Scared seabirds dodging drones

Concerned locals are calling for recreational drone operators to be more cautious about where they fly, after an alarming report of seabird disturbance on Penguin Island.

Drones flying too close to seabirds and their breeding grounds can cause serious harm. Photo: Josh Sorenson

Concern was sparked by a Facebook post shared on the Residents of Safety Bay community page claiming pelicans on Penguin Island had abandoned their nests due to a drone flying too low. As a result, the post claimed, several offspring drowned trying to fend for themselves.

The original post was written by Safety Bay resident Haley Wynne after hearing the disturbing news from her husband, who heard it from a local seabird rescue worker.  Western Independent reached out to the rescue worker to get more details, but she is out of range on a field trip.

Ms Wynne said: “We were absolutely distraught to hear that the reason the pelicans had left the northern side of Penguin Island was due to a drone not abiding by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority regulations.

“The fact they had to leave their babies to fend for themselves and half drowned was an absolute tragedy.”

Home to Western Australia’s largest colony of little penguins, the island is also an important environment for over 30 other species of seabirds.

While some subsequent discussion on Facebook questioned the story about the drones and pelicans, Murdoch University conservation biologist Claire Greenwell said drones flying too close to nature reserves and disturbing wildlife is a common issue and threat, especially for nesting birds.

“When the drone approaches too closely, the birds will actually leave their nests and at that time they leave their eggs and chicks exposed,” she said.

“So that actually opens up those eggs and chicks to predation by other species, such as gulls.”

Ms Greenwell said because Penguin Island is a marine reserve, drone operators must apply the Conservation and Land Management Act and CASA rules.

“The fact that they did disturb the animals is, obviously, contravening their positions that they’re allowed to fly there.”

Under all relevant state legislative and regulatory requirements, including the CALM Act and Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, drone operations must not create danger or disturb wildlife. Failure to adhere can result in a fine of $50 000.

Owner of Rockingham’s MLN Drone Tech Matthew Kalkman said flying a drone to Penguin Island from the shore breaches the visual line of sight rule, which must be maintained without visual devices, such as binoculars. 

“I can maintain visual line of sight to no more than 500 metres in good conditions, anything further and it begins to fall into the extended line of sight or beyond visual line of sight,” he said.

“It is dangerous to wildlife and can also increase the risk of a Remotely Piloted Aircraft flyaway or other emergencies.”

Mr Kalkman said that although most people do the right thing when operating drones, CASA can issue a fine of up to $1110 per offence and restrict accreditation, licence, certificate, or registration.

“For recreational users of RPA’s, the easiest and most straightforward way to ensure they comply with CASA Regulations is to visit their website.

“CASA-recognised drone safety advocates pledge to follow a specific set of guidelines when selling drones to ensure they provide you with important safety information on when, where, and how you can use your drone safely.”

For more information regarding safe drone practices, visit CASA’s website or download the OpenSky app.