Here to return to
Field-Days in California
A CALIFORNIA BEACH
OUR Santa Barbara beach, taken by itself, is not much to talk about. Whether for length, breadth, hardness, or cleanliness, you may readily find numbers to surpass it. But for a bird-student’s purposes it is a reasonably good beach, nevertheless; in the run of the year it will show him many a good thing, while for the simple lover of beauty it will hold up its end in any comparison.
Immediately at its back, beyond the railway and the Cobweb of telegraph-wires strung beside it, rise the Santa Ynez Mountains, filling the horizon with a magnificent curving reach — a visible reach, I mean to say — of fifty miles, more or less. Easterly, down the coast, where the range, seen from this point, seems to jut into the ocean, the lower peaks are of rarely picturesque shapes; and, dressed in the soft morning or evening light, especially, the whole serrated range, three or four thousand feet in altitude and covered with evergreen chaparral, is of a truly exquisite beauty.
Its neighborliness — some of the higher summits being not more than five or six miles away — and its almost semicircular sweep make it in a peculiarly intimate sense our own. Live here for a year or two, and you will feel it so. It stretches its arms about the city and the beach, and, as it were, holds them in its lap.
And then, straight out at sea, loom the islands, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, and Santa Rosa, all of which, standing in a line, are but severed parts of another mountain range, under water still except for these higher summits. Santa Cruz, the nearest and highest of the three and the one directly south of the city, is said to be twenty miles distant, though in a favorable light you might guess it to be less than half as far, and twenty miles long, with a maximum altitude of about twenty-four hundred feet. Scored from end to end with deep, rugged cañons, in which shadows nestle, especially when the morning sun strikes along it lengthwise, the reader must be trusted to imagine for himself how much it adds to the charm of our fair Santa Barbara world as one saunters along the edge of the breakers on a clear, sunny day, with the softest of airs moving in from the ocean, and the temperature graduated on purpose for human comfort, such a day as we have month-long successions of in every year.
SANTA YNEZ MOUNTAINS FROM SAN MARCOS PASS, ABOVE SANTA BARBARA,
Mr. Torrey in foreground
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to make some of our knowing Eastern friends believe that any spot in southern California can be comfortably cool in summer. “No need to talk to us,” they say with an air of finality, as if logic were logic and there were an end of it; “if it is warm there in winter, it must be insufferably hot in summer.”
Well, it is moderately warm here in winter, so warm, at all events, that the gardens, in spite of frequent frosts (the roofs thickly white, it may be, morning after morning for weeks together) — the gardens, I say (and this is one of the California mysteries; I wish somebody would explain it), are bright with a profusion of delicate semitropical flowers, fuchsias, begonias, poinsettias, and a hundred more, all in the freshest of condition, the whole season long; and for all that, and though there is no gainsaying that logic is logic, a really hot day in summer is one of the rarest of happenings. Day after day we fortunate Barbaranos read of deadly heats throughout the East1 and “Middle West,” and day after day and week after week, through June, July, and August, our better-behaved thermometers fluctuate between sixty and seventy-five degrees, with now and then, not to be entirely out of the fashion, an hour-long mid-afternoon ascension into the lower eighties; and night after night, the mercury in the meantime having subsided into the sixties, or, not unlikely, into the upper fifties, we sleep soundly under a double thickness of blankets.
For my own part I have spent my third summer here, and in that time I have endured — in September — one “heated term,” when for five days the sea-breeze failed us, and, as if for our sins, the dry, burning breath of the desert found its way over the mountains; and even that visitation, unwelcome as it was, might truthfully have been called something like comfort in comparison with those periods of day-and-night misery, so many of which I have sweltered through in my old Boston neighborhood. It is pleasant in one’s age to escape the freezings and thawings and, worst of all, the indoor confinement of a New England winter; but it is pleasanter still, if you leave the question to me, to escape those wilting, melting, vitality-destroying, homicidal heats of a New England summer.
Dear old New England! say I. Dear old New England! For me there can never be any other part of the world to compare with it. All that I ever saw of it is precious to me, from the sands of Cape Cod to the mountains of New Hampshire. In my hours of recollection I protest with one of old, “I take pleasure in its stones, and favor the dust thereof.”
But, alas! the implacable years are having their way with me; the almond tree begins to flourish; and I no longer relish the thought of those more rigorous chastisements with which our dutiful Puritan mother seeks to toughen her children. Dear old New England! Thrice dear in absence. But, if I am not yet a lotus-eater, I have ceased to play the stoic. It is time to be comfortable, something tells me; and so, as bad boys were said sometimes to do in other days, I have run away from school.
Men of sixty or seventy who proclaim that they feel just as young as ever they did are mostly liars, I think.
Many years ago, when I was dreaming of a possible visit to the Pacific coast, a bit of dialogue was rehearsed to me by way of a deterrent consideration. A friend, who has no fondness for cold weather, though, being a more loyal Northerner than some, he will never run away from it, had been quizzing a neighbor recently returned from California.
“Well, do you like wind?” asked the returned traveler.
“Do you like dust?”
“Do you like fleas?”
“Then you wouldn’t like California.”
