WDFW researchers will use drones for swan and goose surveys

MILL CREEK – Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) staff will fly drones over known locations of swan and goose flocks in Skagit, Snohomish, and Whatcom counties to assess the technology’s utility in surveying abundant waterfowl.

Flights may take place from December 2023 through May 2024. WDFW staff with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Small Unmanned Aircraft System Remote Pilot certification will conduct the flights, while following FAA and WDFW policies. Emphasis will be on flights over WDFW-managed lands, with WDFW seeking pre-approval by other landowners should flights over additional lands be considered. 

The purpose of this research is to assess the Department’s ability to capture high quality images of swans and geese to better monitor the number of birds, age classes, and other data. WDFW biologists will also assess how population estimates derived from these images compare with more traditional ground counts and recommend the most appropriate ways drones can be used to improve monitoring of swans and geese. 

“Overwintering geese and swans are especially numerous in the lower river valleys of the North Puget Sound Region, with more than 100,000 snow geese and 15,000 swans estimated in early 2023 counts,” said Kyle Spragens, WDFW’s waterfowl section manager. “Drone surveys show potential to significantly increase our efficiency for monitoring populations of these birds and to decrease reliance on low-flying aircraft which increases safety.” 

Flight timing will depend on the presence of birds and suitable flight conditions, including favorable weather and minimizing conflict with the public using the area, including waterfowl hunting.  

Pilots will maintain line of sight with their drone for awareness of potential disturbance to wildlife or people. The pilot will ground the drone if flight conditions become unsuitable to fly safely or responsibly. No area closures or significant public impacts are expected.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife works to preserve, protect and perpetuate fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities.

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