For thousands of years, Pacific Flyway waterfowl have migrated through my home turf of San Diego and congregated in our coastal sloughs. One of the largest and most important was an area known to early Spanish explorers as Bahia de Falso, or False Bay, meaning that despite appearances it did not have the depth to accommodate their sailing ships which would easily run aground.
This wetland area which was a prime hunting and gathering area for native Americans for thousands of years was guarded by a seasonal spit and formed in large part by two streams and a larger river. North to south those tributaries are Rose Creek, Tecolote Creek and the San Diego River. In addition to serving as a valuable nursery for a variety of saltwater fish species, the wetland was important year-round to a variety of bird species and of particular value to waterfowl in the course of their annual migrations. Most used the wetland as a temporary rest stop in the course of migration, while some made it their destination and winter home until it was time to head north again.
As a result, early San Diegans gave it the name “Duckville” in recognition of the thousands of ducks, as well as Pacific black brant that congregated in the shallow and brackish waters which were ideal for a variety of food sources such as eel grass for the brant and invertebrates for ducks and wading birds. It became so popular with waterfowl hunters that it became dotted with blinds and even a floating hotel of sorts where they could spend the night, find a meal and rent a boat that would take them to their blinds.
The onslaught of development in the west, and particularly in California has destroyed over 90% of the wetlands historically used by waterfowl. Marshes of the Central Valley have been largely replaced by agriculture while coastal wetlands have given way to agriculture as well as expensive real estate developed for industrial, commercial and residential purposes – and Duckville was no different.
Sand dredged from the wetland augmented the seasonal spit to accommodate oceanfront and bayside vacation cottages that have morphed into multi-million dollar homes and condominium developments of what is now known as Mission Beach. The San Diego River was channeled with rock jetties to prevent its historically wandering course that sometimes turned it southward into San Diego Bay rather than Bahia de Falso. And finally, in the 1950’s the Duckville wetland was dredged to create the aquatic park known as Mission Bay, complete with resort hotels, marinas and Sea World. All told, wetlands in San Diego have shrunk from 32,000 acres to 3,000.
Although hindsight from an environmental point of view would not be kind, it may not be fair to judge earlier politicians, planners and developers on that basis. At the time, the decisions they made, the developments they built and the “swamps” they dredged seemed to be the right thing at the time and generally favored by the public.
While their efforts resulted in the destruction of important wetlands which may be lamented by those of us who would rather see flocks of waterfowl than Jet-skis on the water – not much is going to change.
Although greatly diminished in number, waterfowl continue to find a few spots to their liking, places where they can find food and conditions that will allow them to stay for the winter or serve as a rest stop in their migration.
For birders in general, and waterfowlers in particular, such areas are special. While the bulk of the Pacific black brant population winters in coastal lagoons south of the border, there is enough eel grass growing along the beaches of Mission Bay to satisfy a small number of these small wintering saltwater geese. The mouths of Rose and Tecolote Creeks attract a mix of ducks, predominantly divers such as scaup, ringneck and bufflehead along with the occasional redhead and canvasback. Nearby grassy areas and the adjacent Mission Bay Golf Course provide the well-maintained shoots of grass preferred by widgeon and coots.
Sterile in appearance after channelization between the south (Ocean Beach) and north (Mission Beach) jetties, the San Diego River seems to be slowly but surely recreating a portion of the wetland habitat that was earlier destroyed. The deposition of sand at its mouth has steadily developed an expanding natural marsh of moist soil plants within the confines of the unnatural boundaries formed by the jetties. Thriving invertebrate populations in the channel and adjacent Famosa Slough provide a buffet for a wide assortment of wading birds and ducks, particularly puddlers that “tip up” in the shallows to sift for a meal.
Though the population dynamics change throughout the season, it is fair to suggest that as viewed from the road (old Sea World Drive) along the north jetty, the dominant species are American widgeon, pintail and greenwing teal, along with a few mallards, gadwall, cinnamon and bluewing teal, the latter of which I find to be a particular treat to see with the white crescent face patch that denotes the male.
An even bigger bonus on a recent visit was the sighting of a single drake Eurasian widgeon mixed in with a flock of American widgeon and distinguished by its rust colored head.
In years past, what is now Mission Bay Park was a treasure to tens of thousands of visiting waterfowl. Today, a few hundred waterfowl have found a handful of areas worthy of supporting their visits – and those places and their guests have become a treasure to me.