Eye Shine and Owlet Nightjars

Subject: Eye Shine and Owlet Nightjars
From: Andrew Hobbs <>
Date: Mon, 18 Nov 2013 20:08:38 +0800
Given the nature of insect eyes, is it possible that you are seeing some sort of irridescent effect, similar to the irridescent colours seen in some insects and bird feathers etc. (due to diffraction, multiple reflections and interference etc.)

On 18/11/2013 7:03 PM, Denise Goodfellow wrote:
And wolf spiders' eyes (for that's what you're seeing), appear to change
colour as you approach them!

Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow
PO Box 71,  Darwin River,
NT 0841
043 8650 835

On 18/11/13 6:24 PM, "Mona Loofs Samorzewski" <>

Thanks Andrew for that excellent explanation.

Along the same vein, I have walked around the bush at Howard Springs near
Darwin at night with a head torch on, and seen many many reflections coming
from the ground from spiders eyes. And they were blue! A friend with a
hand-held torch wasn't seeing them at all until he put my head torch on. And
then we realised how many spiders we were walking on...


On 18/11/2013, at 4:54 PM, Andrew Hobbs wrote:

There are two types of 'eye shine'.

As Chris said it is partly simple physics. By the nature of the eye and its
focus on the back of the eye when light is shone into it there is a
reflection from the back of the eye. As is the case with anything being
illuminated, at least some of the light is reflected back along the same path
and will appear to cause the eye to 'shine' (compared to the rather
non-reflective coat of hair, feathers etc).

But there is another factor.  Some animals (including some birds such as
owls) which are active at night, have a layer at the back of the eye called a
'Tapetum Lucidum'.  This layer contains mineral crystals which have the
property of reflecting almost all the incident light back along the same path
as the incident light. (Look up 'Corner reflector' on Wikipedia) This layer
is behind the layer of light sensitive cells, doubling the sensitivity of the
eye. (The cells have two chances of capturing photons; coming and going).
When you shine a light into an animal or bird with these eyes they really do
appear to shine very brightly. However the reflection is not perfect and some
light is reflected back somewhat 'off axis'. In this case, because the
reflection is so strong, you can still see a reflection even if your eyes are
well off the same axis as the torch beam.

In contrast, in animals (and birds) without a Tapetum Lucidum, the light is
reflected of the Fundus at the back of the eye.  This is not a good reflector
but some does get reflected back along the axis.  Because the reflection is
so much weaker your eyes need to be much closer to the axis of the torch beam
to see the effect.

The colour of the eye reflection from the Tapetum Lucidum depends upon the
properties of the crystals in the layer.  It can vary more or less across the
full visible spectrum.  However in animals without that layer the reflection
is always red.  The red colour is mainly due to the haemoglobin in the blood
vessels at the back of the eye. (This is the basis for the red eye effect in
people. We don't have a Tapetum Lucidum.)


On 18/11/2013 12:18 PM, Chris Corben wrote:

It's very simple physics. Almost anything looks brightest when the light
source is close to your eyes. But in addition, a bird's eye is pretty much
retro-reflective. That is, the light reflected by it mostly goes back along
the path it came from. If you think about it, you are looking at the inside
of a sphere, so wherever the light comes from, it is reflected back in the
reverse direction. The same principle is used to make road markings shine
brightly at night. The paint on a road is filled with tiny glass spheres, so
that from whatever direction the light arrives, some portion of it is
retro-reflected. Since the headlights of a car are not too far off the line
of your sight, a lot of that light comes back to your eyes, and the markings
look bright. If the paint was just plain gloss paint, it would be much more
reflective, but nearly all the light from the headlights would be reflected
away from the driver, and the paint would look essentially black. As does
smooth ice,
  and for the same reason.
Owlet Nightjars eyes are not nearly so bright as White-throated Nightjar's
eyes. But even a White-throated can be seen at much greater distance with a
light which is close to your eyes. It makes such a difference, that you can
wear a headlamp and see the eyes of things like owls at reasonable distance
even though the headlamp is not very bright. A side benefit of this is that
the lower light levels will scare the bird a lot less, so you can actually
gain by having a lower intensity light if it is close to your eyes. A
headlamp is perfect for that!

Incidentally, if you know to look for it, you can see eye-shine of animals
in all sorts of unexpected ways. A classic case is to get to a place where
there are frogs on the surface of the water. If you get the sun straight
behind you (eg in early morning or late afternoon), you will be able to see
their eye-shines surprisingly well, especially if you use binoculars.

Using binoculars with a headlamp is a great way to find all sorts of
creatures at night. Frogs, snakes, geckoes, spiders, small mammals and even
bats in the right situations. Just use your binoculars to look at the spot
of light from the headlamp.

Cheers, Chris.

On 11/17/2013 08:39 PM, Roger McNeill wrote:
A few weeks ago Gus McNab was over and we were discussing spotlighting and
I mentioned how I have a good population of Owlet Nightjars on our block
but I never see them at night because their eyes don't eyeshine, despite
wandering the woods after hours.
  He told me (politely) how wrong I was and the issue was that I was not
holding the torch in the right place to see it.  What I needed to do was
walk around like a unicorn with the torch beam emenenting from between my
eyes.  I (polietly) said that is faseniting, thinking that this was surely
some ploy to make me look like an idiot...not that help is required...and
thinking how that could possibly be true?
  Last night, I had a visiting bird-o who wanted to see Nightjars and other
things so we decided to wander the tracks and see what we could find.
First try was for White-throated Nightjars...two birds pearched up for us,
brilliant eyeshine.  A koala started calling back at the house so we
wandered back, yep bright eye shine...we then decided to walk down to
"owlet-nightjar grove" and I had three birds respond and two come in, one
quite close.  I put the torch on the bird and as expected no-eyeshine...but
then I tried Gus' recomendation and move the torch between my eyes and wow,
its eyes shown back bright red like a Christmas tree.  Amazing! Gus you
were right, but I have no idea what the explanitaion was or why this is the
case!  Thanks for the tip...wanted to share publically.


  Roger McNeill
Samford Valley, SEQ

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