For the Birds

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

Both Biggs and Langridge are considered first-rate birders, each with unquestioned expertise in locating, identifying, and describing the majority of the more than 470 species regularly -- or even rarely -- found in Florida. And although fierce rivals for the unofficial title of Florida's top birder, each man insists he would never withhold information about a rare bird sighting from the other. Nonetheless, the stylistic differences between Florida's top two birders are stark. Or as Wes Biggs's wife Bettye puts it, "It's Miss Hathaway versus the Hell's Angels."

Howard Langridge remembers the rose-breasted grosbeak that hooked him on watching birds as a teenager in his native Tennessee, and over the past 30 years in Florida he has been meticulous in keeping sketchbooks and journals of his observations. "I write, take photographs, sketch, and I would like to contribute to the literature of identifying field marks," he explains. "For example, there is a slight indentation on the upper mandible of the brown booby that the field guides don't have."

Wes Biggs, 47, raised in St. Petersburg, served in the Navy as a hospital corpsman after high school and later attended the University of South Florida. But he, too, was infected with avian fever as a boy and has made a career out of guiding and directing state and federal field surveys.

With his natural aggressiveness and his consuming desire to add one more rare species to his life list, Biggs is the prototype of the kamikaze naturalist. In search of birds he has fallen off a cliff, been shot and wounded with an AK-47 assault rifle, three times been bitten by snakes, and five times been Medivacked out of remote areas, including the Dry Tortugas. And while rising to within clawing distance of the highest perch among Florida birders, Biggs has ruffled quite a few feathers. "Wes can be intimidating," notes Coral Gables attorney Dennis Olle, president of the Tropical Audubon Society. "He is outspoken, not the sensitive type, no shrinking violet, rough and tumble. But he's a birder's birder. He takes it very seriously. And he's everywhere in Florida."

In many ways, the loud, bearish Biggs -- referred to by detractors as Bluto behind his back -- is the antithesis of how most birders picture themselves, and, in fact, how they actually are. Most birders are middle-age conservationists, quiet in the field, moderate in habit and appetite, unassuming.

Biggs assumes the world and his focal point in it. Behind a big gut and a bushy beard, he looks like an unkempt biker who would be more at home being lap-danced in a topless bar than skiffing discreetly along the edges of a tern colony. "I wouldn't mind counting all the freckles on your body," he might whisper -- well, did whisper -- to a young blond Audubon Society staffer after sidling up behind her one afternoon in the lunch line. If Langridge is a small but stately flycatcher, blending in with his surroundings, picking his moments, then Biggs is a raucous jay, a moving commotion.

"I am," Biggs confesses, "one of those people who people really like or really don't like."

About 40 people have paid $450 each to go on Tortuga-thon, billed as an ornithological orgy on the sand spit outcropping in the middle of a major flyway where almost 300 species of birds have been recorded. Those who have signed on for the trip include a dozen or so extremely serious birders, along with others who may not be able to distinguish a sandpiper from a starling. Very quickly it becomes evident who is who. Septuagenarian widow Annelore Jekel of Miami Beach, for example, hasn't even brought along binoculars, and seems to spend all three days in solitary contemplation. Miamian Liz Chifari chaperones her ten-year-old son Andy on a school-vacation nature adventure in which birds are only one subject on the cross-cultural curriculum. And Metrozoo docent pals Sara Ellenburg and Margaret Whitehead are here for both the birds and a break in the volunteering routine.

But about half of those who have stowed their bags aboard the Yankee Freedom are members of what guidebook guru Roger Tory Peterson terms "the cult of bird watching." These are the avian obsessives, the sub-sect denizens who daily pass as normal, the men and women who keep score by their life lists, who maintain records of their every ornithic observation, no matter if it is from Aransas Pass, Texas, or the parking lot of a West Kendall Publix. They hang out in the bird chat rooms on the Internet, subscribe to the American Birding Association's magazine Birding, run up phone bills calling rare bird hotlines, and schedule vacations and business trips according to seasonal migrations and long-shot chances to eyeball birds they have yet to see.

Out of doors, real birders take note of every fluttered movement, every feathery shadow. They know lores from mandibles, wing bars from eye rings. They can tell a vesper sparrow from a savannah, on the fly. Real birders recognize sounds, and distinguish calls from songs. They can hear the difference between a mockingbird aping the melodic whistle of the spot-breasted oriole and the real thing. They know habitat, plumage sequence, genus from species. They know that when not flying, ovenbirds can be found on the ground, and that vireos are high up in the trees. To birders a city park pigeon is a rock dove.

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