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Wildlife Watching

  1. Go Mothing
  2. Go Owling
  3. Bat Watching
  4. Bird Watching
  5. Watching Wildlife at Night

Go Mothing[1]Moth

The basics: The first thing to know about searching for moths is that you’ll get the best results if you go at night. Put out fruit or a sugary “moth bait” at a simple tray feeder or smear it on a tree in the late afternoon or early in the night. After that you wait for a while. Once it’s good and dark, get a flashlight and head out to check your feeders.

Challenge: Get a moth book and try to identify some of those moths. Pick up a book at the local library. Either look for a book that’s just about moths or see if there’s moth information in a butterfly book.

Go Owling[1]

The basics: Get your binoculars, bird book, and some flashlights and go out in the woods at night to search for owls. Owls are nocturnal, so the best time to look for them is at night. Gather upowl some friends and look for an organized owl hunt at a local nature center or bird observatory to make it even more fun.

Challenge: Train yourself to listen first and decipher what owl you’re hearing. If you can hear an owl first and figure out where the noise is coming from, this will also help you in your search.

Did you know: Learn how to mimic their calls, and you can bring some owls in close. Use this on a limited basis, though. You don’t want to confuse the owls.

Watch Bats at Sunset[1]

The basics: Just as the sun begins to set for the day, the bats come out, zooming about and looking for mosquitoes and other bugs to eat. They like to zip in and out of open areas, often over water. Put out a blanket to lie down. Then kick back and watch these amazing little creatures.

BatChallenge: Build or buy a bat house to put up. Yes, they really will use them. Just make sure you hang it high enough in a tree. It might take them a year or two to really find it, so don’t give up.

Did you know: Bats have gotten a bad rap over the years. Relatively good eyesight and echolocation (a fancy word for a type of hearing bats use) will help keep them from swooping down into your hair or face. And they’re pretty harmless overall.

Bird Watching

Bird-watching is a pleasure that can be enjoyed all year around. Every season has its own story to tell. There are more than eight hundred species of birds in North America, and just about anywhere you are has at least one hundred species. That means you can watch birds wherever you travel. All you need are some binoculars, a bird list or guide, and perhaps a notebook to record your sighting. Early morning and evening are the best times.


  • You can get plastic ones for the kids for just a few dollars, whereas good ones can cost thousands.
  • If you get serious about the sport, invest in the best ones you can afford.
  • The optical power is described with two numbers, such as “7 x 42.”
  • The first number means objects will be enlarged seven times. The second number is the diameter of the lens in millimeters. For both numbers, larger is better.
  • Consider features like weight and waterproofness.

Common Birds to Watch


  • The official bird of our home state of Virginia is bright red and easy to spot.
  • The medium-sized songbird has a plume on its head. The females are more grayish than the males.
  • With the exception of the western states, cardinals are common throughout the U.S. year around.
  • They have a distinctive call, a series of shrill whistles.


  • This large bird occurs in nearly every corner of the globe, but the Chesapeake Bay area has the largest known nesting concentration in the world.
  • Their huge nests can be seen on channel markers and atop platforms even near human activity.
  • They are the only bird of prey that dives into the water to catch fish.
  • Like the bald eagle, osprey faced extinction in the 1960s from the use of DDT, a pesticide that caused thin shells and was banned in the early 1970s.
  • This is commonly called a "fish hawk," although it is its own species.

Great Blue Heron

  • This huge wading bird is common along fresh and saltwater environments throughout North America.
  • These graceful fliers are blue-gray in color with a black stripe above each eye.
  • They have long legs for wading and fishing and wingspans up to 6 feet.
  • Their rookeries may consist of several hundred nests together in the tops of a group of tall trees.

How Close is Too Close?

In general, if a bird looks your way, you’re too close. Do not flush birds from their nests; doing so can leave their eggs or young exposed to predators.

Large birds like eagles, osprey, and great blue heron expend large amounts of energy when they have to fly unexpectedly.


Watching Wildlife at Night

Whether you're camping, or just enjoying an evening on the balcony or in the backyard, these tips will help maximize the chance you'll witness nocturnal wildlife. Before you head out, have the kids take Ranger Rick's Night Owl Challenge! The best time to watch night wildlife is about half an hour after sunset.

  1. If you are watching mammals, check what direction the wind is blowing in, then sit down-wind so your scent won’t reach them.

  2. If possible, use a red light source because it is less visible to wildlife. Red cellophane paper can be used to cover a flashlight.

  3. Pick areas where night-flying insects are abundant, such as over water, or near flood lights and street lights. Light and water attract the insects that certain animals feed on at night.

  4. If walking, move quietly, slowly, and be patient. If animals disappear, wait silently in one location and they will likely reappear once they think you are gone.

  5. Wear comfortable clothes, sneakers, running shoes, or moccasins that allow you to move around quietly.

  6. You might want to take a ground cloth so that you don't get cold sitting on the ground.

  7. Try to visit your observation site during the daylight to check for obstacles to night-time viewing and walking.

  8. Keep a respectable distance from the birds and mammals you are viewing, especially young ones.

  9. If in a car, drive slowly and stop occasionally to scan the landscape.

  10. Use binoculars or a spotting scope to watch animals up close without disturbing them.

  11. Never offer wildlife food; it could endanger you, upset their digestive system, and result in their being eliminated as a pest animal.

  12. Bring a field guide to help you identify the wildlife that you see, and bring a notebook to record your observations.

  13. Leave pets at home because they will alert wildlife and likely cause them to flee.

  14. Look for tracks, scat, chewed leaves and branches as evidence that animals are in the area.

  15. Use your ears; if you hear birds, frogs, or mammals calling, slowly walk towards those sounds for a better chance of seeing them.

  16. If you are skywatching, move away from street and house lights, cities, malls, and other huge light sources.

  17. Give your eyes 5-10 minutes to adjust to the darkness before focusing on the sky. Carry a star chart and sparingly refer to it with a flashlight. 

  18. Check your newspaper for moon phases and planet visibility.

1Content and images from the book The Kids' Outdoor Adventure Book: 448 Great Things to Do in Nature Before You Grow Up*, by Stacy Tornio and Ken Keffer. Copyright © 2013 by Morris Book Publishing, LLC. Used by permission of FalconGuides

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