Nov/Dec 2016Flying for the Birdsby Erin Weeks

Aerial surveys of nesting areas help biologists keep track of migratory bird populations and trends.

Every spring along the coast, South Carolinians can look up to the freewheeling of coastal birds arriving for nesting season - brown pelicans glide and dive over open ocean, and wood storks swoop into cypress treetops.

But birds aren't the only things visible overhead. Every year, S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologists also take flight for an omniscient view of the wildlife they're tasked with protecting.By flying a small plane over nesting colonies and remote beaches, SCDNR pilots and researchers have transformed breeding season bird counts and stranded sea turtle work, replacing challenging on-the-ground field studies with accurate and noninvasive aerial surveys.

Taking the 1,000-foot view helps the SCDNR keep tabs on iconic wildlife like the bald eagle and loggerhead sea turtle - but it's not for the weak of stomach.

There's no such thing as a routine day for chief pilots Owen Barker and Don Garbade. On a given week, these law enforcement officers might fly search-and-rescue missions for missing boaters, hunt down illegal duck-baiting stations, or search for poachers who steal game by night. But some of the most dangerous flights they pilot are in the name of wildlife research.

Aerial wildlife surveys have been part of the SCDNR's repertoire of conservation tools for decades. In 1978, the disappearing loggerhead sea turtle was given protections under the Endangered Species Act, and the team tasked with helping the species recover realized they had a problem: they needed far more data on how many loggerheads were nesting and dying each year. But obtaining that kind of information in a state like South Carolina, where sea turtles use isolated, inaccessible beaches and islands, presented an enormous challenge.

Taking to the air turned out to be the most viable and cost-effective option. Sally Murphy, who established and oversaw the SCDNR's sea turtle program for decades, started by recruiting volunteers to help with the unglamorous task of recording data on the dead turtles that washed ashore on South Carolina beaches (this stranding network, and later its nesting counterpart, survive to this day as two of the agencies most successful volunteer programs). She then instituted a flight program designed to fill in the gaps where volunteers couldn't reach. First by helicopter and then by single-engine plane, Murphy built up a comprehensive picture of the loggerhead's status in South Carolina by documenting stranded turtles, nests, and later, live turtles offshore.

The flight program continues to this day under sea turtle coordinator Michelle Pate, though far fewer flights are needed thanks to an expanded staff and volunteer force.

"Most months of the year, we fly the entire coast, right over the breakers, to have 100 percent coverage of the coast for strandings," Pate said, referring to cases of injured, sick or dead turtles that become stranded on the beach. "We also fly to check on live leatherbacks in the water early in the season."

Stranded sea turtle flights are just one of many that pilots Barker and Garbade fly. Throughout the year, they set out with biologists to track turkeys, count massive seabird colonies and photograph chicks in wading bird and bald eagle nests. The flights are a crucial component of the SCDNR's work to better understand and protect South Carolina's avian residents - without counting nests and chicks, bird biologists cannot determine whether a population is stable, growing or declining.

SCDNR wildlife biologist Christy Hand flies aerial counts for both wading birds and seabirds. On most survey days, Hand, Garbade and a seasonal technician arrive at one of coastal South Carolina's small, rural airports around 7:30 a.m. The team discusses their flight plan for the day before lifting off and heading to their first wood stork or heron colony. That's when the hard work begins.

Fly too close and the team risks colliding with tall trees and other obstacles. Fly too far away, though, and Hand can't capture the photos that allow her to count and study the nesting birds. Garbade has to fly painstaking circles around each bird colony, while Hand contorts herself in the passenger's seat to snap pictures as the plane buzzes by.

"It's much better for the birds than surveying from the ground, but it's kind of like taking photos from inside a blender," Hand said. "Physically, these are really hard flights. A lot of pilots couldn't do them." Neither could a lot of biologists. Looking through the viewfinder of a camera is a great way to intensify motion sickness. Couple that with the cyclonic careening of a small plane - which doesn't have much in the way of air conditioning during the hot summer months - and the result is a ride that only the most iron-stomached can handle.

The bald eagle surveys that pilot Owen Barker flies for wildlife biologist Charlotte Hope are similarly risky and stomach-churning.

"We've got to get the aircraft low enough and slow enough that Charlotte can look over the wing and count chicks," Barker said. At such low speeds, banking the plane can trigger a warning horn that signals the plane is at risk of stalling. "I don't know of any pilot that's comfortable in that setting. It takes years to learn." But mastering the skill is a great source of pride for SCDNR's pilots.

"Our relationship with the biologists is remarkable," Barker said. "They understand that when they get up in the plane, they're putting their lives in our hands. I take a great amount of pride in the fact that every mission we've been out on, we've been able to bring them back safely."

It takes a special breed of aviator to pilot for the SCDNR. If you ask Barker and Garbade, the flights are exhilarating, fun and worthwhile, despite the dangers. The biologists are a little more ambivalent. Murphy had a "love-hate" relationship with the flights, which were anxiety-inducing but also offered an extraordinary perspective of the coast - as well as invaluable data.

What's not up for debate is that the flights are part of a conservation strategy that works. Brown pelicans and bald eagles are both formerly endangered species whose numbers have recovered enough to be fully delisted from the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently downgraded the wood stork from endangered to threatened, which still offers strict protections but indicates that the only stork native to North America is on the upswing. In the Southeast, loggerhead sea turtles are also on their way to their recovery target, having laid record nest numbers in three of the past four seasons.

But there's still much work to be done, particularly in South Carolina. Many of the species for which the SCDNR conducts aerial surveys live exclusively on the coast, which is also the most populous and rapidly growing part of the state. Wildlife squeezed by coastal development have nowhere else to go, making safe and respectful encounters with wildlife a priority for the state's residents and visitors.

Hand offers a good rule of thumb: "If an animal is paying attention to you, then you're too close." When wild animals stop what they're doing to watch you, a potential predator, they're not engaging in the normal activities - resting, cleaning, foraging - that are critical to their survival.

One emerging concern is the amateur use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, to photograph wildlife. Collisions with birds have already been documented, and nesting colonies, where large numbers of birds gather, are particularly risky places to operate drones. In many cases, including on SCDNR-managed lands, it's also illegal. Still, much has been made in recent years of the potential uses for drones in wildlife conservation. SCDNR scientists have considered them as well.

"We would only ever adopt a new technology if we studied it and found that it would be less disruptive to wildlife than what we're already doing," Hand said. Tightly-maneuvered drones might prove valuable, for instance, in dense wading bird colonies where it's challenging to get high-quality images of the entire site.

But none of the biologists interviewed foresee drones replacing the flight program. The UAVs currently available simply can't keep pace with the long hours and expertise needed to fly the entire coastline or circle thirty wading bird colonies in one day.

Technology, as it turns out, has a long way to go to match the toughness and teamwork of pilots and wildlife biologists.

SCDNR pilot Owen Barker talks about his job in a short video interview. Go to to watch.


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South Carolina Wildlife staff flies high with SCDNR pilot Owen Barker to learn more about this exciting career.