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Digital data collection for wildlife surveys leads to better—and faster—information

August 25, 2020

By Michael Preston

Our digital tools support wildlife survey programs, giving you the information needed to move projects forward efficiently, safely, and responsibly

If your project requires monitoring for birds or their active nests, digital data collection is the way of the future. It’s a game changer for delivering quicker and more accurate wildlife survey results.

Our environmental scientists undertake many types of wildlife surveys to help clients meet the environmental regulations required of their projects. For example, baseline surveys for a proposed greenfield project are likely to require surveys for migratory birds. Also, existing projects undertaking vegetation clearing or maintenance, or infrastructure maintenance, during the nesting season will likely need to manage for nesting birds. Previously, we performed both kinds of surveys manually, collecting data on paper datasheets and transferring that information to a spreadsheet and geographic information system (GIS) for tracking and reporting. Now, with our new digital data collection tools, we can collect data and provide results to clients faster and more reliably.

Two of the proprietary digital technology tools we’ve developed to support bird survey programs—BirdIT and onLOOKer—are helpful.

Great gray owl

Bird nest sweeps and BirdIT

First off, what is a “bird nest sweep” and why might you need one? For our clients, before they take down trees, manage vegetation, or upgrade or demolish infrastructure, they need to know if and where active bird nests are on their site. The reason? You’re required to avoid “incidental take” or IT, which is the accidental or unintentional destruction of a bird’s nest.

A bird nest sweep involves having one or more experts from our team survey the project area for active bird nests and reporting the locations of nests to our client. It’s in the client’s best interest to learn the locations of these nests quickly and accurately. That’s because, with each day that passes, new birds can arrive on a site and begin nesting. With up-to-date, accurate data, you’ll know where the active nests are located—and how to avoid them.

With our new digital data collection tools, we can collect data and provide results to clients faster and more reliably.

Previously, bird nest sweeps were documented on paper forms, recording such details as the nest’s location, height, type of vegetation where it is located, and more. This written information would be transcribed back at the office, where it would also be checked by a colleague for accuracy before being sent to our client. That process used to take lots of time and was could lead to errors. It was also not an ideal workflow for managing many nests, repeat visits to nests (if needed), and for tracking survey coverage and the expiry date of the nest sweep.

So, we developed BirdIT. Using a smartphone or tablet, we can download a map of the project and study area and use a customized species list specific to the location. With a user-friendly dashboard, BirdIT becomes a part of your project and we collect the necessary data to keep you informed. BirdIT has dropdown lists for habitat, nest attributes, weather, date and time of discovery, and recommended mitigation—everything we need to complete a thorough bird nest sweep quickly and accurately to support your project. Data from BirdIT can be synchronized remotely to a secure server, quality reviewed by someone in the office, and released for use within hours of it being collected. This is light years beyond our old survey methods of pencil and paper.

Dusky grouse

Point counts and onLOOKer

Like BirdIT, onLOOKer is a proprietary app used by our field survey teams. But, instead of bird nest sweeps, onLOOKer helps us to complete “point counts.”

The concept of a point count is straightforward, but the execution—especially when done manually—can be time-consuming. When completing a point count for birds, the surveyor stands in a single spot to observe and count birds within a fixed radius for a set period. For example, a surveyor may select a 3-minute time limit and record every bird they see within a fixed radius (e.g., 100 metres). For a single project, you might do many of these counts each day for several days, and you may repeat those surveys in subsequent seasons or years.

The manual method of completing a point count is labor intensive and time-consuming. Using pencil and paper, GPS, rangefinder, compass, and binoculars, a surveyor would manually document each observed bird by drawing a dot on a preprinted datasheet (based on where they estimate the bird is) and mark the attributes for each observation (e.g., time of detection, behaviour). Like with a bird nest sweep, the surveyor brings that data back to the office and transcribes it to a GIS, which is very time-consuming and is subject to transcription error. Once complete, the data is meticulously reviewed before being released for use.

onLOOKer is a digital data-collection tool that resolves many issues associated with manual collection. Using an iPad with built-in GPS, we download a map of your project or study area and use pre-populated drop-down lists to fill in all standard survey information, such as the project number, the weather, and so on. There’s no need to fumble with paper, pencil, and other field gear. Now, when the surveyor hits the “start” button, onLOOKer automatically drops a “pin” at the survey location, draws concentric rings to represent the radius being surveyed, and starts the clock for the survey duration selected. The concentric rings are overlaid on a satellite image of the area being surveyed, which makes the surveyor’s job much easier, and more accurate, when plotting each bird that is observed. As each bird is added, the time is logged, and distance to the bird is calculated, meaning that the surveyor need only focus on selecting the species (customized to the region), choosing the behavior (predefined), and confirming the count (default = 1). Other value-added aspects of onLOOKer include automated unique-site identifiers, and photo- and audio-capture capability with automated naming that links this media to the site.

White-crowned sparrow

Once the day’s survey is complete, information is synchronized to a secure cloud-based server that is immediately available to someone in the office for quality review. There’s no longer a need to wait for a team member to return from the field to manually enter their data before it can be reviewed and analyzed. This can save days to weeks of time. For someone in the field for an extended period, or for projects on a tight timeline, this is a huge advantage.

Digital data in the wild

Digital data collection for wildlife surveys leads to better data, faster. It means clients receive the information they need to move their projects forward safely and responsibly. To learn how digital data collection might help with your next wildlife survey, contact me. 

  • Michael Preston

    As a senior wildlife biologist, Michael is our technical lead for terrestrial wildlife in Canada. He assesses project impacts, implements wildlife mitigation and management plans, and has also led the development of real-time data collection apps.

    Contact Michael
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