Interview with Pete Dunne

The 14th Annual Godwit Days Spring Migration Bird Festival (April 17-19, 2009) is proud to have Pete Dunne as its Saturday 7:30 p.m. keynote speaker. For the uninitiated, Pete, who serves as Vice President of New Jersey Audubon and Executive Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, has authored several field guides and how-to bird books and published numerous essays in many outlets (including a column in the New York Times). Festival registrants receive a keynote ticket; others may purchase one for $10 at the registration desk in the Arcata Community Center. Petes wit and humor are sure to make for a lively talk.

Local birder-writer Tom Leskiw contacted Pete and, generously, he consented to be interviewed (3/13/09). Note: Pete Dunnes Art of Pishing Workshop (offering #91) runs from 10:00-10: 50 a.m. on Sunday. Cost is $15.

TL: A childs attachment to placefields, vacant lots, the neighborhood swimming holecan put him or her on a trajectory to become a naturalist, birder, or conservationist. Your essay Golden Wings includes a map of your old stomping grounds: Kordocks Field, Big Swamp, Dry Swamp. You remark that Kordocks Field now contains several homes. Have other sites in your old neighborhood that you frequented as a boy been preserved? Do they foster a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts?

PD: The area behind my parents house is owned by the township. It is several hundred acres and is protected. However, its been altered by overgrazing from white- tailed deer. So its certainly not the same woodlands I grew up in. There was a rich understory, and the birds were accommodated by it. Unfortunately, there hasnt been a Wood Thrush breeding in those woods for 20 years. But the habitat itself is intact, as are the ponds. The sad thing isits severely underutilized by kids. I occasionally walk there and don't see a soul. In days gone by, you would always see children: fishing right after school in the spring or engaging in other activities. Nowadays, you see nothing like that. Its tragic.

TL: Do you think parents now perceive the woods as an unsafe place for their kids to play?

PD: As far as I can see, its no more or less dangerous than when I was a kid. I think everyone is just a good deal more conscious of potential problems and reacts to that.

TL: What are your current writing projects?

PD: I just had a book published entitled Prairie Spring, which I'm delighted with. Not only because Im happy with what I wrote, but the product itself is so visually appealing, I look at this book, and I dont find anything to grumble aboutpublisher Houghton Mifflin did such a wonderful job. Of course, I'm delighted that my wife Lindas photographs accompany the book. And they're darned fine photographs, too. Theres probably a few folks who are going to take umbrage at the prairie dog on the cover, but oh, well you can't please everybody.

The book is the first in a series that will use seasons as a vehicle to try to get people who are environmentally estranged into the natural world. Even the most estranged urban dweller still gets the concept of seasonality. Spring is the season most evocative; the other seasons take us by the hand, spring grabs us by the throat. One of the things I wanted to do was find places that people dont necessarily think of when I ascribed biomes to a season. People overlook the prairie. Its so easy to overlook, I know our ancestors did. They rushed right across the prairies to get to the West. Then, they had to backtrack.

The funny thing is, I always knew that I was going to write a book called Prairie Spring, from the first time I went there. The second book in the series is Cumberland Summer, which is where I live in Cumberland County, New Jersey. I always knew I was going to write a book called Cumberland Summer. So, yes, they fit together. The third will be Arctic Autumn. Im not sure about number four; I havent decided where winter will be focused. But I had a lot of fun writing it, and my wife and I enjoy traveling around, getting to know people and places.

TL: Will you be doing a book signing at Godwit Days?

PD: I understand that Strictly for the Birds will be bringing my books for folks to purchase and me to sign during the Friday night reception.

TL: In Kids & Model Airplanes, you reflect on the dearth of young birders, but caution that adult-engineered or mandated time for birds may, in fact, drive kids away from the natural world. Have you found a middle ground? What kind of projects has NJ Audubon undertaken to encourage a childs interest in the natural world?

PD: We have a homegrown initiative called Take a Kid Birding. Its really no more or less complicated than planting in the minds of adults to take a kid out, put binoculars and a field guide in their hands, and say, Try it; youll like it. Many organizations are doing much the same thing. The big question is how much of this adult initiative is necessary or welcomed, because young people today have their own parallel universe, the whole electronic age, that, as adults, were sort of cut out of. In the same way that birding clubs once served as the social nucleus for birders of my generation, the Internet is now the social and informational nucleus for young birders. So, while older people in bird clubs bemoan that there are no young birders, my answer is, Oh, yeah, there are. Theyre just not here.

TL: In The Feather Quest, you chronicle a years vacation taken by you and Linda in pursuit of birds within the ABA area [North America, excluding Mexico]. Have you ever taken a similar block of time off for world-wide bird chasing?

PD: Not worldwide. On one extended trip, we did a bit of birding in South America, bracketed by a trip we led for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours: first the Galapagos, then Antarctica. Heres a challenge for you: six months on the road, keeping your bags down to under 45 pounds because youre going to be doing both the Galapagos and Antarctica in the same trip. Yeah, good luck.

TL: Is there a single moment that stands out above the rest from your time in Antarctica?

PD: No. I think that that teasing out one singular moment would be a great disservice. The whole spectacle of Antarctica is so humbling, so overwhelming. I think after my first trip down there, I simply came back and told people Just cut to the chase. Go right to Antarctica, never mind anything else. This is what you really wanted to do. This is what the world used to look like. Antarctica is totally populatedoverrunwith living things. This is what it all used to look like. And right now, elsewhere, wildlifes been pushed into the corner. This is the last place where you can really see it.

TL: You began systematic hawk counts at Cape May, NJ, in the late 1970s. Was there a pivotal moment when you realized that standardized surveys and concrete data would be required to benefit raptor conservation? Do you help analyze the data? Has the analysis spawned any major findings or surprises?

