Human activities and climate change are driving habitat loss, leading to species decline and extinction. Threatened wetland and grassland ecosystems are important foraging and breeding grounds for ecologically important waterbirds, including the endangered Grey Crowned Crane.
This species is the least studied crane species in South Africa. Despite an increase in its population in the Drakensberg, their overall population across the African continent has declined by 80% over the past 45 years. Sensitivity to human activity, inaccessibility of nest sites due to water bodies and concealment by tall vegetation as well as high costs of regular surveys by aeroplane throughout the breeding season are factors hindering regular data collection of this species' nesting site preferences, breeding success and habitat utilisation. An extreme lack of data is preventing the implementation of effective conservation strategies. Using a combination of unmanned aerial systems (UAS e.g. drones) and field-based observations, I aim to determine whether drones can be used as an alternative to aerial surveys and traditional field work when monitoring the preferred nest site characteristics, breeding success and habitat usage of Grey Crowned Crane populations in two regions of KZN with different levels of land use intensity. Overall, this project will result in species-specific drone monitoring guidelines as well as aid with understanding important knowledge gaps of this endangered species. This information could potentially revolutionise the abovementioned existing aerial surveys and field work by allowing for more frequent, high-resolution observations of this iconic but inconspicuous endangered species.