If the swallows came back to Mission San Juan Capistrano today, renewing a centuries-old tradition, their numbers were so few that they eluded the mission's official swallow spotter.
Four ancient church bells were rung to signify the return, but 91-year-old Paul Arbiso, the chief swallow watcher and bell ringer for more than 30 years, said he didn't see any birds today. He saw some earlier this month though, he said.
Dick Landy, the mission's visitor center director, said he told Arbiso to ring the bell after he spotted a half a dozen swallows flying above the mission grounds. Landy said he saw 15 or so more swallows just after the bells sounded.
Hundreds of people gathered at the mission early today to catch the first glimpse of the returning swallows, but sightings were few.
"There's one, there's one, see him flying around?" said Rose Michalec, pointing skyward above the ruins of an old adobe church.
Michalec, from nearby San Clemente, said she has visited the mission often in the last 25 years and has noted a steady decline in the number of tiny cliff swallows returning each spring to nest and raise their young.
"You see, there's so much building," she said, "they even come and nest now under the eaves of our house in San Clemente."
Nick and Lena Liberto said they drove the 60 miles up from San Diego to see the birds but were disappointed.
Liberto recalled seeing flocks of swallows returning to the mission in newspaper photographs 40 years ago.
"But now, everything is too modern, too many people," he said.