Using Advanced Technology to Enhance Research at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center (PWRC) - a Public-Private Partnership

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This project is focused on exploring the use of new technology to collect data on colonially nesting waterbird species in ways that reduce disturbance, improve data accuracy, or allow for the examination of previously unanswerable questions.

The Challenge: Threats such as habitat loss, increased severity of storm events, and emerging diseases are affecting wildlife populations, with particular concern for threatened and migratory species. Unfortunately, much of the data required to understand how to best manage these impacted species requires heavy disturbance to obtain or is not able to be gathered from currently available methods. Thus, we aim to develop and test a variety of technologies to address these issues and inform the management of waterbird species. For instance, conducting colony surveys with remote sensing technologies (primarily unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), ie. drones) could increase efficiency and decrease disturbance in surveying breeding waterbird populations. This technology will allow us to scan for nests, count eggs, and search for chicks hidden in vegetation without physically entering nesting colonies. Eventually, additional equipment could be added to UAVs to allow for thermal imaging or other approaches. Similarly, deploying remote camera systems at nests could allow researchers to gather a constant data stream that would allow the examination of fine scale behaviors that may be influencing nest success.

The Science: In 2015, the USGS began a pilot project to improve monitoring efforts of colonies of Maryland state “special concern” waterbird species. This work was conducted in partnership with UASBio LLC, the Army Corps of Engineers, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The drones were flown at different heights over the colonies and a live video feed was used to locate individual birds and nests. Behavioral response to presence of UAVs were recorded. Thermal infrared imagering (TIR) sensors were also tested for efficacy in detecting chicks under varying vegetation conditions. This was done under controlled conditions, using a lift to simulate UAV heights and vegetative cover conditions (0 to 100%), and a captive-raised chicken chick as biological surrogate. Since this time, we have conducted UAV trials over egret colonies to determine the level of disturbance birds experience when this equipment is utilized, and are in the process of developing a comparison between traditional survey methods and counts derived from aerial imagery.

The USGS has also deployed cameras to individual Common Tern nests, along with temperature loggers, to examine nest attentiveness and the potential impacts on nest success. It is our hope that this work will determine if low disturbance temperature loggers can provide managers with detailed information on reasons for nest failure when such events occur.

The Future: Our country is in the early stages of utilizing drones outside of defense applications. This ongoing research could be a model for how new technologies can be used safely and effectively by local, state, regional and federal agencies to monitor, research and protect our natural resources. Such approaches may also provide greater insight into the general biology and behavior of various waterbird species in the Chesapeake Bay. Similarly, we hope that our work with temperature loggers and camera deployments pushes forward this avenue of study so that we may improve our theoretical and applied understanding of these important species.