South Carolina is famous for its rich avifauna – there are almost 450 bird species there with a number of those being very active during the night!
Examples of nocturnal birds in South Carolina include the common nighthawk, American robin, black-crowned night heron, barred owl, northern mockingbird, and many others.
Do some of them sound familiar? Let’s jump in and see what each of these looks and sounds like!
Table of Contents
Night Birds In SC
1. American Woodcock
- Scientific Name: Scolopax minor
American woodcocks are unique and elusive birds found in fields and clearings adjacent to young forests, particularly those with some scattered cover. These small shorebirds are found year-round throughout South Carolina.
The best time to observe them is between dawn and dusk, 45 minutes after sunset and before sunrise. When searching for woodcocks, focus on fields next to forests, with powerline cuts being excellent spots to target.
Because of their nocturnal lifestyle, inconspicuous colors, and low-profile behaviors, American woodcocks are usually very hard to spot.
You can recognize them by their distinctive “peent” call which is given from the ground or the twittering that can be heard from the air.
Read More: List of nocturnal birds of Tennessee
2. Wilson’s Snipe
- Scientific Name: Gallinago delicata
Much like American woodcocks, Wilson’s snipes prefer wet grassy fields, sedge marshes, and bogs. They are winter residents in South Carolina and their activity peaks during dawn and dusk.
To locate them, listen for their “tuk-tuk” call, which can be heard from the ground or low perches.
Their winnowing display flight is very interesting and can be heard overhead, with a longer duration compared to woodcock display flights. Males will fly high in circles and then take shallow dives to produce a distinctive sound. This behavior can be spotted during the day and long into the night.
They are also common in Louisiana; check out other night birds heard there in this article.
3. Eastern Screech-Owl
- Scientific Name: Megascops asio
Eastern screech owls are small and stocky owls with big heads, large yellow eyes, small ear tufts, and horn-colored beaks. Out of all North American owls, they are the most strictly nocturnal.
Eastern screech-owls are permanent residents of SC typically found in woodlands, especially near water and at lower elevations.
They are most vocal close to sunset and become quieter as the night progresses. Their calls are more frequent around full moons and before storms. Key calls to listen for include the characteristic “whinny” and trilling tremolo calls. In June-August, keep an ear out for juvenile hissing sounds.
4. Great Horned Owl
- Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus
Great horned owls are one of the biggest birds in South Carolina. They measure almost 2 feet long, weigh up to 3.5 pounds, and can be found throughout the year in the state.
These owls prefer open areas like fields and marshes near mature forests. They become most vocal for an hour after dark and an hour before dawn.
Great horned owls make deep, loud “ho-ho-hoo hoo hoo” sounds that can have four or five syllables. The female owl’s call is higher-pitched, and it tends to peak after midnight.
In winter or spring, they often sing in a duet. Territorial hooting tends to decrease in February or March when they start laying eggs. In summer, the distinctive juvenile begging call can sometimes be confused with the calls of barn owls.
5. Barn Owl
- Scientific Name: Tyto alba
One of the most widely distributed species of owl in the world, barn owls are permanent residents of SC.
These medium-sized owls often have a “ghostly” appearance, especially if seen at night, around open habitats, including grasslands, marshes, and agricultural areas.
Barn owls do not hoot and make bone-chilling screams instead. They hunt for rodents during the night and roost in nest boxes, caves, tree hollows, and old buildings.
They are quite common in the USA and are among many birds that can be seen and heard the night in Florida.
6. Barred Owl
- Scientific Name: Strix varia
Year-round residents of SC, barred owls are commonly found in dense deciduous or mixed forests, particularly near water.
They are active throughout the night when their “who-cooks-for-you” song and “hoo-ahhh” calls can be heard. They will often sing in a duet, and their juveniles make a high-pitched raspy hissing noise, an automatic confirmation if it’s heard in a specific block.
7. Short-eared Owl
- Scientific Name: Asio flammeus
Short-eared owls are found on all continents except Antarctica and Australia, making them one of the most widespread bird species. These nocturnal owls can be seen throughout South Carolina during winter, in open grasslands, including weedy fields, grass strips of small airports, coastal marshes, and even agricultural fields with stubble.
