Sorry if redundant, but how does one spotlight? Where/when/how and what sorts of flashlights?

Hello! I’m new to this site and new to the concept of mammalwatching as a dedicated thing. I go into nature to look for whatever comes across my path, but haven’t done much in the way of nocturnal-animal hunting. I’ve learned of spotlighting from my browsing here, but I want to get a better understanding of how exactly to do it before I attempt — for a beginner. (It might also be nice if there are recommendations for *decentish* flashlights under $50 maybe? If that’s possible).

I look forward to any advice you might have. Thank you much! Happy mammalwatching!

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  • Moses Swanson the XVI

    Spotlighting is very easy. All you need is a good flashlight and an area. It is quite simple. But dont shine the light near the mammals eyes and use a red light as it is less harmful to the mammal.

    • Moses Swanson the XVI

      Welcome to the forum.

    • JanEbr

      If you don’t shine the light near the animal’s eyes, you aren’t gonna see the eyeshine, thus you aren’t gonna find the animal … but since you are looking for the animal, you don’t know where it is yet, so you can’t avoid it anyway 🙂

  • Jon Hall

    Hi Mila – not at all redundant. I used to have a page that talked about all this stuff as an intro guide but I think it was deleted. So – at the risk of stating the obvious – spotlighting is just going out at night with a hand held flashlight looking for animals. Sometimes from a vehicle or on foot. One of the best ways to find mammals is to look for their eyeshine reflecting back at you. This works very well for some species (carnivores for instance usually have very bright eyeshine) and less well for others … some animals have basically no eyeshine. Seeing eyeshine can also depend on the angle of the light relative to your eyes … it works best if you hold the flashlight at about eye level and parallel to them. So head torches can work very well, though typically the light beam you get from a head torch isn’t as focused or strong as from a good flashlight, so their range isn’t great for finding things further away. Other than eyeshine then I often hear things before I see them, at which point you start frantically scanning the direction the sound comes from. Thermal cameras/scopes have changed the game and most of the time I will be looking through a thermal scope to locate an animal and then switch to a light to try to illuminate it. There are reviews of different flashlights and thermal scopes and more here I don’t know offhand of any great flashlights that are $50 but you can get very good ones for around $150. I swear by my Fenix HT18R.

    Some people use a red light to observe animals as Moses mentions, the theory is the animals are more relaxed in a redlight because they don’t see it. I’m not all that convinced it makes much of a difference for most species but probably does for some.

    But there is evidence that brighter is not always better though – studies in the rainforest have shown people find more arboreal animals using less high powered lights… with animals hiding from a very strong beam.

    Your choice of light and method will depend on where you are using it and what you are looking for. It is a skill that improves over time … as is using a thermal scope.

    If you get the chance to go out with someone who has experience looking for nocturnal animals then all this might make more sense that my attempt at an explanation. Good luck and have fun!

  • charleswhood

    Hi — you did not talk about what areas you usually visit. In the American West, a lack of population and a lack of regulatory agencies allows better opportunities than one might have in, say, New England in the NE of the USA. So for example, the Carrizo Plains in California is a classic “good” site for spotlighting — go on a moonless night midweek in summer, and you should be able to see badger, kit fox, owls, and kangaroo rats, on and off the road. If one person drives and the other spotlights, that is even better. Jose Gabriel Martinez-Fonseca and I have a book, Nocturnalia, which talks about strategies. Be cautious, though: don’t light up houses and on-coming cars, and in major USA national parks, the rangers on patrol at night could cite you for harassing the wildlife (as they did Jon Hall once). He and I also were shot at once in rural California. Trip reports on this site will give indications of what can be seen and using which tools. Joining a professional tour is expensive but can be a good way to meet people and “up” your game, and then you can go off and do things on your own. As Jon says, good luck, have fun, and post interesting results. / Charles Hood

  • KyleFinn

    I will jump in on the red light thing. It’s a current trend in South Africa during night drives, some reserves even require red lights to be used. but I have found you don’t see the eye shine as well with a red light compared to a standard white light. So I use a strong hand held white light to scan for eye shine, and then after spotting something sometimes put a red filter over the light so the light doesn’t harm the animal’s eyes. But it depends on how close the animal is, if far I don’t see a need for the red light, but if close then the red light will probably help to not temporarily blind the animal. There’s some anecdotal evidence of some herbivores being blinded then falling prey to predators after having a strong white light shown on them. I don’t know how often it could happen. I think it would make for an interesting study on the effects to vision in different animal species after being exposed to a bright light.

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