Even the early afternoon, the hottest part of the day and often considered the most challenging time to bird, can be a great time to spot certain species, Dr. McGowan said. Many birds rest when the sun is high, but raptors such as eagles and hawks soar on updrafts that form when sunlight warms the ground. Vultures, another raptor, are easy to spot in the early afternoon because they “get up on the thermals and fly miles and miles and miles” looking for food, he said.
Around dusk, many species become more active again, making it another popular time for birding. This may be partly territorial, Dr. McGowan said. He said that birds are letting others know, “Hey, I made it through the day. Don’t bother coming over here and trying to steal my wife.”
But good birding doesn’t stop after sundown. Whip-poor-wills and nighthawks, for example, feed on moths and other flying insects at night, foraging when there is less competition with other species. And owls, whose finely adapted hearing makes them fierce predators, “rule the night,” Dr. McGowan said.
Nighttime birders should keep three things in mind to maximize their sightings, he said. First, consider the habitat where you’re observing: Birds may be more active near bodies of water at night, whereas forests tend to be pretty quiet. Second, move quietly: Stick to established trails or roads to avoid making noise and scaring away wildlife. And third, be prepared to identify birds by their vocalizations. Future prompts will explore auditory identification in greater depth, but for now the Merlin Bird ID app can help.
“Birding at night is not about what you see, but about what you hear,” Margaret Poethig, one participant in the New York Times birding project, wrote in to say. Ms. Poethig was lucky enough to hear barred owls exchange calls during a nighttime survey of breeding birds in the Maryland/D.C. area. “I feel like my heart stops in moments like these when I’m birding,” she wrote.