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The Commander and the Birds

ISSUE:  Winter 1926

The high fog never lifted from the Santa Ynez peaks all day. Half way down the gray-green slopes it hung, and spreading away to the sea, rolled a billowy, smoky roof above us. Through the ceiling into our low-posted room an occasional buzzard would drop out of an upper, unseen world of wings. It was wings that we were after, into this foggy world of the buzzard that we were going, though we knew from the start that this would be a poor day for birds, and no day at all for those of the higher altitudes—the swifts and hawks and eagles. But a day in the hand, for a bird man, is a day in the bush, and a burning bush for him, no matter how thick and wet the weather.

From six in the half-dawn to six in the dull, chill twilight we searched for wings. I know how bird-hunterish it sounds to say that, between dawn and dusk of this unpropitious day, we identified one hundred and nine species of wild birds in the field. This is not a record for Santa Barbara, but it is for me. Two days after our trip the Commander was again in the field and brought back one hundred and eighteen species. I am not boasting. Within the borders of New York City recently a list of sixty-seven wild birds was made in a single day, a more significant census, it seems to me, than ours for Santa Barbara. Ours is nothing sensational. Yet it is something, something hard to believe, that we still share the world with so much wild life, that in the round of a single day anywhere in the United States we can hear the songs, or see the forms and colors, and feel the beauty of more than a hundred species of unmolested native birds.

And they ranged all the way from the big, brown pelican, humped in the edge of the surf, to the jeweled rufous hummer, poised before a radiant passion-flower in a city garden. Santa Barbara is blessed with birds. Any spot is if it have so much as a crow.

It is only four and a half miles from low-water mark to the rocky crests of the Santa Ynez range. Shore and sierra, ocean and planted valley crowd around Santa Barbara. Where is there a country of orchards and gardens (and oil wells) so compacted together, in the midst of closer embracing mountains and closer girdling sea? It is a new Hes-perides. Over the gardens bend the round, brown knees of the foothills—unless they are tender green after the rains, or burnished gold as they ripen for the harvest.

Over the foothills rise the ranks of the mountains, deep cut with canyons and deeper cleft with shadows, green or gray according to season, reaching up to point and peak, peak linked to peak in a swinging chain around the sky. And behind them looms range back of range. And beyond them other ranges tossed into turbulent stone, interminable, titanic, the eagle’s and the condor’s unapproachable home.

But we did not so much as look upon much of this, partly because it was blanketed in fog, and partly because the dirt roads were quarantined against the hoof and mouth disease, greatly interfering with our movements. As it was we ranged the beach down to the curving shore of the Rincon, then through the great, gray walnut groves of Carpinteria, thence over the old trail till stopped by the quarantine officers a little short of Casitas Pass. Here we turned back by way of the lemon orchards, the gorgeous gardens of Monte-cito, up the Mountain Drive, and down to the Old Mission —some seventy-three magic miles in all, and one hundred and nine species of birds (not counting the English Sparrow) as one way of measuring them.

We named our birds without a gun, “taking” each in its own landscape—birds from the islands off shore, birds of the open fields, birds out of the deep woods, and in from the desert, and down from the highest timberline.

What a spell the single road-runner, the chaparral cock, laid upon the day! It was a glimpse of the Mojave—the cactus, the greasewood, the yucca, and the tinted sands. And the birds from the Channel Islands where the black swift builds, twenty miles at sea! Few ships seem to use the Channel, few sails of skiff and sharpie stand against the hazy island walls, where only the fogs and a freighter, now and then, and scattering deep-sea fisher craft come and go. Yours are the misty waters, the peak-propped sky, the mysterious islands, and the kelpy, curving shore. And more truly, humanly yours the close, flanking Sierras.

As the Commander and I wound down the hill from Casa Loma in the dawn and skirted Laguna Blanca, the only fresh water pond in all the region, we saw hundreds of coot (“widows” they call them here), their white bills gleaming in the thin fog as the plumbeous birds, in widow’s weeeds, floated quietly under the tules near the shore. With them were canvas-backs, scaups, and one buffle-head, the white on his head a sure mark, though all the iridescent purples and greens of his plumage were lost in the diffused light of the early day. Out on the turf of the golf course stood a tall blue heron, and as we were leaving the pond a bunch of shovelers rounded a point, feeding close together in a little bight among the reeds.

