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Birding by Night

By Jessie Barry
Birding by might. Common Moorhen
Common Moorhen. Photo by Laura Erickson.

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When the midnight chill sets in and eyelids droop, it’s hard to feel optimistic that a Northern Saw-whet Owl or Least Bittern could sound off any minute. But on the Big Day (see“What’s It Like to Find 264 Species in One Big Day?), there is no way we can skip night birding! As a member of Team Sapsucker, I’ve spent many nights standing at roadside marshes or hiking into deep woods laden with slippery logs to add nocturnal birds to the day’s list.

Night birding provides our best chance to hear a Black Rail, Least Bittern, or Barred Owl. At least a dozen species are likely to make our Big Day list only if we hear them at night—owls and rails, and passerines that give flight calls during their nocturnal migration.

There are a few things we can do to improve our odds of detecting these elusive species. The first is to learn the calls. Team Sapsucker members practice in the field and listen to recordings to train our ears. Night birding with experienced birders is really helpful. My teammates sometimes pick out distant birds I might not have noticed, and point out unusual calls that I wouldn’t have expected, such as an Upland Sandpiper flying overhead. The more ears, the better!

Learning each species’ habitat is also really useful. For example, Clapper Rails and Black Rails favor saltmarshes, while King Rails favor fresh water. Yellow Rails love short sedge meadows and rice fields, unlike the cattail marshes where we’re more likely to hear a Sora or Virginia Rail. It’s also important to scout night-birding locations during the day, to know where the right mix of vegetation is for each of those elusive species.

When we are scouting for the Big Day, we watch the weather closely to choose when to do our nocturnal scouting. Calm nights are ideal. As soon as the wind kicks up, rustling leaves and cattails, it’s hard to hear any birds that might be calling. This year we’ll try to do our Big Day when conditions are ideal for a record-breaking total.

We call in some species using our voices and actually practice imitations before the Big Day. If you’re not a pro at grunting like a Virginia Rail or whistling like a Sora, you still have a chance to hear them if there is a disturbance in the marsh. For example, sometimes just the noise of our car doors closing is enough to get a response from a rail, moorhen, or coot. When Marshall Iliff belts out his cackling version of a Common Moorhen call, the rest of the team is never quite sure if the bird is responding to the noise or calling back to “Marshall the Moorhen.” I’m sure the debate will continue this year in Texas. We can’t wait to tally the first species for the Big Day under moonlight at 12:00 a.m.!

Originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of BirdScope.

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