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Hawking with Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne is a big deal.

He helped create the annual World Series of Birding and had Roger Tory Peterson on his team.

He writes books - a lot of books (Google “Pete Dunne” and see how many) - alone and with others including his photographer wife Linda.

pete dunneThe second edition of one of them, “Hawks in Flight: The Field Identification of North American Migrant Raptors,” first written in 1988 with David Allen Sibley and Clay Sutton, recently came out, a mini-coffee table of a book filled with illustrations, photos and writing on how to identify a migrating raptor when you see one up in the blue.

“I wrote the first edition in two weeks,” he said during his Sept. 15 visit to Scherman Hoffman’s hawk platform. “It took me 15 years to revise it.”

That may be because he’s one busy man. Among the many things he does besides writing and revising his books is be Vice President of Natural History for New Jersey Audubon and Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory plus write columns for the  NJ Audubon and BirdWatching magazines.

He says he’s “more of a bird watcher than a birder” nowadays. There is a difference. He spends a lot of time at a desk, staring into a computer. He will go out to find birds but he won’t do the gung-ho things a lot of people do in the field that has turned watching birds from a pastime into a blood sport. He spent a year with his wife traveling the globe for their 1992 book “The Feather Quest” and said that on the flight home he lost track of the exact number of how many different kinds of birds he saw, and didn’t care.

If nothing else, Pete Dunne is a teacher. There was no way he was going to miss looking for broad wing hawks in mid-September during their annual migration south, and perhaps show some folks how to tell all those tiny specks apart.

Every year, generally in late August, the birds that thrilled us as they migrated north to their breeding grounds get that internal cue that it is time to head back to their winter homes in Central and South America.

Raptors are among them. Unlike the smaller perching birds like warblers that fly at night to avoid predators, the vultures, buteos, accipiters, falcons, harriers, ospreys and eagles fly by day, dependent on the warm updrafts of air known as thermals and a good strong wind from the north to give them a push from behind. They glide to conserve the energy they would otherwise have to use flapping their wings. 

There is usually a point in September when the summer heat is broken by a cold front pushing through and the winds turn from the south and start coming from the north. Birders wait for that time eagerly because they know there are going to be birds on the move.

You would think seeing something big like an eagle would be easy but you’d be wrong. Broad wings, the smallest of the buteos, with the adults sporting a broad white stripe in their tail and a border of black along the edge of their wings, are even harder. But broad wings do two things that make them rather special:

They come through in the largest of numbers, like clockwork, in mid-September, and they use thermals of rising hot air to gain altitude. "Kettles" of broad Wing hawks are anything more that a half dozen birds swirling about as if they were pasta in a kettle of boiling water to 2 or three hundred Broad Wing Hawks using the same hot air thermal. And when there is no more altitude to be gained from the rising thermal of hot air; the kettle boils  they switch from soaring mode to gliding mode and head south-southwest.

It is quite a show -- if you know where to look and know what you are seeing. You continually scan the sky, looking and hoping.

This is why Pete Dunne was in Bernardsville during Scherman Hoffman’s “Hawk Weekend,”  a combination of watching and teaching, while informally hawking his newly revised hawk ID book. It was an easy sell. You don’t often get the chance to learn from a master and get an autographed edition.

“What’s the record here?” he asked sanctuary director Mike Anderson. About 1,500 broad wings. That’s in one day.

Dunne wore a name tag on his New Jersey Audubon shirt, but even if you didn’t know who he is you’d know he knows his stuff.

pete in his element He talked continually. I don’t know how he managed to find so many hawks while talking and autographing and listening to people describe their birding experiences, answering their questions as to why hawks act as they do. But he did. Not once did his enthusiasm flag during the 3+ hours I and what soon became a large crowd were on the platform with him. Nor do I think he lost that enthusiasm as the afternoon wore on after I and others left.

“These swifts are amazing,” he said of the dozens, maybe hundreds, of chimney swifts overhead, swarming in large groups for the insects. They, too, are migrating. Once the insects are gone, they’ll be gone, he pointed out.

“Thousands of people would kill to have what we have right now,” he said of standing on the platform on a gorgeous day looking for hawks.

