Here to return to
A VISITATION OF SWANS
I HAD never seen a wild swan till the twenty‑second of December, 1908. That morning I walked out, as I was in the habit of doing every few days, to Laguna Blanca, the only body of fresh water in the neighborhood of Santa Barbara; an artificial lake, at least in its present size and condition, though an old Spanish resident of the city tells me there was always water there. Shooting is prohibited by its owners, and throughout the winter, under this privilege of sanctuary, the lake is frequented by many kinds of waterfowl.
On this particular morning, as I drew near, expecting to find the usual assortment of ducks, coots, and grebes, with gulls, perhaps, and two or three cormorants, I was startled by the sight of a single large white bird, — out of comparison larger than any of these, — which a second glance showed to be, of all things alive, a swan.
LAGUNA BLANCA, WITH WATER-FOWL
I advanced toward it at a snail’s pace, standing still after every step (the wonderful stranger must not be disturbed if any possible degree of caution could prevent it), and presently a flock of seven — my one bird included — came swimming shoreward from behind a dense clump of tall tules. I took them in with all eagerness, not knowing how soon they might become alarmed and make off, and soon had them in an excellent light and at a comfortably short range. Seven wild swans! And close by! What a vision! If the heavens had opened, I could hardly have been more surprised.
Then a horseman rode past, while I held my breath and wished him elsewhere; but instead of taking flight the magnificent birds simply wheeled about and swam to the middle of the lake, where they came to rest, and at once tucked their heads under their wings. I rejoiced to see them so perfectly at home. Who could tell but they might be proposing to pass the season with us?
After feasting my eyes upon them sufficiently for the nonce, I proceeded with my walk, and three hours later, on my return, came again in sight of the lake. At that moment the swans were headed straight toward me with the apparent intention of coming ashore. Catching sight of a man, however, they wheeled about, and after a little hesitation made for the opposite bank. There they busied themselves with dressing their feathers till something startled into flight a multitude of ducks and coots. At this the swans lifted their heads, and after looking suspiciously around (such a commotion should mean something, they considered) sailed into the middle of the lake, reminding me by their stately movement, one behind another in a kind of formal order, of the day not long before when a line of sixteen white battle-ships had steamed into Santa Barbara channel. To my ornithological mind, in its present excited state, one procession seemed scarcely more impressive than the other.
The following day was spent among the hills behind the city, and at the height of land on the steep, winding trail from Mission Cañon over into San Roque Cañon I stopped to breathe and look about me. Laguna Blanca, far below and some miles away, shone as one of the fairest objects in the landscape, and it occurred to me to level the field-glass upon it to see whether by any possibility the swans could be distinguished at that distance. Sure enough, they were distinctly visible, grouped in the middle of the lake, which otherwise, for aught the glass could tell me, might have been entirely deserted, though it was certain that hundreds if not thousands of coots and ducks were resting upon its surface. For showing from afar there is no color to dispute with white.
As I neared the lake the next morning — how could I keep away? — the swans seemed to be absent; but before many minutes I came upon them close inshore in a little bay, surrounded by hundreds of ducks and coots, the coots, most loquacious bodies, engaged as usual in an animated conversation.
I drew nearer and nearer, desirous of improving so favorable an opportunity to make sure whether the swans had a small yellowish patch in the loral region (between the eye and the base of the upper mandible), an inconspicuous mark, the presence or absence of which would determine the specific identity of the birds, whether whistling or trumpeter swans. Before I could satisfy myself upon this nice point, however, the smaller birds took the alarm; and, their noisy, hurried flight, with so much dragging of the feet, proving too much for the swans, they sailed away to their one place of safety, where they immediately tucked their heads under their wings for a forenoon nap.
Half an hour later, while I was spying upon a strange-looking fox sparrow scratching about the roots of the tules, one of the swans sent up a shout, and in another moment a big white bird (and big enough he looked) came slanting down from the sky, and splashed into the water. The one that had sounded the signal swam at once to meet him, and the two gesticulated in each other’s faces as if inclined to quarrel, I thought. Probably I misinterpreted their movements, for the newcomer at once joined the others; and now there were eight in the group, every one with his head behind his wing.
