Whistling while he works is part of Pete Dunne's mystique

Dunne walks the grounds of the Cape May Bird Observatory. On a part-time basis, he will become an "ambassador" for New Jersey Audubon, spreading the word about bird conservation statewide.
Dunne walks the grounds of the Cape May Bird Observatory. On a part-time basis, he will become an "ambassador" for New Jersey Audubon, spreading the word about bird conservation statewide.
Posted: November 25, 2013

MIDDLE TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Bird man extraordinaire Pete Dunne is walking softly through the crunchy leaves, trying to be as quiet as possible so he won't scare off what few avian species are still around on this cold afternoon.

Suddenly, Dunne pauses, presses his fingers to his lips, and for about 20 seconds starts making loud kissy sounds.

Birds begin congregating - on the branches, on the ground, even circling overhead, calling and chirping with their own symphony of retorts to the weird sounds.

Then Dunne does it again: SkreEEEuh, SkreEEEuh, SkreEEEuh. More birds come in even closer. And Dunne begins naming names. Hermit thrashers, Carolina wrens, Dark-eyed juncos, even a bald eagle shows up.

It's something Dunne, director of the New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory, has done hundreds, perhaps thousands of times in the 37 years since he arrived on the New Jersey Shore's cape and began tracking birds in a colossally failed attempt to get away from humans.

"Some of my fondest memories involve nature, of course, but I've come to realize central to those memories are all the people you share those moments with. I didn't used to understand that . . . I came here to get away from people," admits Dunne, 62, who suffered a debilitating stroke in March, which led to his recent announcement that he plans to step down sometime  next summer after nearly 35 years as the observatory's head.

But his ties with the birding world won't be severed: On a part-time basis, Dunne will become an "ambassador" for New Jersey Audubon, spreading the word about bird conservation statewide.

Though the practice of 'pishing' can leave the uninitiated a bit stunned on a walk in the woods, it definitely attracts the birds.

Dunne's techniques have involved all sorts of vehemence and volume for decades after he learned the craft from his mentors Floyd P. Wolfarth and birding great Roger Tory Peterson. Dunne's skills are so renowned among the birding community, that seven years ago he wrote a book on what has become an art form, of sorts. Apparently the birds are attracted to the noises the same way humans like to rubberneck at an accident scene.

"They hear the sound and want to see where that sound is coming from . . . what is happening," explains Dunne.

"There was no birding middle class in 1978," says Dunne, who helped evolve CMBO from an organization that began on an unheated porch in Cape May Point with a handful of members to one that currently has 12 staff, 4,000 members worldwide, and two locations. It has developed dozens of educational programs, and has helped preserve hundreds of acres of birding habitat in the fast-developing Shore region. About 40,000 people visit the CMBO centers each year.

Dunne created the famed World Series of Birding 30 years ago, was a regular birding columnist for the New York Times for nearly a decade, and is one of the most admired and best-selling nature authors in the country, having written a dozen tomes on birds. So his stepping down as director after three decades is bittersweet.

"Pete Dunne put Cape May on the map - at least from the perspective of someone interested in nature," said Christopher Wood, a project manager at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., and captain of Team Sapsucker, which competes in the birding World Series.

"Cape May is now recognized as one of the best birding destinations in the world. No one played a bigger role in bringing about that recognition than Pete," Wood said.

At the helm, Dunne led the fledgling organization in what had been a birding outpost into an era that has seen New Jersey recognized as a premier bird-watching locale in North America.

By accident of geography, New Jersey's cape is a stopping-off point for hundreds of avian species on their spring and fall migrations between the poles, creating one of the world's largest concentrations of migrating shorebirds.

Dunne recognized the opportunity to capitalize on the Shore's status as a tourist destination, as the ideal promotional vehicle to bring birding to the masses.

"New Jersey is not a geographic aberration," Dunne said. "What it lacked was awareness of just what an ideal birding locale it is."

Through various programs, including the World Series of Birding, Dunne has brought hundreds of thousands of ecotourists to the region annually.

And the series "pioneered an entirely new way of thinking about how many birds you can see in a day," Wood said. "Before Pete came along, who would have ever thought you could see 200 species in NEW JERSEY in a single day."

Wood contends that highlighting that diversity alone would have been a great accomplishment, but Dunne engineered the idea that the competition was a vehicle to pay for habitat conservation, so far raising more than $3 million.

But the stroke eight months ago left Dunne with motor impairment on his left side and difficulty with some cognitive functions. And so far, pishing expert Dunne has been unable to muster some of his more elaborate calls.

Miraculously, though, Dunne has been able to continue writing and doing his work leading the Cape May County-based institution. He says his rehab of mind and body has been as diligent as his resolve to keep birding: Only six weeks after the stroke, he participated in the World Series of Birding and - with the use of a cane - thrashed about fields and marshes and streams with a four-member team to count species.

"I really think it's his love of birds and this institution that has brought him through a lot of what he has gone through since March," said Deborah Shaw, CMBO's administrative director.

Dunne says he'd like to take some time off so he can write more and travel with his wife, Linda, a registered nurse and nature photographer, while maintaining an educational role with New Jersey Audubon.

And he'll try to do some more hunting. Perhaps surprisingly, the nature lover is also a deer hunter who returned to the sport after a two-decade hiatus. At the urging of one of his best friends, Dunne entered an essay contest 22 years ago sponsored by Winchester Rifles. The rules were that the piece had to be published in a nonhunting or nonweapon publication.

Dunne's "Before the Echo" was published in the New York Times and won him the $10,000 grand prize and became the basis for a collection of his essays published in 1995. In it, he tackles the contradiction of how someone can have a great appreciation for wild, living things and kill them, too.

In his final letter to CMBO members, Dunne makes a graceful exit through his annual end of the year commentary. It is a note to his younger self and begins: "Dear Kid, Relax, look out the window, listen to the wigeon whistling on Lily Lake.

"In the end what we value most are the treasured encounters with nature that life affords. Central to these memories are the people you share those moments with - including CMBO's family of friends - more friends than you could possibly have imagined back when CMBO was little more than an unheated porch attached to Anne Northwood's home on East Lake Drive."


jurgo@phillynews.com

609-652-8382 @JacquelineUrgo

inquirer.com/downashore

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