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My Column: The Legendary Pete Dunne

RTP & Pete Dunne 84 WSB       Two great birding authors: Roger Tory Peterson (left) and Pete Dunne
during the first World Series of Birding in 1984. Photo courtesy of NJ Audubon

My column for The Record and other USA Today newspapers in New Jersey is about the legendary birding expert and writer Pete Dunne. I only wish I had room to mention his latest book, Bird Families Of North America, with photos by Kevin Karlson.

Here goes:

By Jim Wright
Special to The Record

    More than nine years have elapsed since I wrote a column about birding legend Pete Dunne. The New Jersey-born and -bred Dunne was recovering from a stroke back then, and he had reduced his activities drastically. 

   I’m happy to report that Pete is still writing and still spending part of his year in South Jersey.

   Every time I go through my books on birding, I think of Dunne. TheRecordBergenEdition_20220901_LF03_2-page-001His books keep popping up on every shelf. This guy is the John Grisham of nature writing.

   Dunne writes on all manner of birding subjects in all sorts of styles, from birding encyclopedias to collections of essays. In short, Dunne is not only the best birding writer out there but also a top writer, period. 

   His timeliest book right now is “Hawks in Flight,” written with fellow avian author all-stars David Sibley and Clay Sutton. This is the book to read if you plan on watching raptors during their upcoming fall migration.

    I recently re-read parts of “Feather Quest,” Dunne’s account of a year-long birding peregrination. I’d read it when I was a fledgling birder, and I hadn’t visited most of the places he wrote about.  Now I have a new appreciation for those places and for his observations about life.

   In the middle of a chapter about New Jersey’s legendary World Series of Birding, Dunne wrote: “Do you remember how it is when you stand and watch the sun after a long night without sleep? They come so rarely, these mornings. They are bound to great events and purpose – milestones that mark the memories of a human life.”

    Another thing about Pete. He is one funny guy. He dared to write a book called “The Art of Pishing” and included a compact disc of his sundry bird-attracting calls. 

   As Dunne has noted, pishing “refers to the onomatopoetic noises birders make that mimic scolding calls used by birds.Bird families cover If this isn’t the definition you had in mind, then you were confusing pishing with something else.”

   A friend once had a bumper sticker with “WWPDD” in large letters. The initials stood for “What Would Pete Dunne Do?” Pete has been a birding god for so many people for so long. 

   Thus, it took me a while to get up the nerve to email Dunne about using a photo of him pishing for an upcoming book.  

   He responded promptly and succinctly: “Sorry, Jim. I have no photo, and I lost my ability to speak screech-owl after a stroke.”

    And that was that. I wrote again, but he did not respond. I cringed. I had pushed my luck and imposed.

    I should have declared victory. After all, I’d heard from him. I’d gotten a new taste of Dunne’s self-effacing wit and flair. And I had a reason to write another column about him.

   Thanks, Pete!

    The Bird Watcher column appears every other Thursday. Email Jim at [email protected].