We visit Mission San Juan Capistrano this week, the seventh California mission, first claimed by Spain in 1775 but officially founded in November of 1776. It’s still a bit hard to believe that a schmaltzy 1939 song by Leon René, When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano—recorded by everyone from Gene Autry and Glenn Miller to the Ink Spots and Pat Boone—is responsible for the excited flutter here in spring. Every year on March 19, St. Joseph’s Day, tourists flock to town to welcome cliff swallows as they arrive from their annual 6,000-mile migration from Goya, Argentina.
Identified by squared-off cleft tails and the habit of nesting under overhangs and other protected high-altitude spots, the swallows’ first official return was in 1776—the year the United States became a nation, and the year Father Junípero Serra established the mission. Serra recorded the event, the swallows’ arrival, in his diary.
Given the modern-day dominance of business parks, subdivisions, shopping malls, and rush-hour traffic, it’s easy to forget that padres and other pioneers from Spain, and then the new nation of Mexico, and even the U.S. made their homes in a much quieter California. For a glimpse into that brave old world, pick up a copy of Two Years Before the Mast, first published in 1840 by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. On leave from his studies at Harvard University to recover from measles-related afflictions, Dana put to sea onboard the Pilgrim, a small square-rigged Boston brig that delivered East Coast fineries to California in exchange for tanned cowhides carted over from the mission at San Juan Capistrano. San Juan Cove—now Dana Cove, which includes Dana Point Harbor—was the only safe anchorage between San Diego and Santa Barbara. When Dana returned to Boston and an eventual career as a noted maritime attorney, he recalled the cove, with its rocky harbor and striking 200-foot cliffs, as “the only romantic spot in California.” And perhaps it was. “There was grandeur in everything around,” Dana said. In those days the ocean surf swept all the way in to dramatic, sculptured cliffs. Huge prehistoric vultures—California condors, known elsewhere as thunderbirds—launched themselves from harbor cliffs, looking for lunch, along with other birds of prey. And there were swallows. Long before migrating cliff swallows nested and raised their young at Mission San Juan Capistrano, they made their mud nests, year after year, in suitable cliff locations along the coast.
Nowadays, though, on and around March 19 tourists—you may or may not see swallows—crowd into town, to participate in the romance of the Capistrano story. Modern life has offered many more, and often better, nesting spots than coastal cliffs and crumbling old missions, but the food supply (insects) in urban and suburban California is sometimes iffy.
But the idea that the swallows arrive on March 19 is not quite right, though no doubt some birds do arrive on that particular day. They arrive for many weeks in March; scouts are often spotted very early in the month. Too many people and too much hubbub scare them off, for one thing, along with earthquake repairs and scaffolding at Capistrano’s beautiful Old Stone Church, no longer in use.
But folks in San Juan Capistrano are trying to keep the story going, doing such things as setting out a buffet of ladybugs and green lacewing larvae in the rose garden in March, for example, and playing recordings of courtship calls. If you can’t make it to the mission in March, have no fear, technology is here: Check out the mission’s Swallow Cam to see at least some of what’s going on.
And all you California wine lovers: Don’t leave without appreciating that California’s first wine grapes were planted here in 1779—the Criollo or “mission grape”—and, in 1783, California’s first wine was produced at the mission winery.