May 2007

One of the most difficult parts of communicating the location of a good bird (or a good birding spot) is uncertainty about how much knowledge is shared between the parties. Between some interlocuters “the cedar tree by the side of the road where the long-eared owl was last year” is good enough. Others require turn-by-turn directions from their home 300 miles away. A couple of years ago, I thought GPS was the answer. I would specify the coordinates and GPS-equipped birders would be able to navigate there directly. Unfortunately, the technology has progressed so rapidly that lats and longs have been completely bypassed. Maybe OnStar can get you to a set of coordinates, but most car GPS receivers are all visual; they don’t have any means of entering target coordinates. The obvious answer is some kind of map, but most of the online mapping services suffer from the same shortcoming.

But now there is My Maps from Google. My Maps lets you annotate and save a map from Google Local and send a link to it to all your friends. The map has all of the interactive functionality of the basic Google Local. I can use it to indicate a spot in a local wildlife area, and when you click on it, you can zoom out, click on your house, get directions and all the things you normally expect. This same map is just as useful to a birder in Cincinnati as it is to one in Cleveland. And best of all, it is dead simple, all drag and drop, and no programming. It only takes about ten minutes to achieve a reasonable level of skill. I wish all software were like that.

To get started, point your browser to Google Local . You should get a display that looks something like this:


This one is centered on my house just north of Wilmington, Ohio. Yours is probably centered on someplace in your neck of the woods.

02my-maps.gifLook at the tabs on the left. Click on “My Maps” as below. For now, resist the temptation to click on “Create new map.” First you want to zero in on the target area for your map, because that is the first thing your reader will see. We will use the pan and zoom controls indicated by the red arrows below to move the focus to Cowan Lake State Park, one of my favorite local birding spots. First, I will zoom out to get some perspective, as in the figure at right below.


Look in the bottom left hand corner. There is Cowan Lake. Now we need to center it and zoom in to make it a pretty picture. We do this with the cross-shaped controls on the left. There is also an undocumented method that is very handy for this sort of thing. Place the cursor on the lake and double click. Google centers on that point and zooms in by one increment. In any case, a couple of clicks should get us a map like the one below. Now, click on “Create new map.”


The cursor is in the title box on the left. You can enter a title and a short description of the map and what it is supposed to do. This gives us the basic map, we can begin to annotate it. Just to the right of the pan and zoom controls, you will see four icons that weren’t there before. The first (leftmost) of these is a little hand. This control essentially duplicates the pan control. You can use it to grab the map and move it. Just click on the hand, then click and drag the map. The next three are the three basic means of annotating the map. The little balloon annotates a point; the jagged line allows you to draw consecutive line segments on the map; and the last gives you way of drawing a colored polygon on the map. Let’s annotate a few points since that is the control you will probably be using most.

One of my favorite birding spots at Cowan Lake is the east boat ramp on the south shore. To annotate this spot, click on the balloon icon and drag it over to the desired spot as below.



09annotation.gif When you let go of the mouse button, an annotation panel appears. Click in the title box and enter an appropriate title. Then click in (or tab into) the description box and write as much description as you think your readers might find useful. When you are done, click OK. The annotation panel goes away, but the icon, the title and the first line or two of the text appear in the panel to the left of the map. Clicking on the title brings back the annotation. If we continue in this way, dragging and dropping the balloons on various points, we build up an map rich in information. Not only that, but the map retains all the functionality of the basic Google Maps utility. I can zoom out to Sacramento and get turn-by-turn directions to the east boat ramp. This flexibility is the great power of My Maps.


But wait, there’s more. Lurking under the annotation panel are a whole slew of additional symbols that give interesting possibilities. Look at the figure at right. I have put a marker on the Lotus Cove Trail Head, but that is not a birding spot. It is just a place to park. I can distinguish that by changing the icon to something more suitable.

I do this in the following way. In the panel to the left of the map, I click on Lotus Cove Trail Head. This brings up the annotation I created earlier. Click on “Edit.” This recovers the annotation dialog, from which I can make whatever changes I wish. Now I click on the balloon icon in the upper right corner. When I do that, a new panel appears that gives me the choice of about a hundred new symbols. I scroll down and choose the capital “P” for parking and the change is made


The map below shows what you can do with this. I have added a tent to indicate where the campground is, and a little sailboat to show the location of the marina, and an exclamation point to warn that an indicated road is actually private. Finally, Google Maps isn’t too good about including internal roads in the park, so I have used the line drawing tool to draw in the roads down to the beach and to the Big Hill picnic grounds. These are two of the best areas in the park and deserve the extra attention.


