'Petrel peeper' keeps watch over a shy seabird
Wireless network gives scientists bird’s-eye view of O.leucorhoa’s favor

By Sarah Yang
Public Affairs



Miniaturized wireless sensors detect conditions such as light and humidity in a petrel nesting ground.
Photo courtesy of Intel Research Laboratory at Berkeley

15 August 2002 | For scientists studying the Leach’s Storm Petrel, monitoring the shy seabird’s nest activity used to mean sticking a cumbersome remote camera or a daring arm into its burrows. But wireless sensor technology and the Internet have changed all of that.

Now biologists and petrel buffs around the world can monitor the birds’ favorite breeding site, an island off the coast of Maine, in real time from the comforts of their office or home computers.

The new habitat monitoring system was developed through a partnership between the Berkeley-based Center for Information Tech-nology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Intel Research Berkeley laboratory. Over the summer, researchers from the Intel lab, in the city of Berkeley, and from the campus teamed with biologists from the College of the Atlantic in Maine to install a network of more than 20 miniaturized sensors, or motes, on nearby Great Duck Island.

Each device, slightly bigger than the two AA batteries powering it, is now beaming back raw data about the conditions in the burrows and the island’s microclimate. The data are available at

“There is nothing else like this sensor network available for conservation biologists, nothing that can provide good quality data in such dense numbers,” said John Anderson, a conservation biologist who is associate dean of advanced studies at the College of the Atlantic.

Anderson and students from the small liberal arts college have been studying seabird colonies on Great Duck Island for the past four years. “What’s really exciting about this is that we can get a feel for what happens on the island when humans aren’t there,” he said. “This kind of sensor network will have a profound effect on how we do field ecology.”

The raw information provided by the motes will help biologists understand why the Leach’s Storm Petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa) favors Great Duck Island over thousands of other islands off the coast of Maine.
“This is particularly important in conservation questions,” said Anderson, who also is a Berkeley alumnus. “We want to know which islands are important for the seabirds, and why. We could learn that the microhabitat of Great Duck Island is unique and in need of protection.”

Up to now, obtaining an accurate count of the elusive seabirds involved expensive, carefully planned trips to the island with a pen, paper and a portable video system — dubbed the “petrel peeper” — that was transported by wheelbarrow or several biology students.

Biologists believe the 237-acre island, located 12 miles from Acadia National Park, may be home to one of the largest petrel breeding colonies in the eastern United States. The seabird is particularly challenging to study because it spends most of its life offshore, returning to land only during the breeding period from the end of May through October. Early in the breeding season, the seabirds are particularly sensitive to intrusion and may abandon their nests if disturbed. On land, the petrels stay hidden during the day to avoid predators, typically emerging after 10 p.m.

The motes were placed in six burrows and the surrounding brush, covering an area just larger than half a football field. Each can detect light, barometric pressure, relative humidity, and temperature conditions. An infrared heat sensor detects whether the nest is occupied by a seabird and whether the bird has company.

Readings from each mote are sent out to a single gateway sensor above ground, which then relays information to a laptop computer locked away at a lighthouse on the island, which is connected to the Internet via satellite.
Biologists will be able to move them around if they find the petrels have once again eluded them. “The network is self-organizing,” explained David Culler, a Berkeley computer science professor and director of the Intel Research Berkeley laboratory. “The nodes will automatically search for signals from neighboring networks and adapt to changes in position.”

Time will tell. The researchers plan to spend the next several months monitoring data and improving on the system. In April, they will return to the popular East Coast nesting ground to deploy more motes before the start of next year’s breeding season.


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