Monday, May 23, 2011

Antarctic Wildlife

Antarctic Wildlife
A Visitor’s Guide to the Wildlife of the Antarctic Peninsula, Drake Passage and Beagle Channel
by  Lowen, James
2011, 240pp, ISBN: 9780691150338
Basics:  flexcover; focuses on the birds and mammals of the Antarctic Peninsula and its waters adjacent to South America; very good color photos of 83 species of birds, 8 seals, and 24 cetaceans; most plates composed of multiple individuals digitally inserted together over a common background; text on each species is dedicated primarily to identification 
This book joins a short list of good quality guides - of either birds or mammals - that concentrates on the Antarctic region.  More specifically, this book addresses just those species found in three particular regions which are (1) the Beagle Channel, (2) the Drake Passage, and (3) the Antarctic Peninsula.

With hundreds of superb photographs, 83 species of birds, 8 seals, and 24 whales/dolphins are presented.  The selection of photos is to be commended with their sharp colors, large size, and overall quality.

For the birds, 44 plates show an amalgamation of individuals that are skillfully, digitally superimposed over a single background.  Most of the pelagic birds are shown with 2-3 photos each and with both dorsal and ventral views in flight.  They are also arranged so the more similar species are compared on the same plate, which can be very handy.  Another 78 individual photos of equal quality provide additional views of the birds.  In a separate 24-page section, 44 of these photos are dedicated to just the penguins.  Presented here is a nice selection showing adults, young, nests, feeding, fighting, swimming, and other behaviors.  In a photo too good to be true (it’s a digital collage), all eight of the region's penguin species are arranged together in a line-up, showing their size differences.

Each species is reviewed in its own account which may be up to a half page in length.  Nearly all the information focuses on describing and identifying the bird.  Besides describing the plumage, this material provides valuable insight into particular flight nuances or behaviors that would prove helpful in identifying the bird at sea.  It was nice to see good effort was put into distinguishing the birds from other similar species.

With many birds, an additional 2-3 lines offer clues on "Where to Look".  This information provides general descriptions of where (e.g., near cliffs, Drake Passage, exit of the Beagle Channel) the birds may be seen.  And, with some of the birds, a brief side-box gives "Talking Points."   These cover various bits of trivia such as populations, name origin, flight, etc.

For the cetaceans (17 plates) and seals (8 plates), the same good quality of photographs are used.  As one would expect, the whale and dolphins are typically shown only breaching the water which is how they'd be seen at sea.  A wonderful little feature that might at first escape your attention is found along the bottom border of many of the whales' accounts.  These dark blue strips are composed of small, narrated silhouettes of the whale at the surface of the water.  These silhouettes show the distinctive shapes, movements, and profiles you'd witness as the animal progresses through its sequence of surfacing and diving.  The shape of the head is shown as it first breaks the surface, the arch, angle, and shape of the back in mid-dive, and, the tail at the conclusion of the dive.  These will prove to be very useful for identifying the quick moving swimmers.

Enhancing the usefulness of those little silhouettes are behavioral descriptions found in the account for each species.  Besides a visual description of the whale/dolphin, the author has included additional tips on how the animal may move, roll, or jump, helping to identify the particular species.

The first 76 pages of the book will be of interest to the Antarctic naturalist and traveler.  This information gives a general overview of the region, its conservation, tips on tourism and when to go, a quick review of the key bird and mammal families, and a checklist for each of 7distinct areas of the Antarctic.

One aspect of this book should be mentioned.  The birds, seals, and whales are grouped (i.e., divided) into three sections (Beagle Channel, Drake Passage, Peninsula).  This strategy has its pros and cons.  It can be handy for the sea farer to focus on just those species expected in that particular region - assuming there is little or no overlap.  But, it also requires the reader to flip through the book to examine a particular family of species.  As an example, if you want to compare the three species of terns, you must go to pages 186 and 206.  To compare the seals, you must look at two sections beginning on pages 78 and on 160.  The cetaceans are the most scattered with different multi-page sections beginning on pages 80, 144, and 172.

As a last few tidbits, the names of all species are provided in English, German, Spanish, and scientific.  There are two pages of text that discuss four primary vegetation environments along with 9 photos.  And, lastly, no range maps are provided.

If you are headed far, far south, you will certainly want to have this attractive, informative, and handy book with you because it is good and, because there are few alternatives.  This book has much better photographs and more information than Todd's "Birds & Mammals of the Antarctic, Subantarctic & Falkland Islands".  Another book, "The Complete Guide to the Antarctic Wildlife" by Shirihai is excellent and is superior to anything else; but, it covers the entire south polar region which may be excessive depending on your destination.  And, the book is somewhat large, making it slightly cumbersome for travel. - (written by Jack, shown with sample pages at Avian Review, May 2011)

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