Review* of "Seabirds of the World: the Complete Reference" by Jim Enticott and David Tipling (1997) and "Seabirds of the World - A Photographic Guide" by Peter Harrison, (1997)


*This review was originally published in the January and February 1998 editions of the Linnaean Society of New York News-Letter (vol. 51, nos. 8 & 9), edited by Joe DiCostanzo, and is reproduced here with permission.

Seabirds of the World : The Complete Reference by Jim Enticott and David Tipling. (1997) Stackpole Books (ISBN: 0811702391). Hardcover, 240 pages.

Seabirds of the World - A Photographic Guide by Peter Harrison (1997) Pinceton University Press (ISBN: 06910155101). Cloth, 317 pages.


Seabirds and gulls have a deep fascination for many birders, and except for the birds of tropical rainforests, this diverse group represents one of the last great frontiers in bird identification. The unique attraction of the seabirds is a mixture of the unknown and the majestic. New species are constantly being discovered or 'created' through more detailed taxonomic studies, providing the allure of discovery and there is a strong element of mystery in exploring the strange and inhospitable environment of the open ocean, with the seabirds a visible symbol of the wealth of life stirring in the depths below. Many fanatics are simply absorbed by the shear grace of pelagic species and it is hard not to be moved by the sight of a stiff-winged shearwater or albatross skimming effortlessly along the wave-ridges to inspect the boat before vanishing over the horizon. In the United States at least, a minor industry of dedicated pelagic birding trips has sprung up, allowing strong-stomached birders to venture out beyond sight of land into the exciting realm of shearwaters, petrels and alcids. Closer to home, more and more birders foster a deep interest in gulls. A very complex but highly visible group of birds, we have seen the emergence in recent years of a new ornithological speciality dominated by amateurs.

Although over the last couple of decades a number of skilled authors have written books on seabird identification, Peter Harrison has essentially monopolized the seabird literature market with his trend-setting guide "Seabirds: an Identification Guide" and its attractive photographed-based companion "Seabirds of the World: A Photograph Guide". While "Seabirds" has yet to be eclipsed, Harrison1s "Photographic Guide" (hereafter Harrison) faces a stiff challenge from a new book by Jim Enticott and David Tipling: the rather similarly titled "Seabirds of the World: The Complete Reference" (hereafter Enticott and Tipling). Jim Enticott, an accomplished seabirder based in South Africa, will be familiar from his important paper in British Birds on the identification of Soft-plumage Petrels. The photographs were selected by David Tipling, a well-known British bird photographer whose images regularly grace the pages of "Birding World" and other European birding magazines. As if to respond to this overt challenge, Princeton University Press has reissued Harrison1s photoguide in its third edition with only minor modifications. Readers may already own a copy of Harrison and will wonder whether it is worth up-grading their copy to the latest version or whether they should purchase the Enticott and Tipling book instead. As I hope to explain in this review, the best answer is that current Harrison owners should buy Enticott and Tipling rather than upgrade while newcomers should probably buy both. For lack of space I will dwell more on Enticott and Tipling as this new work will be unfamiliar to most readers.

The large, almost coffee table-style format of Enticott and Tipling closely resembles two excellent recent predecessors, the "Photographic Guide to the Shorebirds of the World" by David Rosair and Dave Cotteridge and the "Photographic Handbook of the Rare Birds of Britain and Europe" by Dominic Mitchell and Steve Young. The book consists of a two and a half page introductory chapter, followed by a collection of more than eight hundred photographs and accompanying text arranged in systematic order. An average of ten photographs are arranged on each right-hand page with appropriate text on the left hand page, along with a small key to the photographs. I presume this indirect captioning method allows a significant saving in production costs but is cumbersome and I felt a strong urge to pencil in the captions and names of the photographers on the small white border between pictures. Harrison also has the barest of introductions and has arranged the photographs (741 photographs and 23 paintings), as a block in the center of the book with the species accounts following in the rear. The captions are placed immediately below each photograph allowing instantaneous reference. In both books, the photographers (arranged in alphabetical order) are listed separately making it a laborious job to figure out who took a particular photograph. This arrangement is unfortunate since it gives less credit to talented photographers, many of whom are familiar names and because knowing who took a picture can provide a clue as to exactly where the picture might have been taken. Both books use the work of many individuals, at least 130 for Enticott and Tipling and 126 for Harrison.

