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.