March 19, 2012 at 3:05 PM ET
A portable radar system combined with night vision goggles and thermal imaging cameras are helping scientists find and protect a rare bird in the Caribbean, a conservation group explained Monday.
While none of these technologies are new, they are now inexpensive enough to do more than track airplanes and find thugs hiding behind enemy lines.
In the case of the Black-capped petrel, the tools are helping researchers pinpoint nesting grounds on Hispanola, the island shared between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
"These birds spend almost all of their time at sea and then they nest in cliff tops far into densely wooded areas," Jessica Hardesty Norris, the seabird program director for the American Bird Conservancy, told me.
The nests – only four of which have ever been found – are burrowed about five feet into the ground.
Locating the nests is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, the researchers said. The process is complicated by the fact that the birds don't make verbal noise as they fly, and that they fly at night.
But if they can find the nests, they can begin to figure out what's hindering Black-capped petrel breeding success and devise strategies to protect them.
"Are the trees being cut down? Are there introduced predators that are eating the chicks?" Adam Brown, a senior biologist with Environmental Protection in the Caribbean, told me.
"Until we find where the nesting is taking place, we can't get at those questions. So, the radar has really given us the foundation to begin conservation of the bird," he added.
The radar system is mounted on a truck and able to pick up individual birds as they fly in from the sea and head towards their breeding grounds.
This January, the scientists parked their pickup truck on the coast and caught birds as they came in from the ocean. They then moved further inland, and caught them circling above nesting grounds.
Over consecutive nights, Brown explained, they team devised a system where the radar techs would locate a bird, then radio to lookouts who used night vision goggles and thermal imaging cameras to watch as the birds flew to nesting areas.
While night vision goggles and thermal imaging are fairly common tools to find nocturnal birds, "the radar really changes the game," Norris said.
Now that team has tested out the tools on known nesting regions for the rare birds, they plan to start looking for birds in other regions, hopefully establishing a wider range and pinpointing nests for further study.
Brown, who has used radar previously to study the marbled murlett, an endangered seabird, in northern California, said he expects radar the technology to become more widespread among biologists.
It could be useful, for example, to study insects and bats. More sophisticated radar systems, such as those used by the National Weather Service, he noted, could even be used to monitor bird migrations.
"They'll be able to figure out when are thousands and millions of birds migrating over the Gulf of Mexico, for instance," he said. "And we'll be able to monitor it all remotely."
-- John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.