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Drone for monitoring yellow-eyed penguin

September 10th, 2019

New technology is enabling yellow-eyed penguin conservation in the subantarctic. The Drone Ranger is a VHF radio-tracking drone designed specifically for monitoring endangered wildlife. Used by Massey PhD student Chris Muller for locating endangered yellow-eyed penguin nests, it took just 3% of the time needed for traditional ground search methods. This efficiency gain was vital in the isolated and difficult terrain of the Auckland Islands, where the research wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

The yellow-eyed penguin is one of the rarest penguins in the world, and found only in New Zealand. However, despite being home to a significant proportion of the world’s population, only one census has been carried out for the Auckland Islands before – in 1989. With the mainland population declining, there is an urgent need for an up-to-date census in the subantarctic. To do this, finding nesting birds is vital for determining population size and monitoring breeding success. In addition, other research into diving, foraging, and diet which can affect breeding success and population numbers also relies on locating breeding birds as quickly as possible.

This research project is part of Chris’ PhD research on yellow-eyed penguins in the Auckland Islands and aimed to determine factors affecting population numbers and trends, breeding success, and foraging behaviour in the subantarctic. The project received assistance from the 2018 Birds NZ Research Fund to process stable isotope samples for diet analysis.

Yellow-eyed penguin population estimates for the Auckland Islands – the first since 1989 – will be published in an upcoming Notornis special edition.

The Drone Ranger was developed as a research collaboration between Massey University and the University of Canterbury. More details on the technology, and its efficiency savings for yellow-eyed penguin monitoring are available here.