Short-eared owls have large yellow eyes that are accentuated by black rings, making them look like they are wearing mascara! Although mostly silent, they will make a series of “voo-hoo-hoo” calls at night during the breeding season.
They are generally nocturnal when most of the hunting happens, but they can also be crepuscular (active near dawn and dusk) and even diurnal (to a much lesser extent).
8. Northern Saw-whet Owl
- Scientific Name: Aegolius acadicus
Northern saw-whet owls are nonbreeding residents of the state in small numbers during winter.
Northern saw-whet owls were named after their loud and repetitive whistles described as “a saw being sharpened on a whetstone”. Their calling peaks around 2 hours after sunset and decreases until just before sunrise.
Listen for the tooting advertising song of males, a repeated “toot-toot-toot.” They give a variety of other calls, and later in the season, juveniles produce a raspy, hissing call.
The compound called porphyrin makes their flight feathers unique – the pigment gives their feathers a neon pink fluorescence when exposed to UV light.
9. Pied-billed Grebe
- Scientific Name: Podilymbus podiceps
Pied-billed grebes are small, stocky, and short-necked water birds found throughout the Americas. In SC, just like in Alabama for example, these birds are commonly found in marshes and ponds with emergent vegetation.
They are active throughout the night and will often make loud, whooping, cuckoo-like songs, with pairs sometimes singing together in a duet.
They can be identified by their brown plumage that gets darker on the crown and back. Such colors serve as great camouflage but make it harder to spot them.
Read More: List of nocturnal birds of Oklahoma
10. Eastern Whip-poor-will
- Scientific Name: Antrostomus vociferus
Eastern whip-poor-wills can be seen in northern parts of SC during the breeding season and in coastal parts during winter; they just migrate through the rest of the state on their way to the southeastern US, eastern Mexico, and Central America.
These cryptic nocturnal birds are easier to hear than to see as they remain motionless and sleep during the day. Look for them around pine barrens and forest openings where they sing their namesake “whip-poor-will” song at dawn and dusk.
Eastern whip-poor-will Call | Source: G. McGrane, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
They hunt at night, feeding on flying insects they catch from the ground. Eastern whip-poor-wills closely resemble common nighthawks – the two can be differentiated by their behavior and characteristic call.
Read More: Examples of night birds of Arkansas
11. Common Nighthawk
- Scientific Name: Chordeiles minor
These medium-sized birds with split tails and long, pointed wings are crepuscular and nocturnal raptors found throughout South Carolina when the summer breeding season comes.
Common nighthawks can be seen in prairies, forests, savannahs, and urban areas, and are most active during dawn and dusk with a visible moon. They produce a distinct peent sound and engage in courtship displays with rapid dives creating a booming sound as air passes over wings.
Common Nighthawk Call | Source: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Keep in mind that common nighthawks are well-camouflaged and blend with the environment during the day. Their plumage is usually gray, black, and brown with white patches on their wings close to the base of primary feathers.
- Scientific Name: Antrostomus carolinensis
Chuck-will’s-widows are large night birds with big heads, short bills, and elongated tails. Their plumage varies from grayish to rufous with intricate patterns, camouflaging them well in the trees.
Chuck-will’s-widows are found in pine barrens and edges of swamps. They sing their “chuck-will’s-widow” songs, with males being most active in April-May, quieter in June, and more vocal again in July and August. Singing may continue all night on days of a full or near-full moon.
Chuck-will’s-widow Call | Source: James G. Howes, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
You might have spotted them in your headlights while driving as they love to sit on the roads and roadsides at night.
13. Common Gallinule
- Scientific Name: Gallinula galeata
Common gallinules are medium-sized marsh birds with small heads, thin necks, small bills, and long legs and toes. They sport dark plumage with white undertails and red frontal plates on their heads.
Common gallinules are found in freshwater wetlands with open water and emergent vegetation. In northern parts of SC, they are summer residents; those living in southern parts of the state stay there year-round.
