Counting penguins for conservation - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Counting penguins for conservation

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SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) - Penguins are iconic birds of the South Pole, yet researchers are concerned about their populations. Scientists from Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute are learning more about the species with the help of drone-like technology.

Hundreds of thousands of birds in a harmonious buzz are doing what you and I do on a daily basis -- talk. It's the communication between penguins and chicks that Dr. Brent Stewart is investigating.

"We had an expedition to the Antarctic but we started in South America. From there I joined a boat, a tour boat went to the Falkland Islands to southern Georgia then to the Antarctic Peninsula, and then came back to South America, and that took about three weeks of sea time," he said.

Among thousands of birds, how does a penguin know which chick is his or hers? Is it smell, sight and sound? And which species dominates this icy kingdom? Stewart is answering these questions, conducting surveys with new technology from a bird's eye point of view.

"The population surveys… if you had a couple dozen elephant seals or penguins it would be easy to do but these colonies are massive and you could get up to 300,000, 400,000 penguins in a colony," Stewart said. "So we can't really do that in a couple of hours even. And the goal there was to use some small multi-rotor, remote control multi-rotor aircraft to get up in the air and to get a real perspective and also to collect high-def video.

"What I really like about it is it can be a stable platform rather than flying over very quickly, we can hover we can quickly move it in one direction, spin it around to get different perspectives."

For the first time, Stewart was able to use the UAV in a truly wild environment to capture these penguin colonies from a perspective no one has seen until now.

"We're counting the birds from the photos, hi-res photos. We can zoom in on them and count each bird, but it's going to take another month, two months to count," he said.

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