We evaluated double-observer methods for aerial surveys as a means to adjust counts of waterfowl for incomplete detection. We conducted our study in eastern Canada and the northeast United States utilizing 3 aerial-survey crews flying 3 different types of fixed-wing aircraft. We reconciled counts of front- and rear-seat observers immediately following an observation by the rear-seat observer (i.e., on-the-fly reconciliation). We evaluated 6 a priori models containing a combination of several factors thought to influence detection probability including observer, seat position, aircraft type, and group size. We analyzed data for American black ducks (Anas rubripes) and mallards (A. platyrhynchos), which are among the most abundant duck species in this region. The best-supported model for both black ducks and mallards included observer effects. Sample sizes of black ducks were sufficient to estimate observer-specific detection rates for each crew. Estimated detection rates for black ducks were 0.62 (SE = 0.10), 0.63 (SE = 0.06), and 0.74 (SE = 0.07) for pilot-observers, 0.61 (SE = 0.08), 0.62 (SE = 0.06), and 0.81 (SE = 0.07) for other front-seat observers, and 0.43 (SE = 0.05), 0.58 (SE = 0.06), and 0.73 (SE = 0.04) for rear-seat observers. For mallards, sample sizes were adequate to generate stable maximum-likelihood estimates of observer-specific detection rates for only one aerial crew. Estimated observer-specific detection rates for that crew were 0.84 (SE = 0.04) for the pilot-observer, 0.74 (SE = 0.05) for the other front-seat observer, and 0.47 (SE = 0.03) for the rear-seat observer. Estimated observer detection rates were confounded by the position of the seat occupied by an observer, because observers did not switch seats, and by land-cover because vegetation and landform varied among crew areas. Double-observer methods with on-the-fly reconciliation, although not without challenges, offer one viable option to account for detection bias in aerial waterfowl surveys where birds are distributed at low density in remote areas that are inaccessible by ground crews. Double-observer methods, however, estimate only detection rate of animals that are potentially observable given the survey method applied. Auxiliary data and methods must be considered to estimate overall detection rate.
Additional publication details
A double-observer method to estimate detection rate during aerial waterfowl surveys