Cameras are focused on puffin colonies, tracking their comings and goings throughout their four-month breeding season onshore, Tom Heap writes.
By Tom Heap, Climate presenter @tomheapmedia
David Steel has got an eye for the birds.
As warden for much of his working life in some of our most vibrant seabird colonies, he’s lived among them for decades and studies them for work.
But now he’s got serious competition: an unblinking iris with an optic nerve linked to a super-computer. A robot bird watcher.
“One of these days, I might be just sitting in an office staring at screens. That would drive me mad but it’s the future and it is helping us. We can use this technology to help us understand these seabirds.”
For a wildlife enthusiast, David has a dream job: Reserve Manager on the Isle of May. A rocky outcrop about a mile long just off Edinburgh.
It’s a 20-minute rapid powerboat ride across the mouth of the Firth of Forth and, on the sunny day we visit, it’s a strange mixture of the rugged and gentle: jagged cliffs topped by undulating pillows of white sea campion.
It’s home to 46,000 breeding pairs of puffins, plenty of other seabirds, four human researchers and now two surveillance cameras backed by artificial intelligence.
It’s a project supported by the energy company SSE and the tech companies Microsoft and Avenade.
Their cameras are focused on puffin colonies, tracking their comings and goings throughout their four-month breeding season onshore. Watching them land with beaks full of fish before scurrying into burrows to feed their chicks.
Puffin numbers are recovering slowly here, but are still well beneath their peak. Information is the bedrock of protection.
“It gives 24-hour coverage of these puffin colonies. We can actually do facial recognition on every individual puffin within the monitoring site. And of course, that gives us some great data on what’s going on with these birds, and then on a wider scale, what’s going on in the North Sea.”
Seabirds are facing multiple threats: climate change exaggerating steep swings in water temperature, bird flu which has decimated some colonies and commercial fishing, particularly of sand eels, the puffin’s favourite food.
And there is a new occupant of the skies which can harm seabirds: wind turbines. Proposed wind farms have been blocked because they might spell peril on the sea.
Martyn O’Neill, Digital Project Manager for SSE Renewables, said: “This study would show us the impact that it [a windfarm] would have and it lets us take actions to address that.”
Similar AI technology has also been used to study gulls from a drone and salmon swimming upstream.
“I think it’s hugely important and plays a really big role when it comes to conservation and sustainability. It helps to unravel a lot of the complexity that conservation brings. Having the opportunity to track, see and gather those insights… means that we can make better decisions in terms of how we go to protect biodiversity as a whole,” Musidora Jorgensen, chief sustainability officer, Microsoft UK added.
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The ability of AI to study huge amounts of data, spot patterns and learn what those patterns mean on the ground is also being used on a global scale for everything from calculating carbon emissions to revealing prime territory for rewilding.
While some see artificial intelligence as a threat to humanity, it’s emerging as nature’s defender.