Where Counting Hawks Is an Obsession

Greg Hanisek’s decades-old ritual defines his life, even as the birds and those who track them slowly disappear.

Where Counting Hawks Is an Obsession

By the time a sharp-shinned hawk feels an Eastern Seaboard cold front between its breast feathers, it needs a break. In Panama, where the bird is headed, the air is warm, and songbirds can be plucked from the trees like fidgety appetizers. But everything is scarcer here in New England – especially time. There won’t be many opportunities for pit stops on this trip, which could be close to 3,000 miles long. The hawk has known the sting of this North American wind since it first migration.

If it happens to be blown toward the Connecticut coast, the sharp-shinned hawk could take a break near Lighthouse Point Park, a stretch of sand where brisk water from the New Haven Harbor snags before flowing into the belly of the Long Island Sound. This is where raptors’ migratory highways intersect: a patch of dense woods opening to an amphitheater of cut grass and, farther out, a gentle curve of beach. Here, the hawk will dart between trees for food before bursting across the harbor and curving southwest. At some point, we may be able to see it.

It doesn’t know that on Monday, October 10, 2016, it will be one of 445 known sharp-shinned hawks in Lighthouse Point Park between the hours of 06:00 and 16:30. It doesn’t call itself a sharp-shinned hawk, and it especially doesn’t call itself a “sharpie,” the word tossed into the air by those designated to do one thing, every morning, August through December, while standing in the same place in the middle of this park: count hawks.

The Lighthouse Point Park hawk count is one of the near 70 of its kind in the country, defined only by a line of cars parked along a dirt road. The cars face away from Lighthouse Point’s advertised view and toward open grass framed by a wall of trees. Spotting scopes on tripods idle in a line like toy cannons, and counters, almost always white men in their sixties and seventies, wear binoculars over their windbreakers and bring pack lunches.

On October 10, the Lighthouse count had its best day in two years. Each bird, called out by one of over thirty birders, was tallied next to the species name along the left-hand margin in the notebook of Greg Hanisek, the head counter on Mondays. In a state like Connecticut, which can be traversed by width in a little over an hour, all the birders know each other, and they know who’s good. I’ve heard many people – both the owner of a nearby bird supply store and a 15-year-old member of the Connecticut Young Birders Club, for example – name Hanisek as one of the best.   

Steve Mayo, the gap-toothed count coordinator, occupied the more social corner of the count around the picnic table. He was entirely covered in black fleece, save for the space between his lower lip and eyebrows. I asked him if Hanisek was around, and he pointed to the other side of the gathering, across the line of cars, where a man leaned on the hood of a bright red sedan.

“Everyone’s out here on a Monday because the wind’s good,” Steve said as I looked over, “but people really just want to come hang out with Greg.”

From where I stood, Hanisek looked like someone who used to play football: tall, broad-shouldered, and steady-footed, his chin frosted with a weeklong white beard. Now, I can’t imagine him doing anything like football – only the gentle gestures he uses at Lighthouse. Looking up, glancing down to his notepad. Wrapping his binocular strap around his shoulders like a sash in a quiet nervous tic, then snapping the lenses magnetically to his face for each hawk he sees, each hawk called out by a counter, and each hawk he hears.

Greg Hanisek at Lighthouse Point Park, in New England, Connecticut.

He did it all silently. In his 24th year at the hawk count, Hanisek takes seconds or less to identify any of the hawks at Lighthouse, sharp-shinned being the most common by far. From where he stands, Hanisek is far away enough from most birds that he can only depend on two identification factors: wing beat and silhouette. Even then, there are easy traps to fall into. A sharpie and a Cooper’s hawk, both agile bird-eating raptors called accipiterscan sometimes be impossible to parse. They both flap-flap-glide, they both have short, rounded wings and long tails. Their coloring, if Hanisek can see it, is identical. Telling them apart becomes a collection of micro-reasons: how far the head juts out, or how strongly they’re blown by the wind. Hanisek appears almost constantly certain. To me, everything looked like a sharpie that morning.

