Here to return to
IN THE ESTERO
MIDSUMMER is out of comparison the dullest part of the year with a Santa Barbara bird-lover. Even the linnets and the meadowlarks have fallen silent after nine or ten months of music. But the story of a morning in early August will show how agreeable an hour one may now and then spend about a tract of city-bounded mud-flats and tide-pools even in a time of relative dearth, a time between times, as we may call it. For an outdoor man who will take what he can get, there is always something provided.
As I left the beach and descended the low railway embankment to the Estero, some large wading-bird (for a wading-bird is recognizable as such by the cut of its jib almost as readily when flying as when on its feet) was approaching at a good height from the opposite direction. It described a circle or two, reconnoitring, and then dropped into the middle of a large open pool so shallow that the black water barely covered its toes.
Once on its legs it straightened itself up, following the general habit of birds in such a case, and again looked about. “Is everything safe here? No enemy in sight?” it might have been asking. Assured upon that point, it began dressing its feathers after its flight, which not unlikely had been a long one, while I, glass in hand, was cautiously drawing near enough to name it; the caution consisting solely of extreme slowness, motion as near to no motion as my native human awkwardness could make it, since the space between us was as level as a billiard-table, and offered not so much as a blade of grass as a means of cover.
To my relief the bird gave no sign of resenting my advances; and a step or two at a time, shuffling along with no unnecessary lifting of the feet, I presently came close enough for my twelve-power glass to make out its points with all needful distinctness. A marbled godwit it proved to be, a migrant that shows itself none too often here, though at San Diego, on the bay shore in winter, I have seen godwits and willets together lining the grassy edge of the flats for a long distance, and so densely massed that I mistook them at first for a border of some kind of herbage. Thousands there must have been; and when they rose at my approach, they made something like a cloud; gray birds and brown birds so contrasted in color as to be discriminated beyond risk of error, even when too far away for the staring white wing-patches of the willets to be longer discernible.
As a flock there was no getting near them; I proved the fact to my dissatisfaction more than once; but sitting quietly on the same bay shore I have repeatedly known a single godwit or willet to feed carelessly past me within the distance of a rod or two.
So much easier is it to come to close quarters with a solitary bird than with a numerous body. Some member of any sizable flock is sure to be of a timid, panic-stricken turn of mind (like the fool who is always ready to cry “Fire!” in a crowded theatre), and, taking alarm, is prompt to communicate the same to its fellows. A distinguished ornithologist (Mr. John H. Bowles) has told me, for example, of knocking over a solitary goose with a stone, though in all probability he could not have stolen within gunshot of a flock of birds of the same kind. It is the habit of geese, he assures me, when happened upon singly, to act in this idiotic, incomprehensible manner, as if their intelligence, and even their inherited common sense, sometimes called instinct, were purely a collective affair.
I myself, on the Santa Barbara beach, have more than once found a single goose not quite so much of a goose, perhaps, as Mr. Bowles’s description would indicate, but readily approachable on the bare sand within a very few rods. One of our baseball pitchers, I am sure, would have bowled him over in a twinkling, and made nothing of it. He was so stupidly tame, indeed, that I considered the possibility of his being a domesticated fowl run loose, a possibility by no means to be ignored in cases of this kind.
I once saw, though I could hardly believe my eyes, a black swan swimming at his ease, perfectly at home, as it seemed, well in the Santa Barbara Channel! He was a runaway past question, since there is no wild swan of his color anywhere in North America.
Noble birds the godwits are, nearly the largest of our shore-birds, with beautifully marbled upper parts, and prodigiously long particolored bills slightly uptilted at the tip, perfect tools, no doubt, for the carrying on of their particular line of industry. If, as we are told, a man who is to sup with the devil needs a long spoon (though in such disagreeable company I cannot conceive that the shape or dimensions of one’s table utensils would be of much account), a bird which gets its living out of the depths of mud must needs have a long bill.
Whether the two colors of the bill — flesh‑color at the base and dusky toward the end — are designed for utility or ornament (or for neither) I hazard no guess. And I may say the same regarding its slight upward inclination, which gives its owner a pleasingly rakish air, especially in certain of its attitudes; when, for instance, it poses on one of its long legs with its neck drawn in and its bill held halfway level, exactly as Audubon pictured it. I once saw one on our beach who looked for all the world as if he had stepped out of the book. “Yes, sir,” he might have said, “I am Audubon’s bird.” And nobody could have denied it.
