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.Ā  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.