Using flashlights to look for owls

Some suggested guidelines


YOU WOULD HAVE THOUGHT — unless you're an owler — that it was pure common sense not to shine bright lights at owls at night. Well, you would, wouldn't you, because you know what it does to your own night vision, and how a really bright light can even hurt. It's nature's way of getting you to protect your eyes.

Yet this is common practice among owlers, and it's likely that many of them do it without a second thought. It's simply a time-sanctioned, unquestioned way of looking for owls at night. Nobody's going to stop you.

As I said on the Intro page, there seem to be no guidelines on the use of flashlights with owls. At least, I haven't found any yet. So here, purely off the top of my head (pending further digging around), is a suggested list.

I don't normally go out with a flashlight to look for owls (use me ears), but recently I used one to look for a "lost" fledgling. It immediately worried me when on two occasions my torch lit up an adult owl, the mother, on a hunting perch. She stayed where she was, and I found myself quickly lowering the torch to give her eyes a break. I didn't want our favourite owl to meet with an accident.

So I was kind of sensitised for when I came across a posting on the Owl Pages forum in which an old hand was suggesting to a novice owler that he/she take out a flashlight. When I questioned the advice, response came there none. Maybe the old hand thought my questioning of the practice was too silly to respond to. So I transferred the rest of what I was planning to suggest to my own website here (how nice to have one for such purposes!).

I'll flesh this out when I have more time. Meanwhile the guidelines I suggest seem like plain old common sense to me. Contributions and criticisms are, as usual, very welcome via my email: raham [at] btinternet [dot] com.

(For the Owl Pages forum thread that started this off, click here: "Will owls attack?")


1. Use a fairly low-power flashlight that throws a beam to 70-80 feet. This will just illuminate an owl in the top of a tree. Don't use a torch that can light things hundreds of feet away, like across a field.

(Most owls you find will be on lower hunting perches, and may be more like 30-50 feet away.)


2. Use a conventional bulb flashlight rather than an LED flashlight.

(In my experience, LEDs though seemingly more diffuse, are actually much brighter when looked at directly and dazzle more than a conventional bulb.)


3. Don't use a highly focused beam.


4. Never use flashlights with high candle-power ratings on owls. E.g. 10,000s to 100,000s or even millions of candle-power.

(My guess would be that these are capable of leaving temporary "scorch" marks on the retina that might take hours or even days to disappear, depending on factors like how dark it is, how long the owl looks, and which part of the retina is affected.)


5. If an owl is looking directly at the beam, don't keep the flashlight pointed at it for more than 10 seconds. After 10 s move the beam away or turn the flashlight off for at least twice that time before shining it at the owl again. Try to observe the owl when it is looking away. Use peripheral (weaker) parts of the beam if for some reason you have to keep the owl in view for longer.

(Obviously longer illumination times can be used if the owl is at the limit of the beam's reach. Remember the inverse of the inverse square law: halving the distance between you and the owl quadruples the strength of the light reaching its eyes.)


6. If in doubt about a flashlight, test it on yourself. Get a friend to shine it directly at your eyes from about 30 feet away and to do this for 15-20 seconds when you have full night vision on a dark night. How is your ability to see affected, and how long does it take to recover the level of night vision you had before? If it affects your night vision for any length of time (say 15-30 seconds or more), you should probably be looking for a weaker flashlight.


7. Go owl hunting on moonlit nights. Or in areas where there is already quite a lot of light. If their night vision is affected, they will be less at risk than on completely dark nights.


8. Be especially careful with owls in wooded areas. These are the owls that you'll put at most risk of having an accident. An owl that takes off over fields has a better chance.


9. Overall, be considerate to owls and use flashlights sparingly. Think about how their ability to hunt and avoid obstacles might be affected by having a flashlight shone at them. Would you want to try flying through trees with a blindfold over your eyes? Owls' eyes are rather poorly protected and very prone to injury. Be content simply that you have seen an owl at night. Identify it, then move on and find another.


You could also think about using a night-vision monocular or binoculars. These can be good for spotting owls at night, but the downside is they have a terrible effect on your own night vision. This is especially noticeable with a monocular because one eye can see afterwards and the other can't. More food for thought there!

(Page started 23 June 2008)

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