E. Vernon Laux: Nantucket’s Bird Man
• by Sarah Teach •
Editors Note: We were saddened today to hear of the passing of Vern Laux this morning in Nantucket Cottage Hospital. To honor his contributions to life on the island, we are reprinting an interview from 2012. Fly high, Vern!
Take a slow, lazy amble two miles down the seaside Eel Point Road, and you’ll wind up at a sprawling campus laden with scrub oak and the occasional evergreen straining to maintain its footing. The Linda Loring Nature Foundation (LLNF) headquarters overlooks the north head of Long Pond; the surrounding 80-plus acres are swirling with pristine nature trails and speckled with birdfeeders. The kind of silence that exists here – where you can see more sky than you ever imagined – is rare, even for Nantucket. The only perceptible sounds are the voices of birds, and LLNF Resident Naturalist E. Vernon Laux knows the songs of every one.
Laux moved to Nantucket in 2007 after having visited the island for 40 years to participate in the annual Christmas bird count. “I started bird watching in junior high. Back then, you didn’t tell people that you were birding!” he declares with a hearty hoot of laughter. In high school, the Boston native became more serious about birds. He worked for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and passed up a full football scholarship in order to major in Wildlife Ecology and Speech Communication at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “I couldn’t hang out with those idiots on the football team. Instead, I decided that I wanted to see all the birds in North America by the end of college,” he says, “And I did!”
An osprey’s cries pierce the silence, signaling her desperation for her mate’s presence. Laux retreats momentarily to his office to bring out a high-resolution telescope, then peers through it to see the bird’s freckled feathers up close. The pair of ospreys have established themselves in a nest upon a pole that towers high above the ground, where predators are at a great disadvantage. “We raised three osprey chicks here this year,” says Laux, shaking his head in wonder. What exactly is it about a bird that catches Laux’s fancy? He flaps two imaginary wings. “It’s the flying. I love anything that flies: the birds, the dragonflies, the planes. I have dreams sometimes about flying; I’ll be soaring at dawn and listening to the birds.” Laux leans back and sighs, floating into his imagination. “That,” he says as he looks up again and grins, “Would work for me.” But still, Laux is well aware that not everyone dearly loves birds. “People use the term ‘bird brain.’ Well, these creatures are going to the Amazon Basin for the winter. How stupid are they?” He slaps his knee, laughs, and exclaims, “I’m going with those guys!”
During the chilly, damp winter months when birds are scarce on the island, Laux makes a winter migration of his own. In recent years, his destination has been Ecuador, but he has traveled to all ends of the globe. “I’ve been to Antarctica 40 times as the bird expert on expeditions. I’ve gone to the North Pole. When you move away from the equator, there are fewer predators, so more birds are able to thrive. In areas nearer to the equator, between monkeys, lizards, and everything else, there are no more birds, numerically speaking, but there are more species of birds. In the Arctic, there are fewer predators but also fewer species.” Even with so many other excellent places to see birds, Nantucket remains a valuable birdwatching location for Laux and his fellow ornithologists. “Birding is great here on Nantucket because it’s all conservation land. Some places, like the Vineyard,” he says with slight wrinkle in his nose, “Don’t have that. Nantucket has the highest known density of the northern harrier, and that has everything to do with conservation land.”
Still, there are several threats birds face on Nantucket. Laux ponders the most significant hazard to the safety of Nantucket’s bird populace. “I want to say it’s invasive plants,” he mumbles, trailing off. “But feral cats are the biggest mammalian predator on Nantucket. Cats and rats. I’ve watched cats kill birds in the wild, and the [endangered] piping plovers just couldn’t get their numbers up this year. Even with the rule against vehicles on the beach, the plovers couldn’t get past the cats and the rats.” Although Laux estimates that feral cats are responsible for 30-40 bird deaths per week on the island, he doesn’t have disdain for the furry creatures. “I love cats,” he says, shrugging. “And indoor cats are my favorite kind!” he adds with a wink. “One of the biggest things that islanders can do to protect birds is to keep their cats inside.”
