"W HO has not wondered," I asked, many years ago, "as he has seen the red rim of the sun sink down in the sea, where the little brood of Mother Carey's chickens skimming round the vessel would sleep that night?" Here on the waves, no doubt, but what a bed! You have seen them, or you will see them the first time you cross the ocean, far out of sight of land—a little band of small dark birds, veering, glancing, skimming the heaving sea like swallows, or riding the great waves up and down, from crest to trough, as easily as Bobolink rides the swaying clover billows in the meadow behind the barn.
I have stood at the prow and watched them as the huge steamer ploughed her way into the darkening ocean. Down in the depths beneath me the porpoises were playing,—as if the speeding ship, with its mighty engines, were only another porpoise playing tag with them,—and off on the gray sea ahead, where the circle of night seemed to be closing in, this little flock of stormy petrels, Mother Carey's chickens, rising, falling with the heave and sag of the sea, so far, for such little wings, from the shore!
You will see them, and you will ask yourself, as I asked myself, "Where is their home? Where do they nest?" I hope you will also have a chance to answer the question some time for yourself, as I had a chance to answer it for myself recently, out on the Three-Arch Rocks, in the Pacific, just off the coast of Oregon.
I visited the rocks to see all their multitudinous wild life,—their gulls, cormorants, murres, guillemots, puffins, oyster-catchers, and herds of sea-lions,—but more than any other one thing I wanted to see the petrels, Kaeding's petrels, that nest on the top of Shag Rock, the outermost of the three rocks of the Reservation.
No, not merely to see the petrels: what I really wished to do was to stay all night on the storm-swept peak in order to hear the petrels come back to their nests on the rock in the dusk and dark. My friend Finley had done it, years before, on this very rock. On the steep north slope of the top he had found a safe spot between two jutting crags, and, wrapping himself in his blanket as the sun went down behind the hill of the sea, had waited for the winnowing of the small mysterious wings.
Just to sleep in such a bed would be enough. To lie down far up on the ragged peak of this wild sea rock, with the break and swash of the waves coming up from far beneath you, with the wide sea-wind coming in, and the dusk spreading down, and the wild sea-birds murmuring in their strange tongues all about you—it would be enough just to turn one's face to the lonely sky in such a spot and listen. But how much more to hear suddenly, among all these strange sounds, the swift fanning of wings—to feel them close above your face—and to see in the dim dusk wavering shadowy forms, like a troop of long-winged bats, hovering over the slope and chittering in a rapid, unbirdlike talk, as if afraid the very dark might hear them!
That was what I wanted so much to hear and to see. For down in a little burrow, in the accumulated earth and guano of the top, under each of these hovering shadows, would be another shadow, waiting to hear the beating of the wings and the chitter above; and I wanted to see the mate in the burrow come out and greet the mate that had been all day upon the sea.
This petrel digs itself a little burrow and lays one egg. The burrow might hold both birds at once, but one seldom finds two birds in the burrow together. While one is brooding, the other is off on its wonderful wings—away off in the wake of your ocean steamer, perhaps, miles and miles from shore. But when darkness falls it remembers its nest and speeds home to the rock, taking its place down in the little black burrow, while the mate comes forth and spreads its wings out over the heaving water, not to return, it may be, until the night and the day have passed and twilight falls again.
We landed on a ledge of Shag Rock, driving off a big bull sea-lion who claimed this particular slab of rock as his own. We backed up close to the shelf in a yawl boat, and as the waves rose and fell, watched our chance to leap from the stern of the little boat to the rock. Thus we landed our cameras, food and water, and other things, then we dragged the boat up, so that, a storm arising or anything happening to the small steamer that had brought us, we might still get away to the shore.
It was about the middle of the forenoon. All the morning, as we had steamed along, a thick fog had threatened us; but now the sun broke out, making it possible to use our cameras, and after a hasty lunch we started for the top of the rock—a climb that looked impossible, and that was pretty nearly as impossible as it looked.
It had been a slow, perilous climb; but, once on the summit, where we could move somewhat freely and use the cameras, we hurried from colony to colony to take advantage of the uncertain sunlight, which, indeed, utterly failed us after only an hour's work. But, as I had no camera, I made the best of it, giving all my time to studying the ways of the birds. Besides, I had come to stay on the peak all night; I could do my work well enough in the dark. But I could not do it in the wind and rain.
