Albatrosses from Space

In Albatrosses from Space

Monitoring albatrosses using very high resolution satellites and citizen science

Start date
1 December, 2021
End date
1 December, 2023

Great (Diomedea) albatrosses face multiple threats to their long-term survival. Declines in albatross populations have been linked to incidental mortality (bycatch) in fisheries, predatory invasive species (including rats, mice and cats) and disease. More than 100,000 albatrosses are killed by longline fishing every year.

A bird sitting on grass next to a body of water

Using satellites to monitor albatrosses from space

Satellites in space are continuously capturing images of Earth. Using these very high-resolution images, we are able to count individual albatrosses and, by applying correction factors that account for failed and nonbreeding birds, estimate the number of breeding pairs in remote locations. Satellites do not disturb albatrosses and can cover vast areas at once, many of which are difficult, expensive and time-consuming to visit for ground counts or to census using aerial surveys or UAVs (drones).

Presently, our project focuses on two high priority albatross populations for conservation:

  1. Wandering albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) on South Georgia
  2. Tristan albatrosses (Diomedea dabbenena) on Gough Island

The Government of South Georgia and Sough Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI) Wandering Albatross Action Plan and the priorities of  The Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) highlight the need to (1) carry out archipelago-wide censuses of albatrosses at least every 10 years, and (2) investigate use of remote-sensing survey techniques.

The wandering albatross has the greatest wingspan of any living bird. The Tristan albatross was considered to be the same species as the wandering albatross until 1998, when the taxa were split. Tristan albatrosses are slightly smaller and darker on their back than wandering albatrosses, and are very difficult to distinguish at sea.

A close up of a green field
Satellite image of wandering albatrosses on their nests. Each individual appears as a white to cream coloured dot. Satellite imagery © 2021 Maxar Technologies

Wandering Albatrosses on South Georgia

The wandering albatross is listed globally as Vulnerable by the IUCN. at the regional level due to their steep decline. South Georgia holds a globally important population, which breeds at 17 sites around the island group. Only three of these sites have been monitored regularly; Bird Island (which holds around 60% of the total South Georgia population), Albatross Island and Prion Island. Annenkov Island holds the second largest population of wandering albatrosses in South Georgia, but due its remote location a census has only been conducted twice, most recently in 2004. Wandering albatrosses at South Georgia have been in decline since regular censuses began at Bird Island in the 1960s, and meet the IUCN criteria for Endangered status at the regional level. Satellite imagery has great potential to provide low-cost accurate surveys of all sites at regular intervals.

Tristan Albatrosses on Gough Island

Around 1,500 pairs of Tristan albatrosses breed each year, almost exclusively on Gough Island. Bycatch of adults and subadults in fisheries, and predation of chicks by introduced house mice are key threats to this population. The species is classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. This project will test the effectiveness of satellite-based counts for censuses of Tristan albatrosses on Gough, by comparing results with surveys on the ground. Currently, it is unknown whether Tristan Albatrosses can be detected using satellite imagery, as they are slightly smaller than wandering albatrosses and have a darker back, so may be more difficult to distinguish against surrounding vegetation.

Albatrosses from Space Citizen Science Campaign

Logo

The Wildlife from Space team have released an online citizen science campaign to search for albatrosses using Very High-Resolution (VHR) satellite imagery. The information gathered – with the help of the public – will be used by scientists to identify whether albatross populations show signs of recovery due to implemented conservation actions, or if they are still in decline despite these efforts.

To join our campaign and become an albatross detective, please go to: https://geohive.maxar.com/yellowjacket/login.

We hope to expand the project in the future to include other albatross species, and eventually, complete the world’s first worldwide censuses for albatrosses.

 

Graphical user interface, application
The Albatrosses From Space campaign is now live. Go to https://geohive.maxar.com/yellowjacket/login to register and become an Albatross Detective!
  1. Compare satellite-based counts to ground counts of wandering albatrosses on Bird Island, Prion Island and Albatross Island in South Georgia.
  2. Test variability in satellite-based counts within the same breeding season.
  3. Assess whether 31-cm resolution satellite imagery can be used to detect and accurately count Tristan albatrosses on Gough Island.
  4. Develop a citizen science campaign, using VHR satellite imagery to count wandering albatrosses throughout South Georgia.

In the future, the Wildlife from Space team aim to:

  1. Test detectability of other great albatross species using VHR satellite imagery.
  2. Survey all great (Diomedea) albatross colonies across the Southern Ocean using public crowdsourcing campaigns.
  3. Use crowdsourcing campaign and Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) to develop Artificial Intelligence (AI) methods for automatic detection of albatrosses.

Richard Phillips

Seabird Ecologist, Deputy Science Leader, IMP 3

Ecosystems team

Marie Attard

Post Doctoral Albatross Project Imagery Analyst

Ellen Bowler

Researcher in Machine Learning

Artificial Intelligence Lab

The Albatross from Space project is an international collaboration involving BAS, RSPB, GSGSSI and other stakeholders. Key collaborators on the project include:

  • Mark Belchier, Marine Ecologist and Science Manager for South Georgia Fisheries (CCAMLR)
  • Jennifer Black, Environmental Officer, The Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI)
  • Martin Collins, South Georgia Science Manager at BAS
  • Trevor Glass, Conservation Officer for Tristan da Cunha, Tristan Conservation
  • Jonathan Hall, Head of UK Overseas Territories and RSPB & Strategy Advisor
  • Phil Hollyman, Fisheries Ecologist at BAS
  • David Kinchin-Smith, UK Overseas Territories project Officer, RSPB
  • Stephanie Martin, UK-based Environment and Conservation Officer, Tristan da Cunha Government
  • Steffen Oppel, Senior Conservation Scientist at RSPB centre for Conservation Science
  • Sally Poncet, South Georgia Surveys, Stanley, Falkland Islands
  • Andy Schofield, Senior UK Overseas Territories Officer at RSPB
  • Siobhan Vye, Atlantic Guardians Project Manager of RSPB Overseas Territories Team

Field teams

We would like to thank the field teams on Gough Island (Roelf Daling, Vonica Perold, Kim Stevens and Steffen Oppel) and South Georgia for their efforts over the years to monitor albatrosses. The nest co-ordinates collected during fieldwork will be used to verify the accuracy of satellite-based counts for this project.

A group of people posing for the camera
The Gough Island field team are monitoring critically endangered Tristan Albatrosses

Funding

The Albatrosses From Space citizen science campaign is funded by Darwin Plus, also known as the Overseas Territories Environment and Climate Fund. Since 2012, Darwin Plus has awarded over £32 million to more than 162 environmental projects in the UK overseas Territories.

Albatrosses from space: wildlife detectives needed!

4 September, 2022

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and RSPB are recruiting albatross detectives to help to search for wandering albatrosses in satellite images taken from space. This is to help us learn more …