Cape May’s Birdman

If it’s Monday morning, Pete Dunne is sharing his love for avian life with a lucky group of bird watchers.

Pete Dunne leads a group of bird-watchers on a Monday-morning tour of the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge. “It gets my week off to a great start,” says the Whippany native.
Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

Three hummingbirds. Wow!” exclaims Pete Dunne, pointing south toward Cape May Point, New Jersey’s southernmost extremity. Two dozen folks shake off their early-Monday-morning haze and grab their binoculars.

“Where will you ever see three hummingbirds together?” Dunne says triumphantly. “Welcome, people, to Cape May.”

Dunne came to Cape May in 1976 when the New Jersey Audubon Society hired him to count hawks during the fall migration. The idea of being compensated to do something he might have done anyway was irresistible.

“Being paid to watch birds?  Who could beat that?”  says Dunne. “I just stayed after that. Things have a way of working out.”

Dunne, 60, is the go-to guy in New Jersey birding—and New Jersey birding, according to Dunne, may just be the best in the country. He is the director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, the vice president of the New Jersey Audubon Society and the founder of the World Series of Birding, which brings hundreds of serious birders to New Jersey every May. It is now in its 29th year.

So it is a real treat for birders—including novices—to join Dunne each Monday morning from late spring to early fall at the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, just north of Cape May Point. Consider it like getting a tour of the White House with President Obama.

If Cape May is the epicenter of bird migration, Dunne is its evangelist. “Think about it,” says Dunne, drawing a makeshift map with his hands. “There is New England up here and the Carolinas down to the south. And here is New Jersey jutting out. Birds have to go through right here,” he says, pointing to Cape May on his imaginary map. “There is just nowhere better on the continent.  And every day there is something different. I never get tired of it.”

On a Monday in late July last year, the influx of hummingbirds was his first source of enthusiasm as he played to his crowd. Cool and witty, Dunne’s patter never seems practiced. He is tall and slim, his blond hair no doubt bleached by the many summer days of avian sighting. No matter the heat, Dunne dresses in jeans and a work shirt to discourage the mosquitoes and nasty insects that populate the swampy mile-square bird refuge.

“I’ve spent 53 years observing birds and realize that it is not about birds, but about people,” says Dunne.
“The birds could care less whether we look at them, but I am convinced that people really do want to know about what surrounds them.”

He feels it is his mission to help. Detecting the “watchiti, watchiti, watchiti” of a common yellowthroat, he encourages his crowd to listen.

“Most people, even walking here down this trail, wouldn’t hear that,” he says. “For most humans, bird sounds don’t get through the spam filter.”

Dunne has been listening and looking since he was a boy growing up in Whippany. His family’s home backed up onto several hundred acres of preserved woodland, where he ventured on a regular basis.
“That was back when life was casual enough that parents didn’t care whether you disappeared in the woods all day if you came back for dinner,” he says. “The woodlands were my classroom.” (Dunne himself has been married for 24 years but never had children. “We opted for Labrador retrievers instead of kids,” he says. “Never found reason to regret the choice.”)

As a youth, Dunne especially loved the sounds and sights of birds and small animals, but he didn’t think of it in an academic way. He went to Kean University (then Newark State College), majoring in political science. After graduation, he took a job as a carpet installer, which gave him a good income and plenty of time to observe wildlife. Within a few years, he had accumulated enough cash to travel around the United States, observing nature. He enrolled in the University of Alaska to study ornithology but only lasted a week.

“I didn’t want to study birds that way,” he says. His preference was to learn from them in their natural habitats. Returning to the East Coast, he earned a little cash by hawk-watching for nature societies before landing the Cape May gig. These days, he conducts classes, writes for the Audubon publications, supervises other naturalists and takes his Monday-morning fans around the bird refuge. (The tour costs $6 for Audubon Society members, $10 for nonmembers. No preregistration required. Visit for more information.)

“It gets my week off to a great start,” says Dunne of the weekly tour. “I have to sit in front of a computer, like a lot of people, for much of my job, but if I can start Monday mornings like this, well, who could complain?” 
Lynne Mahle and Robert and Gretchen Downing, friends from North Wales, northwest of Philadelphia, certainly were not complaining. Big-time birders, they came to Stone Harbor, just north of Cape May, for a vacation—but also with the idea of venturing out with Dunne.

“He’s the man,” says Gretchen. “Cape May is wonderful on its own, but you shouldn’t come here without going out with him.”

Around one bend in the trail is a pond surrounded by a meadow. Dunne gazes through his telescope, a sophisticated piece of apparatus, supported by a tripod.

“Wow! Amazing!  You almost never see the semipalmations in a semipalmated sandpiper,” he says, pointing out the webbing on the tiny shorebird.  Just behind, in another pond, are two mute swans—a misnomer because they can do a bit of grunting. These are the largest birds that actually fly; at 25 pounds or more, heavier than the biggest California condors. They have 25 cervical bones in their necks—giraffes and humans have only 7—which they can curl and lengthen, bringing them to a height of nearly 4 feet.

“There are 10,000 species of birds in the world, and your job is to find them all,” he says, leaning on his tripod following the two-hour tour.

Dunne says involvement in birding is growing, thanks in part to an increasing number of retired baby boomers and to interest in the environmental movement.

“We become interested in things when they are threatened, and that has attracted people to birding,” he says. “Fortunately, we have a lot of people in Cape May who have done their best to preserve what we have, and since it is such a flyway for migrating birds, it will be someplace people—not just birds—will flock to for a long time.”

Robert Strauss’s favorite birds are his daughters, Ella and Sylvia, the subjects of his book, Daddy’s Little Goalie.

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