Thousands were also, no doubt, at other hawk watches waiting for the kettles. In NJ alone there are watches with such interesting names as Scott’s Mountain, Raccoon Ridge and Wildcat Ridge. Cape May, at the southernmost tip of New Jersey, has a hawk platform and so does Montclair, which has a reputation for having extraordinary mid-September broad wing flights.

Scherman Hoffman’s hawk watch isn’t as well known, and that’s unfortunate. The platform, on the third floor of the education center, is relatively recent. A few years ago a fine young birder named Ben would run the hawk count on the weekends and post the results on the NJ bird list. Since Ben went to college the watching and recording have been less regular, something Mike Anderson told me he wants to change.

When Dunne first came on the platform, at 9 am Saturday, the sky was a clear blue and it was cold, not the best conditions. But when the first wisp of cloud was seen he pointed it out.

“That’s the terminal stage of a rising thermal of air,” he said. The hawks would be watching for clouds because of the thermals, he said, so the key would be to watch the underside of clouds for the birds.

So we watched the clouds. As more clouds started blowing across, he started calling out the specks that turned into osprey, bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, turkey and black vulture, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawk, kestrel and northern harrier. There was even a great blue heron and many monarch butterflies. Monarchs migrate south, too.

Then the broad wings started coming, first in ones and twos, then in increasing numbers. Finally, the kettles started forming. Dunne started counting and Anderson started clicking them on the counter. Several kettles of 30 or so birds. People started desperately trying to find them.

“See that part of the cloud that looks like a comma?” Dunne asked, trying to help them.

Which side? Which cloud? What comma? Many people started to get desperate. This is why they came, after all.

But Dunne talked them through, at one point standing behind a woman and literally raising her binoculars until she could see them.

OOOH.

AAAH.

Like watching fireworks, which in a sense is what we were doing. The birds would stream out of the kettle and you could see them whipping fast along the bottom of the clouds, just as he said they would. 

He taught constantly. When a Cooper’s hawk flew over relatively low (see my picture), he noted that this accipiter went from being endangered to the second-most common raptor in NJ after the red tail.

“If you have a woodlot, you’ll have a Cooper’s,” he said. A Cooper’s, being bigger and with a longer tail, will do more soaring in the wind compared with its smaller cousin the sharp-shinned, which is more easily blown about and thus has to do more flapping. coophawk

What do you look at first when you see something? I asked him. “Shape before size,” he answered.

A broad wing has a streamlined shape, he said. The larger red tail is “lumpy” and “not a very elegant bird of prey.”

“You wouldn’t want your son or daughter going out with a red tail,” said Dunne. “Broad wings get good tables at restaurants. Red tails get seated near the scullery.”

That didn’t stop watchers from marveling at the Red tail (see below) that would flying into various trees near the platform, hunting. A resident bird, said Anderson. As long as it can find food at the sanctuary, it’ll stay around.

Not the broad wings, however. They were on the move but were getting higher in the sky and harder to see as the day wore on and the temperature rose. Later in the afternoon the air would cool and the birds would fly lower again, Dunne said. By dusk they’d roost for the night and start out again the next day, Sunday, when the good conditions were expected to continue.

I don’t know if the kettles ever grew to hundreds of birds. I was satisfied with the ones I saw. At the end of Saturday, Sept. 15, there were 832 broad wings recorded out of 888 raptors total, according to Anderson. The next day there were even more – 1,653 broad wings, a new sanctuary record, out of 1,708 raptors total. in your face...Location is everything. Having Pete Dunne on your hawk platform helps, too.

“Birding is whatever you bring to the table,” Dunne told someone. “You don’t change your skin. You’re just looking from a birding perspective.”

He has been looking from that perspective since he was a kid in Whippany, N.J. He is not obsessed with it. He doesn‘t care how big a “life list“ he gets or whether he has seen every bird on Earth. But he very much wants you to see what’s out there and marvel at the wonder of it all.

It would be great to be able to identify what you are seeing, too, of course. That’s what his books - and those of the many others who have made bird watching and identification into a major industry - are published to do.

But here’s where Pete Dunne is different: He’s out there to have fun, even after all these decades, and wants you to lighten up, too.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” he said with a smile at one point.  “You misidentify a stupid bird. It’s a game.”