Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Crossing Paths With Pete Dunne

“Some birds are not meant to be caged, that's all. Their feathers are too bright, their songs too sweet and wild. So you let them go, or when you open the cage to feed them they somehow fly out past you. And the part of you that knows it was wrong to imprison them in the first place rejoices, but still, the place where you live is that much more drab and empty for their departure.”  -- Stephen King

Pete Dunne was scheduled to be at the New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary yesterday, Sept. 19. I wasn't able to attend, anxious to do a lot of walking in the woods after a homebound work week. I wanted to find warblers making the trip south for the winter, not stand on a concrete porch in the middle of hundreds of people broiling in the cloudless sun and watch migrating raptors high aloft, listening for some insight from this man, the co-author of the seminal "Hawks in Flight" and a number of other books. 

Pete Dunne in 2012 (Margo D. Beller)
I wasn't there, and there is a strong chance he didn't show up. However, I can still visualize the scene because I was there in 2012, and I saw the crowd and I saw his enjoyment in calling out what hawks were passing through and bestowing identification tips. I saw him patiently listen to all the birding stories and he even answered a question or two of mine, asked in my role as writer of the Scherman Hoffman blog.

However, in March 2013, Dunne had a stroke. In 2014, after much rehabilitation, he stepped down as head of the Cape May Bird Observatory, which he built from nothing to a major destination for anyone with a serious interest in finding and identifying birds. He has become NJ Audubon's "Birding Ambassador." 

He also stepped down as editor of New Jersey Audubon's magazine (in which I've had one article published and have another in production). In 2011, another time we crossed paths, I got his phone number and called the man, who cheerfully talked to me about what kind of articles they would publish, if I could come up with anything. He was encouraging but made no commitment.

I did not mention that phone call when I talked briefly to Dunne in 2012 on the Scherman hawk platform. He talks to a lot of people in the course of a given day. For the same reason, this past May I did not remind him of our previous conversations when MH and I spent a weekend in Cape May that happened to coincide with the day of the annual World Series of Birding -- an event Dunne helped create.

(I first crossed path with Dunne when a friend at work loaned me Dunne's 1986 book "Tales of a Low-Rent Birder." I had never heard of Dunne, and I was only starting to get interested in bird watching thanks to the feeder my brother-in-law and his wife had given us for a housewarming present in 1994.)

The Friday we drove to Cape May -- the southernmost point of New Jersey and a prime feeding spot for birds flying north after they cross Delaware Bay -- was our wedding anniversary. The next day was the WSB. That day we rose early (we had a lot of stops to make our one full day there) and went to Higbee Beach, a large piece of property, and arrived just as a tour bus was loading up with birders trudging out of the Higbee fields.

Pete Dunne, Scherman Hoffman hawk platform, 2012 (Margo D. Beller)
"Looks like there's a Carolina wren in your future," said the tour leader as the little bird sang. Pete Dunne, of course, looking as energetic as if he had risen from a refreshing nap. No cane. No sign of the weakness in his left side. Dunne used to travel the state during the WSB from midnight to midnight with a group - at one point including another bright light of the birding universe, Roger Tory Peterson - but now he was sticking closer to home in Cape May, with a large tour group in a larger white bus.

MH and I got to Higbee no later than 7 am and here's Dunne's group just finishing their visit, heading on to one of Cape May's many other birding locations. They had to have started right at dawn, which means Dunne had to have gotten them in the bus no later than 5 am.

Pretty impressive. 

We saw a lot of very good birds on our own that day, and it was the best birding we did this past spring. (Spring migration was not very good in northern New Jersey, and autumn migration is shaping up to be as bad thanks, in part, to the drought.) I wouldn't have minded Dunne pointing out a bird I usually can't identify rather than a Carolina wren, one of my favorite birds and one I can identify in my sleep.

Yesterday's walk, meanwhile, yielded very little in the way of interesting birds aside from catbirds, a blue-gray gnatcatcher and five types of woodpeckers (mainly heard, although the pileated was seen, just barely, flying overhead). While not at a hawk platform we did have plenty of turkey and black vultures taking advantage of the hot, dry air to swoop and soar. We even had a broadwing hawk, seen from the Griggstown Grasslands, which we visited before getting to the Delaware & Raritan Canal. After our walk around the grassland we walked along the canal and back, about 3 miles. 

We got back to our car exhausted.

I bet up on that hot, sunny platform Pete Dunne didn't even break a sweat.