On October 10, the Lighthouse Point Park count recorded 888 raptors under Hanisek’s watch, contributing to a season-total of 7,314. It’s an exciting number next to last year’s, but it’s a low score compared to Lighthouse’s totals from the 1990s, which would occasionally spike upward of 20,000. They haven’t had a year like that in a while. Still, in the observation notes of the day’s HawkCount.org entry, Hanisek wrote, “CT’s hawk watchers know a good day when they see it.”

I left the park before Hanisek did. He counted until 4:30 p.m. – ten and a half hours after he arrived. Later that afternoon, the sharp-shinned hawks of the day are turned into points on a graph.

If it hadn’t been for Ed Shove, a former Connecticut mill worker, the Lighthouse Point Park hawk count wouldn’t be a ritual. Ornithological documents from the 1800s hint at hawk sightings in the park, but it took Shove’s staunchness to solidify the count in the 1990s. Hanisek met Shove in 1992, and he told me the man was “ancient.” Mayo says he was just plain “weird.” He was known for eating apples and getting stung on the lip repeatedly by bees, and he went to Lighthouse nearly every morning for ten years as an octogenarian. Establishing and maintaining a hawk count takes that kind of time and patience. It can take years of watching to really see something.

Many of the hawk counters I met at Lighthouse named unpredictability as the main reason they love the kind of stationary birding at the count, which is also known as “sitting.” Frank Gallo, a Lighthouse regular, swears by it. “It’s like being in a candy store,” Frank said, “but you just don’t know what kinda candy.” You might expect sitting to get restless, but counting tends to make those who do it feel obligated to their subjects, as if observing a bird completes a cosmic cycle.

The New Haven Lighthouse, seen through Hanisek’s telescope.

None of this is to say that Hanisek is not a little restless. Now that he is retired, he can go birding every day. He isn’t limited by the stationary nature of the count. (This is also why most birders are retired and, usually, of a certain socioeconomic background – they can afford the time and equipment.) Nor is it to say that he is not known for the sport of birding, or not a celebrity, because his peers used that exact word to describe him to me more than once.

A counter named Dana told me that Hanisek is “the best.” The Connecticut birders knew about him even before he moved to the state from New Jersey in 1992. He contributed to the New Jersey Audubon Society’s Field Notes, then became an editor of Connecticut’s, and now edits the statewide birding newsletter. Mayo has given him two awards from the Connecticut Ornithological Association. Hanisek has also captained winning teams in the World Series of Birding, a famous one-day birding competition, four times.

Hanisek isn’t humble to the point of denying his competitive spirit (he admits to backing off a highway ramp to avoid losing time during one of the World Series), but he says it doesn’t have much to do with winning. Winning is a side effect of knowing. “For me, it’s not really competitive like winning a game,” he says. “It’s competitive like… I don’t want anybody to ask me a question I can’t answer.” He believes in the “work hard, get results” adage.

In the World Series, or in any birding competition, people often expect the most famous birders to win. But birds don’t know how famous you are. You have to know where to find the hard stuff: the goshawk nest, the hummingbird nest, the harbor with the trickier shorebirds. In order to find those places, you need to understand how birds will move – a skill only mastered with time.

Hanisek is considered the best bird counter among the birders community, many seek his expertise.

“I always like the totality,” Hanisek said when I asked him about the value of his expertise. “I like to really understand what’s going on. I like going out in a day in April and saying to myself, ‘Well, you know, this is a good day for the first gnatcatcher to show up.’ And when it does, it’s a good feeling.”

Hanisek says that the spirituality often attached to bird watching is an excess of human sentimentality. It’s not his way of doing things. To a point, though, knowing the hard facts – the species, tendencies, calls, and migratory routes – of hawks can never make you a hawk master. If you can get close enough to a hawk, it might master you first.

Since I was five years old, hawks have been my closest neighbors.

Soon after my family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, my dad built our version of a guesthouse – an enclosure made of wooden slats called a mews, the size of a spacious shed, painted rust. Inside lived two Swainson’s hawks, a large grassland species, both flightless after injury. They were delivered to us in suitcase-like boxes by the local raptor rehabilitation organization for which my dad volunteered. (My dad, a birder since he was seventeen, has seen nearly 600 species in his life. Hanisek has seen over 700.)