A discouraging picture. And truthfully drawn, of that I make no question, according to the man’s lights. No doubt there are many parts of California — I myself could name one or two — which suffer grievously from all these plagues, as there are many which suffer from months of intolerable heat. But I am talking of Santa Barbara, and here is my testimony: —
In my almost three years of residence I have not seen so much as one flea, though I have heard of those who have had a less happy experience; I have been no more troubled by dust, for all the regular annual drought of seven or eight months, than I have been in many places in the East; while, as for wind, I have never lived anywhere where there was not at least several times as much. In that respect, indeed, the place is nothing less than a wonder. To use the word of the hour, I must believe that it holds the world’s record.
I remember successive weeks and months in Massachusetts during the cooler season when it was almost impossible to hit upon a day at the seashore in which the air would be still enough to leave a man’s eyes clear for nice ornithological observation through a field-glass. Here, taking the twelve months together, there may be ten or twelve hours, mostly at night, of a really smart gale, and as many half-days of a moderately brisk wind, truly moderate, but extremely disagreeable, if one must be out of doors, by reason of the dust it raises. For the rest of the time, the strongest movement will be a lazy breeze (two or three, or possibly five or six, miles an hour), barely sufficient, for the most part, to stir the leaves; and you may walk the beach, or recline upon the sands, be it January or July, with a clear vision and complete animal comfort.
At all seasons the beach is an unfailing resource for the stroller. No matter how muddy the country roads may sometimes be in winter (in the adhesive adobe parts of them all but impassable on foot — I have lost a rubber overshoe in such places more than once), nor how dusty the worst neglected of them may become in summer, the beach is always at our service, since it is a wholesome quality of sand to be rain‑proof and sun-proof; at the worst of times neither muddy nor dusty. For myself I have had numberless good hours there, and not a few that might truthfully be called exciting.
If I had a bank full of money, I once in a while find myself thinking (and perhaps wiser men than I might own to the same sort of foolishness), I could do this or that. But, after all, what could I do so very much better, school being dismissed, than to go idling up and down this sightly beach, looking or dreaming — and enjoying myself — as the mood befalls?
Happy is the man (I may have said it before, but no matter), happy is the man who has acquired an interest in the world out of doors. It is an investment good for both body and soul.
a man a horse he can ride;
For “horse” write “hobby,” and the rhythm may suffer, but the sense will not be damaged, but rather improved.
And here in this favored region, where sea and land meet, with a mockingbird singing his soul out on one side of you and pelicans plunging into the water with a mighty splash on the other side, with the fairest and friendliest of sierras compassing you about, the blue ocean outspread before your eyes, carrying them away and away till the blue heaven drops into it, with seaside verbenas and lovely constellations of yellow primroses overrunning the broken gray-sand windrows just beyond the reach of the breakers, with the breath of the sea filling your lungs, and the sun warming your blood, — with all this, and the hours your own, what kind of man must you be not to be glad of living?
In the round of the year the beach, with the flats and pools immediately adjoining, is visited — to my own partial knowledge, that is to say — by eighty or ninety species of water-birds — waders, swimmers, divers, and the rest.
Of all these, none are more engaging, or more constant, than the dainty little snowy plovers; not snow-white, to be sure, but of a shade light enough to render the name sufficiently appropriate as such things go. Dainty I call them, and so they are; but there should be some more expressive word for it, if only I could call it up; so exceedingly quiet and neat in their dress; trig, shall I say? with a few touches of black — complexion-heighteners, “beauty-spots” — on a ground of gray and white.
Every Eastern bird-student has them in his eye when he first comes to the “coast,” and glad enough I was to find them at home — “permanent residents,” as the stock phrase is — in goodly numbers here at Santa Barbara, where, after wandering up and down the State, I myself had elected to settle. It is much for a man to be sure of good neighbors.
Every day they are here, and every day it is a pleasure to watch them; now running about or standing at rest on the gray, dry sand — too close a match in color for even a hawk’s eyes, one would think; now squatting singly, here, there, and yonder, in the footprints of horses, hardly more than the head showing, one of their prettiest tricks — you may sometimes see fifty at once cradled in this cozy fashion, for shelter against the wind, or by way of a more comfortable siesta, or, possibly, as affording a measure of concealment; and now scattered in loose order along the edge of the surf, picking up the day’s ration. An extraordinarily light repast this would seem to be, or, like the Israelites’ manna, one very easily gathered, seeing how small a share of the day they spend upon it. Nine times in ten you will find them doing nothing, in what looks like a reposeful after-dinner mood, strikingly unlike the behavior of the common run of birds, which seem for the most part to make the daily meal a sort of continuous refection, an uninterrupted picnic, here a little and there a little, on strictly hygienic principles, from dawn till dark.
As is true of plovers in general, the snowy (smallest of them all, as far as my acquaintance with the family goes) is amazingly sudden and spry in its motions, a sprinter of the first rank, starting at full speed, and scampering before you, head down, till its legs fairly twinkle, they move so almost invisibly fast; and you are ready to name it the beach-runner, as we call the big ground-cuckoo of our hillsides the road-runner. Make the course long enough, and the cuckoo would undoubtedly come under the wire a strong first; but even so a fairly liberal “time allowance” might award the prize to the smaller contestant. Anyhow, it is sport to see the nimble midgets run.
The snowy’s voice is an additional item in its favor; a sweetly musical voice, the most frequent of its utterances being a quick, sudden whistle, — not too loud, but full of meaning, — which after a while becomes recognizable as distinct from all other beach sounds, though at first hearing there may seem to be nothing very characteristic about it; just as you are able as a matter of course to name numbers of your friends on hearing them speak the merest word or two, though for your life you could never tell even yourself how you do it.