My bird of yesterday was an exceptionally handsome specimen, or so I thought; decidedly handsome at all events, whether or not he had any actual preëminence in that respect. It was one of those cases, perhaps, where something must be allowed for the play of an excited imagination.
For some minutes he fed quietly; at least, he went through all the appropriate motions, thrusting his bill into the mud again and again. But as an angler may cast by the hour and catch nothing, so we may presume it will sometimes fare with a godwit — if he is equally patient, or equally simple. For some reason, at any rate, this fellow soon took wing again with a succession of raucous cries, and made off beyond the railway seaward, where he speedily became a speck, and then vanished altogether.
“Good-bye, and thank you for small favors,” I called after him. There was no one by to smile at my enthusiasm. And even if there had been, why not thank a bird as well as a man or a dog?
His departure, regrettable as it was, did not leave me without plenty of congenial society. The place was alive with smaller birds — Western sandpipers, least sandpipers, snowy plovers (fifty or more), killdeers, and, much the most interesting of all, the others being matters of every day, two kind of phalaropes, one red phalarope — or so I called it, with something short of certainty at the time, and more still in the retrospect — and three of the kind known as Wilson’s or the American.
The red one — in autumnal dress, sporting not so much as a single red feather, and suspiciously ahead of its schedule — kept strictly by itself off in one corner, while the three Wilson’s flocked together in the midst of the sandpipers. One of them was in gray, as to the upper parts, I mean, the other two in motley, much like the sandpipers, to my ignorant surprise.
All had rather bright yellow legs, a mark of youth, like the mottled wings, and a novel feature to my eye, as I had met with the species hitherto only in spring, when it not only wears a different coat, but has black legs. To dress according to age and season is as much a rule with many birds, especially water-birds, as it is with human kind. If the custom has no other advantage, it at least renders field ornithology a far more intricate and therefore a more interesting study.
In spring, too, there is a more pronounced difference between the sexes, the female phalarope, which is a full size larger than the male, being also, as with human beings, much the more showily attired. It is reported, likewise (at which point, needless to say, the human comparison fails), that she lords it effectually over her mate, throwing upon his shoulders all the burden — no light one — of the household drudgery.
“You are more protectively colored,” she is supposed to say to him, “and therefore the eggs and the darling little ones will be safer if you attend to the brooding.”
A wise bird, you perceive, is the female phalarope, a very thoughtful and affectionate mother. And the male, by all accounts, is so impressed by her reasoning, or so deeply in love, or otherwise of so amiable a temper, that he raises not the least objection.
“Quite right, my dear, quite right, as you always are.”
And down he drops upon the eggs, while she gads about — to the Browning Club or where not — at her own good pleasure. A pattern of a spouse, a model ménage, and conjugal felicity without a jar! For anything I can see, birds are about as well off as their superiors in matters of this delicate and more or less uncertain nature.
I confess, notwithstanding, that the case of the phalaropes is so extremely exceptional (among birds), that, whenever I have been watching a pair side by side in springtime, I have found myself continually saying “he” of the bigger and brighter one, — an ungallant lapse for which, if I knew how to do it, I would tender her my best apologies.
It has been no slight gratification to find all three species — the entire family, in short, for there is no fourth one the world over — present twice a year on my Santa Barbara stamping-grounds.
Wilson’s is the largest and to my taste the most attractive of the three, although, where all are so lovely, the very perfection of daintiness and grace, it is perhaps presumptuous to affect a choice. It is strictly an American bird also (which its patriotic fellow countrymen may take as another consideration in its favor), breeding mostly inland, and comparatively rare on both coasts even in its migrations, which, like others of our North American water-birds, it extends for some, to me unimaginable, reason as far south as Patagonia.
The two other species are summer residents of the arctic and sub-arctic portions of the northern hemisphere in general, eastern and western, and winter nobody knows where, supposedly on the southern oceans.
The commonest one hereabout is the Northern, as it is also the smallest. It is to be hoped that they will be as numerous this season as they were a year ago, and stay with us as long. Then they remained for many weeks, or were many weeks in passing (from August 16 to October 21 by my records), and could be seen almost any day, a dozen or more at once, swimming in small pools close beside the boulevard, where, as they well deserved, they attracted much attention even from the occupants of carriages and automobiles, which went rattling and booming past almost continuously.
At that season, in undress uniform, they are best distinguished from the red phalarope (called also, from its winter dress, the gray phalarope) by their smaller heads and their peculiarly slim necks, which they habitually carry upright at full length, so that, as I have heard more than one person remark, they have much the appearance of miniature swans.
