Night Birding


If you have travelled widely in the world you will have no doubt been out looking for species at night with a lamp? Good fun, isn't it! So why don't people look for nocturnal species in this country? After all, how often do you get great views of Tawny Owls? In the right habitat, you could get many excellent views by doing this!

A couple of years ago myself and photographer Nigel Blake started driving round our local lanes (Beds/Herts/Cambs borders) looking for night species, owls in particular. Our main motivation was to photograph these species and we thought that this would be the best and most effective way of encountering nocturnal species regularly. Little did we realise how effective it would prove to be!

We soon got lucky with amazing views of Barn Owls right outside the car window, some as close as 6 feet. Needless to say, both Nigel and I got some stunning photographs and video of these birds, one of which can be seen below.

Barn Owl
Barn Owl (photo: Steve Blain)

Driving around the local area looking for owls soon became an addictive form of birding for us, and at peak times we were doing this up to four times a week. During these sessions we were not only seeing Barn Owls but also Tawny Owls and Little Owls, as well as the occasional Fox, Muntjac, Badger and we found Hares, Rats and Rabbits were numerous.

The basic tactic involved driving slowly around suitable habitat, checking all likely looking perches for owls. Having the main beam of your headlights on while driving helps enormously as this highlights areas either side of your car, just where birds favour sitting. Timings is also important some nights, and we have found the hour from 23:30 until 00:30 one of the most productive. This, interestingly, coincides with chucking-out time from the pubs and a quieter time on the roads! Another good period is the couple of hours just after dusk, where birds have just come out of their roost and are on their first feed of the night. After that time birds then rest up for a few hours and digest their prey ready for another hunt. This happens roughly in four-hour cycles, depending on the species, and you will find these periods throughout the night some of the more productive.

Weather conditions are often a major factor when looking for owls. Very windy, cold, bright nights are generally the worst and warm, drizzly, dull nights are amazing! We can only assume that on damp nights, owls favour hunting near roads because earthworms are washed out of their holes and onto the roads. These are a favourite prey item of both Tawny Owls and Little Owls, and also small rodents too!

Each species have slightly different roadside habitat preferences – Tawny Owls like stands of mature trees, but they don't have to be very large to hold birds. They favour large exposed branches or telegraph posts where they like the metal steps to perch on. You will also very often see them sitting on large branches right over the road, ready to swoop down on any unsuspecting rodent that dares to cross! The colour of Tawny Owls varies greatly, but we mostly see rusty-brown-coloured individuals, especially when younger. We have only once come across one of the very scarce silver forms of Tawny Owls but what an amazing bird it was!

Barn Owls favour fence posts and smaller trees to sit in, but will also sit on large boughs too. They like the more open countryside to hunt in. Farmland, with wide verges, or overgrown ditches, is especially favoured. We found a lot of birds hunting the same sections of roadside verges night after night. Don't be surprised if you see two or three birds hunting the same area; many territories are shared by several birds. With practice, individual birds can be distinguished by plumage details: some birds can be extremely white, while others are very dark almost approaching the dark-breasted Continental form.

Little Owls like broken farmland with scattered copses with mature trees or bushes. We also found that Little Owls like to feed on grassland and middens when it's damp. They feed on earthworms in these areas and can often be found running around like jet-propelled rockets as they chase after their next meal!

If you are very lucky you may also come across an 'eared' Owl on your night forays. We have seen both Long-eared Owls and Short-eared Owls on our travels, but both species are a lot more elusive and unpredictable in their appearances. If you are in an area known for these species keep an eye out for them, you may just be surprised!

Long-eared Owl
Long-eared Owl (photo: Steve Blain)

Once you have come across an owl, you can very often watch it for quite a long time before it decides to depart. The ideal situation is if you park with your headlights on the bird. This will do the bird no harm as it will be used to having cars go past with their lights on. So long as you are quiet and do not make quick or startling movements, the bird should be very happy with you being there. If the position of the bird means the car headlights miss the bird, then a strong torch or lamp will also be useful. A torch such as a Maglight or small lamp powered by the car cigarette lighter are ideal and no more powerful than your car headlights. A powerful torch also allows for photographs or video to be taken easily. There are always exceptions to the rules and some birds will disappear as soon as they see you coming, whereas others will even let you get out of the car and walk round them, seemingly oblivious to your presence! Several birds, especially Tawny Owls, have let us do this and having an eye-to-eye view of a wild owl is simply amazing!

Tawny Owl
Tawny Owl (photo: Steve Blain)

We often also see quite a few mammals on our travels. Unfortunately, most tend to be quick sightings before they scamper through a hedge or bound over a field. The eye shine you get off an animal often gives its presence away and you can also identify the species, with practice, by this alone. Very bright eyes, with a slightly blue hue (that gleam from over half a mile away) are Foxes - it is very obvious why they are such adept hunters when you see their eyes staring at you from across a field, as their night vision must be amazing. Rabbits have dull red eyes which glow like rubies when light bounces off them and domestic Cats eyes glow slightly greeny, but very bright like Foxes. Deer are sometimes seen too but can rival even the best magicians by doing amazing disappearing acts right before your eyes! Hedgehogs are only sometimes encountered, surprising given how common they are, whereas Rats, Mice and Rabbits are all over the place.

Roosting birds are also commonly seen while we are out, with Pheasants and Woodpigeons being the most obvious. We have also found Pied Wagtails, House Sparrows and Kestrel! It's amazing what you can find when you 'have your night eyes in'!

Roosting Pheasant
Roosting Pheasant (photo: Steve Blain)

Migrants often drop in unannounced and we have come across Quail, Woodcock, Common Sandpiper and Song Thrushes while looking for owls on quieter roads. Anything is possible if you are prepared to put the time and effort in. Nigel and I can spend up to four hours a night just driving around the local roads and lanes looking for nocturnal wildlife, but the rewards are great. I hope you will give it a go. You never know what you might find in that quiet tucked-away lane...

Tengmalm's Owl
Tengmalm's Owl (photo: BirdGuides)

For more information email Steve Blain Steve@steveblain.co.uk for details.

Also see Nigel Blake's website http://www.nigelblake.co.uk
Written by: Steve Blain, Bedfordshire