An unmanned aircraft system (aka drone) explores the beach on the Oregon Coast. Photo by Diane Bilderback
An unmanned aircraft system (aka drone) explores the beach on the Oregon Coast. Photo by Diane Bilderback

Drone Use Putting Pressure on Nesting Seabirds on Oregon Coast

Drones can offer million dollar views of the spectacular wild landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. Pilots of unmanned aircraft systems (a.k.a. drones) can get a bird’s eye view of the forests, oceans and stunning seastacks and islands.

But imagine the view if you’re an animal on the other side of the drone. You’re a black oystercatcher or a tufted puffin, sitting on your nest of eggs or new chicks when a loud creature suddenly invades your territory. You sit tight, hoping the predator won’t see you and will fly away.

The offshore seastacks and islands, which comprise Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, is home to 1.3 million seabirds, including common murres, tufted puffins, black oystercatchers, western gulls, pigeon guillemots. Photo by Brent Lawrence / USFWS
The offshore seastacks and islands, which comprise Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, is home to 1.3 million seabirds, including common murres, tufted puffins, black oystercatchers, western gulls, pigeon guillemots. Photo by Brent Lawrence / USFWS

The buzzing invader doesn’t leave, alternatively hovering, darting to the right and left, up and down unlike any other predator.

Your fight or flight instinct is triggered. You leave the nest to draw the intruder away. Your nest is left unguarded — and real predators of chicks and eggs such as raptors, crows and gulls swoop in for an easy meal.

It is a scene that is increasingly common at offshore rocks and islands that comprise the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge and other parts of the Oregon coast. The coast is home to 1.3 million seabirds during nesting and fledging season, which is March 15 through September 1.

Volunteers and refuge staff report seeing multiple drones a day flying close to nesting birds on the iconic offshore rocks and islands. The cumulative effect of this harassment could have a long-term negative impact on the populations of these birds and their use of the near-shore rocks and islands.

A recently reported incident in California revealed that a drone forced about 3,000 adult elegant terns to abandon their nests, leaving about 1,500 eggs behind. While that was an extreme example, drone use is a persistent and growing problem for wildlife on Oregon’s coast.

Colony Rock at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area on the Oregon Coast has thousands of seabirds, which can easily be disturbed by drones. This photo was taken from an airplane with a telephoto lens. Photo by USFWS

“It’s a significant problem,” said Dawn Harris, visitor services manager for the refuge. “Refuge and state agency staff and on-beach volunteers receive daily reports of common murres, tufted puffins, black oystercatchers, western gulls, pigeon guillemots and other species being disturbed and sometimes openly harassed by drones.”

Drones are not allowed to take off or land in National Wildlife Refuges, and it is against state (ORS 498.006) and federal (50 CFR 27.51) law to disturb or harm a nesting bird in a wildlife refuge and a person can be fined.

Fortunately, most occasions of bird disturbance is not intentional and drone pilots are receptive to education.

“Almost universally, the people we approach have no idea that they might be causing a disturbance to the birds,” Harris said. “When we find pilots who are flying too close to nesting seabirds, we talk with them about the problems it causes. The pilots almost always open to flying in a different manner that isn’t harmful to the birds.”

Tufted puffins use the offshore islands, including Haystack Rock, for nesting. Photo by Brent Lawrence / USFWS
Tufted puffins use the offshore islands, including Haystack Rock, for nesting. Photo by Brent Lawrence / USFWS

Here are some tips for minimizing the impact of drones on wildlife:

  • The best option is to not fly a drone during nesting season, which is March 15 through September 1.
  • If you fly a drone, stay away from spots where wildlife is nesting or relaxing.
  • While flying a drone, always be aware of how the animals are responding to your drone. If they appear stressed or agitated, immediately ground the drone or fly to a different area.
  • Find one of the numerous locations that offer stunning views of the coast and ocean that don’t create a problem for nesting wildlife.
  • Be sure to check with state park and federal regulations on the legality of drone use before flying. Not all public lands allow drone use.

Harris notes that there isn’t a one-stop solution to help nesting seabirds. The reaction to drones varies by species, with wildlife being extremely sensitive to the sound and presence of drones while others appear less disturbed. It also varies by proximity of the drone to the birds.

“The main reminder for the public is that nesting seabirds have a small window of time to nest, hatch and fledge their chicks,” Harris said. “Harassment during this time greatly increases the chances of nest abandonment or leaving the eggs and chicks open to opportunistic predators. Please help our seabirds by giving them appropriate space on the offshore islands.”

By Brent Lawrence, public affairs officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Columbia Pacific Northwest Region.

Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge offers stunning views of the offshore islands and Pacific Ocean. Photo by Brent Lawrence / USFWS. Refuge,
Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge offers stunning views of the offshore islands and Pacific Ocean. Photo by Brent Lawrence / USFWS. Refuge,