For the Birds

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

So even without sleeping, Biggs could be tortured by a familiar nightmare. He imagines himself returning to the Dry Tortugas's Garden Key, hurtling down the gangplank, across the dock, over the moat, and into the hexagonal wonder of Fort Jefferson, where he finds Langridge standing placidly, that floppy bush hat on his head and a coy little smile playing around his lips. And Biggs knows.

"What? What?" demands Biggs, as his Coke bottle eyeglasses magnify the apprehension radiating from his round, reddened face. "What did you get?"

"Got the fork-tailed flycatcher," says Langridge in a quiet, laconic way that he knows will make Biggs go ballistic. "Came in late yesterday. Haven't seen it again this morning though."

And with that, the big man erupts. "AAAAAAAARRRRGHHH," he roars, his anguished cry echoing through the vaulted chambers of the 150-year-old, red-brick fort. "That's 435!"

For serious bird watchers, there is no place in North America that quite compares to the Dry Tortugas in spring. To sailors or to people passing over in a plane, these seven islands are nothing more than the merest coral rocks that jut barely above the clear blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the farthest-flung piece of Florida. But to millions of migratory birds making their annual return to the U.S. and Canada from a winter in Central or South America, the Dry Tortugas are the Last Chance Saloon, a life-saving rest stop, a literal oasis in what to a bird's eye must seem an endless sea. In the Dry Tortugas in spring, even an avid birder can add to his or her list several "life" birds never before seen. For hard-core birders, the Dry Tortugas is mecca.

But also evident during this particular mid-April trip aboard the Yankee Freedom, the second annual three-day "Tortuga-thon" sponsored by the Tropical Audubon Society of South Miami (TAS), are some growing tensions in this little-known subculture of birders, caused in part by the increasing popularity of a hobby in which there are few rules and all participants keep their own scores.

For decades birding has been considered an arcane, cockamamie hobby practiced by little old ladies in tennis shoes and science-nerd wimps with skinny gray mustaches, dog-eared field guides, and pocket protectors bulging with multicolored pens. Indeed, those men and women still are well represented among birders' ranks. But a rising conservation ethic and an appreciation for the thrill of seeing and identifying birds in the wild has attracted legions of newcomers. By one recent estimate, about 65 million people take enough interest in birds to buy seed for back-yard feeders. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that Americans spend $5.2 billion a year on bird-watching activities. But according to the American Birding Association, only about 120,000 people can be counted as dedicated birders, passionate enthusiasts who keep life lists and state lists and lists of every bird they've ever spotted in their own back yards, and who, when told that a rare bird they need for their lists quite possibly has been roosting in a swamp 300 miles away, have grabbed their binoculars, their waders, and their car keys and taken off.

This competitive fervor in an activity in which there are few rules and participants keep their own scores has some traditional aficionados squawking. In their rush to "get" one more bird for a life list, some birders have run roughshod over the unwritten codes of conduct governing behavior in the field, trampling the accepted protocol of how well a bird must be seen before it is legitimately added to a tally. We're talking honor system here.

"Listing is controversial," affirms Greg Butcher, executive director of the Colorado-based American Birding Association. "A lot of people in our culture obsess, and birding is easy to obsess on. We say that if you don't notice your third divorce, you may have gone too far. And we have board members who think we should do away with listing altogether."

For the Tropical Audubon Society of South Miami, the second annual three- day Tortuga-thon is a chance to cater to subculture vets in pursuit of life birds, introduce fledgling birders to the hobby, and make some money. As TAS has discovered, sponsoring a trip to the Dry Tortugas is lucrative; last year it accounted for more than $5000 for an organization that relies on plant sales, smaller-scale field trips, and donations to meet its yearly operating budget of $90,000. That profitablity has TAS officials planning more, and more-varied, adventures. But TAS executive director Don Chinquina says this year's excursion has him wondering if a mix of field-savvy, life-listing birders and a covey of novices can work: "My own view is that we had the opportunity to present a strong program to the public, but if you have one group asking 'What time is lunch?' while another just wants to get the red-footed booby, well . . ."

Well, you've got dissension.
But the Dry Tortugas trip showcases more than just the changes that are rocking the flocks in birding communities, as a pastoral pastime is taken over by passion. Also in the air are complaints from participants about Biggs's leadership and his flamboyant A some say unpolished -- personal style. Now, notes Chinquina, TAS officials are questioning whether or not to rehire the Orlando resident and his Florida Nature Tours to organize future trips. "We had some people who commented that Biggs's behavior was inappropriate, and others who thought it was funny," admits Chinquina.

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