A few days after Pete’s passing, I spent the day by myself birding Sandy Hook, a place where the two of us spent countless hours and shared many memories. A cold front passed through mid-day and I set up watch counting swallows and falcons as they winged their way north. American Kestrels were a favorite of Pete’s, and Pete was the first mentor who instilled upon me the value and importance of counting birds and sharing that data through ornithological journals like “Records of New Jersey Birds.” Pete spent many hours compiling bird sightings in the pre eBird/internet era, stitching together a seasonal portrait of birdlife every quarter for the “Region 5” column that stretched from Sandy Hook to Cape May.
Shorebirds always held a special fascination for Pete. He used to tell me how he could pleasantly spend hours sifting through large flocks of sandpipers, yellowlegs, and the like. I agreed. He also loved the Avalon Seawatch, relishing the challenge of picking out “interlopers,” as he called the odd dabblers, scaup, and other ducks mixed in with the skeins of scoters passing by. Even being diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease couldn’t ruin Pete’s love of birdsong. He just re-learned certain songs that now sounded different.
Pete was always a very project-oriented person. I asked former NJ Audubon President Tom Gilmore about Pete’s involvement in the NJ Highlands Coalition. Tom said “not only was he a founding member, but it was Pete who opened my eyes to the natural treasures of the Highlands and pushed for NJ Audubon to be the founding organization. Denis Miranda and Pete Bacinski were two of the key players in getting the Highlands Coalition started.”
Some of the many other endeavors Pete worked on included the NJ Breeding Bird Atlas, where he coordinated coverage of the northeast quarter of the state, served on the NJ Bird Records Committee, was a regional editor for “Records of New Jersey Birds,” for over a decade and wrote a weekly column about birds for the Newark Star Ledger. He participated in every World Series of Birding since its inception and was a field trip leader and lecturer on the Cape May Spring and Fall Festivals for more than 40 years.
Pete had a big smile and a hearty handshake. He loved puns, much to our dismay. The Turkey Vulture puns (i.e. TVs) will live on for years. I was always amazed at Pete’s ability to do math in his head—he used to divide up a big dinner check a dozen ways without a calculator and get the bill correct to the dollar. You always knew where you stood with him—there was never any doubt if he was happy or sad, excited or exhausted. He had a talent to drawing people in, being very approachable to new birders, and supporting over 50 volunteers who gave thousands of hours to NJ Audubon.
I first met Pete when he led field trips for Monmouth County Audubon. My first visit to the Pequannock Watershed was led by Pete on May 7, 1985. Pete loved birding Clinton Road and showed me my life Golden-winged Warbler that day. As my interest in birding deepened, Pete was willing to drive out of his way in his old Peugeot and pick me up at my house to go on field trips. I think that car met its end in a bottomless mud puddle just shy of the famed “Bridge to Nowhere!” In October of 1995 I was between jobs and drifting along in grad school. I ran into Pete Bacinski and Linda Mack at Sandy Hook. It had been a while since I’d seen him. We were catching up when Pete mentioned that he had just become the director of NJ Audubon’s Owl Haven Nature Center, and that a job opening for a teacher naturalist position was available. I started working there a few weeks later, an opportunity that Pete gave me for which I will be forever grateful.
That day the three of us looked up at a raptor riding a thermal—it turned out to be a Golden Eagle. It’s still the only one we’ve ever seen at Sandy Hook. Rest in peace, my friend.
Cover photo: Guerrilla Birding Team – Dunne, Sibley, Boyle, Bacinski – 1983