Drones on guard of stork nests
Hexacopter, a six-propeller vehicle with high-definition video camera, was provided to AmurSEU (the Regional Public Environmental Organization of Amurskaya Province) staff that is involved in the research on Oriental white stork in Amurskaya Province within the framework of the program “Stork nest keepers” on the Russian Far East. This program is implemented by WWF-Russia in partnership with HSBC Bank.
One of the main tasks of the stork population monitoring and research is an annual count of the number of chicks in the nest, which allows estimating the total population level. However, due to the fact that the stork often nests on high trees or power transmission line towers, it is difficult or sometimes impossible to determine the exact amount of chicks from the ground.
“Some trees you can never climb up, - says Anton Sasin, PhD, assistant professor of DalGAU, stork conservation program coordinator of the AmurSEU, – There are ones whose lowest branches begin at a height of 3-4 meters, and the nest itself is 2 meters in diameter, which makes it impossible to look inside. Not to mention the power transmission line towers. They are from 18 to 30 meters in height and to climb them you need to have a special equipment, skills and permission from the engineers. We have managed to solve the problem with small trees by raising the camera above the nest with the help of an ordinary rod, but the only way to study the nests on the power transmission line towers is filming them from the air.”
At the moment monitoring of the stork nests on the electricity poles is one of the most important tasks. Ten years of research allows to suggest that the number of chicks in the nests located on the poles is on average more than in the nests on the trees. Considering that now about 40% of all the nests in the south of Amurskaya Province are located on the electricity poles, the lack of exact data on the number of chicks in them can significantly distort the picture of the overall population status. Using hexacopter will provide a complete and accurate data on this part of the population.
“The last year flood has flushed the entire Amur River floodplain, increasing fodder capacity for storks and cranes. Birds can now find food at almost all the lakes and oxbows. Therefore, we expect a very strong population growth. There will be more storks, they'll be in the most remote habitats and, of course, they will be nesting on electric towers. We offered the HSBC Bank to help us with the purchase of the new equipment for stork observation. Now, armed with the new technology, the experts will be able not only to count storks and cranes, but also to check in time if some nest has grown old or tree branches are damaged and the nest may fall. Chicks may die if urgent measures are not taken in time. New technologies is the future,” -said Svetlana Titova, PAs project coordinator of WWF-Russia Amur branch.
Using drones will make it easier to find new nests and define the exact geographical coordinates of already recorded nests in remote areas. Storks often build their nests in small groves surrounded by impassable swamps, and it is quite a difficult task to get there on the ground. “There are some nests that we know, - says Anton Sasin. - We monitor them with binoculars, we see that they are used by birds, but their exact location is not determined, and we cannot count chicks in them, because these nests are absolutely inaccessible.”
The pilot tests on hexacopter showed that it is easy to detect the nest sites in thick forest vegetation and to determine their exact location.
Another area of drone use is to find cranes’ nests. Unlike storks, Japanese and Daurian cranes build their nests on the surface of marshes, among the tall grass. And to determine their location from the ground is only possible through many-day birdwatching. At the same time, large nests built of dry grass will be clearly visible from the air. Besides, at present the issue of the research on breeding cranes and monitoring for their nests in Amurskaya Province is very serious, because the monitoring is only carried out in very small areas, occupying a small proportion of these birds breeding range.
Moreover, the conservationists of Amurskaya Province are now working out the methodology of cranes and waterfowl research on rookery during migration with the use of hexacopter. On migration routes cranes and geese always gather in certain places to feed and rest. Usually it is the corn fields that are adjacent to the marshes. Well aware of the location of such places, scientists are using these concentrations of birds to obtain data on their population and its dynamics over the years. The use of drones with video recorder will more accurately determine the number of birds on the rookery.