Pete Dunne has basically been an ambassador for New Jersey and its birds for years. Now his boss is making it official.
Dunne, the longtime director of the New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory and author of a dozen or so books on birds, will soon become New Jersey's "bird-watching ambassador," as his Audubon title is set to be.
The 62-year-old ambassador-to-be said in an interview he'd been planning to retire from CMBO after a major health scare earlier this year.
"I had a stroke in March," he said. "I realized that life is finite and it is what you make of it. There are lots of things I'd like to accomplish in this life, and I need to dedicate the time to them now. CMBO demands a lot of time, and I think the kind of organization it is now, the talent it's drawn ... that my hand on the helm isn't essential to its sucess or survival."
But when he told his boss, New Jersey Audubon's President Eric Stiles, he wanted to retire, the boss talked him out of it.
"He convinced me I could still be of great service and value to" Audubon, Dunne said, adding the two together came up with the ambassador idea.
Dunne, who lives in Mauricetown, near Cumberland County's Bayshore in Commercial Township, would seem to be a natural for that role. He has long been an apostle for the state's birds - and New Jersey's nature in general. He also has written columns about his home state's underappreciated splendors for decades, including one called "In the Natural State," that was featured in the The New York Times' weekly New Jersey section from 1976 to 2001.
And those columns and books have helped spread the fame of Cape May as a magnet for bird-watchers - just by helping spread the word that Cape May is truly a magnet for birds. But Dunne, who moved to Cape May 37 years ago, says the same is true for New Jersey - despite its national image as a state of concrete:
"In geographic fact, the entire state is a bird-supporting peninsula - Cape May is just the southern tip - akin to a Baja, New Jersey," as he has written. So, he adds, he hopes to spend "the balance of my career ... (conferring) upon New Jersey the same appreciation Cape May enjoys among bird watchers."
He also has written this line - and swears it's no overstatement, even in the suburbs:
"New Jersey residents have a National Geographic Special on their doorstep."
Eric Stiles, the president of New Jersey Audubon, called Dunne in a statement a "birder, teacher, natural history maven and master chronicler of the natural world." Stiles added he and Dunne "will be spending the months ahead planning the transition" from hands-on director of CMBO to his new role as ambassador.
And Dunne - who says he has been fascinated by birds since he got his first pair of binoculars at age 7 - has been very hands-on at the bird observatory. He still leads groups of visitors and tourists on a bird-watching trip nearly every Monday morning, meaning anyone from a curious first-time birder to a lifelong expert could sign up for or stumble into a walk guided by the author of such books as "Bayshore Summer," "Pete Dunne on Birding," "Hawks in Flight," "Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion" and more.
The same tour guide to Cape May's winged world also has written columns for magazines and other publications including "Birding," "Winging It," "Wild Bird" and several more.
Dunne also was the founder of the World Series of Birding, a popular annual event designed to raise awareness of New Jersey's rich birding opportunities - and to raise money to preserve bird habitat. Since he started it for Audubon 29 years ago, the New Jersey-based World Series has raised more than $8 million for conservation in the state.
But he notes long before he moved to Cape May, he was a student of New Jersey's birds. He grew up in Whippany, in Morris County - and is happy to say where he used to play is still there, now owned by the township government. His mother has moved to Bernardsville, not far from Audubon's Scherman Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary, where Dunne says he's particularly happy about having the chance to spend more time.
"I love birding. I love getting people excited about the natural world - that's always been the best part of my job," he said. And when Audubon gave him the chance "to take that on the road, I said, 'Sure, that's what I want to do.'"
He also wants to once and for all cure the misimpression of his home state as a wildlife wasteland.
"The truth is that New Jersey is one of the greatest ecotourism destinations on the planet," he said. "That might not have been the case 50 or 100 years ago, but it is now. The only things lagging is the awareness."
And the ambassador aims to do his best to fix that. One of the main things he hopes to do more of is writing, Dunne says - he's already working on "a couple more" books about birds in New Jersey.
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