For the Birds

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

Asked later about the hat, Biggs remarks, "No one ever told me it was inappropriate or in poor taste. But I have heard, on two or three other occasions, that someone else was offended. But you know, I'm not so worried about being politically correct that I won't take a chance on doing something for a hoot, something slightly risque, slightly off-color. This is a booby hat in front of a bunch of adults. If they can't take a joke, the hell with them. The birding community needs to lighten up."

In defense of Biggs, TAS president Dennis Olle -- who was not on the trip -- points out that although Biggs "may be aggravating to some, the bottom line is that for the sport to survive, you've got to have enthusiasm, and Wes has that. If this were all little old ladies in sneakers, [birding] wouldn't be anything."

On the last morning on the Dry Tortugas, the birders are up early, scouring now-familiar grounds for overnight arrivals. For hours there do not seem to be any, and some of the die-hard faction begin to slow their pace around the island, even sitting and relaxing in the shade of the parade grounds and watching as the warblers come to them. After three frantic days of intensely peering through binoculars, it seems time to go home.

Then Brian Rapoza spots a nondescript dun-colored bird on the grass at the foot of a coconut palm. He focuses on it and then lets out a cry: "Clay-colored sparrow." The crowd runs toward him.

"White eyebrow stripe, yes," notes one observer.
"I got the brown ear patch," chimes in another.
"Yes!" exclaim several in the group. It really is the rare clay-colored sparrow, a life bird for many.

Then, as the sparrow flies away, a few people who did not get a good look at it take off after the bird, following it to a tree by the beach, while others resume packing for the four-hour trip back to Key West. Surely now the adventure is over.

But just then someone storms out of the fort and dashes across the moat, wildly waving his arms. "Cape May warbler, in the fort!" he yells.

"Cape May!" someone chirps. "I need that bird!"
And the birders turn to run.
Epilogue: On April 15, hours after returning from his third back-to-back tour of the Dry Tortugas, Wes Biggs meets a new group of clients, ten men and women from Michigan who have flown down for a land-based birding tour of the Keys. While the group crowds into an Islamorada convenience store to buy some refreshments, a customer walks in, notes the binoculars hanging from the visitors' necks, and reports that an unusual long-tailed bird has just been spotted a few blocks away. Biggs leads the charge to what he figures is probably a scissor-tailed flycatcher, an uncommon but not rare bird in South Florida. Minutes later, while the birders huddle by their cars, Biggs walks down a residential street and spies the bird. But rather than a scissor-tail, the bird is an elusive fork-tailed flycatcher, a South American species that rarely strays into Florida. Elated over serendipitously picking up a life bird, Biggs races back to the tour group and herds his clients to the scene. But the fork-tail has flown.

Later that same day Biggs calls Langridge at his home in Lantana to report his coup and to alert his rival to a bird that Langridge, too, needs. The next day, though reluctant to miss his regular Tuesday-morning tennis game, Langridge rises at 3:30 a.m. and drives 150 miles to Islamorada. For two hours he searches the area Biggs had described. But he can't find the bird. He gets back home at midafternoon, exhausted.

"One part of me said 'Don't go,' but another part said, 'Don't let him get ahead,'" sighs Langridge. "But I didn't get it."

Langridge, 434!
Biggs, 432!

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