Dyer Island Nature Reserve conservation manager Deon Geldenhuys said the idea behind CapeNature testing out the use of drone technology is to count the breeding birds from aerial images. Picture: CapeNature
CapeNature is testing out the use of drone technology to transform its seabird counts.

CapeNature manages conservation efforts on Dyer Island, where the manual counting of birds is an essential process, which provides the baseline data that enables CapeNature to map the population fluctuations of all the bird species on the island.

This is especially significant during breeding season as managing authorities are able to track the number of birds that are breeding, and thus contributing to the growth of their populations.

In a statement, CapeNature said the bird counting which takes place every month can be a tedious and gruelling process, and requires its staff on the ground walking around the island to do a manual count with binoculars and notepads at the ready, taking utmost care not to disturb breeding birds.

The drone project was first investigated several years ago, but funding only recently became available through the Leiden Conservation Foundation.

Dyer Island Nature Reserve conservation manager Deon Geldenhuys said: “The whole idea behind the drone project is so that we can count the breeding birds from the aerial images. It is quicker and less intrusive than walking around the islands counting the birds. Additionally, it also provides a means to view areas on the island that are either difficult to access, or if accessed, have the potential to cause disturbance to the birds.

“The aerial view provided by the drone therefore provides a method of counting that reduces disturbance, and gives access to areas not counted by manual counts. This initiative is in its infancy and there’s still a lot to learn, but I think that it will be a ground-breaking project for CapeNature’s threatened bird surveys. Once we’ve completed the trials on Dyer, and if we’re happy with the results, then we will move it to other areas managed by CapeNature where bird counts are essential.”

In the case of the African penguin, the population counts show a species that is in sharp decline and conservationists are in a race against time to find solutions. Geldenhuys said the numbers of the African penguin are quite scary.

“If you think about Dassen Island in the 1800s, even earlier, it had over a million penguins. Dyer Island had up to 70000 penguins breeding in the 1970s. Over the last say 15 years the numbers have dropped drastically, up to the point where the African penguin was first listed as an endangered species in 2010, the status of which it remains at to this day,” he said.

Dyer Island is only 15.67 hectares in size, but is considered an Important Bird Area (IBA) in South Africa. The island and surrounding waters is home to 15 species of seabird, one species of seal and one species of southern African endemic shorebird.

The marine region is also home to a number of shark and other fish species.