4 May 2017

Scientists keep eye in the sky on rare NZ birds

8:53 pm on 4 May 2017

A satellite is now being used to monitor the endangered northern royal albatross, which breeds on the Chatham Islands.

Northern royal albatross returns to Otago Peninsula.

Young northern royal albatross / toroa spend several years feeding in South American waters before returning to New Zealand. Photo: Department of Conservation

The British Antarctic Survey has launched satellite technology that lets scientists count populations from their desks, and the Canterbury Museum is using it to keep tabs on the toroa.

Using high-resolution photos from the DigitalGlobe WorldView-3 satellite, researchers found one population on the Chathams was steady but another was dramatically decreasing.

Canterbury Museum natural history curator Paul Scofield said the technology was a game-changer.

"To get out to some of these offshore islands is very difficult and very expensive," he said. "Even flying a plane over these islands is full of difficulty, with wind and cloud."

He had to wait for "nearly a month" to get access to one of the islands to check breeding grounds, he said.

Now, he said, he just had to order satellite photos from the organisation that managed the technology.

"All you need now is the satellite to be at the right place at the right time."

The photos would turn up on his computer the following morning.

Mr Scofield said the technology would make it possible to intervene earlier if a population was declining, as it could often take five to 10 years to get an accurate population count.

The albatross research was published today in Ibis, a journal of the British Ornithologists' Union.

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