Surveying cliff-nesting seabirds with unoccupied aircraft systems in the Gulf of Alaska
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Surveying cliff-nesting seabirds with unoccupied aircraft systems in the Gulf of Alaska

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  • Journal Title:
    Polar Biology
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    Drones, or unoccupied aircraft systems (UAS), can transform the way scientific information on wildlife populations is collected. UAS surveys produce accurate estimates of ground-nesting seabirds and a variety of waterbirds, but few studies have examined the trade-offs of this methodology for counting cliff-nesting seabirds. In this study, we examined how different UAS survey parameters might influence seabird counts for population monitoring and assessed behavioral responses to aerial surveys for three sub-Arctic seabird taxa in the Gulf of Alaska: common murres (Uria aalge), black-legged kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), and pelagic and double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax pelagicus and Phalacrocorax auritus). We flew two commercially available models of UAS in planned approaches at different speeds and distances from colonies during incubation and chick-rearing periods. We compared counts from UAS-derived images with those from vessel-based photography and assessed video recordings of individual birds’ behaviors for evidence of disturbance during UAS operations and control phases. Count estimates from UAS images were similar to or higher than those from conventional vessel-based images, and UAS were particularly effective at photographing birds at sites with high cliff walls or complex topography. We observed no significant behavioral responses to the UAS by murres or cormorants, but we did observe flushing by black-legged kittiwakes during UAS flights; most of these birds were not incubating or brooding. At both the colony and individual level, we observed slightly greater responses to the smaller UAS platform and closer approaches. These results inform both species specific and general best practices for research and recreational usage of UAS near cliff-nesting seabird colonies.
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    Polar Biology, 45(12), 1703-1714
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    CC BY
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