For the Birds

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

"Well, I had a flight of about a dozen this morning," notes someone else, "and there were three snowies mixed in the bunch, remember?"

"Oh, yeah," adds another. "Was that just before we got the whimbrel over by the beach?"

"Okay, okay," interjects Biggs. "Two, plus nine, make it eleven little blues, three snowies. Next: tricolored heron."

After the daylong rain, the second morning brings a cloudless dawn, and the birders soon conclude that while many first-day birds have taken off for the north, others have arrived. The newcomers trigger a flurry of excitement.

Black-crowned night heron!
Yellow-rumped warbler!
"Swainson's," somebody shouts. "Who needs a Swainson's?"
With the realization that there are now fewer new-bird

discoveries to make, some of the early thrill seems to evaporate for many. But not for the hard-core, for whom the passion never wanes. Between walks around the fort's perimeter and the ten-acre parade grounds, these birders queue up for the launch in which Yankee Freedom skipper Peter Maiuri ferries small groups to Bush Key, aswarm with 100,000 screeching terns, or to Long Key, where magnificent frigate birds pair off in noisy mating dances, the male's red throat sac ballooning out in brilliant display.

"Every bird is an adventure," as Dick Cunningham likes to say. But there is also an element of spirituality in watching birds that many who succumb to the lure say keeps them in touch with the natural world. Birds are breathtaking in their vibrancy, irrepressible, heavenly Shelleyian "blithe spirits," and true birders seem never to tire of hunting for and looking at them in the wild, no matter if the subject at the end of the spotting scope is as quotidian as a northern mockingbird.

They press on, despite the fact that under a hot sun and buffeted by a cool breeze, the Dry Tortugas invite a wealth of other activities: exploring the crumbling fort, sitting on the beach, snorkeling with masks and fins loaned by the park, or sitting under a palm tree to read an escapist novel. But determined birders don't bring novels to read on these trips. They don't want to escape. If there is any downtime -- standing in the line for food, for example -- they talk birds with those next to them, or dive into their field guides for a review of those confusing breast bands on the northern parula warbler.

How to explain the appeal of birds? Here's how Biggs puts it: "Birds are the single most interesting creatures on the planet. They are the most diversified of animals, from tiny hummingbirds that beat their wings 60 times a second to a flightless ostrich that can kill you with one kick. They are found literally everyplace on earth, in incredibly beautiful shapes and plumages. They can sing. They have the ability to fly; they are the epitome of freedom. They are powerful, like the eagle, but with beauty and grace. And their behavior is fascinating."

To see birds, people such as Langridge and Biggs tolerate almost any inconvenience. Langridge, for example, spent weeks at sea before finally getting a look at the yellow-nosed albatross, and he can't even count the times he has driven to distant places in pursuit of birds, only to arrive a day or an hour late.

And Biggs has come close to losing his life, several times. His most perilous bird-related adventure took place late on a March night in 1991 while he was serving as coordinator for a state-sponsored census of wild birds. After a tour of owl habitats in the Osceola National Forest, Biggs recalls pulling off to the side of a highway east of Lake City in the north-central part of the state, leaning forward with his left arm draped across the steering wheel as he made some notes. Minutes later he heard a tapping at the passenger-side window and looked up to find a man with a rifle saying something he couldn't comprehend. Instantly a single shot rang out, with a slug from an AK-47 moving dead-center through the head of the eagle tattooed on Biggs's forearm.

With the bones in his left arm shattered and blood pouring from severed arteries, Biggs drove himself into Lake City and was eventually airlifted to Jacksonville for seven hours of surgery, sixteen units of plasma, and months of rehabilitation. While he now has 65 percent of his normal strength in his arm, the eagle tattoo has lost its face.

But it is not Biggs's appearance or his past that has caused the most controversy in local birding circles, but rather the way he conducts himself. And that distinctive style is never more in evidence than during the afternoon when the Yankee Freedom hauls the group out for a cruise around some sea buoys in search of pelagic birds -- those that live over open seas. As the boat slows to round a buoy and the birders rush to the rail in hopes of spotting the rare and much-ballyhooed red-footed booby, Biggs emerges triumphantly from the pilot house wearing his booby-hunting hat -- a ball cap adorned with two barely bikinied sponge-rubber breasts.

As Biggs beams from beneath the boobs, a few in the group look amused, while others look as though they have just been informed the tour leader is carrying the Ebola virus. Don Chinquina appears especially stricken. Actually, according to Langridge, Biggs's cap's halter top constitutes something of a modest addition; on previous outings the pink-nippled breasts were bare.

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