For the Birds

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

Serious birders use the word bird as a verb, as in "I'm going to bird that park on the way in to work this morning." And they never stop. On a drive to the grocery store they are looking for sharp-shinned hawks. At traffic lights they are watching the house sparrows in the signal box, the starlings on the wire. When indoors, birders look out the windows. They take the binoculars from around their necks only to sleep. And they remember.

"A common nighthawk, flying over my house in St. Louis, 1950," Dick Cunningham, 59, recalls without hesitation when asked the first bird he marked down on his life list. "I remember the mechanical whirring sound of its call."

Recently retired as chief of interpretation for the National Park Service's western region, Cunningham is a Tropical Audubon Society board member, and, in addition to Biggs and Langridge, the third expert birder and guide on the trip. With a life list of 733, Cunningham hardly needs to add to it. "Birding has always been the great passion of my life," he notes.

Once the boat finally pulls within sight of Garden Key's Fort Jefferson, which emerges from the gray sky-meets-seas dawn like a medieval mirage, it quickly becomes apparent who the serious birders are: Bruce Deuel, a biologist with California's Fish and Game Department who promised his wife and two children a Disney World visit in exchange for their indulgence; Hwi Suh, a Chinese-born psychiatrist from Great Falls, Virginia; John Walters, an oceanographer now landlocked in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, where his wife is stationed in the Navy; Linda Atkins, a psychotherapist from New York City; Hallandale resident Steve Mumford, who works in television postproduction; and several Tropical Audubon Society members from Miami, including American Welding Society magazine publisher Jeff Weber, dentist Joe Barros, Dade public schoolteacher Brian Rapoza, and retired legal secretary Jill Rosenfield, who now birds full-time. Seasickness forgotten, binoculars at the ready, they run to the ship's rail and, peering into the mist, began calling roll:

Magnificent frigate bird!
Royal tern!
Double-crested cormorant!

A last-minute addition to the passenger list is Sue Moske, 55, a part-time accountant and full-time birder from Huntsville, Alabama, who with a life list of 781 ranks among the top 50 birders in the U.S. She flew down to catch the boat after hearing that the red-footed booby had been sighted just days before. She needs that bird. Earlier in the week, Moske had spent two days in rural Nebraska hoping to find a common crane, which despite its name is a rare Eurasian species. She didn't see it. "Oh, well," she shrugs. "It's frustrating, but at least I got some other birds for my Nebraska list."

By the time the boat docks, the weather is bird-watching perfect: dripping rain, rising wind, unrelieved gloom. In the face of an approaching front, the migrating birds have come to ground, and as the birders charge into Fort Jefferson and onto its parade grounds, they expect a bonanza. They get it.

"Hooded warbler on the pathway!" yells Cunningham.
"Eastern kingbird! Summer tanager!" calls Mumford.
"Got a black and white in the oak at two o'clock!"
"White-eyed vireo! In the geiger tree, indigo bunting!"
The visual riot is on.

Warblers in brilliant yellows and oranges flit through the branches of the gnarled buttonwood trees or hop about almost tamely on the ground, as the birders split off into smaller groups to chase down the bounty before them. Hummingbirds and bright scarlet tanagers in the low trees, merlins and kestrels overhead, ovenbirds and Louisiana water thrushes by the fort's fountain, rose-breasted grosbeaks in the gumbo-limbo A even the long-listed veterans are in danger of both whiplash and muscle-aching "warbler neck" as they whirl to keep up. "It's heaven on earth, and this is only average so far," gushes Cunningham. "It gets better."

Wes Biggs, of course, has one eye on the birds while the other searches out Howard Langridge. "Whadya get?" Biggs asks when he finds him.

Langridge offers his rival a brief, enigmatic smile, then shakes his head.
"Thank God," sighs Biggs. He is still only three behind.
That afternoon the leading edge of a cold front kicks off an earth-rattling thunderstorm featuring two hours of slashing, horizontal rain and wind gusts of more than 45 miles an hour that overpower the anchors of a dozen moored sailboats, herding them together like frightened gulls. Even the most dedicated birders seek shelter.

But in the daylong drizzle that follows, the birds are active, foraging for insects and seeds that will fuel their journey northward, and so are the birders. After lunch the Yankee Freedom hauls the group to Loggerhead Key, two and a half miles away, where thick stands of Australian pine and sea grape trees provide a different type of habitat, and different birds.

Orchard oriole!
Kentucky warbler!
Great crested flycatcher!

Later, back on Garden Key, as the rain continues, the fort's second deck offers the perfect walkway for those who refuse to relinquish a moment of daylight birding but who have run out of dry clothes. Walking about the half-mile-round fort, spectators are at treetop level as redstarts and prothonotary warblers dart out and back, barn swallows swoop in over the parade grounds, and a pair of yellow-billed cuckoos huddle in the midstory of a buttonwood, almost out of sight.

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