Conservation Goes High-Tech

DU and its partners are using cutting-edge tools and technology to guide conservation programs across North America


By Jennifer Boudart

Ducks Unlimited was founded on science, and science continues to be at the heart of the organization’s conservation work. DU researchers constantly seek out the most valuable data, which might be obtained from government databases, from research published by others, or from research DU carries out in partnership with universities, government agencies, and other nonprofit organizations. DU’s conservation experts must also keep up with the latest advances in technology, whether that means knowing how to use high-tech tools or knowing how to analyze and make use of the data they provide. Following are some examples of how high-tech tools on the ground, in the air, and high in space are aiding the research and planning that support DU’s conservation programs.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Commonly referred to as drones, unmanned aerial vehicles can be piloted remotely or programmed to fly autonomously. They may carry equipment that captures high-resolution video and still images as well as geospatial (location-based) data that can be used to create maps and three-dimensional models.

DU has begun testing the use of drones for surveying waterfowl, and initial results are promising. A pilot study in Connecticut showed that images taken by drones could be used to accurately detect and identify randomly placed decoys in coastal salt marshes. And the drones caused little disturbance when flown over live birds. This makes drones a promising option for surveying American black ducks, which are very secretive and hard to locate using on-the-ground methods. A second pilot study in Iowa and Minnesota tested drones for locating duck broods as part of research studying brood use within wetlands impacted by agriculture. This study was a collaborative effort by DU, Iowa State University, Louisiana State University, Delta Waterfowl, and the U.S. Geological Survey Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. The drones, which were provided by DU and Delta Waterfowl, were found to actually improve brood detection rates compared to on-the-ground surveys. Researchers hope that drones may offer easier, safer, and more cost-effective ways to survey waterfowl in smaller areas, such as national wildlife refuges.

Researchers use solar-powered satellite transmitters to track waterfowl movements.

Photo © Joseph Albanese

Telemetry Devices

A telemetry device makes use of a transmitter and a receiver that work in tandem to record an animal’s location. Early technology used VHF radio signals sent to receivers over short distances. Today, telemetry devices are lighter, more compact, and more powerful. They allow researchers to track birds and other animals via satellites, global positioning systems, and even cell phone towers.

DU and its partners use telemetry devices to collect a wealth of detailed data about seasonal waterfowl movements, habitat selection, and even behavioral responses to factors such as human activity, weather events, and the presence of wind farms. For example, one DU-supported study, being led by researchers at Texas A&M University−Kingsville along with other partners, is tracking the migration of female northern pintails that winter along the Gulf Coast and in other key areas. The purpose of the three-year study is to better understand various pintail migration strategies and how time spent on nonbreeding landscapes impacts the birds’ survival and breeding success. This information will help DU and its partners plan and deliver conservation programs beneficial to pintails. Over the course of the study, nearly 500 birds will be fitted with solar-powered transmitters that download data via cell towers as the birds pass by.

Light-Level Geolocators

A light-level geolocator is an “archival” device that stores tracking data rather than transmitting it. The tiny, lightweight unit comes equipped with a long-lasting battery, a small computer, memory for data storage, and a clock. It uses light sensors to record photoperiod, or daily cycles of light and dark, over long periods. Recordings are synced with local time. Once downloaded, the combined data are used to calculate geographic coordinates in order to map a bird’s movements.

Geolocators are typically used to document long-distance movements of birds. Now, DU and partners are using this technology in a novel way to document breeding propensity (the proportion of hens that nest and lay at least one egg). When a hen fitted with a geolocator leg tag sits on the nest for an extended time, such as during egg laying or incubation, the unit’s light sensor is blocked from sunlight, and it records the event as a period of darkness. Studying these extended periods of darkness can help biologists estimate the time a hen spends on a nest, and that in turn can suggest nest success or failure. Studies using this technology are under way with female mottled ducks and Atlantic brant. These studies are expected to last several years, and the birds will need to be recovered to retrieve the data.

Earth Observation Satellites

Earth observation satellites orbit the planet (typically from pole to pole) to acquire data about Earth’s surface and atmosphere. The data are downloaded to ground stations worldwide, and in most cases datasets are available to the public at little or no cost.

DU makes use of imagery from earth observation satellites operated by government agencies and companies around the world, including those in the United States, Canada, and the European Union. Specialists interpret the satellite data and use it to classify, inventory, and evaluate wetlands and other habitats beneficial to waterfowl. Satellite imagery also helps DU detect changes to landscapes over time as well as monitor its projects. Satellite imagery is often the foundation for tools that help DU target its conservation programs.

GIS maps guide DU’s conservation work by displaying layers of landscape information.

Photo © Chris Sebastian, DU

Geographic Information Systems

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are computer-based systems used for analyzing, organizing, and displaying layers of landscape information on a map or other visual representation. Layers can be manipulated to create different scenarios and visualize different outcomes.

GIS maps are key to identifying where to restore and protect habitat in the most effective manner. They are the basis for Decision Support Tools that guide planning for DU’s conservation work. And they help support other aspects of DU’s work too, including project proposals, marketing materials, interactive products for members, public policy efforts, and fundraising. GIS datasets can represent a wide array of information. One good example is a Decision Support Tool that DU’s Great Lakes/Atlantic Region staff recently developed in partnership with the Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Region Joint Venture. The tool incorporated layers of geospatial data about breeding waterfowl, water quality, and agricultural activity. It also layered in “human dimension” data about the habits of bird-watchers and hunters, specifically how far they are willing to drive to participate in these activities. The resulting “hot spot” map will help DU and its partners select areas where it might be possible not only to address water-quality concerns and those habitats that support breeding waterfowl but also engage more conservation-minded people.