Bird-watching in the computer age
A robotic camera has taken loon research way ahead. A US group is using the camera to catch the bird's every move from its home.
To study nesting loons, Lee Attix used to spend hours on end sitting on shore or in a canoe, battling black flies and boredom as he watched the birds through a spotting scope. This spring, he's keeping his eye on a pair of loons on a lake on Maine's midcoast from the comfort of a climate-controlled office nearly 160 kilometres away.
A digital camera has taken loon research from the cave age to the computer age.
Attix's organization, BioDiversity Research Institute, is using the robotic camera to capture the loons' every move. The Loon Cam, affixed to a pole in the water and facing toward shore, can be tilted up, down and sideways, or it can zoom in or out, from the institute's offices.
The camera records everything that happens on the loon nest, 24 hours a day. It also sends live streaming video and digital photos over the Internet.
'This is a living example of what technology can do,' Attix said. 'It blows my mind.'
It's not just loons that are being captured on camera for science and public education.
Lane Chesley, general manager of SeeMore Wildlife Systems Inc., said 18 or so of the robotic cameras are now in use. The company, based in Homer, Alaska, makes the camera systems specifically for monitoring wildlife in remote locations.
One camera installed this month is being used to study green turtles on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, another records endangered Steller sea lions in Alaska to learn more about why their numbers have plummeted.
At a California state park on an island off San Francisco, a camera records the activities of elephant seals. Another camera along the McNeil River in Alaska captures the world's largest congregation of brown bears as they fish for sockeye, silver and chum salmon. A camera on a small Maine island provides coverage of puffins and roseate and common terns.
BioDiversity Research Institute put up its camera in early May and pointed it at a spot on a tiny island in a lake where loons were known to have nested in previous years. The organization doesn't want the lake identified publicly for fear somebody might disturb the loons or steal the equipment.
The camera has a windshield wiper and squirt cleaner to keep the lens clean and is powered by two 12-volt batteries, which get their power from solar panels installed on the island.
A microwave transmitter sends a signal from the camera to a receiver on land. The camera is wired to a computer in a basement of a lakefront home, and that computer uploads the signal to the Internet.
When Wing Goodale, a biologist at the institute, sits at his computer, he feels as if he is sitting right there with the birds, even at night when an infrared light and lens allow for night observation. By clicking on different buttons, he can maneuver the camera in different directions or take still photos that are stored in his computer.
Goodale watched on the computer as the loons built their nest and the female laid two eggs. The eggs are scheduled to hatch around June 21.
When Goodale reviews the camera's time-lapse tapes, he will know how often the male and female birds switch incubation duty and rotate the eggs, habits that, to date, were unknown. He will know more about the birds' nocturnal behavior and how they respond to predators or even black flies.
'These are things we can learn because we have continuous observation,' he said.
On Eastern Egg Rock, 10 kilometres off the Maine coast, this will be the fourth summer sea bird researchers use a robotic camera to study puffins and terns. From there, a signal is transmitted to Project Puffin's visitor center on the mainland, and then streamed across its Web site.
Steve Kress, director of Project Puffin, said the camera gives a close-up view of puffins congregating after dusk or getting into squabbles, and puffin chicks wandering off or getting picked up and dropped on the rocks by neighboring parents. 'It's a real soap opera,' Kress said.
Kress sees as much value in the public education aspect of the camera, by getting school groups and the public involved in conservation issues.
'It brings the story to people. And that's necessary to give people a sense of understanding and caring for these sea birds,' he said.
David Evers, executive director of the BioDiversity Research Institute, said the loon population faces pressures from mercury contamination, lead sinkers, development, avian botulism and oil spills.
'This technology is very important for linking us as people, who are becoming more and more urbanised, with nature,' Evers said. 'Maybe this will stir people to be more protective of nature.'
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