The bird who stayed the longest was Aires, a 20-year-old Swainson’s who had been shot in the left eye with a BB gun. She had a shallow pocket of calloused skin where her left eyeball should have been. Her smooth, brown bust was broken by a light patch beneath her beak, and the feathers below her breastbone were the color of aspen bark. Unlike the agile, patterned hawks of New England, Aires looked still and wind-blown.

If my dad went out of town, I sometimes had to feed the hawks, and I would stare at Aires’ socket through the enclosure’s slats before delivering her food. For those few seconds, looking at her, eyeless, in a glorified cage, she looked as if she might be weak. But when I lifted the limp body of a dead mouse to the mews, its cold, loose skin slipping around its delicate skeleton, she morphed into a unit of pure force. She jerked her head around to where her right eye could see me, seeming to teleport across the enclosure. The entire ritual, from when I plucked the mouse out of our kitchen freezer to when I took off my gloves, climaxed at the moment she slammed her talons into the rodent, where my fingers had just been, and use her obsidian beak to tear it apart. She seemed to be a center of gravity. If she had recently laid an egg, I couldn’t feed her. My dad would have to don a helmet, football pads, eye goggles, and two tennis rackets to enter the enclosure while she protected her makeshift nest.

Hawks are the only animals that have ever made me feel small standing outside their cage, and they are the most beautiful things I have ever been afraid of. This makes it difficult to stand at Lighthouse Point Park and, as Hanisek does with such expert speed, identify them by their movements, judge their age and morph, and represent them with a tally. Hawks, in my mind, are difficult to “watch,” especially “count” – they’re easier to witness.

These days, the Western world experiences hawks from a distance. They’re usually studied, dreaded, or revered, and anything closer is done through a thick leather glove. The Lighthouse version of practiced, detailed hawk watching didn’t evolve until the twentieth century, but it’s part of a lineage of learning how to deal with one of the world’s most enigmatic creatures. Tracking its history, then, is quite different from tracking the history of hawks themselves. It’s studying what humans do when they try to make sense of something.

When “birding” began, it was more of a compass than a sport. Along with generations of indigenous avian knowledge, Vikings used flocks as signposts for approaching land, and Spaniards mostly noted them as food sources. It took John White, the governor and official artist of the failed Roanoke Colony, to plant the seed of modern American bird watching with his early sketches of the country’s winged life, prompting a flood of white men to – as Sir Walter Raleigh instructed White – “draw to life one of each kind of thing that is strange to us in England.” The tradition led to Alexander Wilson (the “Father of American Ornithology”) in the 1700s, and then the great John James Audubon, whose illustrations of birds some people could likely recognize faster than the birds they depict. As Andrew Jackson hung Audubon prints in the White House, people watched birds on walks, in fields, and from their porches, learning what to call them.

In Audubon’s illustrations, hawks don’t just pose for the artist’s eye; they kill. The swallow-tailed hawk grips a coiled snake, the osprey’s claws dig into the side of a squirming fish, and the red-tailed hawk’s beak is open in a screech as it attacks another hawk already clutching a bleeding rabbit. When there wasn’t fear, though, there was wonder. Thoreau wrote about watching one fly during a sunny afternoon at Walden Pond:

It appeared to have no companion in the universe, – sporting there along, – and to need none but the morning and the ether with which it played. It was not lonely, but made all the earth lonely beneath it. Where was the parent that hatched it, its kindred, and its father in the heavens?

But guns still go off, even in the face of prose. Hawks became popular hunting targets, mostly because they would kill farmers’ chickens, and were often called “evil.” Even some ornithologists, like mid-nineteenth century Elliot Coues, thought the only way to study birds was to take them out of the sky: “Fifty birds shot, their skins preserved, and observations recorded,” he wrote, “is a very good day’s work.”

Hanisek keeps tallies everyday of all the birds he counts.

