Kākāpō Dreaming: A Wildlife Drones Adventure

What is it like to track endangered species using drones? In this blog post from Wildlife Drones, Dr. Debbie Saunders travels to New Zealand to track the Kākāpō, an extemely rare and elusive bird of which approximately 210 remain in the wild. While the Kākāpō is known for being notoriously difficult to locate, even with the help of radio-tracking technology, within their scrub-dense habitat and across rough terrain, Debbie explains how drones work in tandem with tags to track these birds more effectively.

To learn more about using drones to track wildlife, join us on August 6th for our WILDLABS Tech Tutors episode with Debbie Saunders from Wildlife Tracking! View the full season lineup and registration details here. 

This blog post was originally shared on the Wildlife Drones blog.

Date published: 2020/07/08

Kākāpō dreaming – A Wildlife Drones adventure tracking one of the most endangered species on the planet

It was 4:30am when we crawled out of bed. Finally, we had arrived in New Zealand on a mission to trial our drone radio-tracking technology for the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) Kākāpō recovery program. But before we could even reach the island where almost half of the Kākāpō population exists, we had to pass inspection at the quarantine station and squeeze all of our drone gear into a tiny Cessna... in the pouring rain.

The light was slowly seeping through the fog when we took off over the grey coastline. But our attention rapidly turned from the weather to the rugged rocks jutting up out of the sea off the coast of Stewart Island, or Rakiura as the local Iwi community knows it. 

As we approached our destination, the island of Whenua Hou, the speeding Cessna thrusted us sideways, swooping down over the rugged and remote coastline, only to then shoot up into the sky again - seemingly to narrowly miss the rocky headland at the far end. “It’s all clear," our pilot announced. He was checking the beach to make sure there weren’t any lazing sea lions or big clumps of seaweed on our beach runway! 

With only a few days on the island, we made the most of every moment, and immediately prepared our gear. The central part of our kit, Wildlife Drones’ Kestrel 1000 advanced radio-tracking technology, was onboard our drone. We were able to fly every day on the island from wherever we were able to find a clear patch big enough to launch the drone. The first obvious place was the beach, where we did a few flights over sand dunes and rocky headlands. We were easily able to pick up signals and locations of multiple Kākāpō that otherwise would have taken many hours to locate individually on foot through thick scrub. 

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We then spent the next two days experiencing more of what the Island had to offer. We clambered and scrambled up muddy paths and rocky outcrops to reach the highest peaks and witness the most spectacular views, all while trying to catch our breath. But the rewards were well worth the effort, when we emerged from the dense vegetation to see from one side of this stunning Island to the other. It’s a daunting landscape when thinking about finding radio-tagged birds every day by hand through impenetrable scrub. But it’s a dream location for flying a radio-tracking drone with great line-of-sight and the ability to search for up to 40 tagged birds (19% of the global Kākāpō population) at the same time across rugged coastlines and rocky nooks in any direction.

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Debbie and Josh from Wildlife Drones looking over Whenua Hou Island

We were fortunate to work closely with Kākāpō extraordinaire, Dr. Andrew Digby and Estelle Pera-Leask, a local Iwi community rep who has strong family ties to the island, join us for the trip to observe how the island’s wildlife responded to drones. It was fascinating to hear about her observations as well as many of the legends passed on from her elders. There was always a story to share, and the only issue with the wildlife seemed to be that they didn’t care about the drone, since they kept landing nearby and foraging all around it! In fact, we had to make sure that they didn’t perch on the drone as we started it up at times!

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Dr. Andrew Digby with our drone

This trip was incredibly rewarding in many ways, both personally and professionally.  Just to see the excitement in the eyes of the researchers as they experienced what is now possible thanks to drone radio-tracking technology was a real highlight, as was meeting one of the incredibly charismatic Kākāpō we had the great fortune to track with our drone.

If you would also like to experience radio-tracking many animals at the same time with drone mounted technology, get in contact with us today!

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To learn more about using drones to track wildlife, join us on August 6th for our WILDLABS Tech Tutors episode with Debbie Saunders from Wildlife Tracking! View the full season lineup and registration details here. 

How would you use drones to track wildlife in the field? Come talk about it in our group forum!

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