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Forty years and counting at Cape May Point, New Jersey

Cape May's first official counter tells the story of the Cape May Hawkwatch on its 40th anniversary
By Pete Dunne | Published: 9/28/2016

"Forty Years and Counting," by Pete Dunne, BirdWatching Magazine, October 2016.

“Forty Years and Counting,” by Pete Dunne, BirdWatching Magazine, October 2016.

Contrary to popular belief, September 1, 1976, did not mark the beginning of hawkwatching at Cape May Point, New Jersey. And it wasn’t until 1977 that P. William Smith, regional editor of the journal American Birds, dubbed Cape May the “Raptor Capital of North America.” Forty years later, the title is still apt.

While the volume of migrating hawks in Cape May does not approach the numbers tallied at Corpus Christie, Texas, or Veracruz, Mexico, the species diversity and day-to-day dependability of the flight make Cape May a favorite autumn destination.

Hawk counting at Cape May goes back at least to 1931, when wardens hired by the Association of Audubon Societies set out to conduct daily tallies and police the shooting along Sunset Boulevard. The wardens did not stop the shooting; they insured that only unprotected hawks were killed. The unprotected species included Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Peregrine Falcon. Later, in 1965 and 1970, Ernie Choate and Fred Tilly teamed up to count hawks at what was the nadir of the birds’ DDT-induced decline.

In 1967, Bill Clark, an ardent raptor bander, asked U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Chandler Robbins to recommend a good place to establish a banding operation. Not surprisingly, Chan suggested Cape May.

Hoping to start a bird observatory modeled after the British system, Bill later discussed his ambitions with New Jersey Audubon’s executive director, Rick Farrar, who agreed. Bill said to Rick, “So we need start-up funds.”

Said Rick to Bill, “We’ve got no funding, but we do have credentials as New Jersey’s largest and oldest conservation organization.”

They decided to use those credentials as collateral to raise money. So Bill got bird-observatory-worthy stationary and wrote a letter entreating support from members of New Jersey Audubon, the Cooper Ornithological Society, Wilson Ornithological Society, and American Ornithologists’ Union. He raised several thousand dollars in gifts and small grants, one of which was from the Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct an autumn hawk count at Cape May Point.

Then, in the spring of 1975, Bill went shopping for a hawk counter. Rich Kane, New Jersey Audubon’s research director, remarked that a 24-year-old hawk counter was freezing his patoot off on Raccoon Ridge, in the Kittatinny Mountains, in the western reaches of the state, at that very moment.

$500 to count hawks at Cape May

I soon received a letter from Bill on fancy observatory stationary. He began by telling me he’d heard about my good work. I was flattered. Even I hadn’t heard about my good work, yet. He offered me $500 to count hawks seven days a week, dawn to dusk, for three months, September 1 to November 30.

I told my mentor, Floyd Wolfarth, about my new opportunity. I thought he’d be delighted, but his response floored me. “I forbid it,” he decreed. To Floyd’s mind, hawk trappers were synonymous with falconers, and falconers were synonymous with taxes, the Communist Party, and mercury-tainted tuna — unfairly, I might add. Raptor banders and not a few of the falconers I was soon to meet were as conservation-minded as Floyd and his cronies.

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Floyd’s objections notwithstanding, I accepted Bill’s offer. After all, nobody else was offering me money to watch hawks that fall.

I prepped for my impending season at the point by reading Witmer Stone’s book Bird Studies at Old Cape May, which painted a picture of Cape May in the 1930s. Then, on August 30, 1976 — Labor Day Weekend — I drove a white Volkswagen bug down Lafayette Street expecting to find a quaint setting.

Contributing Editor Pete Dunne, courtesy of New Jersey Audubon.

Contributing Editor Pete Dunne, courtesy of New Jersey Audubon.

I followed a caravan of scantily clad young people with coolers and surfboards atop their cars down Sunset Boulevard. I turned onto Lighthouse Avenue, then left at East Lake Drive, and found the house touted as the headquarters for the new Cape May Bird Observatory.

Inside were brochures inviting financial support, a clipboard for bird sightings, a Bausch and Lomb spotting scope propped in the window, and an answering machine that advised callers that “all staff were in the field.” There was no director, no office staff, no instructions for the arriving hawk counter. Nothing. It wasn’t exactly the welcome I had expected.

I went outside in search of the field where all the staff were alleged to be but found only an effervescent local birder with Leitz Trinovid binoculars who was riding a bicycle. She said she knew where Bill was, offered to lead me to him, and peddled off. I followed in my car. She stopped in front of farmer David Rutherford’s field and pointed. Then she continued on, showing no inclination either to approach the banding station or to make introductions.

