Eagle catching a drone
Raptors are being trained to snatch drones out of the sky. Photo ©Shutterstock

Who won the ‘epic birdwatching test’?

To anyone who has witnessed the impact drones can have on birds, the following research from South Australia might be ‘disturbing’.

A group of scientists at the University of Adelaide have pitted humans and drones in a so-called ‘epic test of birdwatching’ – and the drones came out on top. Or did they?

Ecologist Jarrod Hodgson is reported in WIRED as having used thousands of fake birds to test whether drone-based bird counters are better than professional birdwatchers at tracking numbers

Plastic terns

The birders were asked to count a large number of plastic terns on a beach, from a distance typical for birdwatching. The researchers flew an off-the-shelf quadcopter 30 to 120 m above ground to photograph the fake birds – using a digital camera with the time-lapse function activated.

Later, people with little birdwatching experience counted the birds in the photos—and they were 43% – 96% more accurate than the experts on the ground. (Hardly surprising.)

“We consider [the results] are especially relevant to aggregating birds, including seabirds like albatrosses, surface nesting penguins and frigate-birds, as well as colonial nesting waterbirds like pelicans,” says Hodgson.

“Even when the animals themselves can’t be seen, their nests or tracks can provide reliable indicators of their presence.”

Serious side-effects

But as is often the case when science and nature clash, there are potentially serious side-effects to be considered.

Seeing a huge flock of roosting shorebirds spooked by a raptor flying overhead is ‘natural’ and the birds know how to cope with that threat. But when some idiot tourist with a duty-free drone repeatedly sends it out into a resting or feeding flock, the reaction is chaotic, frenzied and quite clearly more disturbing.

A study published in the journalCell in 2015 found that drone fly-bys raised the heart rate of black bears in Minnesota, and eagles have been known to attack drones in the wild.

Hodgson says, “The results of such research will help to refine and improve drone monitoring protocols so that drones have minimal to non-existent impact on wildlife.”

Let’s hope so.

©Tony Neilson 2018

Bird flock spooked by a predator
Shorebirds choose easy-exit beaches when roosting at high tide. Photo ©Tony Neilson

©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.

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