Sentimental Journeys : From Far and Near, Humans Fly to Mission San Juan for Swallows’ Return

Times Staff Writer

Hundreds of tourists and locals braved the early morning chill Sunday at Mission San Juan Capistrano to welcome returning swallows that had made the annual trek from Argentina.

While a golden sun peeked over San Juan Capistrano at 6 a.m., more than 200 visitors hovered over cups of coffee and hot chocolate and huddled close together on benches around the mission grounds, waiting to hear the bells that would signal the birds’ arrival and continue a 200-year-old tradition.

“There’s a few flying around, but you can’t always see them,” said Paul Arbiso, who traditionally rings the bells after spotting the first swallow. “If we don’t see any we’ll just ring them anyway. Just to make the people happy.”

Although the swallows have naturally migrated to San Juan Capistrano for centuries, city fathers 60 years ago decided to make March 19 the annual day of return to coincide with the celebration of St. Joseph’s Day, said Mary Ann Nieblas of the mission visitors center.


However, many of the swallows didn’t get the message: They started arriving about 2 weeks ago.

Some of them are staying in the mission, which was founded in 1776 by Father Junipero Serra, and others have built nests in roofs of stores at the Mission Viejo Mall or of tract homes throughout San Juan Capistrano, said Brian McInerney, the mission’s director of tourism.

Although 23,000 swallows are expected to return to the mission this year, tourists who focused their cameras and binoculars on the sky above the mission Sunday mostly saw pigeons, with just an occasional square-tailed brown swallow flitting about.

Traditional Flight Around Mission


At 7:57 a.m., Arbiso, 93, tolled the massive bells anyway and officially kicked off the celebration. And only then did a smattering of the swallows show up for their traditional flight around the mission.

“The bells sounded like they were making the birds come,” said Patricia Phifer, 8, of Inglewood, who with her 5-year-old cousin and aunt and uncle had arrived at the mission at 6 a.m. to get a good view of the birds.

Rick Suarez and his family drove from Glendale to arrive at the mission at the crack of dawn to “beat the rush and see just one swallow. Every year we say we’re going to come and we never do. Now when we do we can’t find one.”

Said Sharon Wayland of Venice: “I remember hearing about the (swallows) when I was growing up in Oregon so I had to come see them for myself.”

Donna Bergstrom, an avid bird watcher from Sandy, Ore., said seeing the swallows was the height of her vacation. “Even though there’s just 20 swallows up there, it’s just the tradition that’s so nice.”

The swallows’ return is part of San Juan Capistrano’s Heritage Festival, a monthlong celebration consisting of rodeos and traditional events of the Old West, ending with the annual Fiesta de las Golondrinas Parade.

Mariachi bands, dancers, rug and basket weavers and a traditional Juaneno Indian barbecue--with a steer roasted in an earth-dug pit overnight and a spit-roasted lamb--entertained the mission visitors, whose numbers grew to about 10,000 Sunday, said Mary Ann Nieblas of the museum’s visitors’ center.

By 10 on Sunday morning, several thousand tourists had spilled into the streets and businesses surrounding the old adobe.


The larger stores across the street from the mission were decorated by large signs offering posters and trinkets depicting the swallows. The “open” signs in many of the boutiques and small businesses could be seen half a block away.

The early morning tourist crowd at the Cafe Capistrano caused a wait even before the usual heavy rush of customers, said manager Lisa Whelchel.

“It’s a constant nonstop flow of people. It’s great,” said Joseph Magent, manager of the Old Barn Inc. antique shop, whose daily profits double when the swallows come to town.

“People say they’re just coming in to browse but usually leave with something that reminds them of when they were growing up.”

Michael Darnold, owner of El Peon gift shop across from the mission, said that while the number of tourists has declined in the last decade, “Swallows Day in the last few years has been the best day for us.” Darnold said he usually sells out of small glass swallow figurines, T-shirts and postcards by the end of the day.

“People will buy anything and everything,” said James Moore of Paisley Penguin, a gift shop. “Just to say they got something from San Juan Capistrano.”