Creative Cartography — How Do Owls See?

This year, the only Christmas gift I gave was a poster print of this original map to my five year old niece. It’s a canopy height model with one simple, unconventional twist: I used the canopy height raster to render 1-foot contour lines, and then symbolized the forest floor, under-story, and canopy according to how a Great Horned Owl might peruse them.

I doubt any five year old can comprehend a canopy height model, or birds-eye cartography. Most are just learning how to read letters. However, my niece loved the owl image and the colors. Her parents bring her walking around those woods and they spend hours together looking through encyclopedic animal picture books. We all cultivate sense of place and worldly connection over our entire lifespans. This is a pretty map with important information that she can grow into.

Below is a breakdown of the sources and techniques I used to draw the map. At the bottom I have included a video walking through the basic inspiration and cartographic choices made. Enjoy!

N.B., if the annotations look funny, it’s because I scrubbed all geographic and personal identifiable information from the map prior to publishing.

GIS Data Sources

USGS LiDAR Point Clouds, 2020; USGS National Hydrography Dataset, 2018; Esri Imagery Basemap

Major Cartography Techniques

Rendering various rasters from LPC; blending DEM and hillshade to create shaded relief (see video); generating and symbolizing contours; digitizing new, neater lines and polygons from source vectors; using deflection to draw precise angles; integrating images into layout; non-conventional legend.

Cartographic Element Sources

John Nelson’s Firefly Style File:

Owl Silhouette Vector Clip Art: ClipArtMax

Forest Silhouette Vectory Clip Art: IconsPNG

Informational/Inspirational Sources

An Owl’s Eye View of the Bohemian Grove (

“Owl Eyes and Vision”, Deane Lewis, (

“Great Horned Owl Nest Plan and Information” (