May 2020

Digital naturalists at home: using digital lures to attract birds to safe places

The audio Tern Lure is a prototype made through a project with the RSPB.

Terns are seabirds that are loyal to their nesting sites, so it is important that they form colonies in places that are safe, away from human threats and introduced predators.

The aim of the Tern Lure is to use audio as a lure to ‘call’ or attract terns to sites that have been identified as safe for their colonies. The audio lure is designed to work in conjunction with physical tern models, made by the RSPB team.

Currently audio lures have batteries that need to be changed through the season, potentially causing disturbance to the birds. The bird calls are built into the system and can’t be changed without physical intervention, which also increases the potential for disruption.

We set out to design a prototype that would use solar energy to trickle charge a battery to reduce the need for disturbance. We also made the system more flexible for managing the audio, so calls could be pre-set using a calendar or changed on the fly, remotely by Bluetooth, text message or email, depending on signal. This means it would be possible to upload additional warning calls to keep the birds alert if predators are known to be in the area.

The prototype is a plastic box with a speaker on the side and solar panel on top, the equipment is stored inside
The solar-powered prototype
Mobile phone and other electrical equipment used in the prototype
Smartphones can be used to remotely alter the bird calls

One of the drivers for this work was thinking about the sustainability of hardware and software for NGOs, charities and organisations, particularly in the environmental sector. Often these organisations have limited capacity to develop software at local/ground level and pressure on budgets limits ability to afford ongoing development costs. Hence hardware and software that could have a long life becomes obsolete because it can’t be repaired or adapted by the in-house team.

The Tern Lure recycles an older smartphone to make an IOT (Internet of Things) lure that can be remotely configured and controlled. We wanted to see how far we could go with standard phone features and app store scheduling / configuring apps to avoid complexity and maximise availability and avoid future sustainability issues that may arise with custom apps. The smartphone is configured to minimise battery consumption by turning its data connection off, only checking in for schedule updates daily or on receipt of a text message. The Tern sound is played by the smartphone which is connected to an amplifier and marine speakers. The components are easily available and can be removed and replaced as necessary.

We are interested in how the modular system can be adapted for similar related purposes such as checking electric fences or delivering content for interpretation displays.

Authors: Liz Edwards and Will Simm
Header photo credit: Image by TheOtherKev from Pixabay