Most raptor aerial survey projects have focused on numeric description of visibility bias without identifying the contributing factors or developing predictive models to account for imperfect detection rates. Our goal was to develop a sightability model for nesting ferruginous hawks (Buteo regalis) that could account for nests missed during aerial surveys and provide more accurate population estimates. Eighteen observers, all unfamiliar with nest locations in a known population, searched for nests within 300 m of flight transects via a Maule fixed-wing aircraft. Flight variables tested for their influence on nest-detection rates included aircraft speed, height, direction of travel, time of day, light condition, distance to nest, and observer experience level. Nest variables included status (active vs. inactive), condition (i.e., excellent, good, fair, poor, bad), substrate type, topography, and tree density. A multiple logistic regression model identified nest substrate type, distance to nest, and observer experience level as significant predictors of detection rates (P < 0.05). The overall model was significant (??26 = 124.4, P < 0.001, n = 255 nest observations), and the correct classification rate was 78.4%. During 2 validation surveys, observers saw 23.7% (14/59) and 36.5% (23/63) of the actual population. Sightability model predictions, with 90% confidence intervals, captured the true population in both tests. Our results indicate standardized aerial surveys, when used in conjunction with the predictive sightability model, can provide unbiased population estimates for nesting ferruginous hawks.
Additional publication details
An aerial sightability model for estimating ferruginous hawk population size