If you are fortunate enough to startle the bird from its nest, flat on the open sand, and stoop, as you will, to admire the prettily spotted eggs, packed so cleverly, the smaller ends together, on a loose layer, hardly more than a sprinkling, of bits of seaweed stuff, a nest impossible to take up until you have first gummed the parts together as they lie, the plover makes so gentle a remonstrance that you would never suspect it for such but for your own guilty consciousness; all in extreme and most refreshing contrast with the obstreperous behavior of its larger relative and neighbor, the killdeer.
This, also, is a numerous year-long resident with us, every bird noisy enough for ten; with a rasping, ear-piercing, nerve-racking, in every way exasperating voice, the sound of which has often made me vote its possessor a nuisance, especially when I have been seeking a close interview with some rare and interesting visitor, — a thing to be accomplished now or never, perhaps, — and have been thwarted at the critical moment by the causeless outcries of this pestiferous busybody. Father Linnæus knew what he was about when he dubbed it vociferus.
Nest or no nest, in season or out of season, it catches sight of you from afar; and up goes its voice, sharp as a razor and loud enough to rouse the neighborhood. Now here, now there, it runs, flies, and stands still by turns, screaming more and more wildly, till its voice literally breaks into shivers; and, although you know better, you begin to think that for once the creature must be in some real trouble. Such agonizing, brokenhearted shrieks cannot be all a make-believe.
And then of a sudden silence falls upon the scene. Nothing has happened; all things remain as they were; but for this time the play is played out.
There is no bird of my acquaintance for which I entertain so hearty a dislike. “Animosity,” I was on the point of writing, but that seems an undignified expression as between a man and a plover. I should be sorry to have the species exterminated, but so far as my daily beat is concerned I would cheerfully see its numbers diminished by nine out of ten.
Yet I remember the time in my Eastern days when the sight of a killdeer was cause for loud rejoicing, and its harshest cry a kind of music. Then it was a novelty; once in many years by some accident it came in my way; and rarity will always insure a welcome, or, at the worst, toleration. There is here and there a man (I can imagine such a thing, at any rate) who does well enough for an hour now and then, say once or twice a year, but who would speedily become unendurable as a daily intruder.
The killdeer, withal, is a fine, handsome fellow to look at, well set up, as we say (and how well he knows it!), with his bright complexion, his unrivaled twin breast-bands, and his highly ornamental tricolored tail, of which brilliant appendage, by the way, he makes so splendid a use in courtship-time; and, if he possessed the very smallest gift of silence, or knew enough to make himself once in a while scarce, I should never think of grudging him his multitudinous existence. As it is, he is one of God’s creatures for which I have lost pretty much all relish. At certain times of the year hardly a day passes in which his ill-timed vociferations do not wear my patience threadbare.
Both the snowy plover and the killdeer are to be found not only along the beach but in the “Estero,” so called, a ditch and tide-pool region, some acres in extent, on the landward side of the railway. This eyesore of a place, as the ordinary citizen would describe it, and properly enough from his point of view, sterile (in Spanish estéril), homely, unclean, and at low tide not precisely sweet-smelling, is a famous rendezvous for many species of water-birds, and by consequence a favorite resort for the local ornithologist.
Distant be the day, say I, when the city fathers shall take it into their thrifty heads to improve it out of existence, to make room for another park, it may be, or an additional “residence district.” It is something better than a residence district already; a first-class caravansery, well patronized year after year by bands of distinguished travelers on their way northward or southward as the seasons shift.
They keep it in mind, it would appear, as a convenient spot in which to break their long journey; for even the stoutest pair of wings may without shame welcome a breathing-space here and there between the neighborhood of the North Pole and the southern parts of South America. It suits their purpose the better that it lies within the city limits, and except by stealth is not invaded by shotguns. Ducks of many sorts swim here in safety by the month together. If ill-mannered dogs find it amusing to pester them, as too often happens, they have only to circle about on the wing for a minute or two and come down again in a different pool or ditch, behind another curtain of reeds.
They have no minds, of course, or none to speak of; great scholars have set our minds at rest upon that point, but by hook or by crook they manage to pick up a bit of information here and there, which is better than nothing; and by some means or other — by experience, perhaps, or possibly by hearsay, who knows? — they seem to have ascertained that this is a safe port; and, the living being good, likewise, here they remain, greatly to my satisfaction. This is in the wintry or non-breeding season. None of them nest here, to the best of my knowledge.
Summer or winter, autumn or spring, there is always something stirring on the beach or in the Estero. Among shore-birds, especially, the semiannual migratory movements pretty nearly overlap each other. This season, for instance (1911), only seventeen days elapsed between the disappearance of the last north-bound flyers — a few northern phalaropes, as it happened — and the advent, on the 5th of July, of the first autumnal south-bound travelers, a small flock of least sandpipers.
And by way of illustrating the same point I may cite the case of the sanderlings as observed during the past year. Sanderlings, it should be understood, are natives of the extreme north, their breeding-range, as given by the latest authority, being “from Melville Island, Ellesmere Land, and northern Greenland to Point Barrow, Alaska, northern Mackenzie, Iceland, and northern Siberia.” A long flight, at the nearest, from southern California. Yet during the past year I have noted them on our Santa Barbara beach in every month except June! And even that month was missed by a matter of only four days; since a few birds were observed as late as May 28.
