Seabirds of a feather flock to drone in sky

John Harvey

IN a first for Africa, the Nature’s Valley Trust has been using drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), technology to give accurate counts of bird species on the Keurbooms River in Plettenberg Bay.

The aircraft, which are custom built by Knysna-based company Steadi Drone, were first used in November to count the kelp gull colony.

So successful was the experiment that the trust is now in the process of purchasing its own drone so it can do counts every three weeks.

While the use of drone technology in wildlife counts is not new, in Africa there have been no published studies of bird numbers based on the images captured by the unmanned planes.

“Bird” drones were first used in 2006 in Spain and in the years since have been used mostly in the US.

The idea for local use is the brainchild of Michael Bridgeford, chairman of BirdLife Plettenberg Bay, who wanted to help Cape Nature officials obtain accurate data on bird species.

The November flights were undertaken to assess how the birds would react to the drone.

Launched from the beach about 50m from the nearest nest, the birds soon mobbed the aircraft before it reached altitude and was left alone.

The team returned on December 4 for the first photographic run, which proved highly successful. The researchers managed to establish that there are at least 1716 nesting kelp gulls in the Keurbooms colony.

Trust programme director Dr Mark Brown said: “There is some disturbance if the gulls are counted from the ground, and Mike felt it would be great if this could be minimised.

“He came across Steadi-Drone in Knysna, and followed up with them to set up the first count.

“This all happened last year, before my arrival in the area, and the process lasted about six months.”

The project is part of Minke Witteveen’s MSc project, carried out under the supervision of Professor Peter Ryan of the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of Ornithology at the University of Cape Town as well as Brown.

Brown said it was hoped that once the drone, which costs R32000, was purchased, it would be used for a number of projects, including more local counts.

But added to that would be measuring the rate of vegetation growth on some sites and monitoring water levels in the Groot River Estuary.

Brown said the aircraft was able to take as many photographs as one wished.

He will be fitting the trust’s drone with a GoPro camera, which will be used to shoot video and then broken down into screen grabs.

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