There was a time when the coastal estuaries of southern California played a leading role for wintering waterfowl of the Pacific Flyway and the flocks of ducks were said to “darken the sky.” The bays and lagoons of San Diego county from Bataquitos to the Tijuana River estuary were covered with migrating birds that ranged from long-legged waders like black-neck stilts searching shoreline muck for invertebrates to the Pacific black brant, a saltwater goose dependent on eel grass for the sustenance needed for their annual journey of thousands of miles with few stops along the way.
One of the most important areas was a tidal marshland pretty much in the middle of coastal San Diego that served as a gathering, fishing and hunting ground for native people for thousands of years. With the arrival of exploring Spanish mariners fooled by its lack of depth, it became known as Bahia de Falso, or false bay. In 1885, a commercial market hunter by the name of Martinez Chick built a shack on its eastern shore to serve as the headquarters for his business which involved shooting an assortment of waterfowl (the notoriously tasty little shorebirds did not gain legal protection until the Migratory Bird Act of 1918) that were plucked, gutted, packaged and delivered to local restaurants, markets and butcher shops.
Sportsmen soon followed in such numbers, building scores of blinds many of them constructed on stilts and reached only by shallow draft skiffs, that the area soon gained the official name of “Duckville,” as it appeared on maps at the time. Hunting was so popular that a floating hotel was built to accommodate hunters, its name, Hotel de Mallard. In addition to serving migrating waterfowl and those who pursued them with a shotgun in hand, the shallow waters of Duckville were an important spawning area and nursery for certain species of saltwater fish, notably the white seabass and California halibut which were also caught there in great numbers.
In time,Duckville grew in such prominence that it even had its own “mayor.” After arriving in San Diego from Iowa where he was born in 1857, Adalaska Pearson worked first as a market hunter before becoming an artist, and eventually the owner of a paint store. After his wife died, Pearson gave up his home and business and moved permanently to a floating cabin in Duckville where “his honor” became pretty much the lynch pin in the organization and coordination of hunting efforts.
Duckville thrived as a community of sorts until 1916 when all of San Diego was hit by the greatest flood in the region’s recorded history. Dams broke and streams and rivers rose well past their banks. Most notable was the the San Diego River which flowed bank to bank through Mission Valley. The surge of water innundated Duckville’s cabins and blinds while the Hotel de Mallard floated away from its moorings and was eventually destroyed. In time, the water subsided and the blinds were reconstructed, but Duckville was never again quite the same as its eastern edge was filled in and raised to accommodate a roadway that in time became Interstate 5.
Hunting for ducks and brant continued untll the early 1950’s when the final nails were driven into Duckville’s coffin for the dredging and construction of the aquatic park now known as Mission Bay. With its tidal flats and shallow water mostly gone, Duckville joined the 90% of California’s wetlands that have been lost to development. Lost too, were most of the assorted waterfowl and other species that had once depended on the area during their annual migrations, but no longer found the food and accommodations for a rest to their liking.
Nature though, has a way of fighting back if given enough time and lack of interference, and there is no better example of that than the San Diego River Flood Control Channel which was created through the construction of rock jetties that extend westward from the Interstate 5 bridge. What was once a sterile artificial channel for the pursose of minimizing flooding by guiding the San Diego River into the Pacific Ocean. In recent years it has become a reasonable facsimile of the saltmarsh that supported Duckville, and it is growing every year with the steady deposition of sand and silt that supports a growing abundance of salt tolerant vegetation, invertebrates and the wildlife that depends on them. This is most obvious between the I-5 bridge and Ingrahm Street bridge as and expanse of water in channel made by man has been replaced by a series of small channels for rivulets through mudflats and created an ecologically viable saltmarsh made by nature.
As this marsh increases each year, so too do the number of marsh dependent species of flora and fauna. I visit this area with binoculars in hand roughly twice a week. A recent visit turned up a few dozen brant and scores of ducks that included American widgeon, gadwall, pintail, shovelers, bufflehead, ruddies, mallards redheads, ringnecks, hooded mergansers, lesser and greater scaup and the full array of teal as the greenwing, cinnamon and bluewing teal mingled happily together on the frontage road next to Sea World Drive. The only ducks I’ve seen in the past but have missed recently include canvasbacks, goldeneye and the misplaced Eurasian widgeon that show up from time to time. Along with the binoculars, I bring a bird book for the purpose of better identifying the assortment of waders and shorebirds which I can use some work on.
In the process of returning as a haven for these creatures, the area has likewise become a destination for birdwatchers and nature lovers of which I am both, despite the fact there are those who would cast me out of those groups because my appreciation of waterfowl, particularly ducks, includes hunting and eating them. Few seem to realize they would be casting out James Audubon and Aldo Leoplold as well, which in my view places waterfowlers like myself in good company.
Duckville is gone for good, but I’m thinking Martinez Chick and Adalaska Pearce would be pleased if they could see what has happened and is developing in the channel next door.
Credit due to Herbert Lockwood a local historian and columnist for the long-gone and under-appreciated San Diego Independent which was published and delivered weekly without subscription whether you wanted it or not. His book – Fallout From The Skeleton’s Closet is a treasure for anyone interested in what he described as “a lighter look” at San Diego history. Many of the historical details listed above were lifted from a chapter devoted to Duckville.1