Assessment of shorebirds and wading birds in Galveston Bay using conventional and UAV techniques



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Nearly 75% of all U.S. bird species utilize Galveston Bay as either a permanent or seasonal habitat (Galveston Bay Foundation, 1996). Critical coastal bird habitat, including Galveston Bay, is at risk from continued loss due to various factors, including anthropogenic influences (Atkinson, 2003). One of the first steps in conserving and protecting this habitat is to understand the relationship among coastal bird population sizes, density and various intertidal habitats by establishing effective monitoring programs. Collecting data on intertidal and non-tidal habitat use by waterbirds using traditional survey methods can be difficult, though. New emerging technology in the form of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) may, however, facilitate large-scale aerial surveys of these areas with less risk, expense, effort, and disturbance (McEvoy et al., 2016). Waterbodies such as Bastrop Bayou and Bastrop Bay provide the ideal setting to test UAV technology for population surveys and habitat selection by wading birds. Conventional boat surveys were conducted in Bastrop Bay bi-monthly from August 2016 to July 2017. These surveys collected base-line information on species abundance and composition for the Bastrop Bay system. Water level was observed to affect which species were observed. Substrate was found to direct patterns of species diversity and abundance more than seasonality for shorebird and wading birds in Bastrop Bay. Two UAVs were used to survey areas around Bastrop Bay as well. The fixed-wing UAV was found to cause more disturbance than the quadcopter UAV. The footage collected with the quadcopter was provided images of more birds than were observed during the concurrent field surveys. Of these birds, 11 of 15 species were able to be identified using the footage. The fixed-wing footage, however, only provided enough detail to identify three species. Though the results collected using the UAVs during this study are promising, further research needs to be conducted to continue to outline standard operating procedures for using UAV technology for surveying shorebirds and wading birds in intertidal habitats.