This post originally appeared on http://www.greenwichtime.com/local/article/Scientists-plan-to-use-drones-to-track-duck-8350016.php.
[Editor’s Note: In the past, counting birds from the ground was hard to do because they’d get into vegetation and creeks, making it tough to see them.]
GREENWICH – Black Ducks used to speckle beaches and shorelines all up and down the Eastern coast of North America. Over the past 60 years, those speckles have been disappearing.
Scientists know that the Black Ducks are not a conservation success story. Like so many other threatened species, the problem is disappearing habitat.
Now Ducks Unlimited, a non-profit focused on waterfowl conservation in North America, is planning to study which habitat in Connecticut the ducks are choosing — with the help of drones.
If successful, that land can be preserved and protected and the strategy could be used with other migratory bird species. Being able to pinpoint ducks and track them could lead conservationists to troves of more frequent, accurate and useful data with ease, they said.
“Counting birds from the ground is difficult because they can get into vegetation and creeks and can be hard to see,” said Pat Devers, science coordinator for the Black Duck Joint Venture of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We think a UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) may help us with that, but we are not sure. That is why we are testing the technology.”
Ducks Unlimited has partnered with Black Duck Joint Venture, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and The Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech University to track Black Ducks in Connecticut beginning this winter.
A declining population
According to the Ducks Unlimited website, black ducks are similar in size to mallards and resemble female mallards but with darker plumage. The head is a slightly lighter brown than the darker brown body, but the duck gets its name from its iridescent violet-blue feathers with black margins that look black from a distance.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey of waterfowl done in 2010, about 822,000 breeding Black Ducks were counted from the upper Mississippi River across to the northeastern United States, north through northern Saskatchewan, Manitoba and across Ontario and the eastern Canadian provinces, with the highest breeding densities found in Maine and Nova Scotia.
While earlier counts are harder to pinpoint, scientists who study waterfowl said evidence showed a decline of Black Ducks in the 1950s that continued until the population plateaued in the 1980s.
Black Ducks are hardy birds. Like other migratory birds, they tend to fly south in the winter, but have been spotted as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as Florida during cold weather, Devers said.
There are a few pairs of breeding Black Ducks hanging out in Connecticut this time of year, but the state is mainly used in the winter by ducks that have migrated south from Eastern Canada, Devers said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife migratory bird count in 2015 listed 12 breeding pairs in Connecticut.
It begins with decoys
Scientists plan to begin the project by planting duck decoys in an as-yet-to-be chosen region in the state but one attractive to Black Ducks, which favor salt marshes, acid bogs, lakes, stream margins and estuary margins.
A drone will fly over and photograph the decoys. Different researchers will then use the photographs to count the decoys. The known number of decoys will be compared with the number counted from the photographs to determine how accurately the images will allow researchers to count ducks.
Counting American Black Ducks from the ground is tricky because they are more wary and skittish than many other species of waterfowl, said John Coluccy, manager of conservation planning at the Ducks Unlimited Atlantic regional office.
As a result, scientists have been using planes and helicopters to count Black Ducks since the 1950s. But that process is expensive, and makes it difficult for conservation associations to perform more than one or two counts a year, Coluccy said.
Drones have recently sprung onto the scene as a less obtrusive and far less expensive way for researchers to observe what kinds of birds are using individual small spots of land.
“After the up-front costs of purchasing hardware, you would basically just have to pay for charging batteries,” Coluccy said.
That reduced cost would allow researchers to collect data on a daily basis, Coluccy said. It would help them understand what time of year the birds are arriving, when their peak local habitation is and when they leave.
Scientists can also observe what the desired habitat is to determine if the ducks have enough space to flourish.
“We’re kind of using this as a feasibility study to test this whole technique,” Coluccy said. “Black Ducks are pretty wary, one of the most wary waterfowl species in North America. We want to see if this will disturb the birds.”
Matching drone to project
Drones go by many names and acronyms, and there are many different models. The one used for the Black Duck study is a Sensefly eBee. Its wings are fixed and it’s made of black and yellow foam, the colors of a wasp. It looks more like a small airplane than some of the helicopter-like recreational drones you sometimes see on Connecticut beaches, said Daniel Cross, chief UAS operator at Virginia Tech’s Conservation Management Institute.
Cross learned to fly a plane in high school, once considering a career as a pilot. He still has a pilot’s license, despite the career change that brought him to work in higher education.
When the opportunity to fly a drone for a conservation project came up, he wanted in, he said.
He programs the eBee before it leaves the ground, studying maps from the area and checking out the topography to determine the best way to identify and photograph the ducks from a distance.
Cross can override the pre-programmed system with a remote control if something unplanned happens — a collision with a bird or a plane flying through the area. He also has a cadre of helpers checking with him.
His drone is quieter than many copter-like drones recreational fliers use, which will help it sneak up on ducks, he said.
“This one is a fixed wing so it has a smaller engine than a quad copter would and it has only one,” Cross said. “You can hear it, but relative to the quad copters most people are using, it is fairly quiet.”
The Federal Aviation Administration currently classifies drone use for studies like this as commercial. Regulations are tight, and Cross’ pilot’s license makes him the only one allowed to fly it.
The Black Duck project isn’t the first time drones have been used to observe wildlife, but it will be a chance for regional researchers to spotlight Connecticut and test whether the burgeoning drone technology can improve the ways humanity protects wildlife in the Atlantic Flyway.
If the project is successful, Coluccy said, the Black Duck Connecticut team may expand its efforts to include sections of New Jersey, since the Atlantic Flyway stretches the entire length of the American Atlantic coast.
A successful drone/Black Duck project could lead to the method being used up and down the Atlantic Flyway, Coluccy said, to measure all sorts of species.
Min Huang, the migratory game bird program leader with the wildlife division of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said the drone/Black Duck project is his organization’s maiden voyage using drones to count waterfowl.
“If we can demonstrate that using drones can give accurate counts in tight spaces, we are going to open the doors for all sorts of situations and all sorts of species,” Huang said.