The epic duck challenge: Sky cameras improve wildlife monitoring

Researchers have created colonies of model birds to show that unmanned aerial vehicles provide a highly accurate and inexpensive way of monitoring wildlife populations.

Jarrod Hodgson, a PhD student at the University of Adelaide, used social media to set up a test at Port Willunga beach in Adelaide. ‘#epicduckchallenge’ involved seven experienced bird spotters with binoculars and telescopes positioned 37 metres away from simulated colonies containing up to 1000 replica seabirds.

‘While the spotters on the beach counted birds, we flew our remotely piloted aircraft above the colony to a height of 120 metres, taking photographs at various resolutions,’ Jarrod Hodgson said.

‘We created ten colonies simulating Greater Crested Terns, using 22-cm long replica birds.’

The bird spotters did a good job counting the birds. But the remotely piloted aircraft did better.

‘It is very hard to count birds in colonies. It turns out to be more accurate to have people count birds in the aerial photos than to do it on location with binoculars or telescopes,’ Jarrod Hodgson said.

‘The higher the image resolution, the greater the accuracy.’

‘Manually counting birds in images is time consuming. So, we also used computer vision techniques to semi-automate the process. The results were impressive and with investment, it is likely we could make this process even more efficient.’

‘High quality wildlife data has never been more important. Our research is showing that unmanned aerial vehicles can efficiently and accurately monitor large areas. Seabirds are highly suited to this form of monitoring as many species are easily observed from above.’

‘Accurate monitoring can detect small changes in colony sizes. This allows proactive and adaptive management of species. Lower quality data may only allow detection of major declines in population of a species, at which time it may be too late to conserve them.’

Jarrod Hodgson is completing a PhD in wildlife monitoring techniques at the Unmanned Research Aircraft Facility ( at the University of Adelaide, led by Associate Professor Lian Pin Koh. His colleagues have used their aerial devices for detecting wallabies in South Australia and orangutans in Borneo.

The unmanned aerial vehicle used at Port Willunga beach has four rotors, powered by inexpensive lithium polymer batteries. The vehicle weighs around 2 kilograms and is approximately 50 x 50 cm.

‘We know little about animal responses to drones and this is one of the focuses of our current research. Our objective is to do accurate monitoring with minimal disturbance to the animals.’

Jarrod Hodgson presented his findings at the Ecological Society of Australia’s 2016 annual conference in Fremantle, Western Australia. The Ecological Society of Australia is the peak group of ecologists in Australia, with over 1500 members from all states and territories.

There is information on the Unmanned Research Aircraft Facility at the University of Adelaide at