Skirting the town the Commander turned the car toward the beach. No one of the city was out on the wide sands yet, no one but the birds. They were here, a mixed flock of western and California gulls, wrangling over their breakfast, a few Farallon cormorants on the rail of the pier a silent party to the squabble. Farther out on the rail sat a squat pelican, a mere blur of a bird, still asleep in the fog. We were looking for snowy plovers.

Early the week before I had spent the entire night farther down the beach, tramping the sands till the tide was full, then waking and dozing till the stars began to dim, listening for the cries of these little plovers. But I heard only the crash of the surf and the wash of the waves down the shore. I had come particularly for these small plovers, exquisite creatures, and unknown to me. This place on the beach was their favorite breeding ground. I must surely see them at dawn. But though I searched the tiny shining dunes I found only the sand verbena and the primrose—only a wash of Tyrian purple and old gold over the softly mounded shore.

I had tried too hard. The wee plovers were up at the foot of State Street on the tramped beach waiting for me in the town. We nearly stepped on them. They seemed to know the Commander. So much a part of the city life were they, out of breeding season, that you might almost buy one with your railroad ticket or with your gasoline at the filling station. Here they stood fronting us, baby-like birds, their stainless bosoms without an emotion, as quiet as if their hearts were as pure and cold as their snowy breasts’. One of them pattered down a wheel-rut in the packed sand, stopped and peeked at us, his innocent black eyes, the black bar across his forehead, and the gray crown, looking like some dear baby hiding from you behind his chubby hands.

We were now fairly started. Here was a bird I had longed to see; and to begin the day with a flock of them augured uncommon things. The Commander was to enter this day in red. He keeps a daily record of the movements of the birds, black ink for ordinary days, but red ink for days of ninety species or more. There was a distinct wash of red to things, I thought; a streak of red across the sea, and something warm—a flush, a reflection of pink, at least, on the all-enveloping fog.

We spoke little, the Commander guiding his car as if he were still steering his ship at sea. He was still standing watch. But watchers whether at sea or ashore are all silent folk. We understood each other. The Commander did say he wished he had four eyes. I would be content with one bird eye like the Commander’s, his long life at sea, and his years of devotion to the birds East and West, having given him the vision of a hawk. To retire an occasional bird-man like the Commander is a new and worthy use of the Navy.

But even the Commander could not have seen the birds had they not been here to see. The region about Santa Barbara is a natural bird refuge, and the spirit of the people has made is a sanctuary. Here the land and water birds both find an ideal winter home, the sea and the shore combining in an original A. O. U.—”a more perfect” American Ornithologist’s Union than any other I know under the Constitution. The sea bird rookeries across the Channel, the breeding grounds off the coast of Oregon, and the great inland reservations, like the Malhuer in Harney Valley, Oregon, all send their flocks southward in the winter by way of Santa Barbara, and many of the migrants find this as far south as they need to go.

The shore lacks bays and marshes and is woefully wanting in fresh water lakes and meadows. There is more good bird country on the two shores of Cape Cod than in all the thousand miles of California’s coast line. But Cape Cod’s winters are horrid at times. From November to April, when the shore birds need hospitality most, it is most denied them, the Atlantic being a grudging, churlish host, even though the winter visitants be his own wave-born children. How gracious the ways of the Pacific by contrast!

In the two winters of my sojourn no storm has broken on the Santa Barbara shore, as gale after gale has piled the Chatham bars with wrack, and swept landward with a fury no hand or wing could stay.

Leaving the snowy plovers the Commander and I soon picked up a pair of surf-ducks, some Hudsonian curlews, and over in the Old Estero, an ill drained bog in the city not far from the shore, a mated pair of green-winged teal, a cinnamon teal, a sora rail, Forster’s terns and tule wrens —words which should be written as music or done with a brush in color.

