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Drones provide bird’s eye view of how turbulent tidal flows affect seabird foraging habits - University of Plymouth

Researchers say the study potentially gives them the ability to predict how species might respond to environmental changes

The foraging behaviour of seabirds is dramatically affected by turbulence caused by natural coastal features and manmade ocean structures, new research has shown.

In a first-of-its-kind study, scientists from the UK and Germany used drones to provide a synchronised bird’s eye view of what seabirds see and how their behaviour changes depending on the movement of tidal flows beneath them.

The research focused on the wake of a tidal turbine structure set in a tidal channel – Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland – that has previously been identified as a foraging hotspot for terns.

Through a combination of drone tracking and advanced statistical modelling, it showed that terns were more likely to actively forage over vortices (swirling patches of water).

However, eruptions of upwelling water (boils) ahead of the terns’ flight path prompted them to stay on course as they approached.

Writing in the Royal’s Society flagship biological research journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researchers say their findings offer a never-before-seen insight into how tidal turbulence can impact foraging behaviours.

They also say it potentially gives them the ability to predict how species might respond to environmental changes such as the increased future development of ocean renewable energy sites and climate change.

The study was conducted by researchers from Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Plymouth (UK), and Bielefeld University (Germany).

The full study – Lieber at al: A bird’s-eye view on turbulence: Seabird foraging associations with evolving surface flow features – is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2021.0592.

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