If the coots were chatterboxes, their tongues always wagging, jabbering to themselves if no one else was by, the swans, I had by this time concluded, were fairly to be called sleepyheads. A very somnolent set they seemed to be, surely. “Now, then,” they were always ready to say, “as long as that inquisitive old body won’t allow us to feed alongshore, why not go to sleep again?” In that deep water there was really little else for them to do, I suppose, unless they should first acquire the impossible art of diving.
Some time later they woke up, and had a fit of calling. I looked into the sky, anticipating a further arrival; but nothing came of it. Had the birds been deceived, or had the passers aloft declined the invitation?
One thing I am bound to admit. It was proved to me more than once. For detecting the presence of birds of their own kind overhead they had some means, whether of sight or hearing, that lay quite beyond the scope of my senses.
But, indeed, I have often remarked how surprisingly quick certain kinds of birds are to notice what goes on above their level. A flock of curlews, for example, feeding, heads down, upon the sand, will discover you instantly on the edge of a cliff overlooking the beach, say at an elevation of fifty feet, and be off on the wing almost before you know it, no matter how slow and noiseless your approach may have been; whereas, had you been walking on the beach itself, in full sight, the chances are that they would have suffered you to come moderately close upon them without betraying any marked uneasiness. It has become a habit with them, apparently, to keep a sharp lookout upward, perhaps because their more usual enemies come from that quarter.
This, however, can hardly be true of swans, whose principal apprehensions, I should think, must be of rapacious quadrupeds. As for their superior sight or hearing, there is no sort of bird, we may safely say, but excels us in some respect, clever as we think ourselves. The Powers above have not put everything of the best into any one basket. Every creature has its own particular endowment, and presumably, living for itself, regards itself as the sum and centre of all things. Mankind, if we may guess, holds no monopoly, even of self-conceit.
On my return at noon, — for I commonly went two miles or so beyond the lake to the ocean beach, — I found the swans in a bay or cove, feeding so industriously (no sign of drowsiness now) that they permitted me to draw near enough to see plainly the small loral patch before mentioned. It was as good as a visiting-card. Henceforth I was in possession of their full name, Olor columbianus, the whistling swan.
As they fed, holding their heads under water for a surprisingly long time, a number of ducks collected in the vicinity, diving directly beside them, almost or quite under them, in fact, as if — what I doubted not was true — the long-necked creatures were stirring up the muddy bottom with a thoroughness which the ducks found highly to their advantage. “Strange,” says the note-book, “how exceedingly small the ducks, even the canvasbacks, look. As for the ruddies and buffle-heads, they look for all the world like ducklings following their mothers about.” The swans made not the least objection to the ducks’ persistent and rather meddlesome looking activities (“Help yourselves, children, help yourselves,” they might have been saying), but now and then they indulged in what seemed like slight fallings-out among themselves.
When they had fed thus for some time, they proceeded to bathe: after dinner the finger-bowl. And a lively performance it was, with a deal of noisy splashing as they threw themselves heavily and rather clumsily first on one side and then on the other. “They are bound to make a clean job of it,” writes the pencil. One of the adults (known for such by his clear white head) made a particularly brave show in drying himself, stretching up to his full height, and shaking his wings and tail in a most vigorous manner.
“In calling,” my note-book records, — though I fail to remember the pertinency of the remark in this immediate connection, — “they hold the head straight up, and then at the moment of utterance raise it a little higher still with a sudden jerk. Their loud calls sound human.”
I spent the better part of an hour watching their various activities. Then, as I passed a trifle too near, they swam out into the lake, from the middle of which three of them suddenly took wing, for no apparent reason, rising to a considerable height and flying off toward the golf-grounds, as if they were bound away for good. The others declined to follow their lead, however, and after a bit the seceders returned, flew across the sky directly before me, their necks stretched out to the full (looking almost ridiculously slender), and dropped again into the lake.
Here was the very thing I had been wishing to see — swans in flight. And I had seen it to capital advantage, and still had the birds with me. A lucky fellow, I called myself.
This was on the 24th of December. Three days later I was fated to witness a far more spectacular display of flight with no such happy termination.
