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Profile: Fledgling Ecotourism Promoter Isn't Strictly for the Birds

Pete Dunne, long-time head of Cape May Bird Observatory, wants to take NJ's natural treasures to the world

pete dunne
Pete Dunne, Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory.

Name: Pete Dunne

Position: Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory

Age: 62

Years on the job: 35

Why he's news: Announced he will step down in summer of 2014 following a stroke in March this year.

What he's achieved: Built Cape May into an international birding mecca that draws tens of thousands of visitors every year to see a huge number and variety of birds, especially during the spring and fall migrations.

How he explains his success: By spreading the word through talks, tours, and writing that Cape May attracts a rare concentration of birds because of its position on the eastern “flyway” or migratory route, allowing visitors a close-up view of one of the world’s great natural spectacles.

Dunne and the other CMBO staff have helped turn birding into a mass-market pursuit that builds support for conservation and generates millions of dollars for the New Jersey economy.

How he has built support: In particular, the World Series of Birding, an annual competition in which teams of birders try to see the most species anywhere in New Jersey over a 24-hour period in mid-May.

Dunne has also written 12 books on birds and birding, and has been a columnist for a number of birding magazines and for the New Jersey section of The New York Times.

Why he thinks birding is important: Because it connects people to the natural world and helps build what he calls a “tribal” society of birders. For the younger generation, Dunne says it’s particularly important to have a hobby that gets them away from phones, computers, and TV. “Parents today are so desperate to wean their kids off the plasma screen.”

How he got started: By standing on a borrowed lifeguard chair on the current site of the hawk-watch platform at Cape May Point, and helping visitors identify migrating hawks as they passed over.

Later, Dunne climbed on a table that allowed him to see above the surrounding reeds. He would stand on the table for eight to 12 hours a day, seven days a week from September to November each year during the hawk migration. At 25, he didn’t mind standing on a table all day, especially when he recognized how lucky he was to be doing a job he loved. “All I had to do was to be charming and show people birds.”

How he got where he is: Dunne has a degree in political science from the college that became Kean University, and spent a couple of years in the mid-1970s figuring out what to do with his life. After a brief period with the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, Dunne became director of the CMBO in 1978 with the mandate of simply keeping it afloat. “There was no business plan,” he said.

What he doesn’t like about his job: Dunne openly dislikes the nitty-gritty of running an office. “I’m not the kind of person who likes fine details,” he said in his own unkempt room, where dozens of birding books, reports, and magazines are strewn across the desk and the floor. “Administration just bores the hell out of me.”

*Does he see himself as an eco-warrior?" “I have no time for Greenpeace” he said, arguing that the environmental group’s confrontational approach to issues like whaling or nuclear power is counterproductive.

Instead, he builds support for preserving the natural world by making it easier for people to appreciate it. He’s all in favor of open-space preservation, but isn’t arguing for the creation of new nature preserves. It's more important for New Jerseyans to recognize the rich natural resources in their midst, he said.

Is he seeing the effects of climate change? Some local species are already becoming rarer as temperatures and oceans rise, Dunne said. The Northern Harrier, for example, is declining because increased coastal flooding is killing the rodents on which it preys. But other species like the Brown-Headed Nuthatch and the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker could be seen more often if the southern forest where they live becomes established in the Pine Barrens as temperatures increase.

How has the stroke affected his life? He has for now lost the use of his left arm, walks slowly with a stick, can’t drive, has trouble holding binoculars still with his good right arm, and has to work harder to come up with ideas for magazine columns. But he’s still working full-time at CMBO, writing his next book, and birding at every opportunity.

Even after the stroke, he’s looking on the bright side. “The stroke has impaired my ability to watch birds but has improved my ability to recognize them without binoculars,” he said.

What do others say about him? “Pete Dunne has been the voice and face of the transformation of Cape May over the last three decades,” said Jeffrey Gordon, President of the American Birding Association. Through his skills as a writer and speaker, Dunne has succeeded in conveying the excitement of being at Cape May in a way that’s accessible to thousands of people, Gordon said. “He will be an impossible act to replicate.”

What’s next? Dunne plans to promote New Jersey as an ecotourism destination, both nationally and internationally. He argues that the state -- sometimes seen as overdeveloped and heavily industrialized -- is in fact full of natural spectacles that may be overlooked by New Jerseyans and outsiders alike.

Dunne is betting that few are aware of Garrett Mountain near Paterson, where thousands of migrating warblers, orioles, and tanagers can be seen each spring, or High Point, where black bears are increasingly common, or Walpack Bend on the Delaware River, where large numbers of fireflies can be seen.

Next year, he’s hoping to tap the rich market of British birders by speaking at their annual convention in Rutland, England, where he will argue that ecotourism in New Jersey is not an oxymoron. “The preconception is simply wrong,” he said. “We can’t help the preconception but we can change it.”

Where he makes his nest: In Mauricetown, Cumberland County -- where he lives with his wife Linda, a registered nurse and nature photographer.

Jon Hurdle is a Philadelphia-based freelance reporter who covers energy, environmental, and general news for national and regional media.

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