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Night Drone Survey: Citizen Science Event in the Hoddle Ranges

Prom Coast Ecolink

27 May 2024

We conducted a night survey, using drone thermal-imaging technology to locate, observe & record the wildlife in real time

As a chill swept through the afternoon air, a small group gathered on a private paddock adjoining the Hoddle Range Flora Conservation Reserve in Fish Creek. The purpose of this citizen science event was to locate, in real-time, the fauna roaming the park after dark through a targeted drone survey. The evening marked the culmination of a series of events hosted by us, made possible through support from Parks Victoria and the VicGov Volunteering Innovation Fund. These events were designed to both encourage a wider audience to participate in nature-based, volunteer activities and to provide our group with data on the native species in the reserve.


The team from Field Master Systems set up their gear for the night ahead. The drone used to traverse the canopy of the bushland was world class, described by the team as an 'enterprise drone with dual gimbals’. One gimbal - essentially a pivoting bracket - held a camera with both a thermal and zoom lens and a laser rangefinder. The second held an LED spotlight. 


This impressive technology allowed for animals to be located, spotlighted, photographed and identified. The timestamps and geotags, photographs and footage are then recorded.  


At 5:15, the sun dipped below the horizon. It was a clear, cold and still night; ideal conditions for drone operations. Night surveys are typically conducted an hour after sunset, so we were grateful for our beanies and warm coats while we prepared for lift off. Hot tea simmered on a camp stove and hands cupped mugs in a gesture of both comfort and anticipation.


The drone launched and we huddled around the high-resolution screen broadcasting the live footage. As it passed over the paddocks and into the bush, heat signatures immediately detected movement and a wombat was quickly identified.


Ecologist Peter Gannon of Ecocentric Services guided the group in identifying the thermal signal from various fauna within the study area on the communal screen.  Any wildlife sightings were confirmed by flying the drone within proximity, adjusting the height, camera angle and camera panning to enable confirmation of species. This is how we were able to come face-to-face with a koala, in the dark of night, munching on the leaves of a eucalypt. 


Over the course of the evening we were also witness to possums, sugar gliders, wallabies, kangaroos, owls and roosting rosellas. On a less enthusiastic note, we saw foxes, deer, goat and rabbit. To understand the fauna inhabiting these parks is to understand how we can best serve and protect this critical habitat.    


The drone event was well attended and provided us with data to support our documentation of existing wildlife corridors, such as the Hoddle Ranges, and our work towards an interconnecting network in the region.  We were able to capture footage for campaigning and data to share with our community (you!), which is steadily building itself around a hopeful future for all in South Gippsland.

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