Or else, possibly, this day’s list should have been started in scientific, A. O. U. fashion, with No. 1, the Western Grebe, and closed with No. 767, the Western Bluebird, both of which birds we found. But those are Book numbers, the order of the “Checklist,’ and not the order of the open field. Our first bird, waking the Commander at 3 A. M. for our engagement at 6 o’clock sharp, was the barn owl (No. 365 by the catalogue); and the last bird we heard was No. 703a, the Western Mocking bird, so does the order of life differ from the order of print.

It is interesting that we happened to see A. O. U. No. 1, the Western Grebe; No. 3, the Horned Grebe; No. 4, the Eared Grebe; and No. 6, the Piedbilled Grebe. We also saw No. 10, the Pacific Loon. Then we skipped to No. 44, the Glaucous-winged Gull, a lovely specimen of which we found in an immense flock made up of western, herring, California, ringed-billed, Heermann and Bonaparte gulls.

In this single day we either saw or heard one out of eleven, counting all of the sub-species, of the complete check-list of the United States birds, including the first and next to the last of the full numbers, the smallest of the hummers and the great pelican. If only we had seen the condor, the largest bird that flies! And we might, except for the fog. But the condor’s is now a lonely land, and very far away.

One of the thrilling sights to me was a pair of Brandt’s cormorants in wedding dress, the long filaments on the neck showing beautifully as the birds came to the surface of the sea below us. One of them rose, lifting a flapping fish, as large as an alewife, and was instantly attacked by a western gull. As the highwayman struck the water, his wings still unfurled, there was neither fish nor cormorant in sight, nothing but the wide unruffled sea. When the cormorant reappeared a moment later, some dozen yards away, a mere fish tail wigwagged to the bandit gull, and a terribly distorted cormorant neck, spoke for the uncertainty of life with all fishes, and of the unequal distribution of this world’s goods for all gulls and cormorants.

Most of the birds were in their spring plumage and made a gallant show. Even the black-bellied plovers, who must travel slowly up to the Arctic circle, had in some individuals put on their nuptial dress, though several on the beach showed the mottled transition stage, while others were wholly white below, as if their natures were slower and still suspended in a sort of migratory sleep, unless they were the young of last season. But how little their wings had slept! From the polar north down into Brazil, and back to Santa Barbara since winter came!

But what were the black-bellied plovers compared, for striking dress, with the black-necked stilts? The extremes of black and white are not uncommon in nature, and are always a strong combination, but never have I seen these antithetical colors so dazzingly set over against each other, as that day in a group of stilts.

Something must be allowed for my excitement, having never seen the birds alive before, and something also for the dozen of them together, disposed in the grass of the slue less than ten paces from me, and in a manner as if arranged by some artist hand. Jet black, they were, from crown to tail above, and snow white below, the two colors, wet from the brush, dividing the birds lengthwise as colors at the wa-terline divide a ship’s hull. Here they stood, high on their pink splint legs, suddenly stiff against the green in a dozen poses, staring at me while I stared at them till the dozen ran together as a blur of black and white.

On the beach later I watched one feed and play alone, and in spite of his absurd legs I must say he was a graceful and a most original dancer. It was a cake-walk and more.

But for richness and range of color I have yet a card to play—eight species of wild ducks, all mated or mating, swam into our ken that day! My eye still reels from the cup of color. American mergansers, green-winged and cinnamon teals, shovellers, pintails, canvas-backs, lesser scaups, and ruddy ducks in one framed picture! The East has its share of wild ducks, but where, in one spot, was I ever in the midst of so many kinds before? And all in wedding dress! No painter could put this harlequin flock into a proper frame, perhaps, though nature had. Yet I wish it were on my wall just as I remember it, done in all its iridescence, all of the birds rising long-necked out of the salt hole, the brown of the marsh behind them, in front the surface of the water churned white with the running of the last drake, a gorgeous shoveller showing all his glinting greens and blues and blacks and whites—his chestnut belly, white wing-bars, black bill and orange feet!

Here is another sketch in lower tones, and just as it lay before us in the early morning against the feet of the mountains, with the soft green-browns of the marsh, browns mostly of thin sedges and samphire, stretching in between.