Enticott has written a strong and interesting text, full of useful nuggets of information. For example, he takes care to let us know whether a particular species has a tendency to approach ships or not and also describes the flight-style both useful facts in the field. His treatment of the gadfly petrels and small shearwaters is particularly good and I was interested to read in the account for Mascarene Shearwater, a species first described in 1995, that even more recent DNA analysis is not consistent with full-species status. Tongue in cheek, they suggest that while we await further studies, the new scientific name "species inquirendae" should be adopted. Harrison's text is much shorter but includes accurate and readable distribution maps while Enticott and Tipling simply describe the distributions in a few well chosen words. The extra space allows Enticott and Tipling to give a more thorough description of the different plumages and separation from similar species as well as useful details about populations and status.

Both books contain many excellent photographs, including some of the rarest birds in world. For instance, there are new photographs of Magenta Petrel (Pterodroma magentae), a poorly known gadfly petrel formally rediscovered in 1978 breeding in thick forest on Chatham Island, part of a remote archipelago some six hundred miles east of New Zealand. Harrison has some prize images of a Fiji Petrel (Pterodroma macgillivrayi) an extremely rare bird that has only been seen a few times. North Atlantic seabirders will be interested in the small collection of Fea's (Pterodroma feae) and Zino's Petrel (Pterodroma madeira) photographs. Members of the group are now recorded regularly off eastern United States as well as from various seawatch points in Britain and there has been considerable debate as to whether these similar species are separable at sea. Enticott adds a personal view, siding with several studies that conclude the two are inseparable unless seen together. Harrison is patently out of date in this 'hot' area, failing to separate Soft-plumage Petrel (Pterodroma mollis) of the southern oceans from the quite different North Atlantic species.

Enticott and Tipling include a interesting photograph of the weird-looking and highly endangered Heinroth's Shearwater (Puffinus heinrothi). which probably breeds in the Solomon Islands of the western Pacific. Instead of photographs, Harrison provides two of his own marginal-quality paintings showing the undersides of dark and light morphs. In some respects these paintings might be of more use at sea than the photograph of the landed bird but it is great to see the real thing. It is hard to pick favorites from so many excellent photographs. Harrison has a nice, well-lit shot by Bob Pitman of a Leach's Storm-petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa) [238], wings out-stretched as it rises on a gentle arc. From Enticott and Tipling, I am particularly fond of Alan Tate's image of three anxious Whiskered Auklets (Aethia pygmaea) [225(2)] captured just before they spring from the turbulent ocean. This brings back memories of my own futile attempts to photograph these diminutive and flighty alcids during a recent cruise to through the Aleutian Island chain.

What is the aim of these books?

Looking over both books, two main questions come to mind: what do the authors aim to achieve and what is a useful definition of a seabird? Let us consider question of purpose first. Harrison is quite specific, seeing his book as a field companion to his heftier reference book "Seabirds: An Identification Guide". In contrast, Enticott and Tipling seem vague on what they hope to achieve, although the dust cover proclaims that the book will be "an indispensable identification guide". The difference in focus become even more apparent when one surveys the photographs themselves. Enticott and Tipling suffer badly from not using enough side profiles while Harrison is significantly better in this respect. For example, although Enticott and Tipling provide two pictures of adult Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) [155(5) and 155(9)] both are head on and don1t adequately shows the mantle color or the pattern of the tertial crescent or folded primary tips, all of which separate this species from the superficially similar Mew and Common Gull (L. canus) group. Harrison seems to have made a real effort to find pictures that show the most important identification points while Enticott and Tipling have obviously chosen a good number of the photographs for their aesthetic appeal. Harrison tends to crop his images tightly allowing the largest possible images while Tipling includes more background giving a better sense of habitat at the expense of less visible detail on the bird. Sometimes this works well, for instance in the frenzy of feeding Black-browed Albatrosses (Diomedea melanophris) [31(5)] taken by Jim Enticott himself and sometimes less well as in Mark Brazil's energetic and well-known photograph of a swarm of Streaked Shearwaters (Calonectris leucomelas) off the Japanese Izu Islands [77(1)] that really doesn't work on such a small format.

One of the greatest assets of Harrison's book is the set of drawings at the rear of the book showing all of the tubenoses in flight. These sketches are of a much higher standard than his artwork for "Seabirds" and are laid out very carefully so that similar species can be compared directly. Simple pointers to highlight the key identification features are included along with a few words summarizing the most important fieldmarks. The book is well-worth buying for this section alone and is ideal for quick reference at sea. Enticott and Tipling lack a comparable summary and I found myself using Harrison's drawing when looking over unfamilar species in the gadfly petrel section.

