A high specification drone has been used in a successful trial to count cliff-nesting seabirds at a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) reserve on the Yorkshire coast thanks to funding from global offshore wind leader DONG Energy.
The trial took place at Bempton Cliffs, part of an internationally important site which attracts over 250,000 birds annually, providing a breeding ground for many of them.
A drone, provided by environmental consultancy NIRAS, was used to see if the technology was suitable to carry out future surveys of cliff-nesting seabirds. The survey data is used by the RSPB and will also help as DONG Energy makes plans for the development of offshore wind farms off the Yorkshire coast, such as Hornsea Project Three.
Previous seabird counts have been undertaken visually from a boat and were so highly weather dependent that it has limited the number of years in which complete colony counts have been possible.
Allen Risby, Lead Environment and Consents Specialist at DONG Energy said: "DONG Energy is pleased to be working with the RSPB to trial this novel approach to counting seabirds. Obtaining accurate counts of breeding seabirds is important for monitoring the health of the colony at this iconic site."
The success of the trial was dependent on the drone being able to get close enough to the colony to provide imagery of a resolution sufficient to distinguish between the different bird species, whilst ensuring that the breeding seabirds were not disturbed.
In the event, the birds showed minimal interest in the drone which produced photos detailed enough to distinguish between guillemots and razorbills, two species of auk that look very similar when observed from a distance.