Pete Dunne

Positions and Achievements

Fellow of the DVOC

The "20 Questions" below, originally appeared in Larus

1. You became a member of the DVOC in 1979. What were the deciding factors in your joining?

I joined DVOC for all the usual reasons people join organizations--shared interest, sense of identity, social structure, and information sharing/gathering. But there were two not so tangential elements that were determining. The first had to do with my job. DVOC has always had a strong presence in Cape May. By and by it was brought to my attention that my not being a member was being interpreted as standoffish by some. Heck, I wasn’t standoffish. I was two hours away! (Remember, no Rt. 55 yet.) But I didn’t want to send the wrong message or give New Jersey Audubon a black eye so I joined even though I knew, and felt bad, that I would rarely attend club meetings.

Having said this, in the seventies, there was one undermining concern that gave me misgivings relating to DVOC membership. This had to do with the club’s policy of excluding female birders. But a number of younger (and older) club members were determined to change the membership rules and I hoped, as a voting member, to be part of that change. Old history now. Pertinent only in relation to your question.

2. When and where did you first get interested in birding?

I started birding when I was seven. I had my dad’s old Zeiss 6x24 binoculars (read the forward in my new book to get the story). I had a hip pocket sized bird book. I had several hundred acres of woodland behind my parents’ house in rural Morris County New Jersey that I could roam at will. Parents granting this kind of liberty today would be arrested and I would be placed in foster care but in the late 50’s and 60’s kids had the latitude to be kids--to discover and explore. Have you read LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS? Every parent should.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I discovered that birding was a great way to get away from adults (and it still is). At school, people told me what to do. If I stayed home somebody would find something for me to do. But when I ran out the back door with binoculars the world was mine. And a very exciting world it was and is.

3. Who were your birding mentors?

Mentors? By proxy, Roger Tory Peterson and Roger Barton. RTP, as head of the education at National Audubon, developed a series of Junior Audubon leaflets and other educational material relating to birds. As a kid, I was an avid subscriber. Roger Barton had a column on birds and bird watching in the old Newark Evening News. Every Sunday I’d read it--proof positive that there were other people on the planet who watched birds.

I didn’t meet another birder until I was 23. I didn’t meet Floyd Wolfarth, my mentor, until I was 24. I’ve always wondered how much better a birder I’d be today if I’d met someone like Floyd when I was in my early teens. By the time I did discover the birding community, I also discovered that I had a lot of catching up to do.

4. We know you as an author, lecturer and as a tour leader, but one forgets that you have a regular job. What is that job and what does it involve?

I can assure you that I never forget that I have a real job. It must be great to be Kenn Kaufman or David Sibley. Kidding of course. I know for a fact that both these guys fill more than the hours in a day doing what I do (i.e. serving a constituency) but without organizational support or structure.

My job? It has morphed over thirty years. In the early days I was trying to create a Cape May Bird Observatory. Now I spend most of my time trying to catch up to it. But the way I define my job is facilitating the efforts of staff and serving as a link between our 4,200 members and the organization’s mission.

I also make the coffee in the morning.

5. You have a degree in political science. Do you find that it helps you in your chosen career?

Yep, it helps me steer clear of politics.

6. What are the major changes you've seen in NJ Audubon since you’ve worked for them?

When I started working for New Jersey Audubon in 1976 it was a birding organization with a strong conservation component. Now it’s a conservation organization with a strong birding component.

7. You have done so much for conservation. What gave you the inspiration to start the World Series of Birding (WSB) in 1984?

Ego. How’s that for candor? Back in 1983, as part of New Jersey Audubon’s bird-a-thon effort Pete Bacinski, Bill Boyle, David Sibley and I tried to break the “200 (species) Barrier” and came up a couple or three birds short. Peering deep into the suds at the C-View Inn it occurred to me that maybe what we needed to get us over the top was a little competition. So there you have it. The inspiration for the World Series of Birding was failure.

8. Can you give us a little history on the WSB and some insight into how much it has grown over the years?

Damn, Adrian. Some day I’m going to write a whole book on this subject. The simple fact was that the WSB was the right idea for the time. Back in the 80’s birding was going through its adolescent growth spurt. Everyone was trying to run the fastest, jump the highest, get the biggest list. This jejune silliness is just the kind of stuff avocations do on their way to maturity. Someone was going to come up with this idea (before they matured) and all the catalytic lines crossed in time and space right where I was standing.

To be candid, there wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm for the event at first offering. I recall a rump meeting held in Frank Gill’s office at the Academy of Natural Sciences (during a DVOC meeting) where I tried to generate support. I know Tom Gilmore was there. I believe Jim Meritt, Dave Cutler, too. Tom walked away from the meeting thinking the idea was dead in the water. I was more upbeat. Lack of enthusiasm didn’t constitute denunciation, right?