They are mostly active at dawn and dusk, becoming more vocal during the breeding season from April–June. Listen for the ‘marsh chicken sound‘ and single ‘clucks,’ which are the most frequently heard sounds.
14. American Coot
- Scientific Name: Fulica americana
American coots are small chicken-like water birds with black plumage, bright white beaks, red eyes, and yellow-green legs.
Although they resemble ducks, American coots are only distantly related to them. These winter residents of South Carolina can be seen and heard in freshwater wetlands with open water and emergent vegetation around dawn and dusk.
They produce a sharp “poot” call and a screeching “kree” sound, and they are particularly noisy swimmers, so you may also recognize them by splashing water sounds.
15. Clapper Rail
- Scientific Name: Rallus crepitans
Clapper rails are large brown birds found along the Atlantic coasts of the eastern United States, eastern Mexico, and some Caribbean islands. Nocturnal and rather secretive, these chicken-sized birds rarely fly and have grayish-brown plumage with orange bills that curve downwards.
In South Carolina, clapper rails can be heard fairly commonly throughout the Coastal Zone year-round. They are most active at dawn and dusk with mated pairs singing together in the evening and slightly less during the morning hours.
Listen to the male’s repeated “kek” calls and grunt or “clapper” calls that pairs use to communicate. When one bird begins to sing, neighboring birds usually join in.
Clapper rails have 4-16 creamy white eggs with brownish blotches that both parents incubate; males will incubate them at night.
16. Virginia Rail
- Scientific Name: Rallus limicola
Virginia rails are compact aquatic birds commonly heard in coastal parts of South Carolina during winter. They are found around wetlands with cattails, where they often make harsh “kuk-kuk-kuk” calls during the night; their “grunt” calls can be used for communication between mates.
They are often found together with soras; short-billed soras feed on seeds, while the long-billed Virginia rails mostly consume insects.
- Scientific Name: Porzana carolina
Soras are small waterbirds found in coastal parts of the state. Just like in NC, they are winter residents in SC and can be identified by their short yellow beaks, dark-marked brown upperparts, blue-gray faces and underparts, and black and white barrings on the flanks.
Soras are common around wetlands containing cattails and patches of open water; their descending “whinny” call is used by mated pairs and when establishing territories. They also have a “ker-wee” call for attracting mates and are most active during dawn and dusk.
The best times to spot soras are early in the mornings or late in the evenings when they’re more likely to come out from the thick plants in search of food.
18. American Bittern
- Scientific Name: Botaurus lentiginosus
American bitterns are well-camouflaged solitary birds that winter in central and southern parts of SC before departing north to breed. These birds prefer large cattail or sedge marshes and wet meadows.
More often heard than seen, they are mainly nocturnal with most of the activity happening around dusk. American bitterns have a distinctive booming call that resembles a congested pump that people describe as “oong-kach-oonk.“
19. Least Bittern
- Scientific Name: Ixobrychus exilis
Least bitterns are one of the smallest heron species in the world. They can be seen in SC during their breeding season from May to August and can be identified by their long legs, daggerlike bills, and orange, black, and white plumage.
Least bitterns are common around marshes with a mix of open water and vegetation, often with cattails, phragmites, or lily pads. Males can be recognized by their soft “coo-coo-coo” and “reek-reek-reek” calls.
They are more active at dawn and dusk and less vocal in windy or rainy conditions.
20. Black-crowned Night Heron
- Scientific Name: Nycticorax nycticorax
Black-crowned night herons can be seen in central and northern parts of SC during the summer breeding season; some southernmost coastal populations might stay there year-round. Look for them around wooded swamps, ponds, lakes, and mangroves.
Unlike most of their heron relatives, black-crowned night herons are most active and most often heard at night or at dusk.
They will also migrate in large flocks exclusively during the night. Part of their scientific name “Nycticorax” comes from ancient Greek and means “night raven”, referring to their nocturnal feeding habits and croaking crow-like calls.
They will often bait fish – throw some food in the water to lure the prey before striking with their long beaks.
21. Yellow-crowned Night Heron
- Scientific Name: Nyctanassa violacea
Yellow-crowned night herons are stocky wading birds with long necks, large heads, and long heavy black beaks. These enormous blue birds were named after the pale yellow crowns on their heads.
