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Shorebird science? There's an app for that

A new smartphone application developed by the U.S. Geological Survey as part of the LCC-facilitated beach resiliency projects is helping to coordinate data collection to better understand threats to piping plover and other beach-dependent species.
Shorebird science? There's an app for that

Rob Finer using iPlover at Monomoy NWR

For shorebird technicians Rob Finer and Cheryl Horton, a day conducting piping plover surveys at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge can entail a 30-minute boat ride out to an island, five or six hours methodically scanning the beach for new nests, up to ten minutes at each nest site recording observations, a 30-minute boat ride back to the mainland, and about an hour in the office inputting the data into Excel.

So adding another element to an already intense data-collection effort might have been a lot to ask, if it wasn’t just a matter of a reaching for a smartphone. Fortunately, that’s all it takes for shorebird researchers across the region to contribute valuable information to helping protect the threatened piping plover and other beach-dependent species in the face of climate change.  

The iPlover smartphone application, developed by the U.S. Geological Survey with support from the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, provides a way for coastal resource managers to capitalize on existing piping plover monitoring efforts in places like Monomoy, in order to aggregate data that can help them understand habitat outlook across the species’ Atlantic breeding range.

“We are using the data to develop predictive models of plover habitat utilization that then feed into other models that predict the evolution of plover habitat,” explained Rob Thieler, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist and the lead developer of the app. “So when you put it all together, you can develop a product that allows land and species managers to better understand where and when plover habitat is going to be changing.”

The innovative approach is already proving its worth. During a pilot season last summer, iPlover was used to collect 682 observations along 1,500 kilometers of coast from North Carolina to Maine. “That’s a lot of data,” said Thieler, pointing out that with an expanded list of federal and nonfederal partners, he expects to collect double the amount this year.

The technological benefits are clear to see on both ends of the spectrum. “Everyone has a sensor in their pocket these days, so we wanted to take advantage of that,” said Thieler. “We wanted to make this a very minimal addition to the work these people are already doing.”

In just a minute or two, technicians like Finer and Horton can use the app to take a geotagged photograph, and record information on geomorphic setting, substrate type, vegetation type, and vegetation density.  

On the backend, the app also makes things easier for the team at USGS that is responsible for processing the data. “The data comes in a format that is almost immediately ingestible by the models, so you really don’t have to mess it around with it very much to get it how you need it,” said Thieler.  

The opportunity to develop the app emerged in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which brought urgent attention to the threat that climate change poses to coastal systems. iPlover is one of a suite of projects supported through Department of the Interior Hurricane Sandy funding that is focused on future resilience for beach systems. Because piping plover is considered a “representative” for species that use dynamic sandy beach and inlet habitats, protecting and managing beaches for plovers will also benefit a suite of others including beach-nesting birds such as least tern, migrating shorebirds such as red knot, and insects like the northeastern beach tiger beetle.

Although there have been piping plover survey efforts underway across the North Atlantic breeding range since the bird was listed on the Endangered Species Act in 1986, Thieler explained, “None of the data that are already being collected systematically are designed to address this particular problem.”

He said he expects they will be able to collect enough data over the project's three-year funding period to be able to characterize the threats to plover, but added that because there is minimal technical oversight required, iPlover could certainly have a life after the project.

“A number of people have asked if we can use this app for monitoring. While the app is not designed to be used for that purpose - it was designed to solve a research problem, and it has a research infrastructure - we could certainly adapt it for monitoring purposes in the future.” 

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