So many stragglers are there tagging in the rear of the main army, and so surprisingly brief is the time that these natives of arctic and subarctic regions tarry in what is to them the home country. Why they should continue to travel so far to make so short a stay is a question which they may answer who can.
A long way from Santa Barbara, I said. But that is the smallest part of the story; for the sanderlings that winter in southern California are the merest handful, a few hundreds or thousands out of millions; the overwhelming majority of the host go much farther south, some of the more adventurous as far as Patagonia; a semiannual hegira for these diminutive creatures, but a few ounces in weight, sufficient to stagger the imagination if we were not so heedless of such things or so accustomed to the thought of them.
But then, we ought to have discovered before this that neither power nor spirit is according to size, a consideration as true of birds as of other people. Witness an extreme case, the case of a hummingbird, a mite of flesh no bigger than a lady’s thumb. Hatched in Alaska, this enterprising atom will find its way to southern Mexico and back again to its birthplace before it is a year out of the shell. Man is a wonder, especially to himself; he is even beginning to fly, — and incidentally breaking his neck in the process. But let him look abroad; and, great as he is, he may see cause to be modest in his boasting.
Why do the sanderlings travel so needlessly far? we asked. And can any one tell us why small, frail-looking, weak-seeming bodies like the titlarks, after a winter of content on our Santa Barbara beach, betake themselves, as sure as the spring comes round, to some barren, hurricane-swept, almost uninhabitable mountain-top, a thousand miles away? With a pair of wings, albeit not of the strongest, and the wide world to choose from, why should they settle upon this most forbidding and uncomfortable of all possible dwelling-places?
As I watched them, or endeavored to watch them (for neither they nor I could stand still enough really to see each other), on the summit of Pike’s Peak, every one crouching behind its boulder, over the top of which it now and then peeped at the solitary and unexpected human intruder, as there came a momentary lull in the gale, I marveled at their temerity in attempting to live and bring up their nestlings under such distressing conditions.
At the same time I amused myself by fancying that I detected a possible explanation of their uneasy caudal habit. In such a wind, continuous for the most part day after day, no bird could be expected to hold its tail still. It must be forever on the tilt, like a rope-walker’s balance-pole. And an action of this kind, early acquired, might, I thought, easily develop into a chronic nervous habit — a tic, to borrow a pathological term — never to be got rid of.
That was fancy, and may be allowed to pass. But the question why such a bird should be contented to live in such a place, and in no other, remains a fair one. Every kind of country, you may say, must have its own kinds of birds; matters are so ordained; and so the naked summits of the Rocky Mountains have their rosy finches and their titlarks. I am glad they have them, but such a reply is pure assumption, and rather begs the question than answers it.
For myself, I attempt no answer, though I am moved to suggest that a bird is something like a man, say what you will about our assumed human supremacy; and it is conceivable that a bird may sing as fervently as any Scotchman or Switzer, “My heart’s in the Highlands.”
I myself am neither Scotch nor Swiss; I never saw so much as a distant mountain till I was a man grown; but if I could have my will, not a year should pass without my knowing at least once the exhilaration (there is nothing in the world just like it) of standing under the sky in some high place, the higher and more lonesome, the better. I remember days, a beggarly few, alas! on mountain-tops East and West. And among the brightest of such memories is that of my few hours on Pike’s Peak, when these fluttering, storm-tossed titlarks, twittering on the edges of snowbanks, were my sole but sufficient company.
And if a born lowlander delights to spend a few hours now and then at such altitudes, why is it to be deemed altogether surprising that creatures to the manner born, brave and self-reliant souls, needing neither highway nor trail, accustomed from the shell to live in the “un-tented cosmos” and “travel the uncharted,” should find themselves drawn as by an irresistible attraction to spend the summer there? It heartens me to think of them thus holding true to the home-land year after year, let the wind howl about them as it will. And because I once saw them there I see them with the more pleasure, and the more respect, as they flit before me all the sunny winter long on our Santa Barbara beach.
Three quarters of the time at sea-level, and the remaining quarter two or three miles above it, so unevenly do they divide the year; but measured by what is done and enjoyed, the one quarter may well count for more than the other three. And if they are ever touched with homesickness, I believe it is on our zephyr-kissed southern beaches and golf-links rather than on those tempestuous northern mountain-tops. It is good to think that for them as for us there are joys that count for more than comfort.
It has been noticed that a man who courts solitude is apt to be more than commonly fond of animal society. He may have carried his peculiarity so far as to build a hermitage in the wilderness for the purpose of living apart from his fellows, but he can never have too much of the company of rabbits and squirrels. Rats and mice even are welcome; and if a partridge leads her brood past his door, he is happy in the recollection of the event for a week afterwards, and will give it a paragraph later in his book, if he writes one.
In short, the hermit has no objection to neighbors; only they must be of an unobtrusive sort, such as put him under no social obligations, and disturb neither his idleness, one of the most valuable parts of his estate, nor his employment.
The chipmunk does not vex him with criticisms or empty talk, and the sparrow never wishes to know why he doesn’t go back to the town and live like other people; and if he keeps on reading or writing, or hoeing his beans, the partridge will never dream of taking offense. For a man of his temperament, you perceive, he has contrived to secure some of the chief advantages of both society and solitude.
