For the Birds
In a freshening breeze somewhere south of the Marquesas Keys, the yacht veers due west, baring its starboard side to the rolling swells, and suddenly a voyage that had started out so serenely at the docks in Key West turns foul. "We should have a very pleasant ride out there," the diminutive pathologist from Miami Shores had observed three hours earlier as he sat on the Yankee Freedom's top deck while the vessel was still tethered to the dock and the name-tagged passengers were still getting acquainted by establishing their bird-watching bona fides.
"Did we meet in Alaska last year, in Cordova? Weren't you up there for the red-legged kittiwake?"
"No, no, last spring I was in south Texas for the hummers."
But now it's two o'clock in the morning, with no land in sight, and the excited talk of brown noddies, roseate terns, and other Dry Tortugas specialties that lie ahead has been overwhelmed by the throbbing of the boat's engines and a queasy reality. As a cold front sweeps in from the west, the 100-foot vessel gets pounded broadside and rocks like a runaway carnival ride in the deep cradle of the waves. As the Yankee Freedom thuds slowly onward, the pathologist isn't the only passenger who crawls out of a bunk below decks to begin groping his way upward in search of merciful relief.
A line forms in the yacht's main salon. Men and women who just three or four hours earlier had been wide-eyed in expectation over the avian delights first light would reveal now work their way through shades of verdigris and green, afraid to go outside onto the rolling deck, and afraid they won't make it to the sloshing toilets before the rude evidence of their raw-bar dinners turns the carpeted floor of the galley into a high-seas slip and slide. They sprawl in the banquettes, heads down on the tabletops, or hang on to poles like limp, twisted sheets, inching their way sternward to the overflowing heads.
Even those who remain below, perhaps not yet feeling the bile rise from their churning guts, cling to their bunk posts and pray for intestinal tranquillity. But hardly anyone sleeps.
In a forward berth, Wes Biggs isn't sleeping much either. But his restlessness has nothing to do with seasickness. He has made this 70-mile crossing countless times since he first visited the Dry Tortugas as a seventeen-year-old bird bander in 1966. A professional tour guide renowned asone of the top naturalists in Florida, Biggs has escorted thousands of birders and other tourists to the seven islands that make up the Dry Tortugas National Park located in the Gulf of Mexico, just off Florida's southwest tip. He will make half a dozen trips to the islands in April alone. In 1988 Biggs even married his second wife Bettye in the park, taking his vows on a helicopter pad as the sun dissolved into a glorious crimson sky and the assembled guests tore into a three-tier chocolate wedding cake. Rough seas? Hell, in search of rare birds the myopic, 230-pound Biggs had slipped off of piers and created seas rougher than this.
No, Biggs isn't sleeping well because the previous day he had left Howard Langridge on the island with more than six hours of daylight and a three-bird lead in their personal competition for the title of Florida's top birder. Langridge, a compact, deeply tanned 73-year-old retired high school English teacher from Palm Beach County, had a state life list of 434 A the number of bird species he has seen in Florida. That's tops in the state. Biggs had 431. He ranks second. Although birders like to say that their avocation is noncompetitive, and that a life list represents a challenge only for oneself, don't believe it. Both Langridge and Biggs want to be number one.
"I will overtake him," vows Biggs. "I have put in a lot of effort, spent a lot of money, and it's my turn. I know, the science is what's important. The ultimate goal of all this is preservation of the species. The list is an ego trip, but . . . but it's important, too."
You bet it's important. Perhaps it is generational etiquette or a less confrontational nature that at first causes Langridge to respond to Biggs's challenge this way: "He has spent more time in the field recently than I have, so he deserves what he gets." Then, after the merest pause, Langridge adds, "But if he gets any closer, I'll have to quit playing tennis."
Forget the term bird watching. That sounds much too passive for what people such as Biggs and Langridge are up to. To understand birding at the level at which these two operate, know that there are relatively few of the more than 800 species that breed in or visit North America that Langridge and Biggs have not seen countless times. Thus the only way either can add a new species to his state list is for a rarity to fly in. Especially at this time of year, a wayward bird from the Caribbean or South America could show up at any minute. That bird could wing its way into the Dry Tortugas, for example, on a Monday afternoon, after Wes Biggs had departed the island and was steaming back to Key West to pick up another load of tourists, and while Howard Langridge, whom Wes Biggs was paying $100 a day to serve as a guide, was still there, constantly scanning that barren landscape, his Zeiss binoculars pressed with practiced efficiency to his green eyes, alert to anything unusual.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
One of the first visitors to note the abundance of avifauna on the islands was Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Le centsn, who stopped by in 1513 and named the cluster of seven coral reefs Las Tortugas (the Turtles) because of the many shelled reptiles he found there. One of the first to begin listing the abundance of species here was John James Audubon, who sailed over to what he called "these inhospitable isles" from Key West in May 1832.
