This past weekend, an all-start cast of birders gathered in Nantucket, united in one purpose – to go all out birding the island in honor of the late legend himself, and the originator of these radio pieces, Vern Laux.
As with other years, when my lame excuses have included my wedding and being in Peru, I didn’t make it. But through first-hand accounts and an impressive series of online bird lists, it’s clear they would have made Vern proud.
At least I think so. These friends and acolytes of Vern found no fewer than three premium-grade rare birds, as well as a host of medium to lesser rarities. But Vern had high standards for this weekend back when it was the more formal Nantucket Birding Festival, when it boasted birds like Magnificent Frigatebird and the first record of Gray-tailed Tattler for eastern North America. I remember one year a super rare Calliope Hummingbird turned up during the festival, sending us racing over to the community garden where it was feeding on late blooming Pineapple Sage salvias. It was a first for the island and sixth state record, but somehow it wasn’t quite rare enough for Vern – he always swung for the fences.
But any birder would have to smile when the ornithological haul for the weekend included a lovely and lanky American Avocet at Great Point and a wayward Western Kingbird mid-island. But the list from Madaket was truly astounding, including the second island record for a weird western thrush known as a Townsend’s Solitaire, as well as a Lark Sparrow, a Red-headed Woodpecker, and the state’s latest record of Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. A Cattle Egret, a smattering of late lingering warblers and shorebirds, and several sightings of the islands newest residents, a pair of Common Ravens, rounded out the highlights.
The Townsend’s Solitaire breeds in the high rocky mountains, and most birds make only short altitudinal migrations into nearby valleys in winter. But, for some reason, a few turn up along the east coast most years. In typical fashion, the Madaket bird was nibbling on eastern red cedar fruits, an important winter bird food around here. Now, red cedars are really junipers, and the “fruits” are actually cones, but everything else I told you is mostly accurate. Out west, solitaires defend patches of junipers in the winter when they feed almost exclusively on their berries or cones or whatever they are, so look for them wherever eastern red cedars are abundant. Or if you really want to woo one, try filling the bird bath with gin and tonic, since juniper berries are what gives gin its flavor. Let me know if it works.
Speaking of adult beverages, it’s true that birding isn’t the same without Vern’s massive presence, slapping you on the back and imploring you to stay out for another round, whether it’s a round of birding or drinks. But with an island full of birders gathering each year to remember Vern and to honor his memory by keeping their “eyes to the sky” it’s clear he’s still with us, and his legacy of love for birds lives on.