Pete Dunne Travels North

By Margo D. Beller


At high noon, on a mid-September day that feels like mid-August, Pete Dunne sits in a chair on the Scherman Hoffman sanctuary hawk observation platform, calling out what he sees through his binoculars and providing a wealth of observation tips.

“That’s a Turkey Vulture. It holds its wings in a V. V for vulture.”  Pete Dunne, Scherman Hoffman, 2017

“There’s a Broad-wing flying just above a Red-tail in that cloud. You can see the Broad-wing is a little smaller and its wings look like a candle flame.”

“That’s a Sharp-shin passing over us. It looks like a flying mallet. A Cooper’s hawk looks like a flying crucifix.”

The crowd is a bit smaller than when I was last on the platform while Dunne was visiting five years ago, but it is no less avid. Up go the binoculars as sanctuary director Mike Anderson uses a clicker to count off the number of raptors seen while making sure everyone can see what Pete Dunne is seeing. Dunne visits this New Jersey Audubon sanctuary every September from his home near the Delaware Bay, close to Cape May at the state’s southern tip as the gull flies. He ran New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory for many years before a stroke in 2014 prompted him to step down.

Since then he has been New Jersey Audubon’s Birding Ambassador. His mission is to inspire your interest in birds and conservation. He comes north to Scherman Hoffman in mid-September because it is in the “Broad-wing belt” when these buteos can be seen flying south for the winter in the greatest numbers. There are more of them seen now in northern New Jersey than in Cape May, he said. Also, it gives him an excuse for the Morristown-born Dunne to visit family.

But today the weather is not cooperating, even for Pete Dunne. While the rising warm air, or thermal, will keep a flying hawk aloft, the wind is out of the south. Southbound migrants prefer a strong wind out of the north to push them along so they can conserve energy.

hawk platformShortly after I arrived at noon, two hours into his visit, five Broad-wings were counted among the raptors seen including a couple of Red-tails, some Turkey Vultures, a few Black Vultures and a Sharp-shin, the smallest of the accipiters. We waited. The small number does not bother Dunne. He remarks that the previous year on the platform there were no Broad-wings seen although there were plenty of other raptors, including Bald Eagle and Osprey. When no hawks are flying, he points out migrating Monarch butterflies and the occasional non-migrating Blue Jay. The binoculars come down and people break into small groups, sharing birding stories and other interests, including choral singing and politics.

At this point Dunne stands and asks if everyone has a pair of binoculars, and points out the ones in a box for a free loan. “Everyone knows what a loan means, right?” he says, smiling. If you don’t know how to use them, he’ll show you. He discusses differences in price and features, which can be substantial. He asks how many of those on the platform are first-time visitors. There are a few. The crowd is generally older and long-time birders and most have been to Scherman Hoffman’s platform. The platform is big enough to hold all these people and more but Mike Anderson told me Pete Dunne’s annual visit is easily the largest crowd up there. He’d love to have a daily hawk count but the usual two evils – lack of time and money – prevent that.

There are young people on the platform, too, searching for specks in the sky. Dunne encourages them because they are the future. He talks to them like a friendly uncle. After all, he was once a wunderkind birder, encouraged by his father. Dunne was so much into birding that he was devastated when the father of his primary birding companion – a girl – forbid her to travel with Dunne in the woods anymore when both achieved puberty. Dunne said he didn’t understand why he now had to bird alone.

monarch on new england aster

He got over it and has birded alone or leading large groups for most of his 66 years. He is a hero of mine for being self-taught and not a trained ornithologist. He was one of the creators of the World Series of Birding, an annual competition where the idea is to find as many birds as possible, either throughout New Jersey or in a particular large or small area. The competition raises money for conservation. Dunne’s first team included Roger Tory Peterson. He knew David Sibley before Sibley became famous with his illustrated birding guides. Dunne has written a slew of books including “Tales of a Low-Rent Birder” in 1986 (which is how I first heard of him), “The Art of Bird Finding” in 2011 and books on raptor identification, including his newest, “Birds of Prey.”

We once crossed paths at Cape May’s Higbee Beach as he led a very large group to a larger tour bus as I was arriving just after 7 a.m.. You’d never know he’d had a stroke. He took a moment to point out to me a singing Carolina Wren. His enthusiasm is infectious, which is a good thing if you are on a mission to expose as many people as possible to the wonder of birds.

When I left the platform an hour later, he was still up there, still talking to the crowd and watching for Broadies. According to Mike Anderson, those who came after got to see about 20 Broad-wings, four Bald Eagles and an equal number of Ospreys, five American Kestrels, Northern Harriers, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned hawks. Oh, and a Mississippi Kite, not a sanctuary record but it must have been quite a sight.

You don’t need a Pete Dunne to see hawks from the observation platform. There’s still plenty of migration season left for you to come up and find them.