Using technology to find sea eagles

June 21, 2017

An adult white bellied sea eagle pictured on the Abrolhos Islands

An adult white bellied sea eagle pictured on the Abrolhos Islands

Researchers at Murdoch University are using the latest aerial surveying technology to monitor wildlife.

Dr Margaret Andrew and Dr Jill Shephard from the School of Veterinary and Life Sciences, developed the new techniques while studying white bellied sea eagle nests on the Abrolhos Islands, off the Western Australian coast.

They say the technique, which integrates very high resolution image data with the latest modelling methods, correctly identified more than 90 per cent of nests on the islands.

The strategies they have developed could be applied across disciplines, including the remote sensing of archaeological remains, said Dr Andrew.

The white bellied sea eagle is a charismatic species distributed around coastal Australia. The Abrolhos Islands supports the most significant breeding habitat for this species in the eastern Indian Ocean.

Dr Andrew said: “Information on the location of its nests is fundamental for the management and conservation of the species.

“The eagles are especially sensitive to disturbances near their nests, and the remoteness of the Abrolhos Islands makes land based surveys difficult and expensive.

“Aerial surveys are also difficult because there are many features on the islands that resemble the nests, and the nests also vary in size and shape. The new method helped us to identify most of the high quality nests.

“Two per cent of objects on the islands were highlighted as candidate nests but we were easily able to rule out all but the most likely nests in a process that was simpler and more efficient than manual photointerpretation of the full image.

“I was very impressed at how successful the new method was at detecting nests.”

Dr Andrew added that the new technique means researchers can maximise the use of imperfect images, such as those taken by unmanned aerial vehicles and the growing body of imagery available on Google Earth, to conduct aerial surveys.

The research was funded by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration grant #9545-14.

Dr Andrew and Dr Shephard’s paper was published in Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation. It can be viewed here.

See the latest news from Murdoch University here.

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Media contact: Jo Manning
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