"Grandpa! Grandpa!"

The year was 1950, and I was running down the path that led to the Baby Beach where my grandfather was working in his garden. The garden down at the beach was his favorite place in the world – unless, of course, he was out in Flatty, fishing for lake trout.

In 1919, Grandpa bought 100 acres of waterfront property on Lake of Bays, in the Muskoka district of southern Ontario. Over the years, the family compound had grown to include the main cottage, a boathouse, a long dock, and a number of sleeping cabins. The cottage faced south toward the open lake, while the boathouse, dock, and Baby Beach were in the shelter of a large bay that swept from the cottage lot around to the east.

The buildings and beach dominated about five of Grandpa's acres. The other 95 were untouched. White birch, white and red pine, red cedar, hemlock, oak, and maple trees made up the forest, which – along with the rocky shoreline and sandy beach – provided a wonderful and varied habitat for my growing interest in birds.

I was 11 years old, a new member of Boy Scout Troop 96, back home in Forest Hills, New York. I had decided early on that "Bird Study" was going to be the first merit badge I earned. Grandpa was a bird watcher, and he had promised to help me. I was an enthusiastic learner – perhaps too enthusiastic.

"Grandpa! I just saw an ivory-billed woodpecker!"

He put down his trowel, looked over the top of his glasses and said, "Really?"

"He was down on that old stump by the lake. He was big. Black and white. Red on his head. I looked in the book – it's an ivory-billed woodpecker."

He said again, "Really?" Then added, "Which book?"

For my eleventh birthday, my parents had given me a copy of the Audubon Land Bird Guide. Grandpa swore by his 1947 edition of Roger Tory Peterson's, Field Guide to the Birds, but I preferred Don Eckleberry's illustrations to Peterson's, so there were two bird books to look at when we got up to the cottage.

Grandpa took out his Peterson. I countered with my Audubon. And this is how I learned about the importance of not just looking at the illustrations, but of reading the descriptions, as well. And, as Grandpa patiently explained, it was within those descriptions of habitat and range where this young merit badge wannabe would come to realize exactly which large woodpecker he had seen on that early August morning.

Plate 4 of the Audubon was the page with Eckleberry's woodpecker illustrations, and there was the ivory-bill, right next to another large, black and white (with red) woodpecker.

Grandpa opened the Peterson, turned to Page 154, where there was only one very large, black and white (with red) woodpecker. A pileated woodpecker.

Grandpa then turned back to Page 145, where Peterson had two black and white illustrations of the ivory-bill, right below a 16-line description. Grandpa read from the text:

"Close to extinction – similar species: pileated woodpecker. Range – formerly primeval river-bottom forests of southern United States. Last reported from northern Louisiana (Singer Tract)." Later that day I learned that the Singer Tract was more than 1,500 miles south of Lake of Bays. But I didn't know that yet.

Unwilling to believe my large woodpecker was not an ivory-bill, I turned to the Audubon for support. But there, in the description on Page 50, I knew I was in trouble. "Since the abundant and widely distributed pileated woodpecker is frequently mistaken for this rare bird, great care should be used in verifying its identity."

And then the crusher. "Destruction of the vast forests of the South, especially the luxuriant hardwood forests of the river bottoms, has apparently doomed this splendid bird. It is so rare that any record of one is noteworthy and should be passed on at once to the National Audubon Society, which is trying to save the bird from extinction."

"But, Bruce," consoled Grandpa, "a pileated is a great bird to have seen, and it's a new one on your list."

I took some comfort in that, as he went on to explain how I shouldn't jump to conclusions, and don't just go by the illustrations. He made sure I understood that range and habitat would always be important in helping both a young Boy Scout and an old grandfather build their life lists.

I'm not sure I listened closely to the rest of Grandpa's lecture, but I certainly learned the lesson. It provided an early spark to my lifelong interest in bird watching. And the best part was that when I returned home, and Scout meetings began again, I was the only member of Troop 96 who could claim a pileated woodpecker on his life list. Of course, it wasn't as good as an ivory-bill, but the other guys didn't know that. They were plenty impressed with the pileated.

This past summer, I spent a month up at the cottage. While rummaging through the bookcase I came across Grandpa's once-new copy of his Peterson guide. In the front of the book there is a section entitled, "My Life List." Grandpa was an avid record keeper, and there are many, many checks on the four pages next to the birds he had seen at the lake. Next to "Pileated Woodpecker" there are two entries. One, a simple check mark indicating Grandpa had seen it. And then, in Grandpa's scratchy hand, the notation, "Bruce, Aug. 5, 1950."

