West River Eagle

The Life Look

August is not my favorite month for birding. 

It’s much quieter in the mornings now. Birds that sing to mark their nesting territory and find a mate accomplished both of those things months ago and are finishing up their breeding season. I no longer get dive-bombed by Barn Swallows when I go into my building on campus, as their second brood of the year has left the nest (and they can now dive-bomb me out in the open as they swoop across campus hunting for insects). The American Robin and White-breasted Nuthatch babies that appeared in June are all grown up and hard to tell apart from their parents. 

Some birds are already on the move. BirdCast, which tracks spring and fall migration, started up again on August 1, and I’ve been surprised to see how much activity there is already. (Look particularly for migrating shorebirds and a few early-arriving warblers.)  Some birds will soon be  molting—don’t be surprised to see a bald Northern Cardinal or Blue Jay–and others are starting to bulk up for their long flights to their wintering grounds. 

By this time of year, I’ve mentally shifted to fall. We’ve taken our last trip of the summer, school starts for my son in just a few days, and I’ve planned my classes through December. Every year, I list fewer birds in August than any other month. A birding walk last week turned up so few species I didn’t even write them down. I came home from Ohio with more ceramic owls for my fast-growing collection than I saw actual bird species.  

I recently learned a new term for how to list birds: the life look. I came across it in an excellent book by Thomas C. Gannon, Birding While Indian, but it was coined by Frank Izaguire in an American Birding Association blog. Izaguire defines the “life look” as “simply the best look you’ve ever had at a species, whether or not the bird was a lifer.” 

First encounters with birds are often fleeting, just enough to make a positive identification and add the species to your list. I logged a Short-eared Owl years ago flying fifty yards away and fast across a field, but my best look was on New Year’s Day in 2019, when we came upon one who generously sat on a fencepost long enough for me to study it carefully and take several pictures.

Common birds, too, can offer surprising new looks. The House Sparrow’s entry in my life list has no date—how can I be sure when and where I saw the first one?—but it’s possible that my best life look was only a couple of weeks ago, when I watched one hop methodically along a row of parked cars until it found a live bug in a grille, flew up to snatch it out, and ate it.

Only September and cooler weather—and fall migrants—can get me out of my August doldrums, but the life look is a good reminder to slow down and really look at the birds that are there, even if you’ve seen them thousands of times before. 

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