Considering Laux’s love for avian beings, one might wonder if he has ever met a bird he didn’t like. Hesitating for just a moment, Laux admits he has: “The brown-headed cowbird. They’re rude parasites; they lay eggs in others birds’ nests; they destroy other birds’ nests.” But for every bird that Laux doesn’t particularly like, there are a thousand that he loves. His favorite? “The gyrfalcon,” he says immediately. “I love shorebirds, too, but the gyrfalcon…” Laux shakes his head meaningfully and continues. “It’s the largest falcon in the world. It is polymorphic; so just like humans, it comes in different colors. Most gyrfalcons are gray, and then there are black and white ones, too. They are circumpolar, so they can be found all over the Arctic Circle throughout the year.”
Despite a dislike for the brown-headed cowbird, Laux emphasizes that he does not believe that there are any bad birds, just bad humans. “In 1886, some people were doing Shakespeare plays in Central Park and they wanted to have all of the actual birds that Shakespeare mentioned in the shows they were doing. I think it’s around 90 species. So they had to bring those over on a ship from England. They released them in Central park, and all but two died. Those two, the European starling and the English sparrow, didn’t have any natural predators, so they went nuts. They spread from coast to coast. And basically, we introduced winged rats to North America,” says Laux with mock pleasure. He adds, “It’s not their fault. It’s humans. When you take a species, whether plant or animal, out of the place where it has evolved, then transport it to a location where it’s never been before, its numbers get all out of whack. On Nantucket, we have phragmites [the common reed]. People once thought they looked nice, so they imported them from across the ocean. But there were no bugs that ate them here on Nantucket. So now the phragmites have taken over, and the bugs died. And birds need bugs to live, so the birds are going hungry.”
Although he faces frustrations with humans on an ornithology level, Laux loves people. “In 2004 on my son’s birthday, August 4, I spotted a red-footed falcon on Martha’s Vineyard. It was the first and only one that has ever been seen in the Americas. So it was a front-page story in the New York Times; it was in Newsweek, Time, the Globe, they had me on ABC. Ten thousand people came from all over the world to see this bird.” Laux jokes that he had to go out in disguise to actually see the bird himself. “It was like being a rock star, except the groupies were 90!” But Laux was less concerned with getting his 15 minutes of fame; the memory he has held onto involves of a Hurricane Charley victim who came to the Vineyard during all the falcon excitement. Laux recalls the day: “I saw this really disheveled-looking man so I kind of approached him to see if everything was okay. He told me, ‘I was sitting in my wrecked house in Orlando and I just thought, “I’m going to drop everything, drive up to Massachusetts and see this red-footed falcon.” Laux, glowing at the memory, continues: “So I told him, ‘You’re with me!’ and took him to go see the bird. And when he saw that falcon, his face just lit up. That bird transcended all worries.”
Laux has two pieces of advice for amateur birders on Nantucket: “Call me and come on some bird walks. And buy the best pair of binoculars that you can afford. You really need binoculars in order to see the details in each bird.” Additionally, there are a couple of birds that Laux believes every Nantucketer should know about. First, what Laux calls “a winter specialty” is the long-tailed duck. “They are incredibly beautiful,” he says, “They spend the night out on the Nantucket Sound then every morning at dawn, they fly back to the island. Then at dusk, they return to the water. This is one of the reasons I am against the proposed wind turbine project in the Sound.” Laux also says that every Nantucketer ought to witness what he calls the winter gull show. Thousands of birds swish and swoop through the air and into the breaking waves in an effort to scoop up fish that will sustain their fat stores for the winter. Between the fury of the winter Atlantic and the frantic energy of the feeding birds, the winter gull show is renowned as a spectacular event that draws the interest of birders and non-birders alike. “It begins around November 12 every year,” says Laux, “And continues until about mid-January. Go down to Low Beach on the southeast corner of the island, and you might catch it happening. It sounds like a freight train!”
Even with all the birding excitement of winter, the absolute best season for bird watching on Nantucket is almost upon us: fall! Last October, Laux and the Linda Loring Nature Foundation put on the first annual Nantucket Birding Festival. Learn how you can participate this year’s festival, which will span October 18-21, by visiting www.llnf.org or by calling the Foundation at 508-325-0873. Perhaps you, too, may learn to love the magnificent winged aviators with whom we share Nantucket.