Spotlight surveys conducted by volunteers is a promising method to assess the abundance of nocturnally active mammals, but estimates are subject to bias if different observer groups differ in their ability to detect animals in the dark. We quantified the variation amongst volunteer spotlight observers with respect to their ability to detect and estimate distance to realistic animal silhouettes at different distances. Detection probabilities were higher for observers experienced in spotlighting mammals than for inexperienced observers, higher for observers with a hunting background compared with non-hunters and decreased as function of age but were independent of sex or educational background. If observer-specific detection probabilities were applied to real counting routes, point count estimates from inexperienced observers without a hunting background would only be 43 % (95 % CI, 39–48) of what inexperienced hunters with a hunting background would obtain and 29 % (25–33) of what experienced spotlight observers would detect. Mean estimated distances to objects did not deviate from true distances (no bias) but were highly imprecise. Female non-hunters estimated distances less precisely than other observers and precision increased with age. The study shows that observer effects may influence abundance estimates and underlines the importance of testing and accounting for observer effects when designing citizen science-based population survey programmes.