Finally, we need a way to make this map available to others. Google gives each map a URL so it is accessible to anyone who has the address. You can bring this address up by clicking on “Link to this page” in the upper right corner of the map.


When you do this, the URL appears in the address box of your browser. From here you can copy it and paste it into an e-mail or make it a link on a web page, like this one. I have done that with the finished map, which you can see by clicking here.

A couple of final words. First, making these maps is a web application and as with most web applications, it is excruciatingly slow if you are on a dial-up connection. Even with a broadband connection, it is not nearly as fast as a dedicated application that runs directly on your computer, like your word processor. Success requires a little patience.  The spplication is also a bit balky sometimes. I figure it is because every mouse click must be sent out over the web and a response must be sent back and some of them just go astray. One important corollary of this is that you must save your work early and often, as we used to do in the olden days. Google tries to save after every change, but sometimes the magic just doesn’t work. You have to take responsibility for it yourself.

Condor and photog

Yes, that’s a California Condor on the left, and no, the photographer is not a professional ornithologist, and no, this is not is some barely accessible wilderness.  In fact, the Pacific Coast Highway is only about 20 meters behind the photographer and there are about a dozen other people awaiting their turn for the condor photo op.

This is a far cry from my previous encounter with a condor.  In 1982, I and two of my sons decided to make a try for the condors.  We drove from Alamogordo, New Mexico, and camped on the top of Mount Pinos overlooking the Sespe Valley, the site of the last wild condor population.  We were prepared to spend five days on Mount Pinos waiting for a condor.  The first morning was great condor-watching conditions: clear skies and a million miles visibility.

After a couple of hours we had accumulated a nice little group of would-be condor watchers, but no condors. One of the group was an experienced condor finder and he told us that the way to attract condors was for one of the party to lie down on the ground and twitch from time to time. After a while, my son Hugh decided to give it a try.

Shortly thereafter, a speck appeared on the horizon. We watched it carefully. The wing posture was consistent with condor, but it could have been an eagle. As it drew closer, excitement grew as the bird took a “double dip” flap, a condor flight characteristic. By this time, it was apparent that the bird was very far away and was thus much larger than an eagle. A small bird was harrying the condor.

We watched all the way in. Judging from the amount of white under the wings, the bird was probably two or three years old. It finally passed right by us, about 100 feet away and at eye level. The little bird that was harrying the condor was a Red-tailed Hawk. It was a thrilling encounter, well worth the 900 mile drive.

The Sespe population continued to decline.  The last remaining individuals were rounded up in 1987 and entered into a captive breeding program at the San Diego Zoo.  The program was successful in producing new condors and in 2003,  condors began to be released into the wild.  There are now four free-flying condor populations in Southern California, Northern California, Arizona, and Baja California.


Now, as much as I enjoyed getting up close and personal with these condors, I cannot help but think that this may not be the best way to bring back a famously endangered species.  These birds are part of the Ventana Wilderness population.  I am confident that No. 4 (top picture) is an adult, and judging from the lack of black on the heads of the two above, they are probably also adults, or nearly so.  But what are they doing hanging out with people?

Local experts state that condors are very predictable along this stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, 40-50 miles south of Monterey. They have apparently made their way from the wilderness where they breed to the clifftops by the sea, where presumably they are foraging along the shoreline. It is a puzzle to me what they can be foraging on since condors are large carrion specialists, though it has been suggested that they are feeding on carcasses in seal and sea lion rookeries.

The fact that they are so approachable indicates that they are habituated to human contact seems to me to be worrisome. Recently, bottle tops and other human detritus have been implicated in the deaths of some young condors in this very population.  (The Vermillion Cliffs population in Arizona, which is considerably further removed from concentrations of humanity than these birds, has not to my knowledge suffered similar losses.)

I don’t see what can be done about it really- condors will be condors and if they want dramatic sea views, there is little we can do to stop them. However, this tendency may presage the ultimate failure of this population. Restoration money is so hard to come by, even for a big box-office species like the condor, that a highly public failure may lead to a loss of confidence in the ability of scientists to carry out projects like this. The ramifications could be far-reaching and severe.