Fawcett, D; Bennie, J; Anderson, K (2020). Monitoring spring phenology of individual tree crowns using drone-acquired NDVI data. REMOTE SENSING IN ECOLOGY AND CONSERVATION.

Quantifying the timing of vegetation phenology is critical for monitoring and modelling ecosystem responses to environmental change. Phenological processes have been studied from landscape to global scales using Earth observing satellite data, and at local scale by in situ surveys of individual plants. Now, data acquired from multi-spectral sensors on drone platforms provide flexible opportunities for monitoring phenology from individual plants to small ecosystem scales efficiently, allowing community and species level information to be derived. We captured a time-series of drone-acquired normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) data with a multi-spectral sensor (Parrot Sequoia, (Parrot, France)) over a highly heterogeneous ecosystem in Cornwall, UK, during a period of spring green-up. We monitored NDVI trajectories at the individual crown and species' level. For deciduous crowns, we derived metrics representative of spring phenological stages: Start-of-spring (SOS), middle-of-spring green-up (MOG) and start-of-peak greenness (SOP) using a logistic function. While the exact timing of SOS, MOG and SOP appeared susceptible to understorey effects and saturation of the NDVI, relative timing of green-up for a subset of species was plausible in relation to phenological observations from an extended geographic region and in situ plant area index (PAI) measurements. In evergreen vegetation (Pinus spp.) subtle changes were also detected through the growing season. The impact of illumination differences was analysed for image pairs during leaf-off and leaf-on conditions. While significant, these effects were small (mean absolute NDVI deviation of up to 0.034 for leaf-off, 0.013 for leaf-on conditions), meaning that data captured under both constant direct and diffuse irradiance conditions can be used together and that cloudy conditions should not lead to data gaps. We conclude that the capability of drone-mounted multi-spectral instruments for spatio-temporal characterization of crown-level phenology shows great promise for improving the understanding of intra- and inter-species differences in strategy, and offers an efficient means of doing so over areas of a few hectares.