Taking Flight

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, its…..a DRONE!

One of the hottest new tech gadgets, drones are not just for taking cool aerial pictures and for creating nighttime light shows. They are also a powerful tool for conservation.

Example of preliminary ground survey data taken with the thermal camera unmounted from the drone. Two spider monkeys are visible in this figure. Temperature scale for false colour thermal image is shown on the right-hand side. From: Spaan et al. Thermal Infrared Imaging from Drones Offers a Major Advance for Spider Monkey Surveys. Drones 20193, 34.

This summer, our researchers are starting a new project funded by the North Pacific Research Board and in collaboration with researchers from the US Fish and Wildlife Service that will explore how drones might help us monitor populations of seabirds in the Gulf of Alaska.

Seabirds in Alaska have had some significant die-offs in recent years, associated with abnormal ocean warming events (e.g. the blob). Being able to track their reproductive success on breeding colonies is essential for monitoring these trends and understanding the impacts of climate change across the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem.

two birds from the Bering Sea bird die off 2017
A puffin and shearwater found during the 2017 seabird die-off in Alaska. Picture: NPS/Stacia Backensto

We will be flying our new drones at islands just south of the Alaska SeaLife Center and seeing how traditional vessel-based surveys compare to drone surveys for three species of seabird: common murres, black-legged kittiwakes, and cormorants. Our goal is to explore questions like: Can we get a better picture of chick production from drones? Will we be able to survey additional sites that were difficult to observe from the water? and Which type of drone is best suited to bird surveys?

From a boat you can imagine it might be hard to count how many birds are using that top cliff, but a drone’s-eye-view might be helpful!

With great power comes great responsibility

Part of our project will also be to assess how the birds respond to the drones. We want to determine what types of flight patterns are best for observance without disturbance, so that we can maximize our ability to collect data but not impact the environment or organisms we’re trying to study. This will lead to a list of best practices for other researchers or for other non-scientist drone operators that might be flying near birds for photography.

So keep an eye to the sky and check in all summer to follow updates on this project!

Written by: Amy Bishop, Assistant Research Scientist

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