Birdwatchers are aware that all bird species have their own schedule for sleeping, feeding and activity. Though the old saying goes ‘the early bird catches the worm’, there are several species of birds that only do their catching at night. If you’ve been thinking about a nighttime birdwatching outing, planning before you go will help make your outing a success.
STEP 1 : Get to Know Where You’re Going
When planning where you will be heading to, it’s a good idea to be familiar with the area beforehand. Unlike most birdwatching outings, since you will be birding in the dark, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the area during the daylight hours beforehand. This will help you stay oriented with the area and prevent getting lost. Parks and hiking trails are excellent places to explore but first check with your town to be sure you’re allowed access there at night. A great choice for birding at night is an area by a body of water, lake, or river, as these areas offer opportunities to spot water birds as well.
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STEP 2 : Bring the Right Equipment
Like any bird watching outing, the right equipment is crucial. Besides the usual equipment you bring along for daytime birdwatching, be sure to include a flashlight. A flashlight is helpful in lighting your path and noting any landmarks that will help keep you from getting lost. It’s a good idea to bring more than one flashlight in case of a faulty bulb or batteries dying suddenly. Changing batteries at night is not only difficult, but the commotion of doing so might scare off the birds.
One consideration for birding at night is the lens of the flashlight. The normally yellow beam can make birds feel threatened, so change the lens to a red lens for a less threatening appearance. When using your flashlight, train it on the ground to illuminate the path ahead of you. Avoid shining the beam onto any trees so as not to frighten away birds.
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The binoculars used for spotting birds in the daytime will not be useful when birding at night. Because seeing long distances in the dark is challenging, take along high-powered night vision binoculars.
Outfitting yourself for nighttime birdwatching is the same as it is during the daytime. Long sleeved shirts are your best protection from insects. Keep in mind the ticks and wear pants, high socks, and comfortable walking boots. Consider waterproof boots if you are planning to be in an area near a body of water. Lastly, don’t forget to bring insect repellent with you.
STEP 3 : Get Familiar With the Birds You Can Expect to See
The goal of nighttime birdwatching is to spot the species of birds who forage for food and are most active at night. It’s a great opportunity to see what you’re missing during the day. Birding at night is a great way to develop new birding senses, especially learning how to distinguish different bird calls.
THE GREAT HORNED OWL
The most common bird you can expect to see is the Great Horned Owl. You may have heard the Great Horned Owl referred to as the Hoot Owl because of its distinctive hooting sound. This species of owl is the most adaptable and one that birdwatchers across North America can spot. The Great Horned Owl is most active at night. It hunts rabbits, rats, mice, and any animal it can overpower. In size it is second only to the Snowy Owl. Colored for camouflage, its most notable features are the facial disc and prominent ear tufts. Your ears will learn to identify it by its loud but low pitched ‘hoo’ sound. Patiently waiting in silence is the best way to spot this amazing nocturnal bird.
THE BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERON
The black-crowned night heron forages for its meals at night. They hunt for their food sources in water or on land. Your best chance of spotting this bird is in an area near water. As the wetlands tend to be their habitat, you will see them by marshes, lakes, and streams. These light gray birds can be identified by clearly defined black backs, crowns, and black bills. Larger than the Great Heron, their size ranges from twenty-two to twenty-six inches, whether female or male. Known for making sounds that range from raspy to guttural, when the black-Crowned Night Heron is disturbed it sounds like a barking squawk.
WHIP-POOR-WILLS, NIGHT JARS, AND NIGHT HAWKS! OH MY!
Aside from Great Horned Owls and Black-Crowned Night Herons, there are several other species birding at night gives you the opportunity to see. Whip-poor-wills, Chuck-will-widows, Night Hawks, Common Poorwill, and Night Jars, are species that are camouflaged during the day. Come night fall, these species enjoy a flurry of activity and noise. In your planning stages, visit the Audubon Society’s website to hear each of these species sounds. This will help you to identify these birds as you spot them. Keep in mind that the Night Jar is only around during spring and summer. It’s well worth planning a spring or summer nighttime birdwatching outing just to hear the Night Jar’s song.
STEP 4 : How to Spot Nocturnal Birds
Birders know the importance of remaining silent and making as little movement as possible. Though birdwatchers will change locations during the day to spot a bird, at night simply staying in one place and letting the birds fly by you is best. Changing locations and moving about will make these nocturnal hunters apprehensive. Instinctively, they will remain camouflaged in the trees until the ‘threat’ has passed. Keep in mind that most nocturnal birds see up to twelve times better in the dark than humans do.
Some birds, like the Great Horned Owl, can be spotted by following its call. Using your binoculars, carefully observe any lumps on tree branches you spot. Sometimes these ‘lumps’ might be one of the birds you’re looking for. Not only do nocturnal birds see twelve times better than humans in the dark, they also have excellent hearing. Don’t forget to mute any phones or gadgets you’ve brought along.
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STEP 5 : Plan For Safety
In the excitement of planning a nighttime birdwatching outing, safety might slip your mind. Birding at night is fun, but like any other nature outing, you should take precautions. Let someone know where you’re going, when you’re going, and when you expect to be returning. There is safety in numbers, so consider inviting a friend. Going with a group is a good idea. The more eyes the better chances for spotting those birds. Though keeping them mute is important, a cell phone is always good to have in case of an emergency. Don’t forget to bring extra water and a small first aid kit.
Planning in advance and getting to know the area will help make this unique birdwatching outing memorable. As these nocturnal birds come out to prey and play, immerse yourself in the beauty of the nighttime world.