By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News
Population changes among guillemots can reveal environmental stress
Guillemots on Skomer Island are at the forefront of a project to use computers to monitor vulnerable habitats.
Computers watching the birds are recording key behaviour such as how long they spend at the breeding colony.
Researchers hope to gather detailed information about changing behaviours and spot key trends.
Seabirds such as guillemots are an indicator species that can give "early warnings" of habitat degradation or other environmental problems.
A monitoring system is being created that films nesting birds and then analyses images to work out what the birds are doing, how long they at the colony caring for young and how long foraging.
Watching birds on the island off the Pembrokeshire coast presents many novel problems, said Dr Patrick Dickinson, a computer science lecturer at the University of Lincoln, one of the collaborators helping to develop the autonomous bird-watching system.
"There has been quite a lot of work done on surveillance but applied to monitoring in urban settings," said Dr Dickinson. "The countryside reveals different technological problems from a modelling point of view."
For instance, he said, CCTV systems in urban settings can be sure that the background of roads and street furniture will stay fixed and that the camera will be relatively stable.
Not so in rural settings, said Dr Dickinson, where camera shake, moving foliage and tides conspire to present a much more complex image.
In a bid to track the guillemots behaviour, Dr Dickinson is refining established work that involves modelling the visual structure of an area around a nest.
The computer system will be able to use this model to identify changing elements in the scene, and determine if they correspond to movement by a guillemot. "That is the typical way of doing surveillance," said Dr Dickinson, "work out what's moving, that gives you an idea about what is interesting in a scene."
The research project is being run for 14 months to gather data about nesting pairs and the time they spend foraging for food or sitting on a nest caring for their young.
For many years the seabirds on Skomer have been watched by biologists but these studies typically focus on a relatively small number of ringed birds to try to gain an impression of how many survive from year to year.
If the autonomous watching project goes well it should be possible, said Dr Dickinson, to watch more birds and get different sorts of information about the lives of the guillemots.
Skomer has been outfitted with a sensor network to gather data
Dr Robin Freeman, a computational ecologist from Oxford University/Microsoft Research and a co-worker on the project, said other seabirds on Skomer were also being studied.
This summer, he said, some of the burrows used by nesting pairs of Manx shearwaters had been fitted with a tube incorporating an ID tag reader and a weighing scale. A local wireless network has been set up to collect data from the different units.
"We're using the sensor network to gather activity patterns of the birds arriving and leaving their burrows," he said.
In particular, he said, the scale was fitted to the tube to find out the weight of fish the birds catch and bring back to their burrow for their young.
"Sometimes that goes well and sometimes the bird goes through in a flash," he said.
Early success of the work on Skomer had won interest from the RSPB, said Dr Freeman, which was interested in using a similar set-up on Lundy Island in the Bristol channel.
Professor Tim Birkhead, an expert on behaviour and evolution at Sheffield who has been aiding the project, said: "Monitoring these populations is vital in terms of keeping abreast of the health of the marine environment."
Prof Birkhead has been monitoring guillemot numbers on Skomer since the 1970s following a collapse in their population. Manual counts of the birds have shown that numbers are recovering but, said Dr Birkhead, this does not necessarily mean all was well.
"There is an air of complacency when numbers are going up," he said. "You have to be careful on the interpretation of what's going on.
"If your numbers do not change very much and you were not monitoring survival you would think everything was fine," he added.
However, he said, guillemots do not breed until they are six or seven years old so no change in numbers may mask decreases in survival caused, for example, by oiling or overfishing.
"Computer monitoring has a huge potential in terms of streamlining data collection," he said. "Not just counting birds but providing other kinds of biological information too."
"They could provide us with an early warning system," he said.