We’re Flying So They Don’t Have To

The Picture Of Non-Disturbance. A Survey With A Smile.

I was already tiring of the risks and expense of operating drones when consumer UAVs started being legislated.Ā Longtime Readers probably remember RFTNS was an early adopter of flying cameras and how I put more than a few of my early creations into the sea chasing dolphin. As the technology improved and the costs came down, I started seeing more and more people using them in annoying and dicey ways at the beach.

So when my own community of Long Beach Township completely outlawed drones, it was the final straw. I hung up my wings and pilot’s cap for good.

Yet right before I stopped flying, I had been involved with some early tests of using inexpensive toy drones for wildlife management. The potential was huge. It was a cheap, fast, and, if done correctly, safe way to do surveys of birds in remote locations.

It would certainly be safer for the biologists. It is a little known fact that wildlife biologists die all the time in helicopter crashes surveying animals. Go ahead. Fact check it!

But it could also be safer for the birds. Surveying on foot can be chaotically invasive. Drones can be silently stealthy.

So, with lots of guidance, I did a bunch of tests at both Osprey nests and Black Skimmer colonies to understand how the birds reacted. The results were clear: birds reacted to small drones exactly as they would to any aerial predator. Fly threateningly and they will flush, or attack it. Be cool, and they won’t even notice.

I walked away convinced it could totally work. The weak link was the camera. The key to being non-disruptive was to keep a healthy distance. Unfortunately, the safest distances always seemed to be the ones where the camera was just out of range to be really useful. And in the early days, scientists were generally skeptical of wary of taking any new risks with species they already had enough trouble with.

Jump forward a few years to today, and the drones, the cameras they carry, and we, have all come a long way. It’s time to give this a serious go.

Ben Wurst of the NJ Osprey Project has added a consumer drone to his toolkit this season and has begun testing it on a limited basis at good candidate nests. He obviously did all of his paperwork, got all of the appropriate licenses and permissions, and has spent the last year flight training for these delicate operations. All he needs now are some good nest candidates for testing.

It turns out we have the perfect one in Barnegat Light. Perched a top a high pole on a busy street, the nest is already used to lots of disturbance. It has safe places to launch the drone from, and great views to observe the adults’ reaction to the drone. In the event of an attack, the drone could be safely crashed into the marsh grasses, and easily recovered. It is a nest that would otherwise require some heavy equipment to survey as it is too high to be reached by ladder.

Despite the lengthy explanation and disclaimers above, there still might be some people who see this as harassing the birds. It is actually the opposite. Surveys are absolutely critical. The fact is, we “left the Osprey alone” for years, and guess what happened? They reached a critical low of 50 pairs in New Jersey and were on a sharp trajectory towards extinction. So we started surveying them annually, studying their productivity, and helping them adapt to a world where we cut down all of their trees and polluted their marine environment. We now have 700 pairs, thanks in no small part to years of dedicated surveying and study of Osprey productivity around Barnegat Bay.

Surveys are necessary, and this video demonstrates that, in the right circumstances, drones are a quantum leap forward in terms of being less annoying to the animals while doing them. It is a truly amazing leap.

Other people might see the value, but worry that this video will encourage hobbyists to fly their drones over nests. But those folks are already encouraged. YouTube is full of videos of people doing stupid things with their drones, and having their drones destroyed by birds of prey. The cat’s out of the bag. Hopefully this video provides some inspiration for using drones responsibly.

With the disclaimers out of the way, we can now get to fun part; the exclaiming!

This mission was a huge success, and the dicey platform a-top to pole in Barnegat Light has two, beautiful, fat babies in it! This is a very rare Osprey nest on LBI proper and a welcome addition to the Island.

Enjoy the view. Both of the Osprey and of Ben Wurst helping evolve the delicate work of caring for our wild animals!