Most birds undergo complex age and season-related changes in appearance and may also exhibit extensive regional variation. These variables play a large part in the challenge of bird identification and it is therefore critically important to know the date and place of any photograph. The earlier "Photographic Guide to Shorebirds of the World" received heavy criticism for not including the dates and locations of the photographs, and I was relieved to see location included for most of the photographs in Enticott and Tipling. In the gull section for example eighty-seven percent of the two hundred and twelve photographs included the location although this was sometimes as vague as "USA" or "Antarctica". Unfortunately, only fifty-three percent of the photographs included the month, although the gaps probably reflect poor record keeping by the photographers. Harrison provides no locations at all but sometimes includes the month.

The umbrella term 'seabirds' seems ridiculously broad and both books are severely compromised by trying to cover such a diverse grouping that includes the sphenisciformes (penguins, comprising at least 17 species), procellariiformes (albatrosses, shearwaters, petrels and diving-petrels including at least 113 species), pelecaniforms (tropicbirds, pelicans, cormorants with at least 61 species) and lariforms (skuas, gulls, terns and alcids comprising a very minimum of 107 species). Harrison doesn't even stop there, including divers, grebes and sensibly, the phalaropes, although only two of the three species winter on the open ocean. Thankfully he omits the seaducks (eiders, scoters and so on) although these are included in "Seabirds: an Identification Guide". The truth is that each of the main seabird groups is sufficiently complex to warrant detailed treatment on its own, and I hope these photoguides mark the last attempts to cover the seabirds in this broad sense of the term. Already this year we have seen the publication of a superb treatment of the skuas in Klaus Malling Olsen and Hans Larsson's "Skuas and Jaegers" and can look forward to the imminent publication of "Terns of the World" by Claudia Wilds and Joe DiCostanzo. I suspect the time and markets are right for equally detailed coverage of the World's tubenoses, pelicaniformes and gulls. Of course this could mean lugging a mini-library aboard ship but perhaps that is the price we must pay for an ever more detailed knowledge of these fascinating but complex groups.

Errors and corrections:

Even brief examination of both books reveals errors. Let us begin with Harrison as readers may already be familiar with a number of incorrect captions in the previous editions, particularly in the large gull section. Most of these have now been addressed in the new edition although with mixed success. For example, photograph 452 originally showed a Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) and not a Great Black-backed Gull (L. marinus) as captioned. This photograph has been replaced correctly with a new image of a adult Great Black-backed Gull in flight, and the original Lesser Black-backed Gull photograph reused (now photo 456) but sadly is again incorrectly labeled stating that this bird is in first-winter plumage when it is in fact in fourth winter (near -adult) plumage! Two other photographs of Lesser Black-backed Gulls (457 and 458) have been replaced with new pictures, and while adequate substitutions, means the loss of a useful (although grainy) photograph of a second-year bird, an age that is rarely included in the popular literature.

I spotted two other changes in the gull section namely the replacement of a very bleached first-winter Common Gull (Larus canus canus) (518) with a better shot of a more typical individual, and re-captioning of photograph 529 which shows a swimming Sabine's Gull (Larus sabini), reidentifying this bird as being in 'first winter' plumage rather than 'adult transitional summer' plumage as stated in earlier editions. I actually believe this bird is in first-summer plumage based on the extent of black on the sixth longest primary and by the state of the wing tips which are so heavily abraded that the bare feather quill is clearly exposed. Two photographs of the same individual are published in Peter Grant1s "Gulls, a Guide to Identification" and he also identifies the bird as a first summer. Enticott and Tipling contains fewer errors although I think the soaring De Filippi's Petrel - formally known as Masatierra Petrel - (Pterodroma defilippiana) in plate 53(5), is actually a Juan Fernandez Petrel (Pterodroma externa) judging by the brownish-gray mantle and wing color, the long wings and the long uniformly colored tail. Indeed, the same picture is used again as photograph 59(2) where it is correctly labeled! Most of the gulls appear to be correctly captioned although the very dark primaries and dark-eye of a purported adult non-breeding Kumlien's Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides kumlieni) in photograph 161(10) may in fact be an adult winter Thayer's Gull (Larus glaucoides thayeri).

Keeping pace with ebb and flow of the taxonomic tide:

Avian taxonomy is in a constant state of flux, responding to new discoveries and new advances in technology. Nowhere is the rapid pace of change more evident than amongst the tubenoses (procellariiforms) and gulls (laridae). As to be expected, Enticott and Tipling are more up to date than Harrison but there are still severe shortfalls. I noticed Enticott thanks several of the worlds leading seabird taxonomists for their help on "taxonomic conundrums", and evidently their advice must have been to avoid complexity! Many important and distinctive subspecies receive short shrift or are ignored altogether and this is likely to shorten the useful lifespan of the book. The albatrosses for example, might eventually be split from the 14 current species into an incredible 24 species and Enticott and Tipling seem unprepared. Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) for example, has four different subspecies at least two of which (D.e.exulans and D.e.chionoptera) can be separated in the field. Neither book even mentions their existence. Herald Petrel (Pterodroma arminjoniana) also faces an imminent split into at least two species: the Trinidadae Petrel which occurs regularly off the eastern seaboard of the U.S. and breeds on the South Trinidad Islands off northern Brazil, and a second rather complex species retaining the name Herald Petrel that breeds in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific. Again no mention is made of these distinctive 'proto-species'.

