Guide to Seabirds of Southern Africa

Bookshelf: Guide to Seabirds of Southern Africa

Guide to Seabirds of Southern Africa – Peter Ryan

Guide to Seabirds of Southern Africa
Guide to Seabirds of Southern Africa

An indispensable companion on Flock at Sea AGAIN! was this book by Peter Ryan, director of the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town. It’s a slim volume that made seabird identification much easier for us (novices) by virtue of its focus. We were at no point able to venture speculatively into the nocturnal birds of prey or the exotic parrot section of the book, as often happens when you put a bird book covering all of southern Africa’s birds into my paws.

The introductory sections of the book explain the ocean environment and the life history of seabirds, with sidebars on specific physiological phenomena that differentiate seabirds from other birds. These sections also provide information on conservation challenges facing seabirds, and some tips on how to watch them. The geographic range covered by the book includes the sub-Antarctic islands (Marion, Tristan da Cunha, Prince Edward, Gough, Crozet, Bouvet, South Sandwich, South Georgia).

Several photographs of each bird are provided, alongside a distribution map, the bird’s measurements, and an identification guide that covers the bird’s appearance as well as call and characteristic flying style. Conservation status and an Afrikaans common name are also mentioned.

Identifying seabirds is difficult, even if you get a good record photo or have enough time to study the bird carefully. There are often subtle variants that differentiate (or don’t!) between different types of very similar-looking birds. For example, there was furious debate during and after the cruise as to whether a Tristan albatross had been seen and photographed, or whether it was just another wandering albatross. The differences between these two types of albatross are almost impossible for the amateur to discern. Similarly, the prions are so similar (to my untrained eye) that the only way to distinguish one from another would be to line up a specimen of each type of prion, and measure their bills.

There wasn’t enough time for us to become expert seabird spotters before we went away, but this book enabled me to make several identifications, including of juvenile and adult birds of the same species. This was pleasing. When it comes to the prions, I am satisfied to know the genus; the species is for those with more time and knowledge than I. I anticipate that it will be of future use in naming and learning about the birds we see in False Bay, and if we ever do a pelagic birding trip – which is on the to do list – it’ll be of great use there, too.

There’s an excellent review, from a real birder, over here.

You can get a copy of the book here. If you’re outside South Africa, get it here or here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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