A saunterer upon the Santa Barbara beach has not retired from the world. He is seldom out of the sight of human beings. They are continually passing to and fro, more or less noisily, behind his back. But at the same time he is little in danger of missing a wholesome proportion of solitude. He may talk aloud, or break into song, and neither disturb others nor be himself disturbed. Even if he carries a field-glass, nobody is likely to ask him what he is looking at, or (about the commonest of questions), how far he can see with it.
And naturally in such circumstances he is much alive to the fellowship of beach-haunting birds. Their affairs interest and amuse him. He sympathizes with them. As Keats expressed it so felicitously in one of his letters, he “takes part in their existence.” If their attention is mainly given to matters gastronomic, he does not mind, nor think the worse of them. He cannot sit at their table, but he looks on with pleasure, happy in their happiness. If they take no thought for raiment, and have neither storehouse nor barn, it is by no fault of theirs. They are probably better dressed than he is, more comfortably and in a thousand times better taste. Let them eat and be merry.
Here, for instance, is a flock of sanderlings, a score, perhaps, or, not unlikely, a hundred. The tide is falling; they have had a long rest, sitting in a close bunch on the dry sand while the beach has been flooded; and now see how busy they are! Every time a wave recedes, down they run in its wake to seize any bit of edible life that it may have left behind. Till the last moment they stay, pecking hastily right and left in the suds, not to lose a morsel; and then, as the next breaker comes rolling in, back they scamper up the beach as fast as their legs will bear them. If they get their toes wet, it is no killing matter; but they keep a sharp lookout against anything worse than that. The most timorous of screaming human surf-bathers could not be more insistent upon that score.
If you do not enjoy this animated scene, then it is hard to think what you are made of. All their movements are so quick, so eager, and so graceful! And the birds themselves are so pretty, snowy white, with black, or black and brown, markings.
But they are even more engaging if you catch them at their bath. This they sometimes take in the uppermost reaches of the surf, a hurried and none too comfortable operation, as it looks, since they must retreat every time another wave comes in. They much prefer, I think, the edges of some still tide-pool, where they can dip and splash at their leisure.
About the bathing itself, as far as I have observed, there is nothing peculiar; but after it I once saw them practising what was to me a trick as novel as it was pleasing. Standing on the sand, they sprang straight into the air again and again to a height of six or eight inches, shaking themselves vigorously while so doing, evidently for the purpose of drying their feathers. At the first instant I thought they might be catching low-flying insects such as swarm here and there about patches of seaweed or on the edge of shallow still water. “Bravo!” said I, when I discovered my mistake; “you have shown me something new.”
On the same occasion I noticed, what I had often noticed before, their strong propensity for standing and running (hopping, I ought to say, I suppose, lest some youthful critic, shocked at my ignorance, should esteem it his duty to set me right) on one leg. Sometimes half the flock will be thus engaged. And the wonder is that they get over the ground almost or quite as quickly on one leg as on two. At any rate, they keep up with the procession, — which is the principal aim of most of us, — no matter how fast it is moving.
Just why sanderlings, or any other birds, should habitually balance themselves thus in sleep or when at rest, is more than I have ever seen explained or been able myself to divine. A swan, say, with its big body and long neck, or a tall heron, born to go on stilts, or a caged canary — how have they come to find this unnatural-looking, awkward-looking, difficult-looking, Simeon-Stylites-like attitude the acme of comfort?
Fancy yourself trying it to-night instead of getting between the sheets. What long hours of peaceful slumber you would enjoy! Sleeping or waking, even if you are a trained athlete, I would not give you any great length of time in which to maintain the attitude, to say nothing of finding it conducive to repose.
As for running on one leg, that, so far as I know, is a trick peculiar to sanderlings. As well as I can recall, I have never found any other kind of bird attempting it; except of course, disabled individuals, which show plainly enough by their awkwardness that their one-legged performances, such as they are, are matters of painful necessity.
Whether sanderlings have the happiness to feel a comfortable touch of pride in this singularity of theirs is a question to be left for such as possess a better, more instinctive, knowledge than I am favored with as to what goes on inside of fur and feathers.
Sanderlings as a rule feed on the beach and nowhere else; but I once knew a small flock to remain for a week or two in a certain part of the Estero. “Those crazy sanderlings” an ornithological friend of mine called them, seeing them so persistently out of their natural surroundings. For myself, I found it difficult at first to feel sure that they were sanderlings. For aught I can say, they may have been “bolters,” resolved upon saving the sanderling nation (one of Gilbert White’s words) by hatching a new party.
Other small birds, semipalmated plovers, for example, while displaying a preference for muddy flats, still frequent the beach with a good degree of regularity. This very morning a flock of four ran before me down the sands for a mile, more or less, keeping about so far in advance, — twelve or fifteen yards, — and picking up their breakfast as they went, the beach being alive with sandhoppers. On my return, an hour later, I overtook them again; but now they had been joined by three least sandpipers, and within five or ten minutes, while I was still watching them, two stray sanderlings attached themselves to the group, the whole nine being sometimes within a circle of a yard in diameter.
It seems to be characteristic of such diminutive travelers, if they become separated from their natural companions, to associate themselves with any little group of other species on which they may happen to stumble. Strange company is better than none, they think, as most of us must have thought before now on a long journey. The nucleus of this particular flock was the four plovers. To my knowledge they had been on the beach quite by themselves for an hour or more.
Then the three sandpipers joined them, and finally the two lonesome sanderlings descried the group, and said, “Come on! Here’s our chance.”
