SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — At 8:07 a.m. Sunday, tradition continued as the bells of Mission San Juan Capistrano clanged to signal the legendary return of the swallows from South America.
About 200 people watched under gray skies as a nervous Michael Gastelum tugged on two ropes in a steady cadence for his first time as bell ringer to herald the annual sighting of the tiny birds, which only numbered one at the official moment.
But it was enough to start celebrating.
"There it is!" called out City Councilwoman Collene Campbell while tourists and locals looked up for a glimpse of the world-famous birds.
Gastelum, who became the mission's bell ringer after the death last year of his 99-year-old grandfather, Paul Arbiso, said he could see the old man's face when looking at his nephew, who helped Sunday by ringing two of the mission's four bells.
"I had little goose bumps when I unraveled the ropes, then when I started to ring them, I settled down," the 39-year-old Gastelum said later after facing a knot of television reporters and cameras.
Mission officials and others seemed thrilled to see a few of the darting swallows Sunday. The birds' numbers have plummeted in recent years after work to make the mission earthquake-safe destroyed hundreds of their nests.
Although the birds are officially welcomed back each March 19, some arrive days or weeks before then and can be seen flying over the mission and around town.
To lure the migratory birds back in greater numbers this year, officials have been releasing thousands of insects weekly on the grounds of the 219-year-old mission. Earlier this month, they also installed the first of 500 clay replica nests.
For those who didn't see the birds Sunday, there were swallow pins and a six-foot-tall swallow prowling the mission grounds and posing for photos.
About 10,000 people were expected to take part in the daylong event, which included Aztec and Juaneno Indian dancers, local school choirs, the South Coast Ballet troupe and Raphael Rene, whose father wrote and sang the 1939 song, "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano."
"We expect 10,000 or even more because people are still coming in," mission volunteer Margaret Tattam said at mid-afternoon.
Tattam said several international calls had been received at a special telephone bank installed to handle an increased volume on the big day.
"I'm supposed to be interviewed for a morning television show in Perth," said Tattam, an Australia native.
Many of the mission's early visitors clutched paper cups of coffee and stood silently as the bird-welcoming ritual played out. A few hours later, larger crowds, music and the smell of food filled the mission grounds.
The legendary Swallows Day drew both the curious and devoted.
"I scheduled my whole week's vacation just for this," said Bill Cobb, a 53-year-old bottle factory worker from Moosup, Conn.
Cobb's wife, Joan Cobb, 49, said that she and her husband were a few miles away when they heard the mission bells ring. Not to worry though, she said, because they had spied some swallows late last week.
Katherine Roy said she came from the San Fernando Valley with friends to enjoy the festivities on her 67th birthday.
"I haven't seen a swallow yet--show me one," Roy joked while nibbling on a cup of fresh strawberries.
Near the mission fountain, Sam Campos, 36, of Los Angeles, aimed his video camera at a 90-degree angle to record the flight of about half a dozen swallows that circled several hundred feet overhead and gradually flew lower.
Campos, a secretary for the Army Corps of Engineers, said he brought his mother to Swallows Day because she had dreamed about making the pilgrimage.
"I'm so excited," 53-year-old Juana Campos of Los Angeles said after scanning the sky with binoculars. "For more than 20 years I have wanted to come."