Monitoring Eagle Owl Nests in Latvia

July 27, 2023
Jan Paulovic
Ryan Aherin

About the Latvian Ornithological Society

Peteris Daknis is a researcher for the Latvian Ornithological Society (LOB), which is a nature conservation NGO that works to preserve habitats and protect the diverse fauna and bird species in Latvia. LOB is composed of professional and volunteer ornithologists who work together with other conservation enthusiasts to carry out its activities and promote conservation practices in the country. Peteris oversees projects related to protecting the eagle owl population in Latvia, this most recent project was to monitor artificial nests made for the owls.

Using artificial nests to improve egg incubation

In Latvia, eagle owls typically nest on the ground in the forest. However, increasing human interaction with their habitat is threatening the already vulnerable population of owls. There are likely only about 50 mating pairs of eagle owls in Latvia. During the egg incubation period, the owls will abandon their nests if they are disturbed or scared off by predators like wild boars or foxes getting too close to their nests. 

Peteris and LOB have developed artificial nests from metal barrels that they install in the trees to encourage the eagle owls to nest in a more secure location. When the project started in 2021 they only had about 25 nests, but this has grown to about 300 with plans to install more. The reason that so many nests are needed is because the owls will move around within their territory every year. 

As a condition of their financing for the project, LOB needs to survey how many nests are being used and monitor the population of the owls. The surveys are carried out by a team of about ten people including nature conservation workers and volunteers. 

Originally, the nest construction and surveying was done with pen and paper. This was a time consuming process because the other researchers had a lot of other projects they were managing and there was not a standardised means of communicating and sharing the information. Some workers would use email and others were using messaging apps like WhatsApp. This made it difficult to track down all of the information and in some cases things would get lost in the process or work would be duplicated. 

Now that they have a much larger number of nests to monitor, Peteris needed a more efficient way to collect the data and manage the project work among the researchers.

Optimising surveys for use in the field with Mergin Maps

In order to set the project up in Mergin Maps, Peteris divided the work into five regions based on where the team members were located. Since most of the project team were not experts in using GIS technology, he made a five minute video to introduce them to the Mergin Maps environment. Most of the team were able to get up and going in Mergin Maps with relative ease. 

There are some specific challenges for conducting surveys in the forest environment. Sometimes the team members would be working in poor weather conditions, in places where there was interference from insects or in remote locations with poor data connectivity. Peteris has found it useful to be able to simplify the survey forms using QGIS and Mergin Maps so the surveyors only need to enter the essential information. He also found it helpful that he can manage the amount of data sent to workers in the field, such as only having pictures being uploaded to the project but not sent back out to the field workers. This helps to reduce the loading time needed to access the project from  the mobile devices when there is poor connectivity.

He says that the ability to upload photographs of the owls is good for tracking the population growth, but maybe next year he will only ask for pictures of the occupied nests so he doesn’t have to deal with hundreds of photos of empty nests! 

Example of the Eagle Owl project in Mergin Maps: The dots on the map show the locations of the artificial nests and the red lines show the route to access the nest by foot. The green dots indicate which nests have been checked and the other colours indicate which nests have been assigned to a specific worker.

”It’s brilliant for ornithological data to have everything on the go!”

It was really helpful to be able to share information quickly across the team. They were able to label the nests with colour-coded dots to show if they had been checked and who needed to check them. This made it easy for the surveyors to plan their work without accidently checking a nest that someone else had already looked at, especially since they were often in locations that are difficult to get to. They are also able to create tracks when they install the nests and then share those with the surveyors in Mergin Maps so they know how to get to the nest locations.

Peteris says that he has almost all of the data collected because of the ability to synchronise updates to Mergin Maps from the field. This is a big improvement from before because it would typically take until the winter before all of the data was returned from the surveyors as many people had busy schedules. He says that due to the success of the survey project in Mergin Maps, they are now managing all aspects of the nest construction and monitoring work in the app. 

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