Birding at Night
August 31, 2021
If you’ve spent time stargazing late into the night, you’ve probably noticed that astronomers aren’t the only nocturnal creatures shuffling about under the cover of darkness. Although bird watching is often touted as a hobby for the earliest of early risers, it’s also a wonderful nighttime hobby that amateur astronomers can incorporate into an observing trip.
When and how to bird at night
Bird watching is a great activity to pass the time as you wait about 30 to 90 minutes for your eyes to become fully dark-adapted for astronomy. Walk around your observing site or find a quiet place to sit and wait to notice the birds. Bring a binocular to get a closer look when conditions are favorable. But if it’s too dark to see the birds, you can still identify them by listening to their calls. Many bird watching apps include audio recordings of bird calls so you can learn what to listen for before heading outside.
Bring a notebook to keep track of the number and types of birds you saw and heard. Just as you might document your best celestial object sightings, you can track your progress as a birder. Many birders choose a day to try for as many sightings as possible, called a Big Day. In your case, it may be a Big Night.
What birds can I see?
Besides the obvious night owls, there are a host of nocturnal birds you’re likely to encounter. To name just a few:
- Nightjars – whippoorwills and chuck will’s widow
- American woodcocks
- Wilson’s snipes
- Swifts – Chimney, Vaux’s, and others
Also, depending on the season, keep an eye out for flocks of migrating birds. A wide range of bird species migrates at night to avoid predators. Listen for their flight calls as they fly overhead.
A final word about safety
Make sure to take all the same safety precautions you do while stargazing at night—and then some! You’ll want to stay relatively close to your telescope equipment to make sure it’s safe. And always make sure a few friends and family know where you’ll be. Check out our safety article for more.