High over the wooded hills just north of Lewin Farm in Baiting Hollow, Emmy the red-tailed hawk sits in her tree, watching me intently. Somehow, I sense her disapproval as the thick underbrush snags on my jeans and jacket. I fumble my way out of the thorns.
Up ahead, Chris Paparo, Emmy’s handler and partner of sorts, walks ahead through the fallen branches and briars that catch on our clothes. He simply expects me to keep up. In my defense, I’ve been doing fairly well for a first-time falconer and someone who’s more of an indoorsman than an outdoorsman.
Paparo takes the long walking stick he’s been carrying and smacks it against the underbrush.
As I step over a branch, there’s a sudden gust of wind. Emmy leaves her perch behind us and soars overhead, the bells attached to her legs jingling loudly. A blur of brown and red, the red-tailed hawk flits past us, dodges between branches and crashes into brush about 50 feet away.
There’s a commotion as Emmy flaps her way airborne again and the rabbit hiding in the twigs jumps away to safety.
“She missed it!” Paparo cries out.
He stomps over the thorn bushes toward where Emmy made her attack, hitting the brush to flush the rabbit back out into the open. The rabbit would ultimately get away, one of many lucky critters to have dodged Emmy’s wicked talons that morning.
Out on the trail, Paparo and his hawk form a kind of partnership. Paparo said it’s not unlike those who use hunting dogs — except their roles are reversed.
“I’m like the dog, and she’s the shotgun,” he said.
The Calverton resident is a licensed falconer, a type of hunter who uses falcons or hawks to catch animals like squirrels, rabbits, muskrat or other prey. Falconry is an ancient sport dating as far back as 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.
For the past five years, Paparo and his hawk have stalked through the woods in Baiting Hollow. Paparo has permission from the Lewins to hunt there; he says the land is free of fences, dog-walkers and high-power lines that could pose a threat to Emmy.
A longtime outdoorsman, Paparo was turned on to the hobby by someone he met at his former job who was himself a falconer. In order to get a license, Paparo began a two-year apprenticeship. He ultimately earned a license to capture a hawk of his own after getting the approval of his mentor, he explained last week before taking me out “hawking.”
Most red-tailed hawks don’t make it past their first winter, Paparo said. “Passage” birds — red-tailed hawks that are on their own but younger than a year old — are the only red-tailed hawks falconers are allowed to capture, since they don’t affect the breeding population.
Emmy, Paparo’s first and thus far only hawk, was captured in Mattituck. Paparo used a gerbil named “Bait” to lure hawks into a custom-made trap.
“I told Bait that if he catches me a hawk, he can live the rest of his life in a giant fish tank with two [exercise] wheels,” Paparo joked. “If I’m putting him out in this cage in the middle of a field I figure I have to reward him.”