By an unusual stroke of luck I had actually seen the company formed. At my last sight of them they were flying down the beach together, as if they had been hatched in the same nest.
A very different bird, whose feeding-habits I have often enjoyed overseeing, is the white-winged scoter, a black duck marked by a sightly white patch on its wing. Flocks varying in number from half a dozen to twenty or thirty are always present, summer and winter alike, and, while more generally seen swimming a short distance out, between the breakers and the kelp, they seem to get much the larger share of their living in the shallow surf inside the last breaker.
There they may be seen daily, bumping about on the sand, very ungraceful, but very busy, and by the appearance of things very successful. Their diet is mostly crustacean. As each wave comes in and breaks, they waddle with all speed into its frothy shallow, dabbing hurriedly right and left, nose under water, not minding in the least if the next billow tosses them ashore again (in fact, this is much their easiest way of getting there); and pretty often, often enough, at all events, to keep them in good heart and flesh, the wave brings them the tidbit they are seeking. The tidbit, I say, but frequently the wriggling captive — crab, shrimp, or what-not — looks a rather unwieldy mouthful as, with more or less of spasmodic tossings of the head, they finally worry it down.
If a horseman happens along, they tumble hastily into the surf, and swim a little way out, diving through the higher breakers and riding the lesser ones, only to return and resume their meal as soon as the coast is clear again. I suspect that they fish mostly at a certain stage of the tide, but as to that I have made no conclusive observations.
Another duck, also common here, wears the name of surf scoter, but I cannot perceive that the designation fits him better than his white-marked relative.
It must be a very foolish or ill-brought-up bird, however, that has only one string to his bow. The scoter has at least two, for besides this raking of the surf he is proficient at diving in deep water. I have watched him at it many a time, leaning over the railing of the pier for that purpose, directly above his head. Then he is anything but ungraceful. With a sudden tip forward and a few vigorous strokes of his legs, down he goes out of sight, and stays there for a longer or shorter period (I have sometimes held the watch on him) according to the water’s depth.
How often this deep-sea dredging, as we may style it, is rewarded I cannot say, but I have no recollection of ever having seen him bring any. thing to the surface. I suspect that the breaker’s edge is by much his most remunerative field. There I have seen him when he seemed in danger of acute indigestion, his luck was so good, and his greediness so uncontrolled.
While swimming alongside the pier he is sometimes absolutely heedless of passers overhead. I have repeatedly seen boys — and men, also — stone him; and even when the missile strikes the water within a yard, the silly bird disdains either to dive or fly, but paddles slowly away while the boy laughs and continues to pelt him till he gets out of range.
His manner at such times is the very perfection of stolid indifference. “Oh, go on,” he might be saying. “You couldn’t hit the side of a house.” And as a matter of fact I never have seen him actually struck.
One incident I particularly remember. A young fellow who might have been a professional baseball player, from the accuracy of his aim and the strength of his arm, threw a large stone, which splashed into the water within a foot of the duck, almost under him, in fact. The man and his companions were noisily amused, but the bird continued on his moderate course as if nothing had happened. The big stone might have been a raindrop for all the effect it produced. If the creature had been human, I should have set him down for a fool.
And it is well within the possibilities, I suppose, that there are idiotic and crazy individuals among birds as well as among men; birds, for example, that fly by the hour, day after day, against windows, as I have known an occasional robin and English sparrow to do, and will not be driven off, and this absurd, unfrightenable coot. And if this is true, we are perhaps as far astray in judging of the mental capacity of birds in general from such examples as we should be to estimate the intellectual faculties of the German or any other race by what we see in their asylums for the insane and feeble-minded.
Even in forming an opinion concerning so innocent a subject as the intelligence of birds and such like humble people, it becomes us to exercise a proper degree of modesty, and even (why not?) of Christian charity; the more as we are ignorant of their language (which accordingly, in our humanly arrogant mood, we brand as inarticulate), and know nothing of what evidence or explanation they might be able to adduce in contravention of our disparaging verdict. Of all things, being what we are, let us beware of infallibility. It is one of the most insidious of vices, as it is, also, one of the most ill-favored. It makes its home within us all unsuspected, so very cautious we esteem ourselves, the last persons in the world to be guilty of anything like presumption or dogmatism; and then, before we know it, we are delivering guesses for certainties, as if we were throned in the Pope’s chair and such a thing as error were impossible. No, no; for our own sakes, if for nobody else’s, let us take a lower seat.
THE BEACH AT SANTA BARBARA
Photograph by George R. King
The two scoters are on our beach throughout the year; yet there is no reason to suppose that they nest within a thousand miles. In other words, all the hundreds or thousands of scoters that summer along the California coast are what our official Check-List describes as “non-breeding birds.”
Concerning this lagging or non-migratory habit of theirs, two questions suggest themselves. In the first place, why should not these barren individuals, as we assume them to be, follow the tribal instinct and go north with their fellows in the spring, even though they are not to pair and raise young? — a question which, properly considered, might throw some light on the motive of birds in general in undertaking their extremely long and expensive spring journeys. If it is simply a homing instinct, it is hard to understand why these scoters should not remain under its influence even after they have passed the age of procreation.
And, secondly, it would be highly interesting to know why this non-migratory, non-breeding habit should be peculiar to these two kinds of ducks. It is not unlikely, of course, that stray individuals of other species may now and then, for one reason and another, remain behind to pass the summer south of their natural breeding-limits; but so far as the Check-List shows, our two scoters are the only ducks that do this with sufficient regularity, or in sufficient numbers, to make the fact worthy of mention.
