Thursday, 14 July 2016

Nocturnal Birding by Thomas Broom

When the sun is up, and the birds are singing, the world is a familiar place. We understand what goes on during the daylight hours. It’s well documented. After all, we are adapted to life during the day. So when the sun sets, the world becomes a different place; an alien place. An exciting place.

I myself haven’t done much nocturnal birding in the past. I’ve been out at dawn and dusk, but have only truly looked for birds in the dark a few times. But after a few recent experiences, it is certainly something I am going to make an effort to do more, because it’s definitely worth the late night. Let me tell you why…

The birds that hunt and operate after the sun has set are almost entirely different to the cast we’re all familiar with when the sun’s up. And, being harder to see and harder to spot, we don’t see them as frequently as our daytime birds, which makes finding them at night a whole lot more special. The common practice of bird ‘watching’ becomes interesting once it gets too dark to actually ‘watch’. Your other senses kick in to action, and you find yourself watching with your ears – listening for sound becomes a whole lot more important when there is minimal light.

So what are these nocturnal birds, and what makes them so special?

Tawny Owl by John Harding
Tawny Owl by John Harding
Possibly the most famous night-time predators are owls. Of our owl species here in Britain, only 2 of the 5 are truly nocturnal: the Tawny and Long-eared Owl. Both these species, unlike birds like the Barn or Little Owls, are very hard to see during the day – spotting them roosting in trees is about the only way to see them. But after dark, they come alive. Tawny Owls and their haunting calls have inspired legends over the centuries, and when you’re stood in the forest in the dark, it certainly sends a chill down your spine. There are few things more exciting than actually watching a Tawny Owl hunt in the dark.

I was in Suffolk a short while ago when, as we were driving down a small country track late at night,
we heard a strange screech coming from the dense woods to the right of us. We stopped the car, turned off the engine and all the lights and just sat there in the dark. And sure enough, after a short, exciting wait as the sound got closer, the dark figure of a Tawny Owl came up and sat on a branch in front of us, before flying off into the forest. It continued its flybys through the trees for a while, before disappearing off back into the darkness like a phantom. You may not be able to clearly see the birds in great detail, but an experience birding at night is an experience to remember.

Nightjar by Chris Knights
Nightjar by Chris Knights
For the majority of our other nocturnal birds, spring and summer are the best times to get out and have a go at spotting them. Possibly my favourite nocturnal birds, Nightjars, are migratory, so can only be seen in the UK between April and September. Nightjars are magical, mysterious birds, which can only truly be seen once it is almost too dark for binoculars. During the day, they hunker down, relying on their exquisite camouflage to hide them from predators. But once it gets dark enough, they become a magnificent nocturnal bird. There is nothing quite like watching nightjar flying silently over heathland, with their long wings almost folding over the rest of their body, which is relatively small in comparison. The peculiar, but strangely enchanting ‘churring’ sound produced by the males, and the clapping of their wings as they fly make them an incredible bird to be around at night, and makes any nocturnal birding trip worth it.

Another expertly camouflaged nocturnal bird is the Woodcock – a bird that is even harder to see. I
Woodcock by Hugh Insley
Woodcock by Hugh Insley
was very lucky to see two the last time I went out looking for Nightjar, as they flew across the area in front of me and into the cover of the forest. They are strange birds in flight – large, almost fat, with a very long bill and relatively short wings. Unfortunately, these birds are currently on the UK Red List, as their populations have declined as suitable habitat for them becomes rarer and rarer. But, if you’re in luck, you may just catch a glimpse of these rarely seen birds.

Above, I have highlighted only three nocturnal birds that are out there in the British countryside, waiting to be found. The mystery of the night and the amazing animals it holds is exciting, and I urge you to get out after dark and see what you can see. You won’t regret it.

Of course, nocturnal birding doesn’t come without a risk. Us humans aren’t made for working in the dark, so it is sensible to plan your nocturnal birding trip before you go out. First of all, go with an adult at all times – it’s safer, and they wouldn’t want to miss out on the experience anyway! You should also make sure you know the area you’re visiting well – you don’t want to get lost and it’s helpful to have an idea of what lives there before you go. And of course there are things you need to take, like any bird watching trip. A torch is a necessity and binoculars are still definitely useful; they’ll be usable until it is almost pitch black, and are still suitable for spotting birds in flight or in trees.

Nocturnal birding is an experience that I urge you all to have a go at and see what you can find. The experience of looking for animals in the dark is exciting and keeps you coming back for more. So if you can, at some point this summer, get out and give it a go! I know I certainly will.

Thomas Broom,


  1. Excellent post, Thomas. Have you read 'Night walk: A journey to the heart of nature' by Chris Yates? It's all about watching nature after dark, I think you'd enjoy it! :)

  2. Enjoyed this article thoroughly as I love to read about animals and especially birds. I have always been amazed by owls so this article is a personal favorite of mine now! LOVED IT A LOT!!!