Getting Down to Details: Creating Maps that Convey Critical Ecological Characteristics

Photo © Yann Gar

At its heart this is more than just an educational website; it is a citizen-science project. A place where people can document and share details about what kinds of management they are doing for wildlife on their properties, favorite parks, local schools, or even where they work (yes – it happens – check out the King Arthur Flour Offices Map). It is important to us at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to understand more about what people are doing. Without it, there is a dearth of documentation about what actually works to support birds and other wildlife in urban landscapes.

Mary Dunn Map

Photo ©

When you create a map you outline the area, fill it with habitat polygons, and drag and drop critical objects on top. If you are still at that stage, you might find this article on drawing a map helpful. But did you know that just under the surface of these drawings is a world of extra ecological information you could be adding to each object to further customize it?

You can find these details by clicking on the object on the map and choosing “open.” The 20 second video above will show you how. You can also access site characteristics by selecting “Habitats and Objects” in the site explorer, looking at the list of objects, and clicking on one (more on this below).

Info Window

Photo © Cornell University

When you open the object, you’ll see its infowindow, where you can enter additional information. There are a lot of options in the infowindow. You can add a unique title to the object using the “basic information” button, or for a specific plant object, you can identify the species. Almost all objects and habigons (“habitat polygon”: the shapes, like lawn, buildings, and shrubbery you use to create your map) have what we call “characteristics.”

Lawn Infowindow

Photo © Cornell University

Each site, habigon, and object have slightly different characteristics which you can set to customize each of them. Here, we show the characteristics available when you draw a lawn habigon. You set a characteristic by clicking on the option in the circle that best represents your lawn. For this habitat there are four different characteristics to set (1. how you mow, 2. what you do with your clippings, 3. native or not, and 4. irrigation habits.)

Lawn Characteristics collage

Photo © Cornell University

As you set each characteristic a green check mark appears next to the item indicating it has been set. Here the mapper selected “push mower,” “I don’t know,” “native,” and “never irrigate.” Adding this information will customize, what is otherwise, a pretty generic drawing of a lawn. Now we know this lawn is actually a rare native lawn that doesn’t use any extra water and is mowed with a reel mower.

Not Known Setting

Photo © Cornell University

Answering “not known” is perfectly fine and sometimes unavoidable if you just don’t have the information needed to accurately set the characteristic. Moving the selector to “not known” is preferable to leaving it at “not set” since this tells researchers the item has been observed, and not just skipped or neglected.

Tag definition popup

Photo ©

Sometimes you might find yourself needing more information to accurately set the characteristics. There isn’t a lot of space in the infowindow, so we have created “tag definitions” to fill in the gaps. Clicking on one will lead to a much more detailed explanation of the characteristic.

Tag definition webpage

Photo © Cornell University

If you visit the webpage with all the tag definitions listed you’ll find a wealth of relevant information for your mapping efforts.

Site explorer characteristics

Photo © Cornell University

When you set the characteristics for your site line, your choices show-up in the Site explorer. These are highlighted in the pink circle in the image to the left. You can use this space to quickly check-out other people’s site details as well, to get a sense for what kind of gardening is done at any location.

Characteristics on hover

Photo © Cornell University

Characteristics for individual objects can be seen by looking at the Habitats and Objects list under the site explorer. When you hover over the ‘tag’ button, they become visible, as in the image above.

Site characteristics are an important way to customize your map and make sure you are giving accurate information to the Habitat Network. If you haven’t filled them out for your site yet, now is a great time to get started.

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