In time the idea began to get legs. Roger Tory Peterson’s endorsement was key. ABA, American Birds and Bird Watcher’s Digest all threw their support behind the idea. DVOC’s and Urner Club’s participation anchored the event’s flanks.

Success has a way of showing a thing’s merit, and very apparently the World Series has enjoyed a great deal of success. It turned out that the members of the 13 teams that participated that first year all had a blast and most could hardly wait to do it again. They went off into the birding community like apostles spreading the word.

In 1985 we got a major break when a Wall Street Journal reporter followed our team and did a front page piece on the event. It gave the event national standing and we used this collateral as leverage to gain greater and broader participation and media coverage.

Did I say earlier that I didn’t use my political science background? I lied.

Anyway, from there on the event just grew and it has grown way beyond me. A hundred teams in the hunt. Probably close to $10,000,000 raised. Lots of good press. Lots of dirty laundry for birders to whisper about when hawks aren’t flying and conversation relating the so and so's report of a [fill in the blank] has grown thin and the latest and greatest in optics has already been kicked around. It’s part of birding’s culture now. Let’s see where it goes from here.

9. The WSB has been great tool for developing the youth teams. What steps might bird clubs best consider to increase youth birding?

Actually, Adrian, I think DVOC could teach the birding world a thing or two about encouraging youth teams. Congratulations and thanks for your fine efforts as regards young people, clubs and encouragement....

I think bird clubs should serve as a bridge between kids and the natural world. Programs and events can be the vehicle. It is, of course, essential that kids have the catalytic tools in their hands that make birding possible--binoculars and a field guide. I have a great deal of faith in Ma Nature’s capacity to captivate. My formula is: give kids the tools and set up the opportunity. Trust Ma to take care of the rest.

10. As both a birder and a hunter, what do you think needs to happen between these two groups in order to further our common goal of habitat preservation?

I’ve never been guilty of thinking small (big ideas and small ones take up the same amount of space) but to truly preserve our natural heritage is going to require a national crusade that makes grass roots efforts the centerpiece of the movement. The key to establishing mutual understanding and coordinated effort is getting both camps into the same crucible and working together.

We’re tribal beings. We’re going to have to mingle the tribes. When we do, hunters will realize that the engineers of the “Wise Use Movement” have be blowing smoke about birders and their presumed “anti-hunting” agenda. Birders will come to understand that the bond that hunters have with the natural world is deep, emotionally binding and natural.

Trust established, alliance firmed, we can set our realigned sights on protecting the habitat which is, literally and figuratively, our common ground--hunters providing much of the organizational and political networking; birders providing the numeric clout and public relations platform. The enemies of open space forcing us together. Evironmental fusion!

Like I said in a recent article in Birding, we’ll worry about working out the time-shares later. Right now, get the land.

11. If you could take anyone (past or present) on a birding trip, who would it be, where, and why?

I would take Al Wilson, JJ Audubon, Witmer Stone, and Ludlow Griscomb up to the Higbee Dike on the second day after a September cold front. Plant them next to Michael O’Brien and say: “OK guys. Now watch this.”

12. Is there still one bird that eludes you, and if so what is it?

Funny you should ask. There’s this little bird with a kind of olivy back and kind of whitish underparts that’s always up at the very top of the tallest tree. I get to see this bird every spring and after 47 years I still don’t know what it is.

13. In addition to the many articles you’ve written for various birding publications, you’ve authored and/or co-authored many books over the last twenty years. How did you get started with your writing?

It’s genetic. All the Irish can write. But I started my first book at the age of 7. Title was: TURK. THE STORY OF A HAWK. I stopped writing when I realized that all I was doing was plagiarizing another book entitled: RUFOUS-RED-TAILED. I loved this book. Must have read it eight...twelve times.

Incidentally, you know Laurie Goodrich? Hawk Mountain’s education specialist. It turns out that book inspired her, too.

14. Was there any one of your books that stands out as being either the most fun or the toughest to write?

Most Fun? THE FEATHER QUEST. Had a blast. Toughest? PETE DUNNE’S ESSENTIAL FIELD GUIDE COMPANION. Four years manacled to a computer. What was I thinking?

15. Have there been any credible reports of Small-headed Flycatcher lately?

Why, just the other day, as I was leaving the C-View Inn, this Leprechaun wearing a full-length Zeiss Night Owl binocular, walking a lilac colored peccary, and whistling “Mac Arthur Park” through a nose pipe, tapped me on the calf and asked me how common Small-headed Flycatchers were south of the....

16. What was the motivation for writing your recently published book Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds on field identification?

See #6. Add near bottomless naiveté.

17. You’ve worked for CMBO for many years and were involved in the hawk watch since inception. Can you give us a little background on the hawk watch along with some insight into the role you played in the early years?