Scoters (or coots, as gunners call them) are by no means the only birds that patrol our beach in quest of crustacean dainties. Flocks of Hudsonian curlews may often be seen pursuing the same game, though with their different equipment they naturally follow a different method. They go about the business as our numerous fishermen do when in search of bait, not looking for it on the surface (though I have seen them doing that also), but probing for it. Down goes their long, sickle-shaped bill into the wet sand, frequently for only a fraction of its length; and often as not you may see it bring up a squirming something that looks like a shrimp or a prawn.
This the bird does not at once swallow, as you might have expected it to do. Instead, it drops its prey upon the sand, picks it up and shakes it, drops it again, and so on, the unfortunate victim all the while struggling to get free, till suddenly a final jerk and a gulp, and it disappears down the long bill. Of the precise reason for all these preliminaries I am ignorant. Possibly the crustacean must be held in a certain position before it can be comfortably swallowed. Certainly it is not killed in the process, for it wriggles to the last moment.
I have known a flock of fifteen curlews to take possession of a certain short stretch of the beach, with nothing but a few rods of low sand-hills between them and the noisy asphalt boulevard, and hold it for the greater part of a day, flying out to sea for a little distance when driven to it by too close a passer-by, and immediately returning. That was a day, no doubt, when the fishing was exceptionally good, and they were in the condition of a boy I once knew, who could not go home to dinner when the pickerel were biting among the lily-pads over at Reuben Loud’s millpond.
On the other hand, I have seen within the same week a flock of eighty curlews on a lonesome stretch of beach beyond the city limits — and the city’s protection — that would not allow me to approach within two or three gunshots.
The difference in numbers may have had something to do with the difference in behavior. Fear is contagious, as we all know. The larger the crowd, the quicker and crazier the panic. The more heads, the more speedily their owners lose them. Or it may well enough be that the second flock were shyer than the first because they had recently been molested by gunners. To be shot at once or twice from behind a hedge would have a tendency, I should think, to breed caution in the dullest minds.
Whatever its cause, such increase of suspiciousness, though it may annoy us for the moment, is on the whole a thing to be thankful for. It is a healthy symptom. The birds will live the longer for it, and there will be all the more feeders along the beach.
I speak of Hudsonian curlews. In all likelihood the habits of the larger sickle-billed species are similar; but birds of that kind are anything but common on our beach, and though I have now and then seen them, I have no knowledge of my own touching their table manners.
And the same must be said of the godwits. I have watched them sinking their prodigiously long bills for their full length into the sand, but have never seen what sort of comestibles they bring up. They visit us oftener than the sickle-bills, but in nothing like the numbers of the Hudsonian curlews.
It is not many years since we had on both our coasts a third species of curlew, the Eskimo, so called, or the dough-bird. Wonderfully fat we are told the birds were, so that they would burst open when they fell; greatly esteemed for the table, as a matter of course, and, equally of course, much sought after by pot-hunters. Now they are all dead. The sharpest-eyed of us will never see another. Possibly the Hudsonians have heard of their smaller brethren’s fate (though I don’t really consider this so very likely), and have taken the lesson to heart. May their shyness double itself, say I. If it does, we have only to buy stronger field-glasses. And the game will be worth it.
Both species of North American turnstones, the ruddy and the black, may be found hunting up and down the beach in the course of their too infrequent semiannual visits, and a pleasing show they make of it. I was highly favored only the other day by a flock of four blacks, birds which summer in the far north, and in September wend their way southward.
As soon as I discovered them, at pretty long range, I set about a more or less cautious approach, somewhat hasty at first, but at a slackened pace as I drew nearer, till at last I barely moved. They paid no heed, and presently I perceived that I had no occasion to go farther, as they were traveling in my direction. I stood stock-still, therefore, and soon they had come as near as I could have desired.
They were feeding in three ways. Sometimes they followed the receding breaker, gleaning from the surface, as it seemed, such edibles as it had washed in. Mostly, however, they busied themselves upon the wet sand just above the last reach of the falling tide.
Once they found a place where the shrimps or prawns were evidently more plentiful than elsewhere, and it was amusing to see how eagerly they worked, each determined to get its full share of the plunder; like children — as memory called up the picture — who, after a forenoon of disappointments, have come upon a patch of thickly covered berry-bushes. Thrusting their short, stout bills into the sand, they drew out their squirming prey, dropped it on the sand, picked it up and shook it, and dropped it again, till finally they had it in condition for swallowing. These manoeuvres they repeated, all in desperate competitive haste, till the beach within a circle a few feet in circumference was thickly dotted with minute hillocks of sand, such as I should never have attributed to the work of any bird, had it not been done before my eyes. Then the supply seemed to be exhausted, and — like the huckleberry-pickers — they moved on in search of another bonanza.
At other times they resorted to patches of seaweed lying here and there a little higher on the beach, turning them bottom side up, or brushing them aside, to feast on such small game as had taken shelter underneath. Their action here was like that of a dog when he buries a bone by pushing the earth over it with his nose. They lowered their heads, and with more or less effort according to circumstances accomplished their purpose.