I walked down a rutted lane and came across a tall gentleman with shoulder-length hair who introduced himself as Bill Clark. He invited me to join him in the banding station. After five minutes, I could not understand why anyone would want to sit in a structure that wouldn’t meet minimum standards for a chicken coop and try to view hawks through a gap between plywood boards. I still can’t understand it, but that defines the difference between a hawkwatcher and a hawk bander.

Later, Bill took me over to Cape May Point State Park and said, “OK, here’s where you’re going to count.” Then he headed back to the banding station.

Two main flight paths

The following day, I returned to the park to pinpoint a count location. Observations made from atop the bunker suggested that there were two main flight paths: One, used principally by American Kestrels, hugged the beach. The other, used mostly by Sharp-shinneds, was the treeline that bordered the open marsh that provided an open view to the east, where migrating hawks originated.

I was considering my options when a man wearing the uniform of a park ranger strode up. I proudly introduced myself as the hawk counter with New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory and extended my hand. It was ignored.

More guarded but still optimistic, I asked the gentleman where he felt the best vantage might be to observe hawks. “Right where you’re standing,” he intoned. Then he turned and descended the stairs. (Yes, you could indeed climb atop the bunker in 1976.) It appeared as though the park’s director wasn’t exactly enthused about my project.

After more searching, I concluded that the foundation of an old Quonset hut — the base of the picnic pavilion immediately north of today’s hawkwatch platform — constituted a compromise between the beach favored by the falcons and the woodlands used by the hawks. I would try counting there the next morning.

Then I went back to the observatory, where Bill enumerated some of the hitherto-unaddressed particulars concerning my employment. Because of high rental costs, I’d be sharing a campsite with other banders in Cold Spring Campground, near Higbee Beach, until the weather got cold in October. Housing was not included in the employment package, as it is today. I would be expected to assume my share of campground costs and later rental fees.

Then I was told my $500 stipend would be apportioned in three payments, the last of which would be paid in December, when I submitted my final report. Calculating quickly, I deduced that I would be living on $333 for three months, which was mathematically correct but nevertheless inaccurate, since I’d be living on $333 less $10 CMBO dues. All staff were expected to become members.

The next morning, the first official day of the count, I drove back to the state park to test out my watch site and learned to my dismay that the concrete pad didn’t offer enough elevation to see over the phragmites surrounding Bunker Pond.

A sawed-off telephone pole stood nearby. I clambered on top. About three and a half feet tall, it lifted me just enough to see over the phrags, and I stood on it all day. Using forms printed by the Hawk Migration Association of North America to compile data, I tallied a whopping 13 raptors under unfavorable east-northeast winds. More important, I decided that standing atop a telephone pole was not going to work for the three-month count.

American Kestrel near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, by mayhaga.

American Kestrel near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, by mayhaga.

A table just big enough

So that evening, I drove back to Bill’s banding station. Using plywood and 2x4s and the headlights of my VW bug for illumination, I constructed a table just big enough to stand on. Then I tied it to the top of my vehicle and drove back to the state park but found the gate locked. Parking near the lighthouse, I carried the table to the concrete pad.

Early on September 2, I climbed onto the platform, took the hourly weather readings, and started to count. I’m sure I cut a curious figure, a 24-year-old kid wearing cutoffs, a t-shirt, Leitz binoculars, and a leather visor standing on a rickety table.

Several park visitors sauntered over to see what I was up to. One was a pleasant middle-aged woman who thought the idea of seeing hawks sounded intriguing. The other was a tanned gentleman with bushy eyebrows and Zeiss 15x binoculars, who approached, stared into space, and said something like this:

“GAWWD! So here’s our young mail-order hawk counter, a pawn of the pesticide companies, motivated by some intellectual miscarriage and succored by naivety into believing that his efforts will somehow benefit raptors!”

He sighed loudly, then continued: “While chemical-company executives ensconced in their corporate towers and poisoning the earth are already planning how they can misrepresent these figures to support their heinous crimes. GAWWD! The myopia, the institutional stupidity! Undermining the very birds he strives to support!”

It went on this way for a minute or two. The man was both eloquent and forceful, his discourse a raptorial St. Crispin’s Day speech. He concluded by saying, “Well, I’ve probably ruined your day. I must be going now.” Then he turned and strode away.

“Do you think,” my companion said, choosing her words carefully, “that he was all right?”

“No,” I said. “He was a nut.”