The sun went into the clouds about four o'clock, but so absorbed was I in watching, and so thick was the air with wings, so clangorous with harsh tongues, that I had not seen the fog moving in, or noticed that the gray wind of the morning had begun to growl about the crags. Looking off to seaward, I now saw that a heavy bank of mist had blurred the sky-line and settled down upon the sea. The wind had freshened; a fine, cold drizzle was beginning to fall, and soon came slanting across the peak. The prospect was grim and forbidding. Then the rain began. The night was going to be dark and stormy, too wet and wild for watching, here where I must hang on with my hands or else slip and go over—down—down to the waves below.
We started to descend at once, while there was still light enough to see by, and before the rocks were made any slipperier by the rain. We did not fear the wind much, for that was from the north, and we must descend by the south face, up which we had come.
I was deeply disappointed. My night with the petrels on the top was out of the question. Yet as I backed over the rim of that peak, and began to pick my way down, it was not disappointment, but fear that I felt. It had been bad enough coming up; but this going down!—with the cold, wet shadow of night encircling you and lying dark on the cold, sullen sea below—this was altogether worse.
The rocks were already wet, and the footing was treacherous. As we worked slowly along, the birds in the gathering gloom seemed to fear us less, flying close about our heads, their harsh cries and winging tumult adding not a little to the peril of the descent. And then the looking down! and then the impossibility at places of even looking down—when one could only hang on with one's hands and feel around in the empty air with one's feet for something to stand on!
I got a third of the way down, perhaps, and then stopped. The men did not laugh at me. They simply looped a rope about me, under my arms, and lowered me over the narrow shelves into the midst of a large murre colony, from which point I got on alone. Then they tied the rope about Dallas, my eleven-year-old son, who was with me on the expedition, and lowered him.
He came bumping serenely down, smoothing all the little murres and feeling of all the warm eggs on the way, as if they might have been so many little kittens, and as if he might have been at home on the kitchen floor, instead of dangling down the face of a cliff two hundred or more feet above the sea.
Some forty feet from the waves was a weathered niche, or shelf, eight or ten feet wide. Here we stopped for the night. The wind was from the other side of the rock; the overhanging ledge protected us somewhat from above, though the mist swept about the steep walls to us, and the drizzle dripped from overhead. But as I pulled my blanket about me and lay down beside the other men the thought of what the night must be on the summit made the hard, damp rock under me seem the softest and warmest of beds.
But what a place was this to sleep in!—this narrow ledge with a rookery of wild sea-birds just above it, with the den of a wild sea-beast just below it, with the storm-swept sky shut down upon it, and the sea, the crawling, sinister sea, coiling and uncoiling its laving folds about it, as with endless undulations it slipped over the sunken ledges and swam round and round the rock.
What a place was this to sleep! I could not sleep. I was as wakeful as the wild beasts that come forth at night to seek their prey. I must catch a glimpse of Night through her veil of mist, the gray, ghostly Night, as she came down the long, rolling slope of the sea, and I must listen, for my very fingers seemed to have ears, so many were the sounds, and so strange—the talk of the wind on the rock, the sweep of the storm, the lap of the waves, the rumbling mutter of the wakeful caverns, the cry of birds, the hoarse grumbling growl of the sea-lions swimming close below.
The clamor of the birds was at first disturbing. But soon the confusion caused by our descent among them subsided; the large colony of murres close by our heads returned to their rookery; and with the rain and thickening dark there spread everywhere the quiet of a low murmurous quacking. Sleep was settling over the rookeries.
Down in the sea below us rose the head of an old sea-lion, the old lone bull whose den we had invaded. He was coming back to sleep. He rose and sank, blinking dully at the cask we had left on his ledge; then clambered out and hitched slowly up toward his sleeping-place. I counted the scars on his head, and noted the fresh deep gash on his right side. I could hear him blow and breathe.
I drew back from the edge, and, pulling the piece of sail-cloth over me and the small boy at my side, turned my face up to the slanting rain. Two young gulls came out of their hiding in a cranny and nestled against my head, their parents calling gently to them from time to time all night long. In the murre colony overhead there was a constant stir and a soft, low talk, and over all the rock, through all the darkened air there was a silent coming and going of wings—wings—of the stormy petrels, some of them, I felt sure, the swift shadow wings of Mother Carey's chickens that I had so longed to hear come winnowing in from afar on the sea.
The drizzle thickened. And now I heard the breathing of the sleeping men beside me; and under me I felt the narrow shelf of rock dividing the waters from the waters, and then—I, too, must have slept; for utter darkness was upon the face of the deep.