The purple- and gold-laced dunes are immediately under foot. Cutting through this gently heaved sea of sand pours a shallow slue with the ebbing tide, and on the farther bank, well out in the marsh, erect and watchful, the center of the picture, stands a white egret, his bent shoulders piled with overlapping plumes as pure as spun snow. Flanking him, their heads high and motionless, a tall blue heron and a brown bittern wait to see us pass, while volleying up the twistings of the slue whirls a cloud of western sandpipers— like rain, like snow, as back or belly up they wheel and bank upon the muddy shallows. And overhead, with muffled honk, three lesser snow geese, misty figures, steer northward through the fog.

Taking care to spare the inlay of flowers over the tiny dunes, we turned in our tracks to face a world of shore and surf where the long-billed curlews were probing, and a pack of little sanderlings were pattering at the heels of the re-ceeding waves. Back they scamper as the new breaker combs over and reaches for them with spread, sudsy fingers far up the sands. On the side where the slue makes into the ocean, I count eleven pelicans in conclave, with gulls and terns, and a few spotted sandpipers resting near them. Off shore, over the slowly heaving lines of kelp, are some hundreds of cormorants, dark stormy figures, stretched in long undulating strings, one exactly behind the other and all so close to the surface as scarcely to clear the water, more reptilian than bird-like, as if monster winged serpents were crawling swiftly on the sea.

Yet so near are the mountains landward, and nearer still the bean fields, the walnut groves, and the gardens, that we saw a California yellow warbler on the kelpy rocks. A western kingbird was hawking over the shore; and here with the sea-fowl, where land and channel meet, we found the red-shafted flicker, the flat-headed jay and the mourning dove. Neighbors to an ancient cypress, which leans hard from the bluff above the beach, are some scraggly tobacco trees. The ancient cypress is a well-known cormorant roost. The tobacco trees blow their golden trumpets for the humming birds, Anna, and rufous, and the black-chinned, who dart and squeak and fight among the blossoms that are wet by the salty spray.

Born a woodsman, not a sailor, I grew up, however with sailors, and have always had a ship of my own at sea. To this day the shore birds stir me strangely; and the pounding of the surf, which I could faintly hear at night from Casa Loma, forever calls me, a Viking voice out of a far ancestral past. But I have been long ashore, and deep in the woods. And when the Commander turned our craft toward the hills I was quite ready to drive.

California is not a warbler country. It lacks the deep woods which the warblers love. The chaparral-covered Sierras and the sage- and cactus-grown deserts are not for them. Among the live oaks and sycamores of the dry streams, and especially among the willows along the trickling Casitas Creek, we found a few warblers, the lutescent, Audubon, black-throated gray, California yellow, Mac-gillivray, and golden pileolated, and hiding deep in the tules of the Old Estero, the western yellow-throat—a fair showing for California. Any migration day in Massachusetts could make a better showing.

I shall not catalogue my ships, though I know well the interest for bird lovers of such a field list. Grant me the joy of naming the finches, please—willow, and green-backed, Cassin, California, purple, and the common house finch; and with them the sparrows—Belding, Nuttall, golden-crowned, chipping, and San Diego song sparrows; and with them the bush-tit, wren-tit and titmouse, just to stir a bit of jealousy in certain hearts I know! If I turn reporter here it is because there is no other way to suggest the variety and beauty of the bird-life which still survives the unthinkable warfare we have waged so long against it. Only those who know the birds can understand all it means to find, in the course of a single day, the Arizona hooded oriole, the black-headed grosbeak, the lazuli bunting—a fairy bird —and Hutton’s vireo, all of them new to the observer! To the uninitiated these names mean little, but for him who can translate them in terms of shape and song and color there must be weeping at the thought of what he missed on the April 8 about Santa Barbara.

As good as the birds was the Commander. He was not altogether a new species to me, though I had never known his like to be retired from the Navy. Yet they even come from college class-rooms. And you find a few of them scattered the world around. We have one in Hingham, though he is not retired. He knows the plants. There is nothing of the plant kind in Massachusetts whose whole life story he cannot unfold. And he has hay fever at that! To tramp afield with him is to find that your old familiar fields are the Elysian Fields. And so with the Commander. And who, more than he, is fit to tramp the fields with bird-glasses after his years of standing watch at sea?

