Birdist Rule #29: Try Birding After Dark

It can be a challenge, but it can also be highly rewarding.

Getting up super early in the morning is an uncomfortable requirement for many birders. But we’re told that you’ve got to get out at dawn if you want to hear the birds singing, and so we leave our warm beds and drag ourselves out into the predawn darkness. Early birds get the worms, but early birders get the birds.

I’m sure some birders out there love getting up before dawn, but I don’t. And I know plenty of others who don’t either. But what if there was another way? What if you could still be an excellent birder while sleeping all morning long? Well, if you’ve read the headline to this article, you’ll know that there is a way: bird after dark.

Birding at night is a much different experience than birding during the day. Mostly because, you know, you can’t see anything. You’ll never see as many species as you will during the day, but it’s a new way to experience birdlife. You’re out there looking and listening for species you don’t really go after during the daytime, and you’re developing new birding senses. It can be extremely rewarding.

Owls are a favorite prize. Owls! I don’t appreciate them enough. They’re ninjas of the bird world, silently stalking their prey under cover of night. Fortunately, they’re not always silent, and getting out at dark to listen for calling owls is the most common nighttime-birding activity.

How does a beginning birder start owling? It’s as easy or as challenging as you want it to be. Start by figuring out what owls live near you and what their calls sound like. Audubon has a good primer on common owl calls, and you can also check the incredible Xeno-canto for pretty much every other call you would ever need. 

Once you know what you’re listening for, head to some woods. Owls generally breed earlier than other birds, so they’re actively hooting when many other birds are silent. For example, Great Horned Owls and Barred Owls nest as early as December and can be heard hooting through the fall and winter. So, what I'm saying is, go out there now. 

You can check eBird for owl sightings nearby, or you can just find a patch of woods and start hooting yourself. You might be surprised to get a response! Believe me, the sensation you feel when you first hear an owl hooting off in the darkness—especially if it’s closer than you expected—is something you’ll never forget. (Don’t play tapes though, please, especially during nesting season.) Also, make sure to bring a flashlight, both so you can try to spot the owl if its close and also so you can see where you're going. 

Owls aren’t the only birds calling at night, of course. There are other species that you’re unlikely to see during the day and are best heard after dark: the cooly-named nightjars, also known by the even cooler name goatsuckers. (Quick aside: They were originally referred to as goatsuckers because of they’re weird looking, and people long ago thought that they came into pens at night and drank milk from goats. They don’t.) This group includes whip-poor-wills, Chuck-will's-widows, nighthawks, Common Poorwill, pauraque, and more. For the most part, each of these birds stays largely motionless and perfectly camouflaged during the day, but they can really raise a ruckus at night. NIghtjars aren’t around during the winter in most of the U.S., so you’ll have to go out during late spring and early summer to hear them singing. I highly recommend it.

Looking to get more intense? I’ve got something for you: night flight calls. Known as NFC by dedicated birders, this is the practice of listening for (or recording) the short calls of birds as they migrate overhead in the middle of the night. It’s intense. As hundreds of species migrate in the spring and fall, they make little calls to each other, presumably to stay in touch up there in the dark. Really good birders—like, REALLY good birders—have learned to differentiate those little calls and identify them to species. Some will even record an entire night’s worth of NFCs and then analyze the information on a computer, getting a more accurate picture of migration. 

I have never listened for NFCs. It’s honestly hard enough for me to remember the freaking songs of these birds during the day, let alone the tiny little notes they make in the middle of the night thousands of feet overhead. One day I’ll get there, though. If you want to get started before me, here are some 
helpful resources.

Another nighttime option after you get some experience is a Big Night. An insomniac’s version of a Big Day, a Big Night is exactly what it sounds like: Birders have to identify as many species as they can from sunset to sunup. Not many birders have done a Big Night (actually, I really only know of the one linked above), so it might be your opportunity to set a record. Make your mark—at night!

Birding at night is fun, but stay safe, you know? All the precautions you might take for birding during the day—letting people know where you’re going, not going by yourself—apply doubly during the night, when you can more easily get turned around in the woods or run into a shady stranger. I wish I had better advice for this part, but I don’t really know what to say other than keep your wits about you, and be careful. 

Then, when you’re home, feel free to sleep in.