Nighttime is when all the fun animals come out to play! Here’s a handy guide to help you spot those cheeky nocturnal critters. 

Shining a Light on Spotlighting

Spotlighting is simple – you shine a light around at night until you catch the eyeshine of an animal. A lot of mammals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians are active at night so using a torch to ‘spotlight’ is the key to finding them. They may be on the ground or up in a tree, so be sure to look all around! 

Read more: How and Why to Explore at Night


A powerful head torch is all you need to get going!

Spotlighting Gear

The essential gear for spotlighting is a powerful head torch, or a handheld torch (30 Watts and above). Wolf Eyes design excellent torches that make you feel exactly that, like a wolf. 

Some fun add-ons include binoculars and a DSLR camera with a telephoto lens. Binoculars are handy for getting up close and personal with the animal without being physically close to them, and a telephoto lens allows you to capture the moment. 


Scrub python (Simalia kinghorni) | Photo by Andrew Jensen

Spotlighting Tips and Tricks


Keep the Light in Your Eyeline

Spotlighting relies on reflective eyeshine of animals. Set your head torch or hand-held torch close to your eyes to get a better chance of seeing the eyeshine. 


Walk, Drive, or Stand Very Still

You can spotlight on foot or in a slowly moving vehicle. If you’re walking around, you have less of a chance of startling animals and possibly have a better chance of seeing them.


Northern leaf-tailed gecko (Saltuarius cornutus) | Photo by Andrew Jensen


A vehicle allows you to cover more ground, even if you’re driving 5-10km/hr. Stick your head out the window like a doggo and enjoy! Just be careful spotlighting if you’re the driver, and keep your eyes on the road! 

Sitting perfectly still and quiet and listening for the sounds of wildlife is another technique, especially if you can’t move very far from your original location.


Learn Animal Patterns and Routines

There are a bunch of factors that affect the detectability of animals at night, so getting to know your target animal’s behaviour and habitat can help. For instance, you can improve your chances of spotting gliders and flying foxes if canopy trees are flowering.

Marsupials living in trees will have varying active periods, like Yellow-bellied gliders (Petaurus australis) which are active at dusk, while Green ringtail possums (Pseudochirops archeri) are most active in the few hours before dawn.


Green ringtail possum (Pseudochirulus herbertensis) | Photo by Andrew Jensen


Bats are normally the first ones up and the last ones to call it a night. Plan your trip around your target species to maximise your chance of having a successful spotlighting session.

Keep in mind that not all spotlighting sessions will be successful though. When looking for wild animals, nothing is ever guaranteed. Patience and passion are the keys to wildlife spotting success! 

Spotlighting Ethics

While it’s fun to watch the animal you’ve spotlighted, be aware that the long exposure to white light can temporarily reduce their night vision. This can potentially affect their ability to forage and may increase the risk of predation. It’s best to avoid long exposure of the animals to the spotlight beam, the light should only be used to locate the animal. 


Striped possum (Dactylopsila trivirgata) | Photo by Andrew Jensen


If you want to get a better look at the animal after locating it, you can dim the light, point the main beam of light away from the animal, or use an infrared beam or red filter. Many head torches and hand-held torches will come with a red filter. I know you wouldn’t enjoy it too much if you were staring at a beam of light for a long period of time, and neither do the animals!

The most important thing to remember is to never get too close to the wildlife and definitely no touchie! If you’re unsure how close is too close, use the rule of thumb – extend your arm in front of you with your thumb sticking up and close one eye. Your thumb should cover the animal’s image. If you can still see it, you’re too close.

Spotlighting in the Atherton Tablelands

An hour south-west of Cairns, the Atherton Tablelands features many incredible national parks which house animals that only live in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area.

I took my first trip up to north Queensland to Djirbalngan country in October 2019. My goal was to see as many endemic species as possible, in particular Herbert River ringtail possum (Pseudochirulus herbertensis), because they’re so cute and the emblem of the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service.

It didn’t take long to spot the bright eyes of my first critter, the green ringtail possum. This was a life first for me, a species that I’d never seen before, so excitement levels were high. Not long after I saw the Herbert River ringtail possum. And not just one, but two!

I popped the red light on my torch so I could take a moment to observe the cuties. It’s quite a magical experience watching a wild animal go about its day (or night). The possum stared into the red light for a moment, then continued clambering up the tree. 

Next stop was not a national park but a popular home to the Lumholtz tree-kangaroo (or mupee, boongary or marbi to the area’s Djirrbal and Ngadjon-jii peoples) (Dendrolagus lumholtzi).


Lumholtz tree-kangaroos (Dendrolagus lumholtzi)


Nerada Tea Rooms have a resident group of these curious-looking marsupials and I was lucky enough to spot five of them, including a mum and bub.

Nighttime adventures are really something special and offer the opportunity to spot wildlife you’d unlikely see when the sun’s up. Grab your torch and get out there!


Feature photo: Lesser sooty owl (Tyto multipunctata) by Gus Daly