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SOME ROCK–HAUNTING BIRDS

WHICH do we enjoy most, the good things we have long sought and at last have found, or those that fall in our way as surprises? For myself, I do not know, nor do I think it greatly matters. If the good things will only come, say I, let them come in whichever way they will; and, if they are kind enough to come in both ways, why, then may I have the grace to be doubly thankful.

Here in California, certainly, speaking as a bird-lover, I have been blessed in both kinds. Some things I have earned, if I may say so, by diligent inquiry and seeking. Others, equally esteemed, have, as it were, stepped forth to meet me. “Behold us,” they have said. “You seem not to have been looking for us; maybe you have never heard of us; but here we are.”

Pacific Grove, at which I tarried in preference to its older and more famous neighbor, Monterey, is in two capital respects an ideal place for a walking naturalist. It is situated on a peninsula, with the bay shore — a bay as beautiful, especially in the late afternoon, as anything earthly need be — on one side, and the ocean shore on the other; and between the two are miles — enough, and not too many — of a companionable pine forest; a forest, I mean to say, that is large enough and dark enough to be impressive, — a real forest, that is, — yet so far open to the sun, and so easily traversed, as to put a congenial stroller, even within the first day or two, on terms of something like old acquaintance. Both shores, too, are happily diversified; a bold, rocky, surf-pounded coast for the most part, with here and there short sandy or pebbly beaches.

In the pine woods were many interesting things, with which I am not here concerned. The beaches brought me nothing, not so much as a single wader, I believe; but the surf-beaten rocks, of which, in my ignorance, I had made no great account, were generous with surprises. I was fortunate, I suppose, in happening along at exactly the right minute to catch certain rock-haunting species in the course of their northward migration.

It was on the fourth of March that I walked through the forest to the ocean, and then, turning to the right, sauntered slowly down the coast toward the lighthouse. Moss Beach was empty as usual, and I had gone some distance beyond, over the dunes, looking for nothing in particular (some of my best hours were of this complexion, for even a naturalist may now and then have a thought or two outside the range of his specialty) when all at once sharp outcries were heard just in front, and the next moment two sharp-winged birds wheeled round a rock and disappeared. My dreamy mood was gone in a twinkling. These birds were almost certainly strangers; and what were they?

I followed them, practising all stealth, and by and by, to my delight, behold, one of them stood directly before me on the top of a rock, preening its feathers, in full view and the best of light — a sandpiper, with something of the look and action of both the spotted and the solitary; new, beyond question, and requiring to be scrutinized in every feather. Sometimes it nodded in the manner of a plover; oftener it teetered like a spotted sandpiper; while its legs were of a color almost lively enough — but shading too much to olive — for the bird that we know as “yellowlegs.”

A long while it posed there, much of the time on one leg, the light favoring me so that every little while I could see its eye turn white as the nictitating membrane — so I believe it is called — was drawn over it. Then it flew a short distance (this was what I was waiting for), and I made sure that there were no white markings on wings or tail, a point of almost decisive importance, as of itself it ruled out three or four birds that, in the retrospect, — when skepticism, given half a chance, is sure to have its finger in the pie, — might be troublesome as complicating the question of its identity.

This time, to my great satisfaction, it went down close to the surf, where the rocks were thickly matted with seaweeds, and began feeding, jumping into the air at short intervals, as a higher wave than common threatened to carry it away. Once it caught a fish, or other creature, of considerable size, and seemed not a little excited, beating its prize violently against the rock again and again, and finally swallowing it with difficulty, holding its bill open for some time in the operation.

By this time I had come to a pretty strong conviction that the stranger must be Heteractitis, the wandering tattler, though I had no definite recollection of that bird’s plumage (a species never seen east of the Pacific coast), and knew absolutely nothing about the kind of places it frequented. The controlling consideration, in my present state of ignorance, was that the bird could be nothing else.

My guess proved to be correct. Possibly I should not be mentioning it here, had it turned out otherwise. When I got back to the hotel, and brought my penciled description to the book, everything tallied, as we say. But the book, for lack of knowledge on the part of its author, it is to be presumed, had nothing whatever to tell me concerning the wandering tattler’s feeding-habits. Resort was had by letter to a man who would be able to enlighten me upon that point, and he replied that Heteractitis haunted the rocks, not beaches nor flats.

Here, then, was a bird I had never counted upon, an extra, as it were, thrown in for good measure.

Two mornings afterward I went through the forest again; but this time, on reaching the ocean shore, I turned to the left and walked as far as the Seal Rocks, so called, where all Del Monte and Monterey tourists who take the famous seventeen-mile drive (it was one of my good days in California when I first made the round on foot), stop for a minute or two to look at the seals, fifty or more of which, if the tide favors, may commonly be seen basking in the sun. The largest of the rocks, all of which are a little off-shore, is monopolized by flocks of sea-birds, pelicans and cormorants especially, which have whitened its whole surface down to high-water mark.


