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Introducing: The Lifelook

One of the most interesting facets of birding culture is its unique vocabulary. From lifers to dips to cripplers, there’s an inherent joy in communicating with others about the highs and lows of birding using our own terminology. Maybe the best part of birding vocabulary is that it shows how alive and dynamic the culture is. As the scope of our shared experiences has expanded, new words and phrases have been coined and entered into popular usage.

I love learning new birding vocabulary. The one day I spent birding in Michigan (yep, you guessed it: Kirtland’s stakeout), I found it interesting how the local birders used the phrase “it’s all tee’d-up” to describe a bird perched atop a tree or in an otherwise conspicuous area. I hadn’t heard that before and haven’t heard it since. I’ve seen some really interesting British birding (or should I say twitching?) vocabulary online. I particularly like dude, which as I understand it basically means a bad birder, and plastic, which means an escaped or otherwise not countable bird.

Allow me the chance to propose a new inductee to the birding lexicon: the lifelook. The lifelook is simply the best look you’ve ever had at a species, whether or not the bird was a lifer. I think just about every birder is familiar with the feeling of getting his or her lifelook of a bird. I’ve even heard birders talk about this experience before, and yet there’s no concise way to describe the phenomenon of the lifelook. The linguistic niche is waiting to be filled.

I’m giving credit where credit is due: the lifelook is my fiancee’s brainchild. I can’t remember exactly when she thought of it, but I think it must’ve been one of the times we found a bird that was a lifer for her but not me, yet was the best look I’d ever had at that species. “Then it’s your lifelook,” she said.

The lifelook added meaning to our efforts to close the gap between her lifelist and mine. The day we found a worm-eating warbler perched on an open branch in a quiet glade of our local park, it was her lifebird, but it was my lifelook. The bird was eye-level and almost incomprehensibly still, without question one of the best extended looks I’ve ever had at any warbler. Although I’d first seen and identified a worm-eating warbler almost a decade before, that sighting was a highlight of my birding career, and I like being able to express that phenomenon with a single term.

So if you like the lifelook, consider spreading it around. Mark it in your birdjournal and enter it in the comments section of your eBird reports: This was my lifelook of a buff-breasted sandpiper! The lifelook has some good potential for spinoffs too. How about the lifelisten? And for photographers, the lifeshot?

Do you have any great lifelook stories? Do you think it’s a term worth spreading? And just as and perhaps even more importantly: what’s your favorite bit of birder jargon? Do you know any interesting regional birder vocabulary? Have you learned any special bird jargon in another language?

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Frank Izaguirre

Frank Izaguirre

Frank Izaguirre is a nature writer and a candidate for the Ph.D. in English Literature at West Virginia University with a special passion for the memoirs and essays of early Neotropical ornithologists. He likes his birding milestones to be palindromes, and is currently at 1001 birds.
  • George Armistead

    I like this concept of the lifelook. There was my first Golden-winged Warbler in Carpenter’s Woods in Philly, but then there was the first one I could really savor at Higbee’s Beach, Cape May. The one at Higbee’s was far more prolonged and I remember it much better. The Carpenter’s Woods-type view I’ve often heard called “starter views” by guides, or “appetizer views”.

    Even more I like the concept of the “life-listen”. A “heard list” is something I think we should add to ABA’s Listing Central. I believe I just got my lifelisten Harlequin Duck on the ABA Birding Rally in Plymouth, Mass last week. How many of us can claim to have heard Ancient Murrelet, Dovekie, or Steller’s Eider? Given that certain Empidonax are essentially identical anyway, hearing them is actually far more important than seeing them. The “lifelisten” and the “heard list” have got legs I think.

    • Frank Izaguirre

      Ah, I’m definitely going to use starter view. There are just so many species that it takes years to get a really good look at or listen of, or maybe both.

      Heard list is another great idea. Oh, man, I’d really have to go back and think about some.