Thirty years to be precise. As for background, the hawk watch was the cornerstone idea of Bill Clark, CMBO’s founding director. Me? I was just the passionate, determined young hawk counter who believed right down to the core of his being that nothing was more important than finding and identifying the next Merlin...or Peregrine...or Bald Eagle.... Thirty years later, I don’t think I could challenge this kid’s conviction and win.

18. How has the Cape May birding scene changed in the years you've been there?

Thirty years ago, Cape May was a planet in the orbit of other social and cultural institutions (including DVOC and New Jersey Audubon). Now, it’s its own Social and Cultural Nucleus and people want to be part of it. And please don’t give me credit for this. After all, I live in Cumberland County.

19. You've become one of the most recognized people in North American birding. Do you now find it difficult to bird well known places like Higbee’s Beach in peace?

Like most public figures I have a public side and a private side. When I bird Higbee Beach I have my game face on. I’m representing New Jersey Audubon. I’m there to be helpful and welcoming to people who come expressly to bird Cape May (whether or not they know or care who I am). It’s not difficult. It’s what I do when I’m in Cape May because.... like I said. I live (and bird) in Cumberland County. Ever wonder why?

You know, one of the things I admired most about Roger Peterson was his sense of obligation to the birding community. It wasn’t ego (although Roger certainly wasn’t blind to ambition or achievement). It wasn’t vanity, or book sales or pretense. Roger knew that people admired him and needed him. He said “yes” to all those many requests because he understood and accepted his role too well to say “no.”

I’m no Roger Peterson. The very plurality of birding personalities today underlines his singularity. But I certainly realize that I have worked most of my life to shape birding and bird study and bird conservation. If Woody Allen is right and 90% of life is just “showing up,” the balance is “follow through.”

20. What's your favorite local birding destination?

You want me to tell you my favorite birding spot? Didn’t you read what I just wrote?

21. If offered a free trip anyplace you have not been, what destination would you pick and why?

Oz. I want the ruby slippers.

22. If offered a free trip anyplace you've already been, where would you choose to re-visit?

My parents’ back yard in Whippany the spring I discovered migrating warblers.

23. So, after looking at and reviewing hundreds of binoculars, which one is really in your hands?

I’m using the Leica 7x42 Ultravid. They’re light, facile, forgiving, rugged, elegant (all the other superlatives apply). I like easy and this glass makes finding, studying and enjoying birds easy.

24. The future of birding lies with our young birders. What advice would you give them?

Rule #1. Protect the playing field. No habitat, no birds.

25. What is your favorite bird? If there is reincarnation, what bird would you like to be in the afterlife?

I’m pretty partial to northern harriers. One gutsy, beautiful, enigmatic raptor (and unlike most raptors this one comes with a brain). Reincarnation? How about Common Raven. You got to love a bird that goes body surfing down peaked, snow covered roofs.

26. You were friends with Roger Tory Peterson late in his life. What can you tell us about him as a person?

I’d like to offer you and readers something that has not been said before--some special insight. I can’t offer much except to say that under the mantle of birding’s leader, Roger was very much a warm, approachable human being. Yes, he was driven (as many creative people are) but determination is not predestination. There were choices he had to make and he let his humanness show by seeking the council and advice from those in his inner circle (a place I was privileged to find myself in the last decade of Roger’s life).

The phone would ring. A voice would intone: “Dr. Peterson would like a word with you.” Then you’d wait to hear...
“Hello” [pause] “Pete?”
The “hello” was also softly spoken, somewhat tentative. “Pete” was spoken with assertiveness.
Then the questions:
“Bausch and Lomb wants to use my picture to promote their new Elite binocular. Do you think I should? Is it a good binocular?”
Or. “What’s going on at ABA? What’s happened to Jim Tucker? Is there anything I should do?”
Roger always wanted to do the right thing. Not for Roger. For birding. But in his openness for council, he showed his faith in friendship. This is a wonderful human quality. In fact, it might be the finest human quality.

28. The C-View used to be a classic destination for birders. What's your favorite Cape May bar now?

If you’re buyin', Adrian, it’s your choice and I’ll swear partiality later.

29. How would you compare DVOC to other bird clubs you've visited?

Unique is a dangerous word. I use it cautiously and not without some trepidation. But I think DVOC is unique in my experience. The club draws its strength from a long, ornithological tradition but where some clubs with such standing have grown staid, DVOC continues to be vibrant, energetic, even feisty. The DVOC approach to bird study strikes a balance between knowledge and fun.

From this balance, as well as the talents and commitment of club members, DVOC enjoys a depth and strength that might even allow it to transcend the challenge facing most clubs and organizations today - finding relevance in an age where information is shared and social interactions consecrated on-line. I hope we succeed. One of these days I’d like to get up to a meeting or two. Just wouldn’t be the same on line.