The taxonomy of the Herring Gull-type complex (Herring Gulls, Yellow-legged Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls) is not treated particularly well by either authors, although admittedly this is a very difficult and fast evolving area. Enticott and Tipling make a good stab at sorting out the emerging species and races and their text might serve as a useful "Cliff Notes" version for anyone with only a passing interest. The photographs of this group include a number of unidentified birds but the value of these images is questionable. For instance, photograph 165(8) shows an unidentified first year Yellow-legged type for which neither the location or date are given. Little effort has been taken to select comparative images of the different races and although there are two profiles of adult Western European Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus argenteus), the adult North American race smithsonianus is only shown in flight and the heavy, long-headed nominate Scandinavian race argentatus is not shown at all. These are perhaps exacting demands, but I feel the opportunity to produce a truly definitive work has been missed. A number of other distinctive gull subspecies receive skimpy treatment. The distinctive Kamchatcka Gull (Larus canus kamtschatschensis), a member of the Common/Mew Gull complex that is found with increasing frequency in the Aleutians and is bound to show up in the lower 48, is not shown or even mentioned in the text although definitely worthy of attention by gull watchers in North America and Europe. Likewise, in the section on Lesser Black-backed Gull (L. fuscus) , Enticott and Tipling show only one race (graellsii), ignoring the remaining two races, intermedius and nominate fuscus. This is a surprising gap as all three races occur in the U.K. (the primary target audience?) and the very dark and elegant nominate race is facing a serious population decline. Siberian Gull, (Larus heuglini) which resembles a pumped-up graellsii Lesser Black-backed Gull gets only one sentence buried in the Lesser Black-backed Gull section.

Another example of a lack of focus on identification can be seen in the accounts of Band-tailed Gull, a South American species that has occurred once or twice in the U.S., including a well-watched bird discovered at the Tijuana River mouth in San Diego earlier this year. Band-tailed Gull is now generally recognized as two closely-related species, Belcher's Gull (Larus belcheri) occupying the Pacific Coast of South America and Olrog's Gull (L. atlanticus) breeding along the corresponding Atlantic coast. Field identification is difficult, relying heavily on differences in bill size and wing length, and I think this may be an occasion when photographs can be much better than paintings at portraying subtle shape differences. Enticott and Tipling (but not Harrison) correctly treat each as an independent species, but fail to provide images of comparable plumage states. While Belcher's Gull is shown in both adult and second-winter plumages, Olrog's Gull is shown in juvenile (fledgling) plumage only. I suspect that if you were to see a bird similar to this, identification would not be a serious concern since you would be standing in the middle of an Orlog's breeding colony.

While the quality of photographs in both books is generally very high, there are a small number of inadequate shots. For example, photograph 155(2) in Enticott and Tipling shows a small flock of immature gulls in flight that includes two first winter Audouin's Gulls (Larus audouinnii). Although this serves to illustrate the distinctive combination of a dark secondary bar on the underwing and bicolored bill, it is really quite difficult to pick out the Audouin's Gulls and tighter cropping or addition of arrows would have greatly improved the usefulness of this picture. The same photograph was used in a recent identification article but was reproduced in a larger format making it much easier to see the very subtle differences. As an aside, why Enticott and Tipling include an silhouette of a Balearic Shearwater (Puffinus mauretanicus) flying directly overhead [83(6)] is beyond me. A number of Harrison's pictures are rather grainy but reflects his efforts to provide large images as can be seen in a nice underside shot of a Chatham Island race Little Shearwater (Puffinus assimilis elegans) that is reproduced with different cropping in both books [206 and 89(5)].

