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University uses drones to transform seabird conservation

Staff and students at the university are using drones to more accurately survey seabirds without disturbing colonies.

One of the academics behind the research, which provides a semi-automated system for counting the number of birds, says that it’s the coolest study of his 25 years in science.

Accurate estimates of population size are key to understanding the population dynamics of wild animals and to support effective conservation management. However, some techniques demand specialist surveyors and may result in unacceptable disturbance or inaccurate counts. Seabirds are particularly challenging to survey, as they nest in large often inaccessible colonies that are commonly susceptible to disturbance by fieldworkers or recreational activity.

Staff and students studying Geography and Biology at the university have put forward plans to overcome such challenges, by using increasingly affordable technology to gather aerial views of animal populations. The university has developed a protocol for carrying out surveys with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) on breeding seabird colonies (Lesser Black‐backed Gulls, Larus fuscus) and determining population numbers by analysing the footage.

During observations of 12 different gull colonies no instances of nest loss were recorded and the UAV had no noticeable impact on gull behaviour. By comparison, walk‐through counts caused all gulls in the subcolony to take flight, with a few birds even attacking fieldworkers. This technology has the potential to include species differentiation in the future.

University Biology Lecturer, Dr Matt Wood, said:
“Seabirds are amazing, they’re such great indicators of the health of our marine ecosystems. But they nest in awkward colonies that are often hard to count. We used a drone to get a bird’s-eye view of a gull colony, but we did two important things: we did it without disturbing the colony too much, and then we trained a computer to count the gulls. Getting the images is one thing, but computerising the seabird counts is a whole new ball game. We’re rolling this out in other gull colonies, and developing ways of identifying different species. Hand on heart, this is the coolest study of my 25 years in science.”

Developments in analytical and survey tools, such as UAVs, will play a major part in the future of ecological surveys by minimising the disturbance to wild populations.

This research is one of a number of projects the university is highlighting as part of the national MadeAtUni campaign, which is designed to bring to life the difference universities make to people, lives and communities across the UK. To find out more about our research visit the Made at Uni webpage.