Grandpa died in 1960, but he's still up there at the lake. He's on the forest paths, down at the Baby Beach, and with me on my early morning bird walks. He's still teaching his grandson about birds, and his grandson has started teaching his own grandchildren about them.

Oh, lest I forget – the pileateds are still up there in the woods, banging holes in the old stumps, looking for their breakfast.

I'm still waiting for the ivory-bills.

As a kid, I was a deadly predator. I spent hours and hours hunting and fishing. Even though Dad was a wildlife photographer and I worked for him in summer – mostly doing errands and yard chores – I had little if any interest in cameras or birds. The few photos I took under Dad's direction did not ignite passion.

My lack of interest in photography continued through college where I majored in English literature. Upon graduation in 1971, I was ill-prepared for the work-a-day world, and took a job as a substitute teacher in the Cincinnati public schools. A year of that was altogether too much. So I went back to work for Dad, this time full-time. In a way it made sense. I loved the outdoors, and here was a job that offered almost unlimited access. Now all I had to do was to learn how to use and love cameras.

The first part of the learning process – how to use a camera – proved embarrassingly difficult. Exposing a still picture properly in those days before anything was automatic required accurately balancing three different figures – film speed, shutter speed, and light intensity. All had their own bizarre number systems – for example, film speed was measured in ISO numbers ranging from 16 to 400; shutter speeds were in odd fractions of a second – or in some cases multiples of seconds; and light intensity was measured in an arcane unit called candlepower. Add to this things such as lens lengths, filters, reciprocity factors, depth-of-field and the mystifying task of determining an object of neutral density so you could get an accurate reflective light reading, and this former literature student nearly became a failure. It took at least a year to get consistent, decently exposed results.

The second part – learning to love photography – came later.

In 1975 we bought our first 35 mm camera, complete with a motor drive, to take on a trip to Canada's Victoria Island, which is a couple of hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. Shorebirds like black-bellied plovers, ruddy turnstones, and red phalaropes thronged there for nesting. Ducks did, too, especially common eiders. To find photo subjects we would just start walking out across the tundra to see what stirred. Shorebirds usually snuck off their nest as we approached, but if we backed off 100 yards or so and watched with binoculars, the birds would generally lead us to the nest. The eiders stayed put, and sometimes you could even reach down and touch the incubating hen. I especially remember one hen that flushed when I lingered to take a photo. She had an even dozen eggs. After we left she returned to the nest, and whenever we passed her way again we could see her still sitting tight.

But the nest that made the difference belonged to snowy owls. We spotted it literally a mile away. The female stood out like a big white plastic bag on the pristine brown and green tundra. We set up a blind some distance back and gradually moved it in as the birds grew accustomed to it. When it was finally time to photograph, I used the new 35 mm camera, which was like a toy and fun to shoot compared to the very serious and cumbersome medium-format we had been using. The owls brought in a surprising variety of prey, perhaps because lemmings were scarce that year. Included were a char (a salmon-like fish) and a variety of shorebirds. But the item I remember best was the carcass of a common eider. An eider is a big duck and the owl struggled as she flew across the barren landscape with that huge piece of meat dangling from her talons. I used the motor drive to shoot the action, following her through the lens like it was the sight of a shotgun. It was as exciting as any hunt.

But that's not the whole story. Later that day we passed by the eider nest, and the hen wasn't on it. We checked the eggs. Several had been pipped, but all were cold. The owls were eating the hen. Maybe she moved too much while the ducklings were trying to hatch. In any event, the loss of that hen meant 12 fewer young birds would be added to the world's total eider population. A dozen! This was a really graphic illustration of natural population control right before our eyes – and recorded on film. To me, this was dramatic stuff – the science of life.

During the remaining few days we had on Victoria Island the owls continued to harvest birds we had already photographed. In particular, there was a string of eider ducklings. A hen we knew with ducklings on a nearby pond was now soon swimming all alone.

That owl nest more clearly than I could have imagined illustrated the biological principles I touched upon as a wildlife photographer – and hunter and angler. For some reason, from then on, pursuit of animals with a camera rather than a gun or rod satisfied my "primitive" urges. That is not to say that I have completely given up hunting. I still enjoy being in the woods or along the stream; but when I harvest deer and turkey there is no longer sport in the kill. I want the meat – whose purity and wholesomeness I trust more than that from the supermarket. Maybe that snowy owl nest made me a better predator, because photography satisfies my need for the outdoors. Now I no longer play when I go for the kill.