Dissecting avian behavior from space

 

Remote sensing has been helping scientists to collect and monitor ecological information since the launch of the first earth-observation satellites. The release of free Landsat satellite images, with continuous coverage from the late 70's, the improvement of Lidar and Radar sensors, and the recent widespread use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's, such as drones), has radically changed how animal ecologists study animal movement, species distributions or environmental management. 

In the July's number of the Sensed Newsletter (published by the Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society of UK, RSPSoc), I discuss about how these advances are helping ornithologist to track and count birds, as well as to study their behaviour from space.  I was very pleased they ask me to collaborate with this magazine. Have a look at the article!

UK Land Cover Map 2015

 

One of the main reasons why I moved to the UK and started working at the CEH was the opportunity of being involved in the creation of the UK Land Cover Map 2015 (LCM2015). This is a nation-wide habitat mapping project that will have a big impact in future UK research and it will be used by government departments, environmental management agencies, charities and many more. After spending all 2016 and part of 2017 working on it, the LCM2015 was finally released last April.  

                        

LCM2015 is derived from satellite images (mainly Landsat-8) and provides land-cover information of the whole UK. The main product is a 22 land-cover class vector map, based on a parcel-based spatial framework, from which a 25m-pixel raster product is derived. However, many other secondary products at different scales can be obtained. 

One of my favourite features about the LCM2015 is that the algorithm used to predict the land cover type (based on satellite spectral data and other ancillary information) is a Random Forest. As you probably know, this is a classificatory algorithm that I have been using for a long time in my research on animal distribution modelling. It is also becoming very popular to perform supervised classifications of satellite images, and we used it for the LCM2015, obtaining great results. Using this algorithm allowed us to provide a "probability map", giving the user an estimate of how accurate is the assignment of each parcel or pixel to a land-cover type. I think this is going to be a key feature of future LCM's, as it will allow us to add the uncertainty of the habitat identification, when using remote sensing derived data, into our species distribution models. 

The production of the LCM2015 meant many months of hard work, but it has been a great experience for me. Now, I can't wait to start exploring its potential for ecological research, especially for bird distribution research in the UK (stay tuned!). Here I link a short video of the LCM2015, created by the CEH (I did that 3D model!): 

 

 

 

Business Impact School

 

Last year I attended the Business Impact School (BIS), held at the impressive Willis Tower in London. The BIS is organized by the NERC Valuing Nature Programme and every year they fund 25 early career researchers to attend a three day workshop with speakers from the business and scientific world. These workshops aim to create a scientific community with deep understanding of how biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services and natural capital can translate into industry and private sector decision-making. 

If you are an early career researcher wanting to improve your knowledge on linking natural capital with the business world, this workshop is perfect (try to apply for next one!). One of the most interesting topics addressed last year was how to effectively communicate science to the business world. The organization was great and I met a lot of brilliant young researchers there, all from very different scientific backgrounds.

They made some videos from the event. Here I post one that I'm speaking about my research and the workshop itself.

 

RSPSoc Annual Conference and... prize!

 

Last month I spent a few days in Nottingham to attend to the annual conference of the Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society (RSPSoc). It was the first time for me to participate in a "pure" remote sensing (RS) congress, as my research has always been focused on the ecological and conservation applications of RS and GIS. It turned out to be a great place to present my new research on habitat mapping using Sentinel-2 satellite images, and to interact with researchers of the RS community. I also brought a poster on herons and egrets colony distribution in order to show how we can use satellite images and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for ecological research. My line manager, Dan Morton, was also there presenting our progress with the Land Cover Map 2015. 

Bringing to the table all these topics was a little bit overwhelming as it was difficult to decide which talk to attend at every session (there where several talks at the same time) in order to make the congress the most useful for me. However, I had the opportunity to listen to very interesting talks about land cover mapping, and had great feedback about my work with Sentinel-2 from top researchers of the RS community. 

I was particularly impressed by the new studies using high resolution images to improve the spatial resolution of historical Landsat images. These methodologies gave me a lot of ideas to work on the detection of bird colonies from space. Also, the amount of works using Sentinel-1 images (radar) for detecting change, natural disasters and all kind of ecological applications made me think a lot about the potential of these satellites. It seems they are opening a very interesting path... Should I give this area a chance? 

It was a great conference and I received excellent advice from very experience researchers, in relation to the Sentinel-2 work and to my heron research. What a pity I didn't attend the final ceremony, as I received the Best Poster Award for the herons and egret research! Thanks to the RSPSoc for a great organization and for the prize!

 

 

Symposium - Space: the final frontier for biodiversity monitoring?

 

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the symposium: "Space: the final frontier for biodiversity monitoring", held by the Zoological Society of London, where top scientist from diverse backgrounds discussed the applications of remote sensing techniques for global biodiversity monitoring.

I presented two posters. One of them showing practical examples of the Land Cover Map 2007 (created by CEH) for biodiversity studies, and the second one describing part of my PhD research on using historical satellite images to study changes over time in habitat selection of avian species. 

You can read the description of the event on the Northwest East Observation Network (NEON) website, as two of the members of the network (Christopher Marston and myself) participated in the symposium.

New Job at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology

 

Last January, I started working as a research associate at NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) located in Lancaster, UK. I will be applying remote sensing and GIS techniques for ecology research and biodiversity conservation. Until now, I have been immersed in the production of the next generation of Land Cover Map for the UK (LCM2015), working with the preprocessing and classification of satellite images to produce accurate habitat mapping. I hope a can show you the results in the near future! 

Climate Change and Animal Populations Workshop

 

This month I participated in a Workshop on the effects of climate change on animal populations, held in the beautiful city of Erice, Sicily. I had the opportunity to spend some days with my PhD supervisor and my collaborators from Japan and Italy. It was a wonderful place to present our first results on the effects of global change on waterbird populations and habitat selection strategies. 

I had also the opportunity to hear talks and speak with world-top animal ecology researchers. I was specially impressed by the lectures of Professors Stan Boutin from Canada, Brian Hutley from the UK, or Raimundo Real from Spain among many others.

Big questions arose, and great discussions took place after each talk. One of the bring-back messages of the workshop was the difficulty to find direct evidence of the effects of climate change on animal populations. Some examples of adaptation of mammals and birds to climate change were shown, and a lot of discussions about how to identify micro-evolution in response to climate change emerged. Researchers are quite skeptical about climate change affecting drastically animal populations around the globe. Habitat alteration is still a major effect, and adaptation is helping to survive to temperature and other variables changes. However, adaptations in many cases should show some limits in the future. Maybe soon. What will happen then? When will this happen? 

I learnt a lot from those discussions about adaptation/micro-evolution, and how difficult is to really show evidence of climate change driving the decrease of animal populations. I missed, however, a little bit of discussion about other animal groups. Birds and mammals are, in some cases, being quite successful to adapt to climate changes until now. But, is this true for other vertebrates? What about amphibians, the most threatened group? Also, how are invertebrates being affected? Acidification and the rising temperature of the sea might be also affecting enormously marine animal populations.  

A lot of research is still needed. The main lesson I learned is to keep fighting against climate change while always be skeptical!

This little guy (black redstart) would wake me up everyday really early during my stay in Erice.