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Innovative Research: Delta Waterfowl Uses Drones and Thermal Imaging to Locate Nesting Ducks

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BISMARCK, NORTH DAKOTA — Delta Waterfowl has long been at the forefront of research on ducks and wetland habitat, and the organization’s latest innovation could change the way waterfowl managers work.

Led by Dr. Frank Rohwer, Delta’s president and chief scientist, a team tested a unique combination of new technology on the prairie duck breeding grounds. By flying a drone carrying a mounted thermal-imaging camera over grassland cover, Rohwer was able to pinpoint nesting ducks indicated by the camera’s heat signature.

The thermal-imaging cameras proved to be excellent at finding duck nests, and even detected a small songbird nest.

“This technique has great potential to help researchers locate duck nests in cover that is tough to search,” Rohwer said. “It could make duck research more efficient.”

Currently, the most common method employed to find duck nests involves dragging a heavy chain between two all-terrain vehicles to bump sitting hens off of their nests. When the hen flushes, the ATV drivers stop and follow the chain to get close. Then, a careful-where-you-step visual search ensues to find the nest bowl and eggs. The method works well to find ducks in upland nesting cover, but it has limitations in brushy areas and cattails. And it’s impossible to use to find over-water nesting ducks. There, researchers must wade in the water and beat the cover to find duck nests.

If drone-mounted thermal imaging cameras can effectively locate over-water duck nests, it would greatly aid researchers.

“We would be able to find ducks much easier,” Rohwer said. “Drones and thermal cameras could be used for all kinds of wildlife research and management work.”

Delta plans to refine and use the technique for ongoing duck research.

The effectiveness of the technique is demonstrated by Rohwer and his team, which included Jason Douglas, regional events director for Delta Waterfowl. We think you’ll agree the video above is fascinating footage, and worth a couple minutes to watch Delta’s latest breakthrough in duck research.

Douglas, a thermal technology aficionado from Texas, assisted with fundraising and implementation of the project.

Seven Delta Waterfowl chapters contributed a combined $24,700 from Waterfowl Heritage Funds, and the Mark Paul Terk Trust generously donated $20,000 for the thermal camera and pilots.

“Without the backing of the Texas chapters (Greater Longview Chapter, Longview; North Houston Chapter, Spring; Smith County Chapter, Tyler; Heart of Texas Chapter, Austin; Lone Star Chapter, Plano; Leon County Chapter, Centerville; and Southeast Texas Chapter, Beaumont) and the Mark Paul Terk Trust, the testing would not have happened,” Douglas said. “It’s a great example of how grassroots local support can turn into important research for ducks that really benefits duck hunters.”

For more information, contact Dr. Frank Rohwer at (888) 987-3695 or frohwer@deltawaterfowl.org.