Christmas Island National Park

Monday 23 December 2019

You might have seen Google’s recent attempts to deliver fast-food using drones, or even used one to take an aerial photo on holiday: but have you thought about what it would be like to join our feathered friends in the air to understand their behaviour and populations better?

One of our resident ecologists at Parks Australia, Dr. Sarah Brown, together with park ranger Trish Flores, have recently returned from a trip to Pulu Keeling National Park. Joined by a small team from Monash University and the ANU, Trish led the charge in trialling the use of drones to track the red-footed booby and other seabirds in the park.

The team endured nine days of ferocious ticks, enjoyed the evening march of the redhermit crabs around the camp, and experienced red crabs disturbing sleep as they tunnelled under beds, with the odd fly in the ear requiring medical attention. Pulu Keeling favoured the team with sunny, near windless days (perfect for drones).

The drones flew over the entire terrestrial area of the island and captured aerial images at 50m of trees supporting adult and nesting red-footed boobies and lesser frigate birds, as well as ground-nesting masked and brown boobies. The team also counted seabirds in some of the main colonies from the ground to compare the two methods and determine which is better – for added difficulty, the ground team worked hard to avoid the constant drizzle of bird poo from above!

Other highlights from the trip included the tall Pisonia (really tall!), a sperm whale, green turtles nesting and hatchlings. Twenty-nine species of birds, including bush birds such as the barn swallow, were detected.

A survey and assessment of the endemic Cocos buff-banded rail was also completed, including the collection of morphological data and blood samples from 40 individuals. Jennie Mallela from ANU and her team completed a survey of the coral ecosystem.

Everyone is eager for a repeat survey in February 2020 (perhaps without the ticks).