Through the Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth centuries, the Tortugas were a shipwreck destination in waiting. And many occurred there, as British and Spanish vessels sailed through an area made treacherous by both pirates and reefs. In 1825, three years after Florida became a U.S. territory, a lighthouse was built on Garden Key, and soon after that the U.S. War Department recognized the strategic importance of controlling the Tortugas to protect the growing sea trade between the Mississippi Valley and the Atlantic.
Construction of Fort Jefferson began in 1846, with slave labor. Its eight-foot-thick walls stand fifty feet high and include three tiers designed to hold 450 guns and a garrison of 1500 men. But although work continued for 30 years, what was once called "the Gibraltar of the Gulf," planned as the largest in a series of coastal fortifications envisioned in the early 1800s, was never completed. Federal troops occupied the fort during the Civil War, but did little except begin building quarters for themselves and their officers. After the Civil War ended and the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, some work on the fort was taken up by imprisoned Union deserters. But by then the sands beneath the fort had begun to shift and the walls had started to crack, and the Army finally abandoned Fort Jefferson in 1874 after a punishing hurricane and an outbreak of yellow fever.
The red-brick fort's most famous resident was Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, the Maryland physician who set the broken leg of Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth. After being convicted of complicity in the president's murder, Mudd was sentenced to life in prison. For four years Mudd was held in a dank corner cell until he was pardoned in 1869 for his work in fighting a yellow fever epidemic.
The fort was also the embarkation point in 1898 of the battleship Maine, which in February sailed into Havana Harbor, was mysteriously blown up, and ultimately provided a pretext for the U.S. to declare war on Spain and help win Cuban independence later that year.
Today the Dry Tortugas, a wildlife refuge since 1908 and a national park since 1992, is among the most remote of all federal lands, a sunbaked paradise for snorkeling, diving on many nearby shipwrecks, and fishing. Fewer than a half-dozen park employees and their families live permanently at the fort, but there are no accommodations for visitors. Outside the fort is a small primitive campground for those willing to bring along all their own provisions. There is no fresh water -- hence the designation "dry" A and no food for sale. There is one toilet, on the dock.
For birders building a life list, the Dry Tortugas are a must. These tiny beadlike islands serve as the only North American nesting grounds of the masked booby, the sooty tern, the brown noddy, and the magnificent frigate bird, as well as a crucial stopover for hundreds of migrants, including warblers, flycatchers, tanagers, finches, hawks, and shore birds.
Among rare but possible species are the red-footed booby, the white-tailed tropic bird, the yellow-faced grassquit, and the antillean nighthawk. And it is these rarities that can at times provoke controversy. Last spring during the first Tortuga-thon, Biggs claimed to have seen a loggerhead kingbird, a West Indian native and rare visitor to Florida that is distinguished from the common gray kingbird by its lack of a blackish mask. Although Biggs insisted he clearly spotted the uniformly dark head of the loggerhead kingbird, others, including Langridge, felt that the sunlight could have caused Biggs to make an error. And so that night, as the serious birders gathered to make the day's list -- a daily record, turned over to the National Park Service, of all the species (and how many of each) that were spotted -- the loggerhead kingbird was finally recorded without capital letters, indicating a lack of certainty.
But on Biggs's personal list the loggerhead kingbird went down as a life bird, and this year is featured in Biggs's birding magazine advertisements for Florida Nature Tours, in which he calls himself "Florida's best-known bird man."
There is no equivalent controversy this year. But late one night, after a dazzling evening walk around the fort's moat under a sky splattered by stars and the comet Hyakutake, Biggs, Langridge, and five other record-crazed birders -- all men -- gather in the Yankee Freedom's salon to draw up the day's list. The 90-minute review of every bird seen since dawn that day is excruciatingly detailed as Biggs leads the group through the 291-species checklist, from shearwaters to finches.
"Okay, little blue heron," says Biggs. "I had a couple over by the coaling docks."
"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!
"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.
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."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.