About six months ago, Pete Dunne realized he wasn't going to win the World Series of Birding this year. A teammate had bailed to help with the Century Run, which is a gentler event for those unwilling to stay up 24 hours while crisscrossing New Jersey as they mainline caffeine and count as many avian species as possible.
Rather than find another crew, Dunne decided to fly solo. It helps that he hears things the ordinary person does not hear. This he was demonstrating yesterday as I joined him for a few hours of light birding near where the Maurice River spills into the Delaware Bay.
"The thing about birding," Dunne said, "is that there is never a time when you're not birding.
"There!" He pointed skyward. "A field sparrow just flew by. There's a common grackle. And a red-winged blackbird . . ."
Dunne directs the Cape May Bird Observatory. He is a tall, square-jawed 57-year-old who got into birding when he was 7, living in North Jersey, and a neighborhood girl asked him if he wanted to go out in the woods and explore the wildlife. She'd brought a bird guide given to her by her grandmother.
What appealed to him: "There was this element of discovery, the gratification of outdoors. And I got to get away from adults."
The World Series started May 9, at midnight. For years the grail for the event had been identifying 200 birds by sight or sound; now it's more. Dunne decided his strategy for competing with teams of three to six birders would be to concentrate on the three counties closest to home: Cape May, Cumberland, and Atlantic.
On two hours' sleep he took off at 12 a.m. in his Subaru Outback wagon. His kit: a down coat, rain gear, a bug shirt, Wellies, a camouflage jacket, two pairs of binoculars, a spotting scope, two flashlights, two bags of chocolate-covered espresso beans, a Thermos of coffee, a box of NoDoz, 12 cans of diet Coke, and, as he put it, "enough Goldfish crackers to choke a thoroughbred."
Not for nothing did the Wall Street Journal call him "the bard of American bird-watchers."
The World Series, which Dunne co-concocted in 1983, is not so much bird-watching, he said, as it is bird-collecting. The competitors race to a spot, stand still enough to identify the object of their obsession, then race to the next spot.
He began at Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge just outside Atlantic City, where he notched a whip-poor-will, a chuck-will's-widow, a Canada goose. From Brigantine he drove to Belleplain Forest in Cape May County - "virtually one-stop shopping for about 15 difficult-to-find species."
There's a spot in this part of the Pine Barrens called The Bridge. "Ask any birder where it is," Dunne said. He wouldn't divulge more details: too special, and already so crowded. There, he garnered a Louisiana waterthrush and a prothonotary warbler, which is not a tale-telling Pennsylvania court clerk but a bird the color of honey set afire.
Also logged there: an Acadian flycatcher, a yellow-throated warbler, a worm-eating warbler. "This is the dawn chorus," Dunne said. "They're waking up and announcing, 'I'm still here, and your place is somewhere else.' They're singing rings around their territory."
Unless they're male and looking for sex. Then, he said, they're singing, "I'm Mr. Right, and I'm right here."
His flitting about that day wasn't just sport. To Dunne, it meant money. Conservation lovers had pledged $200 for every species he identified, the proceeds benefiting the New Jersey Audubon Society.
He kept scurrying "like a cue ball after a good break," crisscrossing the state's southeastern coast, and at 8:50 p.m. he called it quits when he observed a barn owl dragging a rat. Then he went home and tallied his count: 175.
No one questions a birder's word, he said. "Your reputation is like your virginity. You can only lose it once."