On our way along the Foothill Drive we were rounding a sharp turn in the road when a chaparral cock glided across our bows like some swift shadowy four-footed thing. In fact, the next instant, as if the two might have been watching each other, a coyote did cross the other way in front of us, so like the road-runner as for a second to make me think the bird had doubled and recrossed with lightning speed.

So furtively did they fade into the brush, that, had the day brought us nothing more, it had been a notable day for me. Just the glimpse of this long, streaked shape, this erect bronzy crest, this disproportionate tail, and this uncanny four-footed gait of the road-runner would made it a day to enter in red on my calendar of the birds. This mere flash of the bird was a contact with a feathered personality so strikingly eccentric as to be unforgettable. The creature seems more like something in scales, and not quite belonging to human times.

The road-runner is, indeed, a denizen of arid, and humanly uninhabitable places, a spirit of the desert, and best fits the extreme and distorted landscape there. They have come out among men, as men have gone into the deserts among them, a pair of the strange creatures building in the dense thickets about Casa Loma, just as a pair of coyotes den in the hillside close to the house, nothing but amity and a sincere effort to dwell together in peace with man ever manifest on the part of the wild animals.

But the stage for the road-runner’s true role must be set in the desert, against the sand and sage, when the mesquite and the cactus are in bloom, and when the bird can be seen feeding upon the scorpions, centipedes, lizards and horned toads. Strong meat this. But the road-runner is a strong character. I chased one with an automobile and found he was doing better than twenty miles to the hour, doing it easily, and carrying the while in his beak the dessicated body of a sparrow hawk.

It was along the Foothill Drive that I picked up the mangled body of a black-headed grosbeak, the first I had ever held in my hand. It may have flown against the telephone wires; but the chances are that some orchardist had shot it for destroying fruit. I took up the blot of colors, beautiful in their confusion, the black and white and cinnamon, and the bright yellow under-wing coverts, like a smeared fragment of some painter’s pallette. What a pity that such a bit of beauty should perish even from these poppied fields! California has no more color than she needs.

As day declined the Commander brought me back to town, stopping again at the Old Estero, and from there on a very special errand up the mountain road above the Mission. The Commander wished to show me two rare birds, the sure reward for our long day in the field. He knew exactly where to go, even to a particular bend in the road for one bird, and to a certain boulder a mile farther for the other. For years the Commander had been taking his elect friends up to this turn, where you get the first look far out over the city, to see, not the city, no, no, but the little rufous-crowned sparrow.

We had already seen the golden-crowned sparrow; but that was not this bird. Far from it. Let the wise smile over this difference in crowns. These things are hidden from the wise and prudent, and revealed only to the simple and the pure in heart, like the Commander.

But it was getting late. We drew up on the edge of the steep turn, watched and waited, beat about the rocks, up and down the slope, but no rufous-crowned sparrow appeared. This is the only spot in all the region, so far as anybody knows, where this small bird can be seen. And the Commander had never failed to find him here. But he failed this time. What of it! And I began to count up for him the new birds which the day had brought. He was not to be consoled. Had he not kept this bird to the last, this and one other? Anybody might easily have seen all that we had today. Only the Commander could show me the rufous-crowned sparrow. It was always here! But not tonight. Besides it was rapidly growing dark and there was yet the rock wren to show me, almost as rare a bird about Santa Barbara as the rufous-crowned sparrow, and much more of a character.

We cruised on up the heights and down to the Reservoir, beyond which lay a rocky pasture. The Commander was now lying forward on the lookout, his arms completely encircling the steering wheel, as he bent his gaze across the dusky field. We had tarried over long. This rock wren had been promised me for many days, ever since he had made up his mind that I belonged and would understand.

The rock wren is a small but very interesting bird, not at all wren like in shape or habit, though like the family, eccentric and individual in its ways. For one thing, the rock wren, in its altitudinal nesting range probably surpasses any other known bird, being found in Death Valley below sea level, on the Farallone Islands off San Francisco Bay, and in the high Sierras, up, at least, as far as 12500 feet. From the humid sea coast and the hottest desert up above the timberline among the coldest peaks he ranges, nesting and at home. About Santa Barbara he nests in crevices of rocks, or under the boulders in open spaces, and is said to lay a tiny pavement of pebbles for several inches up to his nest.

