Eye in the sky

Published 27 Mar 2018 

On Charles Darwin and Eurardy reserves in Western Australia, the innovative use of a remote sensing technology is marking the start of a new era in Malleefowl monitoring.

A Malleefowl on its mound. Photo by Jiri Lochman/Lochman Transparencies.
A Malleefowl on its mound. Photo by Jiri Lochman/Lochman Transparencies.
For Dr Vanessa Westcott, spotting an elusive Malleefowl bird is matched only by the prospect of contributing to the development of a technology that could improve the conservation of this threatened species.

Vanessa, a Bush Heritage ecologist, is the heart and brains behind a monitoring project using Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) to identify Malleefowl nesting mounds on Bush Heritage reserves.

“You have this device that allows you to navigate right to a possible Malleefowl mound,” says Vanessa. “As you get closer the anticipation builds: ‘will it be active? Maybe I’ll even see a bird’. It’s kind of addictive.”

A Malleefowl mound in Western Australia. Photo by Jiri Lochman/Lochman Transparencies.
A Malleefowl mound in Western Australia. Photo by Jiri Lochman/Lochman Transparencies.
Thanks to LiDAR, Bush Heritage has identified 82 new mounds on Charles Darwin Reserve and 20 new mounds on Eurardy Reserve, in Western Australia. It will now monitor those mounds annually for signs of activity, helping to inform both regional and Australia-wide Malleefowl population records.

LiDAR technology itself isn’t new – it has long been used for everything from mapping the ocean floor to assisting in emergency response situations – but its application for ecological monitoring is an emerging field.

To monitor for Malleefowl, LiDAR is attached to the underside of a light plane which is then flown over areas of Malleefowl habitat. During flight, light in the form of pulsed laser is used to map the Earth’s surface. That information is then passed through an algorithm which identifies the distinctive profiles of Malleefowl mounds.

3D image of a Malleefowl mound generated through LiDAR.
3D image of a Malleefowl mound generated through LiDAR.
The GPS coordinates of those potential mounds are then downloaded onto a smart phone, which Bush Heritage volunteers and staff can use to verify, or ‘ground-truth’, the mounds on foot.

The technology has dramatically improved both the efficiency and effectiveness of Bush Heritage’s Malleefowl monitoring.

Charles Darwin Reserve, tucked away on the northern edge of the West Australian wheatbelt, contains the dense, long unburnt shrublands that Malleefowl prefer, making it something of aMalleefowl hotspot. But while the thick scrub provides the birds with cover and protection, it also makes finding and monitoring their mounds a difficult and somewhat scratchy task. Eurardy Reserve’s York Gum woodlands and thick acacia scrub present a similar problem.

“We used to search for mounds by getting a large group of people together, putting them in a line and walking through the bush,” says Ben Parkhurst, Bush Heritage ecologist for the Western Rangelands. “It was hot and time-intensive work in scratchy, thick scrub, and there was no guarantee you’d find anything.”

3D image of a Malleefowl mound generated through LiDAR.
3D image of a Malleefowl mound generated through LiDAR.
The use of LiDAR has led to collaborative work between Bush Heritage and many of its regional neighbours, as well as local organisations like the North-Central Malleefowl Preservation Group.

It's also contributing data to a National Adaptive Management Project, developed by the National Malleefowl Recovery Team and University of Melbourne, which is assessing the impact of feral predator control methods on these unusual birds.

WILDgift cards
Got your newsletter?