The attitude persisted into the 1900s, and in Pennsylvania, the Game Commission offered five dollars for every goshawk shot during mating season. In the Blue Mountain ridge, also a hotspot for migrating hawks like Lighthouse Point Park, hunters would shoot enough hawks to fill wheelbarrows. Armed men came in endless waves. In the Bulletin of the Hawk and Owl Society, Henry H. Collins described the slaughter:

One case of extreme cruelty witnessed was that of a wounded hawk tied to a log. When another hawk appeared in the sky, a man would jab the wounded bird with a stick to make it scream and thus attract its fellow migrant to a similar fate… Another decoy consisted of a hawk thrown into a tree by means of a stone on a string and left dangling there in the northwest breeze.

Pennsylvania conservationists decided that the only way to keep the hawks safe was to buy the entire mountain and protect it as private land. A woman named Rosalie Edge, who posed for sepia photos in stiff wool hats and with Cooper’s hawks on her arm, purchased the mountain in her name and established Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, one of the first places where birds of prey were treated as majesty by a modern institution. In a letter written to Hawk Mountain warden Maurice Broun in the early 1940s, a former hawk counter at the sanctuary asks Broun to give some advice to the current ones:

Tell them to stand clear in the cold wind for me – till the wind-tears stream on their cheeks, to feel the unutterable sad rapture at those dark wings, arrowing out of the north and out of sight forever… till they find with a thrill of learning and a twinge of sorrow, what I found there, and will not forget. 

Hanisek grew up an easy hour drive away from Hawk Mountain, visiting with his father in the 1950s when people were still getting used to the word preservation. By the time he was in his thirties, he knew enough about identifying hawks and mobilizing hawk watchers to begin his own count on Scott’s Mountain in New Jersey, which still occurs every fall.

He doesn’t claim ownership over it, though. Each hawk count is evidence for the all the ones that could have been. “It’s not that all the ‘good spots’ are good spots for hawks,” Hanisek told me, “but just that they’re good spots that humans know about.”

Hanisek’s first memory is of his father leading him to the kitchen window and pointing out a shrike in the backyard. The shrike, a carnivorous songbird, must have been sitting on the thin wire of a fence dividing the grassy yard and the farmland beyond it, because that is what shrikes tend to do. At the time, before he started kindergarten, Hanisek didn’t know much about shrikes. The phase was short-lived.

This memory takes place in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, an industrial town on the Delaware River where Hanisek grew up. While Hanisek’s father spent most days busy as a doctor, he kept his three kids outdoors and his field guides on the bookshelf where they could reach. Hanisek remembers Sunday drives with his dad, learning the song of a red-winged blackbird in the car and finding pipits in a nearby field. By age seven, he started using the field guide by himself, and by age nine he surpassed his father’s knowledge of New Jersey birds.

Hanisek played football in high school and had plenty of friends, but he didn’t know anyone his age who knew birds like he did. That never discouraged him, but he says it took him until college, at the University of Pennsylvania, to make it to the next level of birding. He would keep notes of seasonal changes in species numbers and call daily hotlines to learn about rare birds in the area (before internet notifications existed), and he slowly become a known name among birders in New England. 

He moved back to western New Jersey to work, which, for Hanisek, has never meant the same thing as birding. If he were to get a job in something bird-related, it could mean office work, and he only wanted to be with birds outside. He worked as a newspaper reporter, and he still birded as often as he ate – before work, during his lunch break, and on his way home. He told me that there hasn’t been a day in his life when he hasn’t birded in some sense. He moved to Waterbury, Connecticut, copy edited at a different newspaper, and retired in 2014. Now, he just birds.

In Hanisek’s birding notebook from 1973, he recorded the weather, location, and species of every bird he saw, squeezing observations into the day’s window. He wrote in the same blue ballpoint he uses now. Much of the book is in first person, if abbreviated: SUNDAY, MAY 13: CHECK OUT HAWK NEST W/ DAD + DEFINITELY BROAD-WING, WILL HAVE TO KEEP CLOSE TABS. In a notebook from 1997, his prose shrinks and his precision strengthens: MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 15: LHP – 720 HAWKS, SEE SHEETS. ALSO WESTERN KINGBIRD, DICKEISSEL. While rarely recorded, though, there are also days like October 4, 1973: BAD DAY. MIND ELSEWHERE. FLOCK OF CANADA GEESE OVER I-78, CLINTON. He does not note how big the flock was.

