Vern Laux. Photograph by Bob Shriber.
A Poem by Peter Trimble
When I am birding on a big day or CBC exhausted from the effort, when I am sharp as a bowling ball, climbing over an obstacle moving like a cat, I will listen for the flight call of the Dickcissel, or wait was that a barking spider? I will think of Vern.
The world lost a true giant on January 21, 2016, with the passing of our friend Vernon Laux. He will be remembered for all the good he did to promote the richness of birding in Massachusetts and beyond, the countless rare birds he discovered, the birders young and old he inspired, and the many friendships he fostered. Many of us will be forever grateful for the people we know and the friendships we have due to his generosity and enthusiasm. Above all, Vern will be remembered for the fun and excitement he introduced into birding and into life in general.
Vern was the most recognizable name and personality in New England birding. He wrote weekly articles for the Vineyard Gazette, the Martha’s Vineyard Times, and the Cape Cod Times that exposed many readers to nature through his illustrative prose. Vern regularly appeared on WCAI, Cape Cod’s National Public Radio station, for “The Point.” The many speaking engagements he was invited to give provided a more personal interaction with the public. Indeed, the number of birders, nature lovers, would-be birders, and would-be nature lovers he reached and influenced is one of his greatest legacies. While traveling the Cape and Islands, it was impossible not to meet people Vern knew or who knew him. Each of those folks had a story about a bird they noticed, or for which they had a special appreciation, all through Vern’s influence. In fact, we often joked that if we ever encountered a police officer during late-night owling, a quick mention of Vern’s name would clear up any misunderstanding (our get- out-of-jail-free card).
Of course, his work in media couldn’t explain the entirety of his legend. Vern had a huge, uplifting personality that inspired people to listen and learn. His infectious enthusiasm for birds and the natural world so excited nonbirders that they tuned in to his radio pieces on a regular basis just to hear his positive words on birding (the same as life). Beginning and experienced birders alike found him equally forthcoming with information, identification help, or a good joke. It didn’t hurt that his huge personality came with a giant frame and booming voice. On a one-mile by two-mile island in Maine, we always knew when Vernon had arrived, not by our first sighting of him, but by his far-reaching voice that penetrated every corner of the island.
He also had a competitive side, which showed in his interest in sports. Tom Brady and the Patriots were favorites, as were Larry Bird and the Celtics. Vern enjoyed Christmas Bird Counts and he particularly relished finding lingering or rare species that he could report at the countdowns—a feat he rarely failed to accomplish! He was an essential asset on any Big Day adventure. He was involved with most of the teams that broke each previous Massachusetts Big Day record. We participated with Vern in the World Series of Birding in New Jersey for a number of years and were fortunate to break the difficult 200-species barrier each time. Typically, these events are extremely well planned with little room for freewheeling, but with Vern there was always time for an impromptu detour of a few hundred miles on a hunch. One year, Vern persuaded us to make a major detour for an American Avocet, which happened to be a mere 150 miles off our route. Needless to say, it paid off; we got the bird and still broke 200 species.
Vern discovered or helped find and identify many exciting birds. The long list includes a Streaked/Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Gray Kingbird, Common Cuckoo, Tufted Duck, Sandhill Crane, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Common Swift, and, of course, who could forget the Red-footed Falcon. However, Vern found excitement in every aspect of birding and birds. One of the stories he relished the most was being involved on Martha’s Vineyard with the first documented hybrid of Black-capped Chickadee and Tufted Titmouse, a bird he dubbed the Chickmouse.
Vern’s 60th Birthday Party. Photograph courtesy of the authors.
Whether he was birding locally or in distant lands, he found pleasure in being outdoors and encountering whatever flew by. He visited every continent. He worked on ships in Antarctica, traveled in Africa, and spoke longingly of truly awesome times in Australia, Asia, and Central and South America. Locally, he was crazy about Monomoy Island and South Beach in Chatham for shorebirds, the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard for fall migration, Low Beach and Madaket on Nantucket for gulls and migrants, and offshore waters where he loved fishing as well as observing seabirds. To be perfectly honest, and we know Vern would be, fishing may have held a spot equal to birding in his heart.
A birding adventure with Vern would not be complete without one of his favorite musicians blaring on the radio. He was particularly fond of epic rock and blues guitar licks from the varied likes of Jonny Lang, Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Buddy Guy, John Hiatt, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to name a few. During the summer of 2015, Vern and Peter Trimble attended a Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang concert which, according to Vern, was the best concert ever!
Vern was a unique person. If he wasn’t the inspiration for the most interesting man in the world ad campaign—and he could have been—he certainly could have inspired a most interesting birder in the world ad campaign: “He doesn’t always go birding, but when he does, wait—he always does!” And who doesn’t recognize his signature slogan: “Keep your eyes to the sky, my friends.” After all, Vern was recognized as a “Person of the Week” on ABC News in 2004! Who would believe that a birder could slide into that spot?
Vern was passionate, intelligent, and outgoing, to put it mildly. One of the traits we found most exciting about Vern was the way he could transform the routine into the extraordinary. Whether you were with him for a first state record, the most routine field sighting, or the millionth time he’d seen a Merlin cruise by—Vern had a special fondness for Merlins, the “magicians”—he turned that experience into the greatest birding moment of your life. More to the point, the next time you saw a Merlin with him, well, now that became your most memorable birding experience. His excitement transformed the way you looked at birds and at life so that you walked away with a new appreciation, no matter if you were a lifelong birder or a first-time participant in Vern’s world.
Vern’s eyesight was second to none. It often seemed unfair that he walked around with binoculars. I lost count of the number of times he picked out a bird AND identified it with his eyes before anyone else saw it in their binoculars.
Vern had many different jobs during his lifetime, which included being a researcher in Alaska; a Zodiac driver in Antarctica; a fisherman off Cape Cod; a business manager, painter, and realtor on Martha’s Vineyard; a naturalist on Nantucket; a writer; and a radio commentator. No matter his career choice of the moment, he was always birding.
His fondness for island living and birding was well known. Monomoy Island, Martha’s Vineyard, Monhegan Island, and Nantucket were favorites of his. His last stop was Nantucket and he quickly became an integral part of the island community. He started the wonderful Nantucket Bird Festival, designed for birders and nonbirders, islanders and mainlanders to enjoy an awesome few days of birding and socializing in a unique and special place. The list of rare birds found during this festival in a few short years is amazing: Magnificent Frigatebird, Western Kingbird, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Townsend’s Solitaire, Calliope Hummingbird, and the mega Gray-tailed Tattler. All of these birds speak volumes to Vern’s vision.
Wherever Vern called home, he made many friends. Vern introduced birds to many and had time for all. Beginning and experienced birders alike could find a friend in common. Some of our greatest friendships are the direct result of Vern’s natural openness. When Jeremiah and I bird and visit Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket we are met with open arms by amazing people. These friendships were a gift from our dear friend Vern and will help his memory live on forever. Wherever we bird, Vern will be at our side. In a story on the Red-footed Falcon for ABC News, Peter Jennings wrote, “The 50 million birders of America have a lot to thank Vernon Laux for.” We couldn’t agree more!