Using a laser onboard NASA's Icesat spacecraft, University of Idaho scientists have been monitoring and tracking woodpeckers in the northern part of the state.
They are interested in woodpeckers because the species is a great indicator on overall forest bird diversity. "They create homes for lots of other species in the forest setting," explained Dr Kerri Vierling from the university's fish and wildlife department. Also, woodpeckers are quite sensitive to the characteristics of a forest and extremely choosy about where they call home.
The team has already collected data on over 20,000 hectares of forest surrounding the state's Moscow Mountain. And while the instrument itself cannot see individual woodpeckers, scientists have been able to construct maps showing areas favored by the species.
NASA's Icesat satellite was initially intended for measuring glacial surfaces at the Earth's poles but has proven to be quite effective in measuring vegetation also. The satellite's laser bounces off of forest canopies, tree trunks and the ground making important characteristics about the forest easily measurable. For example, forest density is determined by the relative amount of light returned versus that which is returned from the ground. Once ideal woodpecker locations are identified "we actually conduct ground-based woodpecker surveys in these locations as well to verify it," says team-member Patrick Adam.
In contrast, conventional surveying can be very laborious. It involves sending many people into an area on foot for evaluation. The results are detailed but time consuming and limited in scale.
NASA's Icesat was pulled from orbit and retired this past August but will be replaced later this decade.
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