And that’s how I met Al Nicholson, artist, ardent conservationist, raptor mystic, and one more person who wasn’t particularly enthused about my being in Cape May — a cross-section of humanity that included the park establishment and my girlfriend in North Jersey and was beginning to include me.

I’m sure I was dwelling on all these tangibles and intangibles when the ranger I’d met the other day arrived again. He said, “You’re going to take that platform outside of the park every evening, right?” It wasn’t a question.

The last straw

The directive proved to be something of a last straw for me. Climbing off my table, I said, “Look, I’m here trying to do a job, and I was led to believe everyone was on board. I don’t know what your problem is, and I really don’t know anything about this operation. I was simply hired by New Jersey Audubon to count hawks. If there is something that stinks about this operation, I’d really like to know, because I don’t want to be part of anything that isn’t legit.”

My frankness must have impressed the ranger, whose name was Fred. “Just tip the table on its side when you leave, so that no one climbs on it,” he said.

Ranger Fred’s acquiescence on the matter was a turning point for me. I decided to stick it out, to see whether my season at the point would gain traction. As is obvious, I stayed, and for many reasons, this proved to be the correct decision. And it bears mentioning that, after this somewhat rocky start, New Jersey State Parks and Forests in general and the staff of Cape May Point State Park in particular have been wonderfully supportive of the Cape May Hawkwatch and are in fact responsible for the construction and maintenance of the hawkwatch platform. Our sponsor, Swarovski Optik, now funds the count.

Sharp-shinned Hawk near Salem, Oregon, by Gary Miller.

Sharp-shinned Hawk near Salem, Oregon, by Gary Miller.

By September 4, winds had swung around to the northeast, and while not optimal, it was an improvement. I tallied 2,774 raptors, including 9 Peregrines, 52 Merlins, and 293 American Kestrels. By month’s end, 28,159 raptors were on the board, and by season’s end, there were 48,248. Not bad for three month’s work and the beginning of an enduring love affair with Cape May.

What was the rest of the fall like? Fun, challenging, personally expanding. The banders turned out to be an exceptional lot — crazy but exceptional. I forged three life-long friendships: with Bill Clark, Bob Dittrick, and Ted Swem. We lived, breathed, ate, and drank raptors, and it does not stretch the truth to say that we lived frugally.

The father of my then girlfriend was a pilot for the Borden Company, which produced Drake’s Cakes, Coffee Cakes, and Yodels, all of which were stocked weekly on the plane. Baked goods not consumed by traveling executives served as our breakfast. I skipped lunch — no time to eat, no money to eat with. Every evening, I heated a can of ravioli, one night cheese, the next night meat.

On only six occasions did my dining pattern shift: Three times, I was invited to dine with visiting birders. On two nights, I ate at the old Christian Admiral Hotel, on Beach Avenue, which hosted New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Autumn Weekend. And one evening, my birthday, Bill invited me for a beer at the Ugly Mug, on Decatur Street. I ordered a Heineken. The ever-frugal director changed the order to a Budweiser.

It’s also true that we were willing to try anything to replenish the supply of pigeon volunteers (or lure birds, as they are called) that banders use to entice raptors to throw themselves into nets. There were three local pigeon-supply centers. One was the magnesite plant on Sunset Boulevard (now gone), another was the bunker in the state park, and the last was the Christian Admiral. Being bird experts, we convinced the hotel manager that if he would put one room at our disposal, we could put a big dent in the pigeon population.

We bought a plastic tarp and covered the floor of an upper-story room. Then we erected poultry perches along the walls, spread birdseed on the window ledges and across the floor, filled the sink with water, and opened all the windows. We locked the door when we left.

The trajectory of whitewash

Three days later, we put our ears to the door and were rewarded by happy cooing. Evidently, multiple pigeons were pleased with their accommodations and room service. We rushed in and slammed the windows closed. Then we turned and surveyed the scene.

We had anticipated the fecal mess that the birds might deposit; that’s what the tarp was for. Where we erred was in not calculating the trajectory of whitewash fired from perches. The walls behind the perches were… Well, it hardly matters now. The Christian Admiral is long gone. More important, the banders had enough pigeons to see them through the season. We dropped off the key at the front desk knowing we’d never need to go back for a second run.

One day in September, a patrician-looking gentleman walked up to my table and began asking pointed questions about the raptor-banding project. Fact is, I’d already been told to expect a fact-finding visit from Maurice Broun, the first curator of Hawk Mountain, the famous sanctuary in Pennsylvania.