Aside from omitting many important races, the two books also miss out on a number of important plumages or actions (e.g. flight or resting). As a simple example of the former, neither book shows the adult winter plumage of the much sought-after Relict Gull (Larus relictus), although Enticott and Tipling include two very useful and attractive pictures of a first winter bird. This rare species breeds on remote lakes in Mongolia and central China and birders are much more likely to encounter Relict Gulls in coastal areas of China such as Hong Kong or Beidaihe and Happy Island during early spring or late fall when they will be in winter plumage. This species is not to be confused with the only slightly more numerous Saunder's Gull (L. saundersi), which is called Chinese Black-headed Gull by Harrison. Even highly sought-after species found in well-birded areas such as North American waters receive mixed coverage. Black-capped Petrel (Pterodroma hasitata), the dominant gadfly Petrel of the Gulf Stream, is dealt with in only two postage stamp-sized flight photographs by Enticott and Tipling [67(1), 67(2)], while Harrison balances one very distant shot [179] with one closer but grainy photograph showing the features of the under-surface [180]. Although this species is notoriously difficult to photograph at close range, preferring to swing past boats at very high speed, I am confident better photographs are available. Enticott and Tipling include three interesting pictures of Red-legged Kittiwake (Rissa brevirostris) (including a winter plumage adult, [185(3)]) taken in the Commander Islands one of the strong holds of this enigmatic gull. Although these show the distinctive short bill, large eye and dark mantle quite clearly, none show the bird in flight and one must read the text to realize that this species can be readily separated from the much commoner Black-legged Kittiwake by virtue of broader white trailing edge to the secondaries, darker mantle and lack of pale bases to the primaries. Lastly, I thought adult Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) was also covered poorly in both texts as there is no effort illustrate the northern and southern races (although they are described) and the adult shown pecking at a dead seal in Enticott and Tipling [159(7)] is at an awkward angle that doesn1t show the distinctive 'Roman-nose' bill shape. All in all, many of the gulls in Enticott and Tipling are not shown in side-profile, and this takes us back to issue of the unfocused aim of the book.

The use of photographs of vagrant birds in identification texts, has always struck me as a dangerous practice since this assumes correct identification and 'typical' plumages. A few examples of this have crept into Enticott and Tipling such as a first-winter Thayer's Gull (Larus glaucoides thayeri) [161(7)] photographed in Northern Ireland which seems unnecessary when bona fide examples taken in Canada or the US must be available. Likewise there are three pictures of Swinhoe's Storm-petrel (Oceanodroma monorhis) taken in England instead of the Sea of Japan or the Indian Ocean where it is relatively common. All three pictures are in-the-hand shots of the famous Tynemouth mystery petrel(s), which were discovered by a storm-petrel banding project on the North Sea coast of England. Several individuals have been trapped over the space of a few years and due to the lack of dates it is unclear whether all three photographs show the same bird. While the analysis of mitochondrial DNA sequences and vocalizations provide a convincing argument that these are indeed Swinhoe's Storm-petrels, I am uncomfortable with the use of these puzzling individuals as 'photographic type specimens'. Outstanding flight shots of the similar Markham's Storm-petrel (Oceanodroma markhami) occur on the next page and similar flight photographs of Swinhoe's would have been of tremendous value.

Despite claiming to be "The Complete Reference", Enticott and Tipling omit twenty species (some pelicans, cormorants, terns and skimmers) entirely under the debatable pretext that these are not genuinely marine. This distinctly incomplete coverage seems most unfortunate when the missing species comprise just seven percent of the total. I was particularly surprised to see that Whiskered (Chlidonias hybridus) and White-winged Tern (C. leucopterus) have been left out. While these are certainly freshwater marshes specialists, both occur in more marine habitats during migration. For instance, I recall seeing a migrant Whiskered Terns whilst seawatching from the end of a long pier on the Adriatic coast of Italy in late summer and have also seen migrant White-winged Terns on a sandy beach in the Aegean. It is difficult to understand these omission yet justify the inclusion of similarly non-seagoing species such as Franklin's Gull (Larus pipixcan) or Andean Gull (L. serranus). Ironically, photograph 209(3) provides a nice portrait of a juvenile White-winged Tern, although it is incorrectly labeled as an adult breeding Black Tern (C. niger)!

Although these two photoguides are far from perfect, both have their moments and represent major advances in the seabird identification literature. The majority of photographs are of high quality and are certainly tremendously useful. Harrison's hand-drawn tubenose identification key is alone worth price of his book. Enticott's text does best in the sections covering the tubenoses, perhaps reflecting his own passion for this group. The writing is well informed and full of interesting and useful details. I was not really equipped to evaluate the penguins or the cormorants but was impressed by Enticott and Tipling's treatment of the very closely related shags found on New Zealand's sub-Antarctic islands. Even if the thought of going offshore makes you nauseous, the gull and tern sections will provide fascinating reading and are an essential reference for any serious birdwatcher. Enticott and Tipling is a little too big to be carried in the field but Harrison can be slipped into a deep pocket or napsac. Get your hands on both if you can.

Angus Wilson

New York City, December 1997


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