Moreton Bay is an internationally important wetland listed under the Ramsar Convention for its significance for migratory shorebirds. However, many species of shorebirds are experiencing a rapid decline. Feeding and roosting habitats are threatened by disturbance, coastal development, and the impacts of sea-level rise.
Reversing this decline is a major local management objective, and better monitoring data will improve management actions. Current manual methods of surveying have made a valuable contribution however they are not efficient for low tide counts of migratory shorebirds in Moreton Bay, with information on low-tide distribution and abundance desperately lacking.
The Moreton Bay Foundation has responded to this call and provided funding for the ‘Surveying Shorebirds in Moreton Bay using an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)’ project. Researchers deployed and tested a shorebird monitoring system using UAVs (drones) to capture aerial imagery. The imagery can be automatically processed to determine bird abundance, resulting in an accurate, efficient, and practical method for recording low tide counts, and for reaching inaccessible areas and large flocks. It will require reduced volunteer effort, and cause minimal disturbance to birds, complementing the existing manual survey effort.
This project is now complete. The research demonstrated that the Critically Endangered Eastern Curlew is exceptionally sensitive to drone disturbance at all distances and altitudes tested. Not only will they take flight, interrupting their own rest and feeding, their reaction causes less sensitive species in the area to take flight as well, expanding the negative impacts of the disturbance. A best-practice guide to inform appropriate management regulations regarding the use of UAV’s where shorebirds are present has been included in the Final Report, including the recommendation that measures preventing drone use within 475 m of waterbird flocks likely to contain eastern curlews be implemented.
‘Surveying Shorebirds’ was overseen by Professor Richard Fuller and implemented by Researcher Josh Wilson in a partnership between the University of Queensland, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, and the Queensland Wader Study Group.
It is anticipated that techniques developed through the Surveying Shorebirds UAV project will be transferable to other monitoring and survey programs across Moreton Bay – helping us better understand, protect and restore the unique habitats and biodiversity of Moreton Bay.