The red phalarope, on the other hand, as I have seen it, is a stouter, bigger-headed, “chunkier” looking bird, though this last is a point of difference which I was compelled to find out for myself; and, having done so, as I believed, in autumn, I was compelled to wait for its verification till the following spring, when I had unquestioned examples of both species before me in complete nuptial plumage.
Any phalarope, however dressed, may be identified at once by the bill and feet, provided you have the bird in hand; but this, of course, to a consistent “field-glass man” seldom or never happens. And, moreover, what he desires, and what he cannot be satisfied without, is to know his bird whenever he sees it, alive and out of doors. To accomplish this he must exercise all patience and have recourse to all possible expedients; and even then, in the case of species so confusingly alike as these two autumnal phalaropes, he must be contented, for a long time at least, till belief little by little settles into certainty, as luckily it has a way of doing, to list his migrants with an unpleasant degree of questioning.
It is not the worst thing in the world for a man to have a reasonable, or even a slightly unreasonable, measure of confidence in himself; it contributes to the joy of living; but it is a bad sign when he begins to suspect himself of infallibility. Sooner or later he will probably find himself out, or, if he doesn’t, so much the worst for him.
All phalaropes are remarkably unsuspicious so far as human beings are concerned, as if they had never had occasion to look upon men as more dangerous than so many wolves or oxen. My first acquaintance with the family was with a solitary Wilson’s many years ago in the mountains of North Carolina, and I have narrated elsewhere my repeated and all but successful attempts to take it out of the water in my hand.
The first couple of the same species that I saw in Santa Barbara (a lovely pair they were, in their prettiest honeymoon dress) were not quite so tame as that, but charmingly trustful. And my first undoubted Santa Barbara red one allowed me to move so closely about him on the bare sand that finally I could no longer focus my glass upon him, and was compelled to withdraw a few yards for a nicer examination, — to get farther away, that is, in order to get a nearer view, which is what we may call the field-glass paradox. Indeed, I thought the creature must surely be crippled, and was pitying him accordingly, when a dog suddenly ran near, and whiff! away went the bird as lively as a cricket. The next morning, to my intense delight, both he and his splendid high-colored mate were in the same spot, the only pair of the kind that I have ever seen together. They flew away together, and let us hope are together still.
Northern phalaropes have resort to a remarkably taking and ingenious device when feeding in shallow water. Seated on the surface, they whirl rapidly round and round like a top or a dancing dervish. I have seen numbers of them thus curiously engaged in a small pool. Two that I noticed a few days ago within a yard of each other were revolving in opposite directions, one from right to left, the other from left to right. It was almost dizzying to look at them. In fact, a fellow observer, by no means a weakling, has assured me that on one occasion the sight actually affected him with nausea, so that he was obliged to turn away his head to recover himself.
Northern phalaropes have this habit, I say. I happen never to have seen either of the two other species indulging in it. But not for a moment will I think of asserting that they never do, lest to-morrow or the day after, to my chagrin, I go out and find them hard at it. I have had mortifying experiences in this line, and hope I have learned wisdom.
Sometimes I have been tempted to imagine that wild creatures amuse themselves by laying up little surprises of one sort and another for our humiliation, so often do we find them doing something wholly unexpected — building a nest in some preposterous situation, breaking out with some absolutely uncharacteristic song, or otherwise conducting themselves in a manner which after years of intimate acquaintance we should have pronounced impossible.
Tell what you have seen, say I; but if you value your self-respect as what is called an observer (a word I have wearied of), beware of negative assertions. Better know less and be sure of it.
As for this clever rotatory method of stirring up the bottom of shallow pools, it is most likely common to phalaropes in general, like the preeminence by them so gallantly accorded to the feminine sex. If this should turn out to be true, I should be in favor of naming them the whirligig family, according to the good old aboriginal custom of descriptive cognomens. “Whirligig birds”; yes, I think that would be excellent — rememberable and expressive.
So far I wrote in the summer of 1911, telling what I had seen; but with the autumn came increase of knowledge. September and October brought thousands of Northern phalaropes, and in November, ten days after the last of these had taken their departure, came a flock of two hundred, more or less, of the so-called red species, — as much to our surprise as to our pleasure, since nothing of the kind had been witnessed during the three previous seasons. Day by day their numbers were augmented till the whole Estero, on both sides of the railroad, was thick with them. Every pool had its quota. And in the matter of whirling they proved to be not a whit behind their Northern relatives. Scores of them could be seen practising the vertiginous game at once. In more senses than one it was a stirring spectacle; and “whirligig birds” seemed more than ever appropriate as a family cognomen.