But meantime, on Christmas morning, it pleased me to hear a friend remark, quite independently of any suggestion of mine, how wonderfully like a fleet of war-vessels the swans looked as they sailed slowly away from us in a majestic, well-spaced line. The comparison, I saw, had not been due to my overheated imagination. And, while we were admiring their stately manoeuvres, one of them suddenly lifted up his voice, and in response to the call two birds dropped out of the sky, a sight to stir the blood of a man who was beholding wild swans for the first time in his life.
Well, two days afterward, as I just now began to say, I was at the lakeside again, and was disappointed to find the flock reduced by more than half — four birds instead of ten. But I need not have fretted, for this was to be by much my most interesting day. Within half an hour, one thing after another having detained me, I heard a volley of loud trumpetings over head, quickly answered from below; and looking up I beheld a wonderful, never-to-be-forgotten sight, a flock of snow-white swans (twenty-four in number, as the count showed) already scaling downward, headed for the lake. Down they came, little by little, wings sharply set, necks curved upward and backward, by way of slackening the descent, as I judged, and the big black feet sprawling out in front, ready for the water. Four of the birds took it at once, but the rest acted as if they would go farther. Then the eight swimmers set up an appealing chorus: “Come in! O come in!” whereupon the twenty turned, and in half a minute or less the twenty-eight birds were all in the water in a close bunch.
For a little while there was a great commotion (“a great hullabaloo” the notebook has it, a pencil being always under less restraint in its use of the vernacular than a pen quite ventures to be), but in a few minutes everything was quiet again, and every bird’s head hidden under its wing. Half an hour later three others were toled down into the sleeping circle.
“ O rest ye, brother mariners; we will not wander more.”
And now we had thirty-one! It was fortune to turn a man’s head; but, as it seemed, it was too good to last.
Within ten minutes two men, who had secured a license to fish in the lake, pushed out a boat; and instantly the air swarmed with ducks, a thousand or two, and in another moment the swans gave cry, and soon every bird of them was on the wing.
Would they turn and light again? No, this time they were thoroughly frightened; and in a long line, not in Indian file, as they commonly moved when swimming, but side by side, they rose over the low, rounded, grassy hill opposite me (a sight surpassing all imagination, the sun shining full on all those snow-white wings), and in a few seconds were out of sight. The lake, which had been covered with birds a minute or two before, was now, except for a few hundred coots, all but deserted.
Needless to say what my feelings were toward those miserable fishermen, who trolled heedlessly along the shore, and to my heartfelt delight caught nothing.
The one pleasant feature of the case was that the superintendent of the ranch shared my sentiments to the full, and declared that no more fishing-permits should be granted to anybody as long as the bird season lasted. Indeed, the swans had been one of the chief attractions of the place, the more so as no one could remember having seen them there before.
How general the interest in the matter had become was to be shown me amusingly two days afterward. I had gone home dejected, and yet elated. I had witnessed a far more beautiful flight of birds than I had ever dreamed of (a flight of angels could hardly have surpassed it in my imagination), but now all was over. So I thought. But two mornings later, as I was trudging out to the ranch over a muddy road, a man whom I did not recognize leaned out of his buggy as we met, and shouted after me, “The swans have come back.” And so they had, but five instead of thirty-one.
“I am hanging about,” I wrote in my notebook an hour afterward, “to see if more will be called down. The swans are growing tame. They no longer retreat to the middle of the lake every time the ducks raise an alarm. Two are now in their usual cove fast asleep on one leg in a few inches of water, while the others are exploring the shore in front of the engine-house. A casual passer-by would take them for domesticated birds without a second look.”
Not to prolong the story, be it said that the swans remained in varying numbers (from two to twelve being always present) until January 29. Their stay had covered almost five weeks. Then the last of them started, we may suppose, on their long journey towards those far-away northern regions to which so large a proportion of our water-birds betake themselves as spring returns. There, for aught I know, our sleepyheads may have contracted their habit of midday somnolence; for so long as they are there, I suppose, the sun never once goes down.
The next season a single swan made its appearance at the lake on December 4, and remained all by himself in perfect contentment, as far as any of us could judge, till January 4. In that time he had seemed to become almost a part of the place, and the men in charge, who fed him from the first, began to look upon him as settled with them for life. But either he fell a victim to some fox or coyote, a not unlikely fate, or he heard a call, inward or outward, which he could not resist, and we saw him no more. Since then, to the best of my knowledge, no swan has been seen in Laguna Blanca.