Nonbreeding Waterfowl Behavioral Response to Crewed and Uncrewed Aerial Surveys on Conservation Areas in Missouri

Monitoring waterfowl populations provides the basis for improving habitat quantity and quality, establishing harvest regulations, and ensuring sustainable waterfowl populations through appropriate management. Waterfowl biologists currently use a variety of population and habitat monitoring methods ranging from informal ground observations to low-level occupied aircraft surveys. Unoccupied aerial systems (UAS) may provide safer and more precise alternatives to traditional aerial survey techniques that are less disturbing to waterfowl, but there is limited information on how waterfowl in winter respond to UAS. Therefore, we compared the behavioral responses of waterfowl to helicopters and UAS on Missouri Department of Conservation
wetland conservation areas October–February 2021–2022. Helicopter surveys were flown using an Airbus H125 helicopter at heights of 100–350 , with UAS surveys flown using a DJI Mavic 2 Pro UAS at 15–90 m. Waterfowl behavior was categorized as alert, swim, fly, or abandonment using flock-scan surveys recorded for 10-min periods before, during, and after the surveys. The percentage of time flocks spent in each behavior duringor post-survey were compared to time spent in those behaviors pre-survey. Waterfowl increased time spent swimming, flying, and abandonment in response to helicopter flights, whereas UAS flights did not influence overall waterfowl behavior. Additionally, waterfowl did not change behavior in response to UAS flights regardless of waterfowl guild (mallard, other ducks, or goose) or hunting season (open or closed). Waterfowl did increase flight behavior during UAS flights at 30 m, however, there was no change in behavior at all other UAS survey altitudes. Use of UAS may be a good alternative to traditional waterfowl survey methods and is not likely to affect waterfowl distributions or energy expenditures during the survey periods.

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