Here to return to
A LONG PROCESSION
PELAGIC birds, properly so called, seldom favor the neighborhood of the beach with their presence. If a solitary fulmar swims within the range of a field-glass, it is by accident rather than design. So I infer, at least, from the extreme rarity of the occurrence. And yet, when such an event does happen, the stranger, if you keep it in sight long enough, may not unlikely pass directly under your feet as you stand on the pier. If it stays mostly out of sight of land, it is not because anything on shore frightens it. It was made to live at sea, though it was hatched on land, just as the toad, its poor relation, is made to live on land, though it is hatched in the water.
There is one genus of oceanic birds, however, that in the right season may be seen, and that not so very infrequently, streaming past by thousands, an innumerable host, moving in one continuous procession, up the coast or down the coast, as things may happen. And an exhilarating sight it is, although, unless your vision carries farther than mine, you must generally have a field-glass through which to view it. Sometimes the route of the birds lies within the whistling buoy (about a mile and a half from the beach, I am told); oftener, I think, outside of it.
They are recognizable by their shape and, better still, by the manner of their flight. For the most part, they seem not to be migrating, though in habit they are migratory, but rather hastening toward some rendezvous, presumably some fishing-ground, some spot in the ocean where a school of sardines is at this moment swimming. To-day they are going in one direction, and tomorrow, perhaps, they will be going in the opposite direction. But, whichever way they are headed, they move in a body, straight on and on and on (like Columbus in the poem) in an unvarying line, as if they were following a leader and he were following a trail.
As for possible minor marks of identification, you are never near enough to discover whether they have any. All the birds are dark on the upper side; some are dark all over except for a silvery lining of the wings, while others are light-colored not only on the under side of the wings, but on the lower parts of the body as well. One great difficulty under which the man on shore labors is that they invariably fly low, almost grazing the surface of the water.
Their flight, swift as it is, swifter by far than the wind, as the wind’s habit is in quiet Santa Barbara, may be described as slightly undulatory or wavering; that is to say, they are continually rising and falling (this explains how you come to see the lining of the wings), suiting themselves to the action of the waves, just out of the reach of which they are keeping. In other words, by incessant balancing or tilting they seem to be trying, as pelicans often are, to see how closely they can follow the crest of the wave without being struck by it; from which fact it follows that they are continually falling momentarily out of sight in the trough of the sea.
As I have observed them at Santa Barbara (for which purpose, as soon as I discover what is going on, I hasten out to the end of the long pier), they maintain, as I have said, a straight course, never veering to left or right, so far as appears at the observer’s distance, and never stopping to feed — a strict case, as it looks, of holding the rudder true and steering for a star.
Long, sharp wings, short necks and tails, a general appearance of “stockiness,” — so much you readily determine as they hurry along, a wavering dark line, always at top speed. The wonder is that they are so many and so completely of one mind.
My first sight of them was at Monterey, or rather from the adjacent peninsula of Pacific Grove. One cold, comfortless afternoon (May 28), with a gale blowing the dust about, I clambered out over the big rocks (“Lovers’ Point,” I have heard the place called), seeking a sheltered nook from which to enjoy the tremendous surf; and, having settled myself to my satisfaction, I raised the field-glass to look at a passing gull, or some such commonplace object, when, behold! out there in the bay, beyond the scope of unassisted eyesight, there were millions of birds (so they looked), the water and the air immediately above it swarming with them. And such a commotion as they were in, they and the raging waters! Such swiftness of flight, such splashing and dashing!
I was some minutes in shaking myself together. Then I said, “Shearwaters!”
I had only read of them. I had never so much as hoped to see them; but here they were in life. And such life! They did not plunge from aloft like gannets, or brown pelicans, or most terns. The highest of them could scarcely be said to be up in the air at all. They skimmed the surface of the water, and, as it were, dashed into the white-capped waves on a level. Shearwaters in all literalness. Between their intense and multitudinous activity and the extraordinary tumult of the water there is no beginning to describe the animation, the madness, the wild fury and riot of the scene.
The next day it was the same story continued; and by this time, having consulted my only authority, I was ready to say (in my note-book): “I should think there must be two or three species, but, of course, it is all guesswork with me. The birds are too distant, and fly too fast.”
On the first day of June I made another entry: “The show is still on. And this afternoon the birds came nearer the shore. The greater part, I think, are dark all over except for the silvery lining of the wings. Others have light under parts, while above they are dark. The all-dark ones look amazingly like huge, overgrown swifts — the wings so long, narrow, and sharp, and the bodies (perhaps) bobbin-shaped.”