PD: The first count in 1976 was initiated by Bill Clark, the first director of the Cape May Bird Observatory. Although I would be lying if I didnt say that I realized that these raptor counts would someday serve conservation, I did it because someone was going to pay me to watch hawks. The rest of it really just went along for the ride. I couldnt imagine that someone would pay me to watch hawks, which is what I wanted to do more than anything in the world. It wasnt much: maybe 500 bucks for three months time. I ate a lot of canned ravioli; I think you could get it for 39 cents a can back then. Two cans of ravioli a day: thats all you needed to hold body and soul together.

As for findings, that depends on if you want to take the long-or short-term view. Have the counts documented change? Certainly. Were any of these changes predictable? Possibly. Some species are going up, some are going down. Some evidence shows that migrations now occur later in the year, or are more protracted. In 1976, if anyone had told me that someday Sharp-shinned Hawk numbers would be fewer than Northern Harrier or that Sharpie numbers would be less than Red-tailed Hawks, I would have laughed. Sharp-shinned Hawks were everywhere and American Kestrel was the second most common raptor. American Kestrel is almost a joke on the hawk watch now; as it can rightly be referred to as The rarest bird seen today. Kestrel numbers have plummeted. Bald Eagles, on the other hand around 1979, wed see a total of six all year. You can see that many in a single scan now.

There has been tremendous change and the change is reflected in the numbers. Black Vultures are increasing. Coopers Hawks have increased almost exponentially; at one time, it was endangered in New Jersey. Now, its the second or first most common breeding raptor in the state. There isnt a suburban woodlot that doesnt have a nesting Coopers Hawk. The best thing that ever happened to Coopers Hawks is bird feeding and Mourning Doves.

TL: It was your idea to initiate, in 1984, a World Series of Birding (WSB) to be held each May in New Jersey. Roger Tory Peterson was a member of your team on several occasions. For those of us who never had the pleasure, could you share a memory of birding with RTP, an anecdote that gives us insight into the man forever linked with our appreciation for birds?

PD: Roger did the WSB in 1984 and again in 1994. The latter was his last Big Day and we only did Cape May County. Roger was a born truant; he delighted in it, he reveled in it. Revolutions are made by people who break rules and Roger was a born rule-breaker. However, he was also incredibly determined; he had a vision, and the thing that is often overlooked is that Roger had a work ethic that would humble a monk. The guy just worked all the time. You cant have the body of accomplishment that he did without doing that. And if you want to see it emulated today, all you have to do is look at David Sibley or Kenn Kaufman. These guys are behind the easel or computer all the time. I kind of have to work things into the edges here, because I have a daytime job with New Jersey Audubon. But I know that both of them put in long, long hours on their projects, and the results are in the quality of what they do and the fact that people like us recognize them.

TL: Getting back to your latest book, Prairie Springis there a single location in the prairie that serves as the geographic focus?

PD: We love the prairies: the openness and the subtle beauty. The book focuses on the high plains, the short grass prairie. We went from the staked plains of New Mexico all the way to Montanas Little Bighorn. We spent most of our time in Colorado, but started the book in Nebraska with the Sandhill Cranes. Ill be going out to the Crane Festival, along Nebraskas Platte River next week.

TL: Will you be seeing [author and biologist] Paul Johnsgard at the Platte River crane festival? In January, Sue and I attended the Wings Over Willcox festival in Arizona. Pauls keynote talk was about cranes and the Platte River. I cant believe I forgot to bring his North American Owls book for him to sign.

PD: Thats unfortunate. I spent a wonderful evening with him at an Ornithological Society meeting when he was at our table. I enjoyed immensely the time I spent with him. Actually, I have a copy of Prairie Spring in front of me right now. Im reading from the acknowledgment: The amazing and prolific professor emeritus of biological sciences at the University of Nebraska Paul H. Johnsgard, whose book Prairie Dog Empire is graduate studies and a postdoc in pure prairie ecology.

I learned a great deal from him. The thing I love about doing projects like this is how much I learn. I was just a duffer when it came to the prairie when I started the book. Im kind of prairie conversant now.

TL: Ive got a pile of your books ready for your signature. I hope your arms in shape.

PD: [Laughter]. Actually, its not the hand, its the arm. Roger Tory Peterson tipped me off many years ago that you sign with your arm, so you don't wear your wrist off. His wife Ginny advised me to Always include the date. People like it when you put the date down.

TL: While gathering material for Prairie Spring, did you make it to Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma?

PD: No, thats tall grass prairie, which is mostly occupied by another dominant grass species called corn. Many cranes would argue that corn is the best thing to happen to the prairies.

TL: Humboldt County is not a terribly easy place to visit. Have you birded here before? Are there any species in particular that youre looking for, or aspects of their behavior that you hope to experience?

PD: No, no species in particular. Unfortunately, spring is a very busy time for me, so the time I can allocate is brief. I will have to come back again to savor Humboldt. I come with no expectations and expect to see neat birds. I don't particularly care which ones. Im more interested in just watching birds rather than finding birds. Im going to be out there with a lot of knowledgeable people and Ill just be playing off of them. Whenever in a new area, you always team up with the locals: they know what theyre doing. Ill probably be a bit travel worn, but I expect to participate in one of the Big Days. [Note: the Saturday Big Day with Pete is sold out].

TL: Well, we look forward to you joining us in Arcata. Do you know where youre staying?

PD: Im not quite sure if that's been worked out, but I'm looking forward to it. I dont worry about it. Im going to get off the plane. Somebody will take care of me. They always do.

TL: When do you leave to return home?

PD: Sunday afternoon. Ive got two speaking engagements the following week. One in Newark and then I fly to South Carolina. Springtime is so busy; Ill just have to have to come back to Arcata again.