CapeNature uses drone technology to transform their seabird counts

by CapeNature

CapeNature manages conservation efforts on Dyer Island, where the manual counting of birds is an essential process which provides the baseline data that enables CapeNature to map the population fluctuations of all the bird species on the island. This is especially significant during breeding season as managing authorities are able to track the number of birds that are breeding, and thus contributing to the growth of their populations.

The bird counting which takes place every month can be a tedious and gruelling process and requires CapeNature staff on the ground walking around the island to do a manual count with binoculars and notepads at the ready, taking utmost care not to disturb breeding birds.

But there is an exciting alternative currently being tested – the use of drone technology for aerial counting. The drone project was first investigated several years ago but funding only recently became available through the Leiden Conservation Foundation.

The Conservation Manager for the Dyer Island Nature Reserve Complex, Deon Geldenhuys, takes up the story “…the whole idea behind the drone project is so that we can count the breeding birds from the aerial images. It is quicker and less intrusive than walking around the islands counting the birds. Additionally, it also provides a means to view areas on the island that are either difficult to access, or if accessed, have the potential to cause disturbance to the bids.  The aerial view provide by the drone, therefore provides a method of counting that reduces disturbance, and gives access to areas not counted by manual counts. By so doing, these aerial counts have the potential to provide an improved count accuracy. This initiative is in its infancy and there’s still a lot to learn but I think that it will be a ground-breaking project for CapeNature’s threatened bird surveys. Once we’ve completed the trials on Dyer, and if we’re happy with the results then we will move it to other areas managed by CapeNature, where bird counts are essential.”

Bird counting is important because the process provides real numbers to track the population trends of threatened species.  These population counts are used to assess the conservation status of the birds in question, and provide a means to measure how the birds are facing up to the multitude of threats they face. In the case of the African penguin, the population counts show a species that is in sharp decline and conservationists are in a race against time to find solutions. Geldenhuys comments that “The numbers of the African penguin are quite scary. If you think about Dassen Island in the 1800s, even earlier, had over a million penguins. Dyer Island had up to 70 000 penguins breeding in the 1970s. Over the last, say 15 years, the numbers have dropped drastically, up to the point where the African penguin was first listed as an endangered species in 2010, the status of which it remains at to this day.”

Dyer Island is the most southern of the 14 islands found off the South African coastline. The island is only 15.67 hectares in size, but is considered an Important Bird Area (IBA) in South Africa. The island and surrounding waters is home to fifteen species of seabird, one species of seal and one species of southern African endemic shorebird. The marine region is also home to a number of shark and other fish species as well as whales and dolphins.

The 8th June is World Oceans Day and the theme for 2018 is the prevention of plastic pollution and encouraging solutions for a healthy ocean. CapeNature CEO Dr Razeena Omar says, “This is a timely reminder that we need to harness and embrace every available resource, including technology, in the fight to identify the problems that are at the heart of the decline of many fish and seabird species.”

Whether you live at the coast or far from it, whether you eat seafood or not, everyone depends on the ocean. A healthy ocean generates more than half of the oxygen we breathe.  Our oceans, and the ecosystem that supports them, are so important to our, and the planet’s, future survival.

Omar adds, “It’s not just about the oceans. The marine environment is inherently connected to the rest of the water system. We all depend on the flow of fresh, clean water from our beautiful fynbos mountains, through the rivers and estuaries and in to the sea for our own survival, providing fresh water on land, and keeping the ocean ecosystem healthy.”

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