Drone Surveys Do Not Increase Colony-wide Flight Behaviour at Waterbird Nesting Sites, But Sensitivity Varies Among Species
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The popularity of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to survey colonial waterbirds has increased in the past decade, but disturbance associated with this bourgeoning technology requires further study. Disturbance was investigated by conducting aerial surveys with a consumer-grade quadcopter (DJI Phantom 3), while concurrently recording behavioural reactions on video. Surveys of mixed-species waterbird colonies (1-6 species per colony) were flown in horizontal transects at heights of 122, 91, 61, and 46 m, which is a typical range for collecting aerial imagery and producing high-resolution mosaicked orthophotos of nesting bird sites. An upper limit of 122 m was used due to local regulations prohibiting higher-altitude flights without federal authorization. Behavioural reactions were tallied every minute and a disturbance score was calculated for each sampling period. When compared to control periods, we found no evidence that colony-wide escape (i.e., flight) behaviour increased during drone flights, at any altitude flown. However, disturbance score increased significantly by 53% for surveys at 46 m. Some species were more sensitive to surveys than others. Laughing Gulls, in particular, exhibited a significant (125%) increase in escape behaviour for surveys at 91 m. Our results indicate when used in a capacity to gather high-resolution imagery for estimating breeding pairs, UAV surveys affected some species more than others, but severe reactions did not appear to increase for mixed-species colonies as a whole. Further study on safe operating thresholds is essential, especially at local and regional scales.