The next afternoon I was again on the rocks. The same riotous scene! The same incalculable numbers! “Also,” the pencil writes, “I noted one dark bird with a white head, flying very fast.” I still wonder what that could have been, — one of the fulmars not improbably.) Flocks, too, of what appeared to be small white birds were continually flying across my field of vision, all following one course. Sandpipers or plovers I supposed them to be; but two days later, as will appear, I found reason to revise my opinion.
In the forenoon of that day (June 4) I took in the show from Lighthouse Point, — the end of Point Pinos, — a much more favorable station, as the birds passed at shorter range. “More than ever this morning, a countless host, the bodies all dark,” says the notebook.
Four hours afterward they were still pouring into the bay, past the same point, in an uninterrupted stream; and I made an effort, watch in hand, to count them — about two hundred a minute. Two hours later yet they were still flying, but now in so dense a mass that it was impossible to be anything like exact in my enumeration, though I did my best — “three or four hundred to the minute.”
For six hours, and there is no telling for how much longer, they passed at this rate, all in one direction, toward the inner bay. Were they going there to fish, I wondered, or were they bound farther, up or down the coast? But I could only say that, left and right, as far as the field-glass carried, the procession was always approaching and disappearing.
Some time later I returned to Lovers’ Point, where the notebook indicates plainly enough my bewildered state of mind.
“The larger part of the birds are in the water; but the noticeable feature of the case is that a good proportion of them show the light under parts, while of those that have been streaming all day past the lighthouse, perhaps a mile from here, not one in a thousand showed otherwise than dark. Was that host quite distinct from this? And, if so, where has it gone? But perhaps it is here, after all, for now I discover myriads of black-bodied birds in the air in a fairly close flock. And now a fishing-boat, one of a hundred or two in the offing, ploughs through the bedded flock, and they rise in a cloud.” But even now, in these startling conditions, they never rise high, the pencil is scrupulous to add.
It is practically certain, as I now consider, that there were two or more species in the bay, the dark-bodied, so called, and the black-vented (these two pretty surely), and probably the pink-footed.
But think of the numbers! For six hours, and, for anything I can say, for an indefinitely longer period, they passed Lighthouse Point at a probable average rate of three hundred to the minute; three hundred and sixty minutes at three hundred to the minute, more than one hundred thousand birds! And who could guess how many thousands of another kind were at the same moment resting in the bay?
As against this enormous estimate, however, it is to be said that the flock, as some have imagined to be true in such cases (though nobody has proved it, so far as I heard), may have been moving in a wide circle, — a circle so very wide that its visible arc at a little distance had all the appearance of a straight line, so that the same birds, quartering the sea in search of prey, may have passed my station more than once in the six hours. But, figure the affair as you will, the number remains sufficiently amazing.
At Lighthouse Point, by the by, I discovered that my “small white birds” were neither sandpipers nor plovers, but phalaropes. A dozen or so were feeding in a pool of fresh water at my back, and great numbers could be seen resting upon the ocean a little offshore, while now and then a bird would pass from one group to the other. When you see a flock of small sandpipers swimming, you may know they are not sandpipers.
And it occurs to me as I write that while I stood there listening to the thunders of the surf and gazing upon this interminable line of shear-waters, I saw all unexpectedly, for the first and only time, one of the most showily decorated of all water-birds, a tufted puffin. The wonderful creature flew past me, close in, pushing before him that prodigiously large and brilliantly colored triangular red bill; a bill designed for ornament rather than use, one would say, to look at it, awkward in size and awkward in shape, but by all accounts a powerful weapon, capable of inflicting a painful wound upon the hand that intrudes into its burrow, cutting to the bone and tightening its grip till the jaws are pried apart or the bird is killed.
The sight of that one superb creature, transient as it was, would have been enough of itself to make this fourth day of June a day memorable in the life of a landlubberly ornithological enthusiast. All the pigments of all the painters in the world could not have yielded a brighter red than that puffin, hatched in a noisome dark burrow and living at sea, had managed somehow to secure, along with a pair of most elegant flowing pale-yellow plumes, as a nuptial decoration.
Marvelous things in the way of color has old Mother Earth hidden away from human observation. It ought to be evident to the dullest and proudest among us (for none but the dull are likely to be very proud) that the beauties of the world were not made exclusively for man’s appreciation. We are not the only ones with eyes and ears, though it may be true, as we fondly assure ourselves, hard-pushed as we might be to prove it, that we stand at the top of things.
But the shearwaters! They were the wonder of the day, after all. How strange a life they lead! A whole nation moving up and down the world in a body, skimming the face of the trackless waters, seeking their prey, which also wanders hither and thither in a body, millions swimming as one. Above the water and beneath the water it is gregariousness beyond that of the Goths and Huns.