Observing Nocturnal Animals
Night observation is very different from observation during daylight. At night we rely on our sense of hearing combined with sight and artificial light to locate animals. Nocturnal animals have acute senses compared to us and they are usually aware of our presence long before we see them. Often I find an animal by its call or the noise it makes as it moves, then I locate it by eye-shine.
Many animals can be attracted by playing their calls and sometimes the calls of other species. Recorded calls are often used during owl surveys, by photographers and I use them when looking for owls at new locations. Call playback can be highly disruptive and stressful to the animal if not used judiciously and I do not encourage its general use. Playback should be avoided near nest sites during the breeding season. Owls are strongly territorial so you should resist the temptation of divulging their locations to other photographers and twitchers, as they are sure to be harassed.
Vision is a complex sense which involves signals from the eyes which are interpreted by the brain. The retina at the back of the eye contain two fundamental types of light receptor cells, called cones and rods. Cones only work in bright light and rods only work in dim light. Diurnal animals including us have cone dominated vision which enables excellent perception of colour with high visual acuity in daylight. Most nocturnal animals have eyes with relatively few cones and an abundance of rods which makes for excellent low light vision but comparatively poor daylight vision.
There are several cone types, each having a peak sensitivity to a different light wavelength. The brain 'sees' colour not the eyes and it does this by combining the signals from each cone type, analogous to mixing primary paint colours to achieve all the colours of the rainbow. The more cone types a species has, the better its ability to distinguish colours. Mammals have either two or three cone types whilst birds, reptiles and fish have four, which provides them with superior colour perception and the ability to see ultraviolet light.
The diagram below shows the colour sensitivity of the three types of cone cells in the human eye.
In very dim light the cone cells don't function and the brain receives signals from the rod cells only, which enables excellent low light vision vision for nocturnal animals. There is only one rod type however, which means that there is no perception of colour in very dim light, which is why we can't see colour outside at night even on a full moon. The graph below shows the sensitivity of rods in the human eye and reveals why rods are completely insensitive to red light. The significance of this is that you can use red light for watching most nocturnal animals without spoiling their night vision or causing them excessive disturbance. Most can see red light however, if it is directed at them because their eyes do contain red senstitive cones.
White light is great for finding animals but is not suited to studying nocturnal behaviour or watching nesting owls. White light has the advantage that we can see the true colour of an animal's eye-shine, which can be useful for identification at distance. During a holiday in Sabah, Borneo, I heard a creature on the forest floor in the grounds of the hotel I was staying and with the aid of a LED torch, I located it by its beautiful blue eye-shine (below). It was a Mouse deer, not much larger than a rabbit. White light can cause temporary night blindness lasting at least 10 minutes, during which time the animal could become susceptible to predation of prevent it from feeding.
Rods don't see red, so for observing animals at night, headlamps that use red LED's are ideal. Red light does not disrupt an animal's night vision or your own. My favourite headlamp below, comprises a lens, a 3 watt red LED, a resistor to limit the current, a switch and a 3.7 volt rechargeable battery. It can be attached to a tripod and the beam can be focused or spread to control the width and brightness. The main disadvantage of using red light is that everything appears red.
With red light, you are able to watch and photograph nocturnal animals behaving naturally. The photo below of a nesting Powerful owl was a 1/3 second exposure at f6.3 and ISO 6400 illuminated with the headlamp shown above. I observed this nest for many years using red light and the owls were always aware of my presence but were unconcerned. I watched this adult leave the hollow on dark and return a short time later with a Ringtail possum to feed its young. If white light was used, it probably would not have returned whilst I was watching or it may have abandoned its nest.
Walking at night
Long-sleeved shirt, long pants and sturdy boots are essential to protect yourself from cuts, scratches and bites when walking in the bush at night. I prefer to walk along tracks rather than through bush because you can move quietly and are likely to see many more animals. Depending on the weather and where I am walking, I may also take extra clothing, food, water, insect repellent, first aid kit and something to sit on.
For a walk at night I try to carry only the essentials which may include just a headlamp. Unnecessary gear can turn a casual walk into a hard slog.
Being in the bush by yourself can be very rewarding and you usually locate more animals when you are alone because your senses are heightened, however you need to be better prepared. In the dark your vision and sense of direction is poor and it is easy to become disoriented or fall on something you didn't see. When I venture out alone I always:
· Tell someone where I am going and when I expect to return
· Know my exact location at all times and if unsure, stop until I have worked it out
· Stay on the intended route unless I am familiar with the area or am carrying navigation aids
· When I venture off-track I always watch where I place each footstep to avoid a fall.