Tuesday, September 1st, was the start of Cape May Bird Observatory’s 2015 Hawkwatch at Cape May Point State Park. The excitement of another season at the point was palpable on this beautiful, sunny day with light northwest winds. The platform was full of friendly and familiar faces, none more so than Pete Dunne. Tuesday was especially memorable for Pete as it marked the 39th anniversary of his first official day of counting migratory raptors for CMBO. It doesn’t take long into a conversation about that September day in 1976 to realize how far we’ve come.
To start with, we were speaking with each other atop a large, multi-tiered wooden structure that can comfortably accommodate 100+ people. It’s a far cry from the self-constructed table Pete had to turn over every night. Then there was Cameron Cox, this season’s Hawkwatch counter, busy tallying the numerous raptors making their way through Cape May Point on an electronic tablet. The tablet is equipped with new software from Specteo that allows the public to watch a live stream of the count data via website. Apart from engaging a larger audience, the hope is the data set coming from this new program can be a potential source for scientific studies regarding bird migration. I can’t imagine what 1976-Pete would think of such a set-up!
A little digging through the archives later that day revealed the physical data sheet from that pioneering September day and the differences between then and now continued to mount. The first day of the count in 1976 produced a total of 18 birds spread across 4 species: 1 Broad-winged Hawk, 4 Ospreys, 1 Peregrine Falcon, and 12 American Kestrels. Compare that to Tuesday’s total of 175 birds across 8 species, including 156 Ospreys and only 4 American Kestrels. My how the tables have turned. If you ask Pete, 4 Ospreys in one day back in 1976 was an exciting number. Now, thanks to conservation efforts and the banning of pesticides such as DDT, Ospreys have made a remarkable comeback from the dwindling population of the 60’s & 70’s. The reverse can be said for American Kestrels. These raptors have lost not only highly sought after cavities for nesting, but large expanses of foraging habitat due to urbanization and re-forestation.
As I watch Pete engage our three new Hawkwatch Interpretive Naturalists, recounting to them the stories of the past, I can’t help but be excited to be a part of the future. In less than 40 years we’ve gone from one counter standing on a rickety table to a team of young naturalists eager to share their enthusiasm for birding and conservation. So come visit us up on the platform this fall and have a conversation with the legends of old while absorbing the young energy of the future. I for one will be up there, eyes to sky, dreaming of what the next 40 years may bring, and honored to be a part of this long running tradition.