Monday, July 2, 2018

Review: Far From Land

Some of the most indelible and exciting moments in our ten years of birding involve seeing groups of seabirds for the first time, particularly our first alcids and our first albatrosses. They’re so unlike anything found between the coasts, and they’re often away at sea, just out of reach unless you take the effort (and anti-nausea meds) needed to find them. Even in Oregon, where massive colonies render certain murres, guillemots, and puffins reliable for at least part of the year their lives at sea are shrouded in mystery. And that’s precisely the sort mystery that Michael Brooke wants to elucidate in Far From Land.

Far From Land is about how seabirds make their living when they’re not ashore, and crucially, how we know what we know. Brooke, who has spent his career studying seabirds, is fascinated by the technologies that have opened up all sorts of new research areas over the past 20 years. As such, this book is as much about the suite of devices that researchers use to interrogate every aspect of a seabird’s life at sea as it is about the birds themselves.

And some of those devices are very cool. Many birders will be at least passingly familiar with the geolocators, GPS, etc. used to track birds’ journeys. But you might not be aware of the devices that measure how deeply a bird dives; the temperature inside a bird’s stomach; whether the bird is in contact with water; or how widely a bird opens its beak. Each new device has helped researchers gain insight into the unique ways seabirds navigate, detect food, or catch prey.

In many ways, this book will help bring readers up to speed on the current state of research into seabirds’ lives at sea. However, this shouldn’t be mistaken for a general overview. This isn’t where you’re going to learn much about seabird physiology, courtship, nesting, or rearing young. Frustratingly, even seemingly relevant information is omitted if it happens not to be cutting-edge. For instance, here Brooke poses a problem and then chooses not to explain the solution:
“And who has not wondered how a tern copes with the flickering reflections bouncing off a sparkling sea as it plunged into the water to emerge from a spray of drips with a small sand eel? However, this variety of feeding techniques has been known from well before the advent of modern technology.” (p. 165)
This assumes a great deal of prior knowledge on the part of the reader. Far from being a popular treatment of seabirds’ lives, it’s more of a survey of the latest research within a particular range of topics. Typically this reads as a litany of findings from individual studies, rather than as a cohesive narrative.

But what you will learn is often astounding. Take Wandering Albatrosses, for example. By fitting them with magnetometers, researchers have discovered that they frequently spin in tight circles at night. It’s thought that they use their feet to stir up bioluminescent plankton, thereby attracting squid close enough to pluck out and eat. Because “seabird” is defined broadly, readers will learn about a diverse cast of birds, and it’s interesting to compare and contrast the strategies used by such divergent species as albatrosses, cormorants, and penguins.

Far From Land isn’t for everybody. Readers will want to have some prior familiarity with how seabirds live their lives before tackling it. But for anyone prepared for an in-depth treatment of how technology has transformed seabird study over the past 20 years, there is a wealth of information here to advance your understanding, and often, to prompt new questions about how a mysterious group of birds make their living at sea.

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