For the Birds

Put down the field glasses and close up the guidebooks. When Florida's top avian enthusiasts do battle, the feathers fly.

In a freshening breeze somewhere south of the Marquesas Keys, the yacht veers due west, baring its starboard side to the rolling swells, and suddenly a voyage that had started out so serenely at the docks in Key West turns foul. "We should have a very pleasant ride out there," the diminutive pathologist from Miami Shores had observed three hours earlier as he sat on the Yankee Freedom's top deck while the vessel was still tethered to the dock and the name-tagged passengers were still getting acquainted by establishing their bird-watching bona fides.

"Did we meet in Alaska last year, in Cordova? Weren't you up there for the red-legged kittiwake?"

"No, no, last spring I was in south Texas for the hummers."
But now it's two o'clock in the morning, with no land in sight, and the excited talk of brown noddies, roseate terns, and other Dry Tortugas specialties that lie ahead has been overwhelmed by the throbbing of the boat's engines and a queasy reality. As a cold front sweeps in from the west, the 100-foot vessel gets pounded broadside and rocks like a runaway carnival ride in the deep cradle of the waves. As the Yankee Freedom thuds slowly onward, the pathologist isn't the only passenger who crawls out of a bunk below decks to begin groping his way upward in search of merciful relief.

A line forms in the yacht's main salon. Men and women who just three or four hours earlier had been wide-eyed in expectation over the avian delights first light would reveal now work their way through shades of verdigris and green, afraid to go outside onto the rolling deck, and afraid they won't make it to the sloshing toilets before the rude evidence of their raw-bar dinners turns the carpeted floor of the galley into a high-seas slip and slide. They sprawl in the banquettes, heads down on the tabletops, or hang on to poles like limp, twisted sheets, inching their way sternward to the overflowing heads.

Even those who remain below, perhaps not yet feeling the bile rise from their churning guts, cling to their bunk posts and pray for intestinal tranquillity. But hardly anyone sleeps.

In a forward berth, Wes Biggs isn't sleeping much either. But his restlessness has nothing to do with seasickness. He has made this 70-mile crossing countless times since he first visited the Dry Tortugas as a seventeen-year-old bird bander in 1966. A professional tour guide renowned asone of the top naturalists in Florida, Biggs has escorted thousands of birders and other tourists to the seven islands that make up the Dry Tortugas National Park located in the Gulf of Mexico, just off Florida's southwest tip. He will make half a dozen trips to the islands in April alone. In 1988 Biggs even married his second wife Bettye in the park, taking his vows on a helicopter pad as the sun dissolved into a glorious crimson sky and the assembled guests tore into a three-tier chocolate wedding cake. Rough seas? Hell, in search of rare birds the myopic, 230-pound Biggs had slipped off of piers and created seas rougher than this.

No, Biggs isn't sleeping well because the previous day he had left Howard Langridge on the island with more than six hours of daylight and a three-bird lead in their personal competition for the title of Florida's top birder. Langridge, a compact, deeply tanned 73-year-old retired high school English teacher from Palm Beach County, had a state life list of 434 A the number of bird species he has seen in Florida. That's tops in the state. Biggs had 431. He ranks second. Although birders like to say that their avocation is noncompetitive, and that a life list represents a challenge only for oneself, don't believe it. Both Langridge and Biggs want to be number one.

"I will overtake him," vows Biggs. "I have put in a lot of effort, spent a lot of money, and it's my turn. I know, the science is what's important. The ultimate goal of all this is preservation of the species. The list is an ego trip, but . . . but it's important, too."

You bet it's important. Perhaps it is generational etiquette or a less confrontational nature that at first causes Langridge to respond to Biggs's challenge this way: "He has spent more time in the field recently than I have, so he deserves what he gets." Then, after the merest pause, Langridge adds, "But if he gets any closer, I'll have to quit playing tennis."

Forget the term bird watching. That sounds much too passive for what people such as Biggs and Langridge are up to. To understand birding at the level at which these two operate, know that there are relatively few of the more than 800 species that breed in or visit North America that Langridge and Biggs have not seen countless times. Thus the only way either can add a new species to his state list is for a rarity to fly in. Especially at this time of year, a wayward bird from the Caribbean or South America could show up at any minute. That bird could wing its way into the Dry Tortugas, for example, on a Monday afternoon, after Wes Biggs had departed the island and was steaming back to Key West to pick up another load of tourists, and while Howard Langridge, whom Wes Biggs was paying $100 a day to serve as a guide, was still there, constantly scanning that barren landscape, his Zeiss binoculars pressed with practiced efficiency to his green eyes, alert to anything unusual.

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