    • Knut Hansen

      My “life look” concept is based on bird photos I take.
      I have a photo list of all my life birds. Actually haven’t managed to photograph all (only about 2000 and counting, but it my goal is as many as possible. When I first see a new bird, I take a “Safety Photo”. This is to be safe, in case I don’t get another chance. Later I usually get a chance to get a better picture to replace the “safety picture”. Sometime I get a shot that is wicked pissah (Boston for very excellent). Then I say that “I am done” with that species.

  • Kirby Adams

    Frank, we must be brothers. (Or I’m your fiancee’s brother, which makes us imminent-brothers-in-law). Anyway, on my life list spreadsheet, I have a column for lifelook. It’s headed, unimaginatively: “best.” Lifelook has a better ring to it. I’m going to immediately insert that into my field vocabulary. It’s always nice when you can erase a BVD and add a lifelook for a species.

    • Frank Izaguirre

      Definitely adding a new column to my spreadsheet. Wow, just gave myself a ton of work…

  • KViz

    Love this idea! These are the experiences that bring new birders into the fold and make it all so exciting. Mine was a Magnolia Warbler. It sat on some flowerbed edging (on May 6th several years ago) not three feet from me in my urban backyard. I was sitting quietly on a garden bench. I darn near freaked out! It took every ounce of self-control not to scare it off.

  • Ellwood Meyers

    For years I have written “c.u.p.” while compiling my field notes for Close – Up – Personal, whenever I have a close encounter with any bird. However, I do like Lifelook – its catchy.

  • Jennifer Spry

    Pelagicdipphobia – A word from Australia that my birding friend Kay and I came up with. It is the fear of missing going out on a pelagic trip and thereby missing a mega tick. It comes in various forms too, right now I am suffering Phalaropedipphobia in case the vagrant I am off to twitch tomorrow in Darwin leaves before I get there.

    • Frank Izaguirre

      Omigosh! I’ve had pelagicdipphobia before! That’s such a thing. Meanwhile, my fiancee didn’t have pelagicdipphobia, but she did have pelagicphobia (the fear of pelagics) and Frankpelagicdipphobia (the fear that Frank would miss something on a pelagic he didn’t go on because we canceled after she got sick on the first one). It’s a terrible illness.

  • 1775concord

    I’ve heard “It’s all tee-d up” many times,many places, can’t recall specifics. To make every reader here wistful of, probably appropriately, jealous, I can’t forget my 30 minute look in 1954 at the singing Bachman;s warbler. Other bests…going to the condor area in Ventura, CA, in June, 1972, parking the car in front of the engraved sign on the large rock. We couldn’t walk around to the left, so walked over to the clearing with the long valley view on the right. Within 15 seconds, a California condor and his wingman flew by about a hundred feet in front of us, sailing left to right. They then made a 90 degree turn to their left and went perhaps a mile and landed on a distant tree.. Rather than call it a lifelong view, I call it a jaw-dropping view. If I had a camera, I probably wouldn’t have reacted fast enough to photograph it.

    Lots of other stories.
    To introduce a new term: My lifelong fiend (birded with him since we were in 9th grade), the late Paul DuMont, noted, on occasion, as we would see a life bird, “BVD,” which meant for him “better view desired.” Good enough to count, but BVD.
    Karl Stecher
    Colorado

    • George Armistead

      PGD was quite the character, Karl! Remember him well.

  • Quentin Brown

    Great idea. I remember seeing a blue-winged warbler in the Yucatan for a nanosecond. Long enough to know what is way but way too short for a satisfying look. I then returned to the west coast, an area that doesn’t get blue-winged. Nine long years later, I had the chance to visit New York. While walking through Central Park, I was able to stop, sit at a bench and watch two blue-winged warblers forage for 15 minutes. Now that was a lifelook!

  • Hallie Mason

    I embrace the term “lifelook” My lifer, and lifelook, Cerulean Warbler was in my front yard during migration many years ago. I spotted a bird on a bare spot on a branch above my head and nearly dropped the binocs when I saw that fabulous blue. I have seen some since, but that was the closest ever, and I got to add it to my “Yardbird” list.

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