Night Owl - A Beginner's Guide to Night Birding

Have you ever wondered what goes on in the natural world after dark?

Have you ever wondered what goes on in the natural world after dark?

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Have you ever wondered what goes on in the natural world after dark? There's a fascinating array of nocturnal birds that become active once the sun sets. As an amateur naturalist and night owl, I've become enthralled with the experience of night birding. Venturing out after dusk, you'll discover a secret world of birds specially adapted for the night. Equipped with a headlamp and binoculars, you can spot and identify mysterious owls, nightjars, and other species by listening for their calls. Night birding requires patience, but with the right techniques and locations, you'll be rewarded with a glimpse into the lives of these nocturnal feathered friends. If you're looking for an exciting new way to connect with nature after hours, grab your gear, choose a habitat to explore, and delve into the world of night birds. The night shift is just getting started.

Gearing Up for Nighttime Birding

To experience the wonder of nighttime birds in action, you'll want to be properly equipped. The essentials for night birding include:

•A headlamp or flashlight with a red light. White light can disturb nocturnal birds and damage their night vision. Red light is less disruptive.

•Binoculars suited for low light. Look for binoculars specifically designed for night viewing or astronomy. They have larger objective lenses to capture more light.

•Warm, quiet clothing. Dress in layers, wear soft-soled shoes, and avoid synthetic fabrics that can swish or crinkle.

•A field guide to help identify birds by their calls and sounds. Since sighting birds will be difficult, learning to recognize their vocalizations is key.

•A smart phone or audio recorder. If you hear an unknown sound, record it to analyze and identify later. Some apps can even help identify bird calls in real time.

•Let someone know your location. For safety, always tell someone where you're going and when you plan to return. Night birding in remote areas especially warrants extra precaution.

•Patience. Don't expect to see many birds right away. As your eyes adjust to the darkness, more birds will become visible and audible. Stay still and quiet to increase your chances of spotting these nocturnal creatures.

With the right preparation and equipment, you'll be ready to discover the wonders of the nighttime bird world. Owls, nightjars, rails, and more await you in forests, fields and wetlands. So gear up, stay safe, and enjoy this thrilling new way to connect with nature after dark. The night birds are calling!

Top Nocturnal Bird Species to Spot


Owls are arguably the most well-known nocturnal birds. Their distinct hoots, screeches and calls pierce the night, letting you know these raptors are on the hunt. Some owls you may spot at night include:

  • Great Horned Owls: With a wingspan up to 5 feet, these are North America's largest owls. Listen for their booming hoots in forests or wooded areas.

  • Barred Owls: Known for their "who cooks for you, who cooks for you all" call, these medium-sized owls inhabit dense woodlands across much of the U.S. and Canada.

  • Eastern Screech Owls: About the size of a robin, these owls are found in woodlands, parks and suburbs in the eastern U.S. Their eerie, trilling call is unmistakable.

Owls are well-suited for nightlife, with special adaptations like silent flight, exceptional hearing and vision suited for low light. To spot an owl at night, find an area with large trees they use for roosting and listen intently for any calls or sounds of movement. Remain still and be patient - if you're lucky and quiet enough, an owl may even glide right past you!

Contributing observations about owl activity and behavior helps scientists better understand these fascinating raptors. Check with local parks, refuges or wildlife organizations to find citizen science projects focused on nocturnal owls in your area. Your nighttime adventures can aid owl conservation and help unravel the mysteries of these captivating creatures of the night.

Mastering Night Birding Techniques

Once night falls, it’s time to put your night birding techniques into practice. Finding nocturnal birds in the dark requires patience, stealth, and a bit of skill. Here are a few tips to get you started:

Listen closely for calls and sounds. Since visibility is low, you’ll need to rely more on your sense of hearing to detect night birds. Pay attention for hoots, trills, screeches or the characteristic “whip-poor-will” call of nightjars. Stay quiet and still—any noise you make can scare off the birds or mask their calls.

Use a flashlight sparingly. Only turn on your flashlight when needed and keep the beam pointed at the ground. The sudden burst of light can startle nocturnal birds. Instead, let your eyes adjust to the darkness and use the moonlight to help spot silhouettes and movements.

Search for reflections. Look for the reflected glow of your flashlight in the eyes of owls or other nocturnal birds. Their eyes will often shine a bright yellow, green or red color. Keep your light angled up into the trees and scan for these “eyeshines”.

