SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. (AP) _ One hundred swallows, greeted by thousands of tourists, returned for the 211th year on Thursday to Mission San Juan Capistrano.

The fork-tailed cliff swallows returned here at 8:26 a.m. on the Roman Catholic Feast of Saint Joseph and the last day of winter, but 94 of them slipped past the crowds of tourists gathered at the Spanish-built mission.

''They headed directly to their eaves in the back of the mission, which is off limits to tourists,'' said Mary Susa, a mission tour volunteer.

Six cliff swallows fluttered over the mission for about 30 minutes before 91-year-old bell-ringer Paul Arbiso set his mission carillon pealing.

''They're probably not landing because they're scared,'' said Cori Valdez, 9. ''People are bigger than them, so they're scared o people trying to catch them.''

While visitors waited for the bell-ringing to begin, they aimed their binoculars and cameras at thousands of pigeons, seagulls and at least one hummingbird cavorting around the 11-acre mission.

''That hummingbird's trying to steal the show,'' said Jerry Grossman.

He, his wife, sister and brother-in-law drove more than 2,500 miles from Winnipeg, Canada, to watch the swallows return from Goya, Argentina.

Grossman's wife, Merle, celebrating her 50th birthday Thursday, had wanted to greet the swallows since she was a little girl.

''When we were children, we didn't have much at all, just a radio,'' Ms. Grossman said. ''When we first started hearing about the swallows, it was my fantasy to come here. I guess it's a reality now.''

The children in the crowd seemed more fascinated with the pigeons, feeding them with 25-cent sacks of feed sold at souvenir stands.

Actually, about 20 swallows have been in San Juan Capistrano for about a week, mission spokeswoman Gwen Ragsdale said. These early arrivals are dubbed scouts.

''They've been here checking on nests to see what kind of repairs need to be made,'' she said.

The swallows range up to five inches in length, and the diameter of most of their nests is about an inch.

''We know swallows use the same nests year to year. They work like a construction company. Several birds build one, then move on to the next,'' she said. Couples are then somehow assigned to the completed nests, made of mud and saliva.

The birds will spend the spring and summer mating here and elsewhere in the United States and Canada before another 6,000-mile journey to Argentina for the winter.

Although the birds have been nesting in the eaves of the mission since it was founded in 1776, it was Leon Rene's song, ''When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano'' in 1939 that made the city famous.

This year, mission volunteer John Tattam said, marks the 211th return of the swallows.