The world of conservation has been slow in realising the importance of thermal imaging, but hopefully this is changing.
A Little History
Thermal technology originates from the military, it was developed after World War 1, and was first used in 1929 as anti-aircraft defence across the shores of Britain. More recently it has been adopted in the civilian world. It is now widely used in security, maritime, hunting, police and surveillance but outside of those fields it is viewed as new, or indeed an unknown technology.
A common misconception is that "thermal imaging" and "night vision" are one and the same but in reality the two are quite different. Night vision uses an (invisible to us) infrared light source to illuminate and the device turns this illumination into a visible image. Some animals can see infrared - if you recall TV programs where they are filming using remote night vision cameras- the animals are often looking directly at the camera as they have seen the IR torch light them up.
Thermal imaging is just that - an image of thermal heat. No light is given off by a thermal imaging device, so the operator is completely undetected by the animal or bird that they are watching. This means that behaviours can be monitored without influencing or disturbing the environment, and the outcome provide a true picture of what is happening. Unlike Night Vision, Thermal can be used both day and night.
In this video you can clearly see the benefits of Thermal
This is a great example of the benefits of using thermal imaging for bird watching. This was filmed in the middle of the afternoon earlier this month using some thermal binoculars (Pulsar Merger LRF XL50) and for comparison my smartphone. Using a tripod enabled me to film both at the same time. You can clearly see more activity with the thermal than you can with your own eyes, or indeed your binoculars, but it also shows that thermals are not x-rays - you can lose heat sources behind thick cover or only get parts of the bird showing.
What are the benefits to Conservation?
There is a learning curve needed when using thermal imaging for the first time but the benefits are quite clear to see. Knowledge on the species is required to help narrow down ID and exact species are sometimes impossible to tell. In daytime there is no issue when you can also view with traditional daytime optics.
Wildlife really comes alive at night, and thermal allows manner of mammals, birds, reptiles and insect species to be monitored and studied at times that they previously would have been undetectable. Just imagine standing in a field, or in woodland in the dead of night and being able to see all the activity around you - well with thermal imaging you can and it's a whole new world of opportunity.
How Thermal can protect our wildlife
There are some exciting leaps in legislation that will hopefully be coming into play in the future to ensure that thermal imaging must be used to survey trees and buildings for bats - a maternity colony glows brightly in a thermal without having to shine torches on them and disturb them - but even individuals will be hard to miss. This will certainly be a huge help in securing safety for colonies in the future.
Night time thermal surveys for potential property development sites are also proving invaluable - sites that in the daytime show a handful of the "usual avian suspects", at night time can show huge flocks of golden plover and jack snipe that have previously never been recorded in that location. Exciting stuff!
As you can see there are wide ranging applications for thermal imaging and we shall try and promote their use and help educate the public through this page. We will collect stories and facts from our experts and share them with you all as well as make how-to guides for those with devices. If anyone has any interesting stories, videos or images they would like to share then please get in touch
Thanks for reading