Earth observation technologies have strong potential to help map and monitor wildlife habitats. Yellow Rail, a rare wetland obligate bird species, is a species of concern in Canada and provides an interesting case study for monitoring wetland habitat with Earth observation data. Yellow Rail has highly specific habitat requirements characterized by shallowly flooded graminoid vegetation, the availability of which varies seasonally and year-to-year. Polarimetric Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) in combination with optical data should, in theory, be a great resource for mapping and monitoring these habitats. This study evaluates the use of RADARSAT-2 data and Landsat-8 data to characterize, map, and monitor Yellow Rail habitat in a wetland area within the mineable oil sands region. Specifically, we investigate: (1) The relative importance of polarimetric SAR and Landsat-8 data for predicting Yellow Rail habitat; (2) characterization of wetland habitat with polarimetric SAR data; (3) yearly trends in available habitat; and (4) predictions of potentially suitable habitat across northeastern Alberta. Results show that polarimetric SAR using the Freeman–Durden decomposition and polarization ratios were the most important predictors when modeling the Yellow Rail habitat. These parameters also effectively characterize this habitat based on high congruence with existing descriptions of suitable habitat. Applying the prediction model across all wetland areas showed accurate predictions of occurrence (validated on field occurrence data), and high probability habitats were constrained to very specific wetland areas. Using the RADARSAT-2 data to monitor yearly changes to Yellow Rail habitat was inconclusive, likely due to the different image acquisition times of the 2014 and 2016 images, which may have captured seasonal, rather than inter-annual, wetland dynamics. Polarimetric SAR has proved to be very useful for capturing the specific hydrology and vegetation structure of the Yellow Rail habitat, which could be a powerful technology for monitoring and conserving wetland species habitat.
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