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Using thermal infrared cameras to detect avian chicks at various distances and vegetative coverages

January 16, 2020

Population monitoring of nesting waterbirds often involves frequent entries into the colony, but alternative methods such as local remotely sensed thermal imaging may help reduce disturbance while providing a cost-effective way to survey breeding populations. Such an approach can have high initial costs, however, which may have reduced the number of studies investigating functionality of paired thermal infrared camera and small unmanned aerial systems. Here, we take the first step of exploring the ability of two thermal infrared cameras to detect an avian chick under varying vegetative cover and distances, preceding field-mounting applications on a small unmanned aerial system. We created seven “bioboxes” to simulate a range of natural vegetation types and densities for a globally important colonial ground-nesting waterbird species, the common tern Sterna hirundo. We placed a juvenile chicken Gallus gallus (surrogate for the locally endangered common tern) in each box, and we tested two market-accessible infrared cameras (produced by FLIR Systems and Infrared Cameras, Inc.) at five elevations using a stationary boom (maximum height = 12 m). We applied computer-based digital thresholding to collected images, identifying pixels meeting one of seven threshold values. The chick was visible from at least one threshold value in 19 and 31 of 35 processed by the FLIR Systems and Infrared Cameras, respectively. Percentage of the chick identified across thresholds was generally highest at lower threshold values and elevations and decreased as elevation and threshold increased; however, the relative importance of each variable changed dramatically across bioboxes and camera types. Ability to detect a chick from processed images generally decreased with increasing elevation, and although we made no quantitative comparisons among boxes, detectability appeared greatest in images from both cameras when little or no vegetation was present. Interestingly, no single threshold value was best for all bioboxes. We observed notable differences between cameras including visual resolution of detected temperature differentials and image processing speed. Results of this controlled study show promise for the use of thermal infrared systems for detecting cryptic species in vegetation. Future research should work to combine thermal infrared and visual sensors with small unmanned aerial systems to test applicability in a mobile field application.