THE WAY IT BEGAN
For those who only know today’s Cape May Point State Park hawk watch (with its raised platform astride the paved parking lot), the scene as it existed when Pete Dunne began the watch might be surprising (if not startling). To begin with, the parking lot was an unpaved field. (This was not a problem as relatively few, birders or otherwise, used it.) There was about 50 to 75 feet of land (as in solid and dry) on the other (south) side of the Bunker, and you could easily climb onto it providing a fine view of the rips formed by the merging of the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay. The lighthouse was painted (a badly worn) white with red trim, and a pole (about 50 to 75 feet tall and with a number of guide wires) arose from the middle of the woods. The Phragmites were still present obstructing the view to the east, but the shrubs were not as high as they are today.
Pete first came to Cape May shortly after I “discovered” it in the mid 1970s. We had met the prior Spring to that time at an Urner Club meeting near our respective homes in (northern New Jersey’s) Morris County. At the time, I taught at the County College of Morris and was the President of the Montclair Bird Club. Pete was a new employee of the New Jersey Audubon Society charged with counting raptors as they passed in their southbound migration, much as he had done the previous few years along Warren County’s Raccoon Ridge.
In order to better count the hawks, Pete wanted to be able to see over the Phrags. He thus built himself a simple platform made out of a 4x4 foot piece of plywood nailed to four legs. It was crude yet effective, and allowed (with a degree of care) two people to stand on it.
During that first year (this platform was thereafter replaced with a Life Guard chair), I would occasionally join Pete atop his perch scanning the skies for whatever might appear. (In those days, Bald Eagles were a rare event, and Peregrines could not be counted upon even during big flight days.)
One day in particular stands out. There was a good, early October flight, when Cooper’s Hawk numbers approached and sometimes exceeded those of Sharp-shinned Hawks. It was also fairly windy, which typically causes raptors to fly low. In fact, that day they were flying so low, that one flew under the platform Pete had built and on which we were standing.
Since then, hawk watch has gone through various iterations until it achieved its current state as a multi-tiered splendor. And by the way, the parking lot is now paved, mark trails lead through the woods, and (at least as of 2009) Pete was still doing the hawk count.