Visit the right habitat. Head to secluded forests, wetlands, or grasslands—areas away from loud noises and bright lights. Search for spots where nocturnal birds hunt, nest, and roost like dense trees, snags, or abandoned buildings. You’re more likely to observe night birds in their preferred habitat.

Practice stealth. Move slowly, quietly and avoid sudden movements that might startle any nearby nocturnal birds. Step lightly to muffle the sounds of crunching leaves or twigs under your feet. Stop frequently to listen for calls and look for signs of activity. With practice, you’ll master the art of stealthy night birding.

Contribute your findings. Report any nocturnal bird observations or calls detected to citizen science databases like eBird, iNaturalist or your local Audubon chapter. Your contributions help scientists better understand these secretive birds of the night.

Night birding takes patience but with the right techniques, you'll soon be discovering the wonders of the nocturnal avian world. Listen, look and learn—you never know what night birds you might encounter after dark!

Prime Night Birding Locations in the US

Some of the best places for night birding in the United States are national parks and wildlife refuges. These protected areas offer suitable habitat for owls, nightjars, and other nocturnal species. They are also often sparsely populated by humans at night, allowing for an authentic nighttime wilderness experience.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Spanning 800 square miles of forest in Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to many nocturnal birds like the barred owl, eastern screech-owl, and common nighthawk. Its dense old-growth forests and mountain ridges offer prime habitat for night birds. Some recommended spots for night birding in the park include Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, and Newfound Gap Road.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

This vast wetland on the Georgia-Florida border provides habitat for over 400 bird species, including eastern screech-owls, barred owls, and chuck-will's-widows. The refuge's wooden walkways and observation platforms make it ideal for night birding. Listen for the chuck-will's-widow's distinctive call, often described as a whistled "chuck-will's-widow."

Big Bend National Park

In far West Texas, Big Bend National Park encompasses desert, grassland, and mountain habitats along the Rio Grande. Common night birds include great horned owls, western screech-owls, and lesser nighthawks. The park's remote desert landscape offers stunning stargazing along with opportunities to spot the lesser nighthawk's bioluminescent eye shine.

Mojave National Preserve

This rugged desert preserve in California is home to many owls like the great horned owl, western screech-owl, and burrowing owl. Other possible finds include lesser nighthawks and common poorwills. The preserve's sparse Joshua tree woodlands and rocky canyons are ideal for observing these nocturnal desert dwellers under a blanket of stars. With some patience, you may spot the bright-white plumage of a poorwill in the beam of your flashlight.

Contributing to Citizen Science Projects on Nocturnal Birds

As an amateur naturalist, you can contribute to citizen science projects focused on studying and conserving nocturnal birds. Citizen scientists provide valuable data to researchers by reporting observations of owls, nightjars, and other nocturnal species in their local areas.


eBird, a popular citizen science project, accepts night birding observations. When you go out night birding, report the species you detect, number of individuals, location details, and time of your observations on eBird uses data from citizen scientists to better understand bird distribution, habitat use, and trends over time. Your contributions help identify important night birding hotspots and key habitats for conservation.

Project Owlnet

Project Owlnet invites people to report owl calls they hear at night to help scientists study owl populations. Visit to learn owl call identification and how to report the owls you hear while night birding. Project Owlnet uses citizen scientist call reports to determine the distribution and habitat needs of different owl species.

Nightjar Survey Network

The Nightjar Survey Network focuses on nightjars, nighthawks, and their relatives. Participate by conducting nightjar surveys in your local area and reporting your observations on their website. The Nightjar Survey Network utilizes citizen scientist data to identify population trends in nightjar species and key threats to their survival.

Citizen science contributions enable scientists to analyze data at large spatial and temporal scales that would otherwise be difficult to achieve. While night birding, keep a record of the nocturnal species you detect and report your findings to eBird, Project Owlnet, the Nightjar Survey Network, or other citizen science initiatives focusing on night birds. Your observations as a citizen scientist can inform research and conservation to better protect nocturnal bird populations.


So there you have it, everything you need to get started with the fascinating hobby of night birding. Now that you know about the different nocturnal birds you can spot and the gear required, it's time to venture out under the cover of darkness and experience the wonders of nature at night. Find a secluded spot, remain still and quiet, open your ears and eyes, and wait. Don't get discouraged if you don't spot or hear anything at first. With patience, the nocturnal world will awake before you. When you do catch the glow of an owl's eyes in the dark or hear the bizarre call of a nightjar, you'll be hooked. Night birding lets you discover a whole new dimension of birdlife that most people miss out on. Give it a try - the night birds are waiting for you!


Published on Dec 28, 2023