CHINO HILLS – Fifty miles from tourists and the suburban density of south Orange County, a large colony of cliff swallows has found new, five-star accommodations.
In early March, thousands of the migratory birds made their way north from Argentina and flew past the familiar digs at the historic Mission San Juan Capistrano .
Instead, they found graceful lodging in the eaves at the year-old Vellano Country Club.
The private community boasts a golf course designed by Greg Norman, 200 luxury homes, and a spacious clubhouse with nest-worthy stucco high off the ground.
Facility director Travis Blaylock says the birds' arrival took everyone by surprise.
"I saw a few one day and then it's like they went and told all their friends, 'Hey, I found the spot,'" he says. Soon, thousands of swallows were busily building their conical mud nests.
KemperSports, which manages the country club, briefly considered hosing down the fledgling nests. Managers instead opted to let nature take its course in a place where nature reigns supreme.
The crafty colony has taken advantage of 700 acres of rolling hills where plenty of mud and water can be found along the golf course and in a nearby creek. Miles of pristine fairways also mean an endless supply of bird food: bugs.
Blaylock, who grew up in Costa Mesa, says he visited the historic Mission and its famous swallows when he was a child.
"Going there, I always saw the finished product," he says. This time he'll get to watch the whole process.
It took the colony about a week to spit together hundreds of nests along the eaves. Blaylock said their collaborative effort impressed staff and club members.
"If only the contractors I've hired in the past worked as well as these birds," he says with a laugh.
The club's PGA golf pro, Bob Emmons, gave the birds two thumbs up for style.
"What really impresses me is how they color coordinated the nests with the building," he says with a wry smile.
The staff works daily to remove debris and bird waste that falls from the nests. For the most part, the swallows have conveniently built their cozy condos away from key spots such as the clubhouse's main entrance and the dining patio.
Blaylock, who is chief bird watcher and guardian, keeps six extra shirts in his office.
"I've been bombed twice in one day," he says. "I've learned my lesson." He's quick to warn visitors to close their mouths when they look up at the nests and swooping swallows.
Despite the somewhat messy circumstances, Blaylock says there have been few complaints from club members. Some patrons have told him the birds are a sign of good luck. Chicks began hatching in recent days, and Blaylock expects the colony will begin its long journey back to Argentina within two weeks.
"It's very peaceful here," he says while classical music plays overhead. "You could take a nap on the patio while listening to the birds sing."
Back in San Juan Capistrano, Mission representatives say the number of swallows there has diminished in recent years.
"They're still spotted here," says Christina Haakenson, a principal agent with Juve Creative, which represents the Mission. "But the population is definitely down due to urbanization."
Haakenson says the Mission, which was founded in 1776, no longer offers the highest, most protected perches.
"The stone church was the tallest building then, and it looked like a cliff," she says. "So naturally the swallows migrated there."
New construction and freeway overpasses now offer swallows some alternatives to the Mission.
Haakenson says the Mission is working with Charles R. Brown, an ornithologist from the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, to help create an ecological plan to lure the swallows back.
"Everybody comes every year for the swallows, so it makes sense ... from a marketing perspective and for the environment," she says.
Vellano Country Club, meanwhile, is ready and willing to welcome its swallow colony back next spring.
"We have everything they need right here at the clubhouse," Blaylock says. "Why would they go anywhere else?"