The RSPB Centre for Conservation Science are working in partnership with Seabird Watch, the Department of Zoology at Oxford University and Hideaway Media Ltd (Time-Lapse-Systems) to develop and install camera systems capable of capturing vital conservation work in exciting new ways. 

Here at the RSPB, we’re constantly pushing to improve the ways we monitor the conservation status of the internationally important populations of seabirds that the UK is home to. This often requires innovation in the technological tools we use to gather data.

Last month, a team were buffeted by winds on the gusty clifftop at the RSPB’s Mull of Galloway nature reserve, to install the first of eleven high spec long-range HD cameras.

The camera will collect continuous pictures of a cliffside kittiwake colony once they return for the breeding season and send to us via 4G. Because the photographs are such high quality, we can now use cameras like these even in places where the birds are quite a distance from the camera. This removes a major barrier to using photography to monitor seabirds more widely across the UK’s struggling seabird colonies.

The camera points directly at a part of the seabird colony © Ellie Owen

The images will go to the Seabirdwatch Zooniverse platform, a citizen science platform with projects where members of the public can take part in. We’re asking people to help with our scientific research by looking through photos and annotating the seabirds, which will allow us to understand breeding success and timings better.

Creating the cameras

Hideaway Media were initially approached by Dr Tom Hart, a penguin conservation specialist at Oxford University, to see if they could assist with monitoring of seabird populations in the Antarctic.  

Dr Hart needed a camera system solution that would capture in far better quality than the simple trail cameras that he and his colleagues had been using to collect vital data to assist with seabird conservation. The task was a highly challenging one, as camera systems would have to operate off-grid for months, in extreme conditions.

After discussions with Dr Ellie Owen, RSPB’s Conservation Scientist, they realised her requirements for cameras to help with monitoring and conservation work in Scotland were fairly similar to what Oxford University were asking for.

The team worked on developing a new system, one which uses a totally off-the-grid system that captures in unprecedented quality. The cameras are solar powered and built to last – they’ve been created to the standard set for the tops of skyscrapers!

The team involved © Ellie Owen

Furthermore, this system can be monitored and controlled remotely – with a live feed which allows the team to view still frames in real time and collect the vital data they need to help with their work, in ways that would otherwise be impossible.

What’s next?

Phase two will involve installing the rest of the cameras in other far-flung and hard to reach seabird colonies later in the year.

Once they’re up, we’ll be able to start getting the images onto Seabirdwatch ready for people to access them. However Seabirdwatch is already live with photos from other colonies, so if you can’t wait, you can start helping with the citizen science project now!

This project is supported by the NatureScot Nature Restoration Fund and Hideaway Studios Time-Lapse Systems.

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