The following critiques express the opinions of the individual evaluators regarding the strengths, weaknesses, and value of the books they review. As such, the appraisals are subjective assessments and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or any official policy of the American Ornithologists’ Union.
BirdLife International, Cambridge, United Kingdom. 2004. xii + 100 pp., 68 color plates, 22 tables, 10 appendices. ISBN 0-946888- 55-8. Paper. [Available free of charge from BirdLife Global Seabird Programme, RSPB, The Lodge, Sandy, Beds SG19 2DL, United Kingdom.]—When I became interested in birds, in the 1960s, the albatrosses and petrels belonged among the exotic and esoteric, accessible only through grainy black-and-white photographs in Murphy’s Oceanic Birds of South America, Alexander’s Birds of the Ocean, or trays of Rollo Beck’s museum skins. How ironic that, by virtue of their large size, tameness, and dire conservation status, these birds have become among the most well-known on Earth. This book summarizes research using two types of instruments to track the travels of these birds: platform terminal transmitters (PTTs), which send a radio signal from bird to satellite, and geolocators, which record the time of sunrise and sunset at the bird’s location. Platform terminal transmitters provide a “fix,“ good to within about 30 km, of a bird’s position roughly every hour, whereas geolocators provide one position per day, good to within about 180 km. The combined use of these two instruments enables the tracking of a single bird throughout a year (or, in theory, through a lifetime). This book shows how dramatically such information improves our knowledge of the biology and conservation status of this group of birds.
It is difficult to think of another technological innovation in biology that has so expanded the quantity of useful information—automated gene sequencers and “doubly labeled“ water come to mind. The significance of being able to follow an organism wherever it goes on the surface of the Earth is broadly hinted at through the wealth of information provided here. The Results section is divided into subsections that cover distribution of breeding adults during the breeding season, distribution of nonbreeding adults and sub- adults during the breeding season, and distribution of all birds during the nonbreeding season. There are also “regional summaries“ for each of the southern oceans plus the North Pacific, as well as “Discussion“ and “Conclusions and Future Work“ sections devoted to assessing over- lap of albatross foraging and commercial fishing regions. Individual sections are written by about 45 authors, most of whom collected the orginal data on some of the 19 species covered.
Many fascinating findings are presented: albatross populations have at-sea distributions that change substantially over the course of the breeding season, the range shrinking after chicks hatch; nonbreeding adult Buller’s Albatrosses (Diomedea bulleri) stick closer to the colony than breeders; in both species of giant-petrel (Macronectes giganteus and M. halli), males have very different at-sea distributions than females (the difference is as large as that between some different species); several species regularly traverse the entire South Pacific from western South America to New Zealand during the course of a year.
Certainly one of the most serious threats to Procellariiformes worldwide is mortality from longlining fishing trawlers: albatrosses and petrels attack the baited hooks as they go overboard, become hooked, and drown as the line is dragged underwater. This book presents at-sea distributions of albatrosses and petrels as determined from satellite-tracking data, superimposed on maps of longline fishing effort. Unsurprisingly, there is considerable overlap; more importantly, this information provides a firm basis on which to build sound and (hopefully) effective conservation policy.
Given the stunning visual presentation of data in this book, it is easy to forget that there are other methods of collecting data on birds at sea—namely, using shipboard surveys. Each method has its strengths and weaknesses. The strengths of the various tracking methods are obvious from this book; their weaknesses are a very limited sample size compared to the size of the population being studied, restriction to birds large enough to carry the instruments (White-chinned Petrel [Procellaria aequinoctialis] and larger), and expense. The authors cite “lack of knowledge of the origin and status“ (of birds seen from shipboard) and lack of “consistent and standard methods“ used to collect such data as weaknesses of shipboard surveys. I feel that this view is a bit too dismissive and that more support should be given to combining data from both shipboard and tracking studies to maximize information content. Many important topics (spatial association with prey, change in local abundance through time) cannot readily be addressed through tracking methods.
I have few criticisms of this excellent book. The “Annexes“ are a bit brief and of questionable usefulness in places (e.g. a kernel is defined as “the shape placed over each observation“; I doubt that this definition will enlighten anyone not already thoroughly familiar with the technique), but a thorough literature cited section directs interested readers to the appropriate sources.
This book is indispensable to anyone with interests either in seabirds or in tackling global problems in conservation. Every institutional library should have it. In addition, the high quality of the numerous color maps and moderate cost should make this a strongly appealing “coffee table“ book for anyone passionate about marine organisms and the world’s oceans.