Yellow-crowned night herons are vocal birds with many sounds. Their most common alarm call is a loud and sharp “quawk.” Males and females may also use “yup-yup” and “huh” calls during courtship.
Despite being occasionally seen during the day, yellow-crowned night herons are strictly nocturnal birds. They tend to roost in trees during the day and feed during the night, mainly on crabs and crayfish.
22. Northern Mockingbird
- Scientific name: Mimus polyglottos
Northern mockingbirds are birds most often heard during the night in South Carolina. Those singing through the night are often young, unattached males or older males without a mate.
To stop their constant singing, you can try adding bird nets on your trees or setting up the predator’s cardboard cutouts like hawks or owls.
They are year-round residents of South Carolina; the Latin name of these birds translates to “many-tongued mimic,” and for a reason – northern mockingbirds can imitate chirps of up to 35 species and learn over 200 different songs in their lifetime!
They can mimic sounds of rusty hinges, car alarms, cackling hens, and dog barks; they can mimic so well that it’s hard to tell a difference even with an electronic analysis.
Northern mockingbirds have four recognized calls: the nest relief call, hew call, chat, and the begging call.
Northern Mockingbird Call | Source: Sandtouch Limited Company, a Texas limited liability company, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Read More: What birds chirp at night in Texas?
23. Yellow-breasted Chat
- Scientific Name: Icteria virens
Yellow-breasted chats can be often heard singing in the morning and evening during summer in South Carolina. They will also even sing at night during the height of their breeding season (May to July).
Often heard than seen, they are common around dense, brushy areas and hedgerows. These birds have a unique mix of cackles, clucks, whistles, and hoots in their songs, along with harsh “chak” calls.
They can mimic other birds, sometimes confusing birdwatchers. During the breeding season, they become more conspicuous, singing from exposed spots and flying openly while gurgling their songs.
- Scientific Name: Charadrius vociferus
Killdeers are very common shorebirds of South Carolina. They are widespread and can be seen year-round throughout most of the state, in open areas such as sandbars, mudflats, grazed fields, and even urban areas.
Identify them by their brown plumage above with two black breast bands, orange tails, pink legs, and slender wings with conspicuous white wing stripes at their base.
Killdeers are active during both day and night, and you can often hear them calling above in the dark, especially in early spring and late summer. Mall parking lots and well-lit ball fields appear to be popular spots for their nighttime activities, which involve a lot of socializing, calling, and searching for food.
They got their name from the loud piercing calls that sound a little like “kill-deer, kill-deer”.
Killdeer Call | Source: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Read More: List of night birds of California
25. American Robin
- Scientific name: Turdus migratorius
American robins are songbirds and common sights in forests, lawns, and suburbs across South Carolina, throughout the year.
As winter fades and daylight increases, they will be the first birds you hear singing just as dawn approaches, giving them the nickname “wake robins.”
The song is described as a “cheery” carol consisting of a string of 10 or so clear whistles; American robins also have a sharp “yeep” alarm call or a mumbled “tuk” when communicating with one another.
Source: G. McGrane, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
However, when the sun goes down, their song changes. From sunset until it gets very dark, they add soft, almost whispered notes to their singing, making their song sound elegant and intricate.
What Birds Sing At Night In South Carolina?
The most common birds that sing at night in South Carolina are northern mockingbirds.
Mockingbirds singing all night are often young, unattached males or older males without a mate. In case you want to stop their nighttime singing, try to cover your tree with bird netting or add an owl/hawk cardboard cutout to scare them away.
You might have also heard yellow-breasted chats singing in the darkness as they call out to the females, American robins and their cheery carol, or even barn owls and their bone-chilling screams.
Read More: Examples of night birds of Indiana
South Carolina’s rich avifauna is brimming with nocturnal birds. Some can be seen year-round there, like several owl species and northern mockingbirds, while others, like yellow-breasted chats, and common nighthawks visit the state only to breed.
In case you’ve stumbled upon or heard any of these birds, we hope this guide helped you identify which ones they were.