits create new species.
The species accounts are heavy with scholarly data and facts. The Field Identification section is particularly notable with its powerful blending of hard measurements, gist tips, similar species and ranges. The Descriptions utilize many consistent elements of identification, so that it is straight-forward to compare and contrast an unidentified bird with similar species. Each account has a generous amount of images that show the respective tubenose throughout its life cycle. Howell also uses much of the same molt terminology that he detailed in his book from last year, Molt in Northern American Birds (my review of it)
As with his past work, I stand in awe of Steve N.G. Howell’s thoroughness and straight-forward writing style (he iss not one to waste words). With this tome sitting on my desk, I will counting the days until I go out to Vancouver Island in the first part of June. I know that I will read and re-read this text for many of the dark nights between now and then.