MIDWAY POINT, SEVENTEEN-MILE DRIVE, NEAR PACIFIC GROVE
Photograph by Herbert W. Gleason

I was looking at this rock, counting the cormorants and pelicans, and making out as well as I could the identity of the gulls, — the beautiful Heermann gull among the rest, — when I was startled by a set of loud, clear, piercing whistles, and the next instant saw four red-billed birds skimming over the water between me and the rocks. Another minute, and they had alighted on one of the smaller of them, and I was repeating to myself, in a kind of ecstasy, “Oyster-catchers, black oyster-catchers!” Their stout bright bills and their general figure and attitudes, so like those of the Eastern bird, which I had seen a few years before at St. Augustine, Florida, could belong to nothing else.

The feet and legs were of a lively flesh color, the head and neck black, or nearly so, while the wings, the most beautiful part of them (they were in splendid light) were of the warmest, silkiest, shining brown, verging upon chestnut; as lovely a shade, I thought, as I had ever seen worn by any bird.

For a long time I kept my glass trained upon them, now prying barnacles, or things of that nature, off the rock, — sometimes putting themselves into odd positions in order to secure the needed purchase upon the shell, — now leaping into the air as a wave broke over their standing-place, and now taking a short flight, always with quickly repeated whistles of the loudest and clearest sort.

I had just lost them, — not entirely to my regret, a stitch in the side, from standing so still and holding the glass so motionless, making me glad of a chance to stretch myself, — when a little flock of smaller black-and-white birds came down the shore, uttering a chorus of rattling cries, and seemed to alight among the rocks just north of me. I gave chase, came up with them, and presently discovered that I had found another novelty, — a bunch of black turnstones; sooty black, an odd and striking shade, and clear white, the whole curiously splashed and mottled, giving them, even with no brown markings, something of the cotton-print, patchwork appearance of our Eastern “calico-bird.”

I was still felicitating myself upon this run of luck, when on the same rocks I perceived three birds of quite another complexion; rather plumper and larger than the turnstones, in general of a beautiful slaty-gray color, and of a singular “spotty” look, to use the word that came of itself to my pencil. Without going into particulars as to legs, bill, tail, rump, and so forth, all of which were religiously jotted down, suffice it to say that these I settled upon as probably surf-birds, if, I said to myself, by way of caution, surf-birds are feeders upon rocks. For the birds before me kept persistently close to the water, on what looked at my distance like bare rocks, not offshore like those to which the oyster-catchers restricted themselves, nor covered with seaweed like those resorted to by the wandering tattlers. Once — but this was on the next day, and there were then four of the birds — they occupied themselves a long time on the face of a rock that inclined seaward, running up into sight as the higher waves chased them, and anon hastening down again as the water receded.

The turnstones, having a way of their own, fed mostly from rocks nearer land, and between whiles walked about the beach, picking up morsels as they went.

“The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib”; and so every kind of bird seems to know where the table is spread for it.

The surf-birds (as to the identity of which, as well as of the wandering tattlers, I afterwards reassured myself by an examination of skins in the fine collection of the Academy of Sciences, at San Francisco) interested me the more because of an anecdote related to me a good while ago by a friend who for some years had been a bird-collector for the Smithsonian Institution, and in pursuit of his calling had traveled pretty well over the southwestern United States. On one of his trips to the Pacific coast, as I remember the story, he had finished his stint, packed his trunks, guns and all, and then, having an hour to spare, strolled out upon the shore. And there, to his unspeakable chagrin, were birds of a kind he had long looked for and never seen! Surf-birds, he said they were, birds that at that time I had never heard of.

I forget the remainder of the story, if there was a remainder; but it impressed me as the height of a collector’s tragedy, that he should have missed his one opportunity to secure specimens so desirable.

To this day, according to Mrs. Bailey’s “Handbook,” which is my vade mecum hereabouts, the breeding-grounds of the species are unknown, though an eminent authority upon the birds of the Pacific coast, Mr. L. M. Loomis, assures me that it is not rare during its migrations. Only, he adds, you must know how and where to look for it. Rare or not rare, however (“it has never been found in abundance,” is Mrs. Bailey’s way of putting the matter), I am glad to have seen it. I may almost say I am proud to have seen it — a bird which no man of science has ever succeeded in detecting at home. Somehow it is impossible not to feel a certain heightened respect for birds that have succeeded in keeping such a secret in despite of man’s insatiable curiosity.


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