I wondered about how “close” Hanisek feels to the birds he has spent most of his life watching. It’s a question that makes him a bit uncomfortable – it surfaces his qualms with “spirituality,” and even though he uses the words “love” and “passion” when talking about birding, he insists his allegiance is to the big, statistical picture. He once told me about seeing 400 hummingbirds during a Lighthouse count. It thrilled him, but not because the air was filled with countless buzzing lives, their wings zooming around his head and their metallic feathers catching the sun’s glint. It thrilled him because 400 is an order of magnitude higher than what he’s seen in the same spot before. He knows that because of his notes.

Still, it’s hard to deny that Hanisek experiences something like devotion. There are times, he told me, when he feels what he describes as “little moments when you’re out.” Those moments usually happen, he says, when the same prescience he’s spent 68 years building is thwarted. When, walking along a path or ducking beneath the limbs of a tree, by himself, he catches a glimpse of a bird he hadn’t thought of first.

Hanisek picks me up from my apartment at seven a.m. on a Sunday. I can tell it’s going to be a mild day for hawks – it’s warm, there’s only a slight breeze, and seven a.m. is pretty late for Hanisek. The sound of “Morning Edition” through his car radio is almost predictable enough to be inaudible. This morning, we’re driving to two parks near Lighthouse.

It’s a quiet day for everything at East Shore Park. Standing in the pebbles on the beach, an early morning little league tournament to our left and a sewage plant to our right, we aim our binoculars at passing gulls, the occasional kingfisher, and waves of grackles so high they almost look like dissolving clouds of smoke.

Hanisek at Lighthouse Point Park.

A few days earlier, Hanisek had told me about eBird. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society launched the website in 2002 as an alternative to notebooks like Hanisek’s. Sign up, go birding, record your sightings. From there, skilled birders in each region will review your list based on the birds likely to be seen in the area, intervening if anything seems impossible so as to keep things accurate. Hanisek technically works for eBird – he’s the reviewer of the entire state of Connecticut – but he may as well be their frontline spokesman. He’s quick to tell me that, unlike many other birders his age, he accepted the new technology immediately.

Hanisek has an easy time telling me about the precision he’s able to achieve, and enforce on other Connecticut birders, with eBird. But when I ask him more evaluative questions – What does it mean that sharpie numbers are declining? What happened to the disappearing American kestrel? Is this all climate change? – he seems less interested. I ask Steve Mayo some of the same things. It seems to me, if these men’s aim is to observe these creatures for the sake of their data, and if their method is the result of some kind of expertise, that the data must be going somewhere. At first, Mayo directs me to the same HawkCount.org graphs I’ve already seen. Then, when he realizes he doesn’t have much of an answer, he’s a bit more up front.

“The interesting thing about hawk watchers and birders is we go out and observe, but we don’t ask these very basic question,” he says. “I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours, and I don’t even try to research.”

After the third time Hanisek sings me the praises of eBird, I ask him what, exactly, is going on here. Who is he doing this for? “I don’t want my observations to disappear,” he says. “The mission is to save the information.” Not so much the birds. If he meets older birders who resist eBird, he tells them “it’s going to be just like when your mom threw out your old baseball cards.” Hanisek can’t stop the hawks from disappearing, but he can prove that he saw them – that he was really with them.

By 8:30, we decide to leave the shore and head to Fort Nathan Hale, where Hanisek will approach a near-jog to catch a glimpse of a meadowlark’s lemon yellow belly. Before we leave, though, we see one sharpie slice over our heads and across the sound, silent and alone. Its tail squares off, its beak is tapered, almost cute, and the striations on the underside of its wings blur into static. This is the only time we will see this bird.