If the obstacle proved too heavy to be moved in this manner, they drew back a little and made a run at it, as men do before a jump or in using a battering-ram. More than once I saw them gain the needed momentum by this means, and much I enjoyed the sight of their ingenuity. If they were not making use of tools, they were coming within an inch of it.
They quarreled now and then over the business, and once two of them faced each other, bill to bill, like game-cocks, a most unusual proceeding among waders, firing off little fusillades of exclamations meanwhile. It is hard for animals of any kind, boys, dogs, roosters, or what-not, to carry on a fight in silence. The tongue must have its part in the contention. The turnstones’ disagreements were of the briefest, however, slight ebullitions of temper rather than any actual belligerency.
Once one of them squatted flat on the sand for a spell, an attitude which looked a thousand times more restful than standing on one leg. A sensible bird, I called him. Rather more sensible, perhaps, than a little green-backed crab that just then, or shortly after, sidled under the shank of my boot for shelter when I prodded him gently with a stick. Again and again he repeated this masterly stroke of strategy, about as clever, I dare say, as many of our human attempts at concealment are likely to appear in the eyes of any higher intelligences that may be looking on.
All in all, the turnstones must have made a substantial meal while I watched them. But, whether they did or not, they gave me a pleasant half-hour. I felt at its conclusion as a man does after a peculiarly agreeable neighborly call. My spirit was refreshed. Good luck, say I, to all turnstones. May theirs be always a full table. I wish men did not find it amusing to kill them; but, alas! men will be men, and savagery, filtering down from long lines of barbarous, skin-clad ancestors, is slow in dying.
Our faithful Santa Barbara fellow citizen, the great blue heron, may be seen any day standing motionless, a tall, gaunt, solitary figure, out on the kelp, half a mile or so from land; but I have only once in a long while detected him on the beach. There, knee-deep in the surf, leaning seaward, he is the very picture of fisherman’s patience and slow luck. My own patience has never lasted long enough to see him catch anything.
At the opposite extreme of size are the little snowy plovers, which often join the sanderlings in their merry race with the breakers.
The knot, which is known in books, no doubt correctly, as peculiarly a beach-bird, I have never seen there. The two examples that I have had the unexpected fortune to find in the Santa Barbara neighborhood, both autumnal beauties in lovely clear gray and white, were feeding on muddy flats. One of them (the first one), which I kept my happy eyes on for an hour, was scientifically collected, I regret to say (it was no fault of mine), in the same spot two days later.
The season of 1911 seems to have been an exceptionally prolific one in the knot’s local calendar, as, besides the two which came under my notice, I have heard of as many others. It did me good to see them, rare as they are on the Pacific coast. Very quiet and demure they seemed, mindless of everything except their daily bread; but creatures that journey on their own wings — not in flocks, but singly — from northern Ellesmere Land to southern Patagonia and back again every year must be endowed, not only with physical endurance, but with goodly measures of that higher than physical quality which, in people of our own kind, we denominate as courage, or, more expressively, as pluck. Hats off to them, say I.
Twice only in three years I have seen a single Northern phalarope playing the rôle of beach-bird. Simple accidents both occurrences must have been, for at the same time hundreds (and one day a full thousand) were swimming in the shallow pools of the Estero. I say a thousand. There could hardly have been less than that. More than two hundred were counted in one small corner, and the total number was conservatively estimated on that basis. A busy spectacle they offered to any one standing on the railway, their prevailing white color and their intense activity rendering them conspicuous, in spite of their small size, even to passengers in the trains.
Willets are moderately common with us in spring and fall, and should have been mentioned earlier, in connection with the curlews and god-wits. They are among the best esteemed of our seashore visitors, but I have learned nothing of consequence about their feeding-habits. And the same must be said concerning the most unexpected, and by far the most exciting, of all our Santa Barbara waders.
In company with three enthusiastic and widely experienced collectors I had gone to a stretch of unfrequented beach west of the city, and there at the last moment, on a few small tide-washed rocks, which had shown us nothing an hour before, I discovered what — looking at them as they stood directly between me and the sun, with no color discernible — I carelessly took for five turnstones.
The collectors, whose guest I was, were beckoned to (as courtesy demanded), and within five minutes three of the birds were turned into specimens, and proved to be surf-birds! None of my companions had ever seen one before (a live one, I mean); and, as may be imagined, even by a man who has never collected anything more than postage-stamps, or street-car transfers, they returned to the city in high spirits.
My own feelings were naturally of a more subdued and mingled sort. It was a pleasure to add so fine a bird, one of the very few North American species whose breeding-grounds are still unknown, to my local notebook collection, which I could not have done but for the killing; and I sympathized warmly with my companions in their unexpected fortune. (“I never dreamed that I should ever see one,” said the youngest of the trio, half to himself, as we drove homeward; and none of them could talk of much else.) But I sympathized at the same time with the poor creatures at the other end of the gun. They had fallen martyrs to science, and their death was painless. Perhaps they had little to complain of.
But I enjoyed an interview with a little flock of their kind far more, and came away from it with a better taste in my mouth, a few years ago, about the rocks on the ocean shore at Pacific Grove, where the deadliest weapon the birds had to face was a too inquisitive field-glass.
There is life yet in the homely old saying, “Let the shoemaker stick to his last.” A man who relucts at killing fishes was never born to be a bird-collector.
1 Five hundred and odd prostrations in a single day was the word a Boston newspaper brought me within a week. I have yet to hear of the first one in Santa Barbara; but, of course, logic is logic.