Searching for the invisible great bustards

BirdLife Hungary and Kiskunság National Park Directorate, Hungary

Searching for the invisible great bustards

The great bustard (Otis tarda) is an emblematic bird of the Hungarian plains, listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List since 1996. These beautiful large birds are ground nesting, connected to agricultural habitats, also meaning that they are one of the many species threatened by efficiency-driven modern agriculture.

In collaboration with BirdLife Hungary and Kiskunság National Park Directorate in the frame of LIFE Great Bustard, our goal was to test a dual RGB+thermal imaging drone to check the condition of known nests at risk, but on a longer run the goal is also to search for nesting individuals that can thus be geolocalized and protected from external disturbance.

Great bustards are very intimidated birds, they keep a very large distance from humans on the ground, get scared of noisy machines (including drones) or humans approaching them, and once chased away from their nests for any reason, they usually leave their eggs alone. Therefore, we needed to choose a relatively small and low-noise drone and fly at higher altitudes than in other similar cases to avoid unnecessary disturbance.

Our early morning tests in the scenic plains of Hungary were successful. Even though thermal cameras offer substantially lower resolution than standard RGB cameras, we could identify several hot spots on the thermal images that could potentially be nesting great bustards, and using the RGB images we could exclude false positives such as rabbits, deers or simple bushes with different reflectance and spot the otherwise very well camouflaged birds.

We hope to continue this fruitful and beautiful journey channeling state-of-the-art technology into new efficient ways of wildlife protection.

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