Of course i was anxious to see him. The Commander was just as anxious to show him to me, the closing feature, the climax of our day. But it was now very chill and late. The shadows creeping far down the canyons were about to put a stop to our hunting.

We rounded a promontory in the road and the Commander throttled down. His bird-hunting craft was beautifully trained. It seemed to know where the birds were, so long had it hunted them, so many had it found. It came creeping up the ridge, chugging softly, looking with head-lights and radiator for the little wren, the Commander looking, too, as if every boulder were an ice-berg and this the Northwest Passage over the top of the world.

Then we stopped. And there on the top of a piece of granite which lay in the shadow of a great boulder, stood a tiny gray bird, bobbing, bowing, making no sound, but saying a great deal. Its head was drawn down between its shoulders, weariness written all over its being, as curtesying like a tired child it plainly whimpered, “I told you I would wait. But I can’t do it another minute. I’m sleepy and cold. I’ve been bobbing here in the fog all day long, right here on the top of this stone; but you didn’t come.”

This it what the Commander heard him say, even if I didn’t. And he whispered excitedly to me: “You go round by the prow. I’ll go aft by the stern. I want you to get a good look at him.” We had all but arrived too late. The tiny chap with a last quick, but proper curtsey, bobbed from the top of the rock and was gone.

As the Commander came back to my side of the ship and clambered aboard (there was no ladder on the port side of the H. F.), he pulled out his log-book and wrote, “108, the Rock Wren.” But it might have been, judging by the quiver about his silent lips: “We have met the enemy and he is ours.” And I, I was saying over to myself with more wonder and understanding than ever before:

As for the stork
The fir trees are her house,
The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats,
And the rocks for the conies.

Up here we were in the country of the burrowing owl, and this was his hunting hour; but though we swung slowly through the dusking pastures we neither saw nor heard him. It looked as if our day’s hunt were done. Descending we hurried back to the Old Mission for a chance sight of the cliff swallows, which nest under the covings of that ancient structure. It was cold by this time, and the fog and the early spring twilight must certainly have put an end to all insect flight and so to all hawking by the swallows, had the birds returned from the south, a point about which we were not sure.

We were anxious to make our list as long as possible, an even hundred and ten anyhow, so we turned in behind the garden of the Mission and searched the roofs and coves in the failing light. There was not the flutter of a wing nor a single twitter. Not back yet, and our day was done.

Then I heard the Commander mutter something, or try to. He was gazing up into the sky. And there under the floor of the fog and gloom sailed a cloud of new birds, not cliff swallows but western martins, more martins than either of us had ever seen in a flock before.

Did that cloud cover and transfigure me as it did the Commander, the Mission garden, the towers and bells and the city lying below and the distant sea? If not transfigured, I was at least instantly transported back to early childhood and the old home dooryard and the purple martins about the barn. They were my first birds. A double row of martin houses extended across the whole back end of that big barn, the colony inhabiting them, to my childish fancy, thousands and thousands strong.

It was nearly six o’clock as we left the Mission, With the exception of the barn owl in the early morning, and the screech owl which the Commander added at seven that night, we had made our list since six in the morning, but an unimportant bag for an ornithologist, not a much more important bag for a human being. It is a difficult thing to make clear to the uninitiated; but the Commander and I know.

We might have found a larger number, as the Commander did two days later. We might yet pick up a night bird on our way home. But we rounded Laguna Blanca with nothing more, hearing only the quiet talk of the coots on the water and the calling of a wild drake. The night before a great horned owl had been hooting in the live oaks about Casa Loma. Only the fog blew in now, weaving like a wraith among the stooping trees.

It was something short of midnight when a mocking bird broke into song outside my window. He was already counted in the list. A slow breeze stepped in from the garden laden with the bloom-piled boughs of the acacia trees. The bird sang on.

“As if its song could have no ending”

when suddenly it stopped, and booming thickly through the muffle of the fog came the rounded, “Woo-woo, woo-woo, woo-woo, woo-oo-oo-ah” of the great horned owl. “One hundred and ten!” I cried, jumping from my bed. But it was now past midnight, and this was number one on the list of another day.


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