Red-tailed Hawk at Cape May Point, New Jersey, by Marian McSherry.

Red-tailed Hawk at Cape May Point, New Jersey, by Marian McSherry.

I wasn’t so much put off by the questions (Bill ran a tight banding operation) as I was miffed by Maurice’s failure to introduce himself to a colleague. Professional hawk counters were a small club back in 1976. So I decided to have a little fun at my visitor’s expense and asked whether he’d ever been to Hawk Mountain. He admitted that he was familiar with the place.

I then asked whether he knew Maurice Broun. He said he did. I explained that Broun was my hero (no exaggeration) and that I hoped very much to meet him one day. He said, not rising to the bait, that he hoped that someday I might get my wish. Intrigue and subterfuge notwithstanding, Maurice and I enjoyed watching hawks together. We parted with a friendship cemented by mutual respect and several hundred shared raptors.

That evening, when I drove to the Northwood Center (aka Anne Northwood’s house), on Lily Lake, to post the day’s hawk totals, I noted a car bearing Pennsylvania tags parked in the drive. Knowing that Anne and the Brouns were old friends, I put two and two together. I was not surprised by Anne’s invitation to come meet some “good friends.”

As I entered the parlor, Maurice, grinning like the Cheshire Cat, extended his hand and observed: “A little while ago, you said you hoped someday to meet Maurice Broun.”

According to the account offered by Jack Connor in his 1994 book Season at the Point, I am alleged to have said, “Oh, sit down, Maurice! I knew who you were.”

This interpretation would indeed have been in keeping with the image of the cocky young hawk counter portrayed in the book, but it isn’t true. Still in awe of Maurice Broun, I said, “It’s OK, Mr. Broun. I knew who you were.”

It was Maurice who, unbidden by me, collapsed back into his chair with a look of surprised bemusement on his face. Recovering quickly, he observed, “Well, you certainly played it well.”

What happened after fall migration ended in November? Starting just before Thanksgiving, the banding crew began to disperse. Bill continued to band into December. Bound by contract, I stayed until December 1, and I returned in January to house-sit and write a summary of the count for the magazine Records of New Jersey Birds.

That winter, Bill accepted a position with the National Wildlife Federation’s Raptor Information Center. Given the raptorial focus of the job and the observatory’s uncertain future, it was a prudent thing to do.

No big deal

I approached New Jersey Audubon’s executive director Rick Farrar and suggested he let me try to keep CMBO operational. Rick was agreeable. When asked what kind of budget I’d have, he admitted zero. The start-up funds were mostly exhausted.

Oh well, when you are 25, having no money is no big deal.

I’d never run an organization before, but I did know somebody who had, someone I’d met on the hawkwatch. So one day in February, I drove to Maurice and Irma Broun’s farm, not far from Hawk Mountain. We had lunch. We took a walk and discussed possibilities for the new observatory. Just before parting, Irma turned and took Maurice’s hand, saying, “Oh, Maurice, he’s just where we were when we were starting out.”

And while it was exciting to be standing at the edge of boundless possibility, I’ll tell you it is more satisfying, and less stressful, to be seated in my office here at CMBO’s Center for Research and Education and reflecting back upon 38 years of accomplishment than to be standing in the Brouns’ driveway looking ahead toward years of uncertainty.

In 1978, when I was burdened by work associated with my duties as the observatory’s director and sole staff person, Fred Hamer was hired to conduct the count, the second in a line of distinguished counters whose ranks include Harry LeGrande, Frank Nicoletti, Jerry Liguori, and Brian Sullivan. David Sibley, while not an official counter, was one of a host of talented co-counters engaged in a tracking experiment involving tail-marked Sharp-shinned Hawks.

By 1985, with the hawkwatch platform in place and a parking lot where there had once been a weedy field and crumbling concrete, the Cape May Hawkwatch had begun to resemble the institution present today.

Now, birders from the world over come to raise their glasses beside some of the finest raptor-ID folks in the business. In 2015, approximately 20,000 hawkwatchers witnessed the spectacle. One of them was me. — Pete Dunne

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Cape May lighthouse in morning light, October 2014, by Randy Smith.

Pete Dunne is the author of over a dozen books about birds and birding and the founder of the World Series of Birding. In 2001, in recognition of a lifetime of achievements in promoting the cause of birding, he received the Roger Tory Peterson Award from the American Birding Association. Until 2013, he served as director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and vice president for natural history for New Jersey Audubon. He is now New Jersey Audubon’s birding ambassador at-large. His column “Birder at Large” appears in every issue of BirdWatching.

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