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Identify the Water Birds

Updated on April 2, 2018
Virginia Allain profile image

Birds and wildlife fascinate me. I enjoy observing them and photographing them wherever I go. I share what I learn here.

Identify the Florida waterbirds.

Which is which?
Which is which? | Source

Know the Water Birds of Florida

It isn't always simple to tell waterbirds apart. Was that a great egret, snowy egret or white ibis? There are many kinds of water birds. Some look quite similar, so it can be tricky to identify them.

If you want to tell an anhinga from a cormorant or distinguish between a snowy egret and a great egret, stick around. Below you'll see photos of each water bird and a description of identifying characteristics. If you like bird watching, here's a few pointers to make it easier to identify waterbirds.

These photos were taken in Florida, but the birds can be seen in other areas as well. My photos were taken with a Canon Powershot A550 or a Canon Powershot SX20 IS (depends on which I had at hand when I saw the bird).

(photo by Virginia Allain)

Identify the White Birds - Click on each photo to see it larger and read the description

White Ibis - Curved bill (bright red in breeding season). Black wingtips when flying and has red legs. Iimmature ibis is brown with white underparts.
White Ibis - Curved bill (bright red in breeding season). Black wingtips when flying and has red legs. Iimmature ibis is brown with white underparts. | Source
Wood stork - large white bird with black bare head & heavy beak. Black on wing tips when flying. Flies with head extended.
Wood stork - large white bird with black bare head & heavy beak. Black on wing tips when flying. Flies with head extended.
Great Egret - Look for an all white bird with black legs and a yellow bill. It flies with the neck drawn up.
Great Egret - Look for an all white bird with black legs and a yellow bill. It flies with the neck drawn up.
Great Egret - showing the breeding plumage
Great Egret - showing the breeding plumage
Snowy Egret - Smaller than great egret. Black beak, yellow feet.
Snowy Egret - Smaller than great egret. Black beak, yellow feet.
Snowy Egret - This shows breeding plumage around head and tail.
Snowy Egret - This shows breeding plumage around head and tail.

Books on Amazon to Help Identify Water Birds

I keep a varied selection of bird identification guides on my bookshelf. You never know when you'll spot a bird you've never seen before.

It's a lot easier to spot a bird as you flip through the photos in a bird identification book than it is to search bird sites online or flip through page after page of Internet site looking for a bird like the white one with the yellow feet.

Source

Great Blue Heron

Close up of the blue heron's head
Close up of the blue heron's head | Source
Blue heron in flight
Blue heron in flight | Source

Great Blue Heron

Watch for a large, gray-blue bird with a heavy yellow bill. You'll see the neck extended when it takes off, but tucked back against the body in an "S" shape when flying.

Little Blue Heron (photo by Virginia Allain)

Little Blue Heron (photo by Virginia Allain)
Little Blue Heron (photo by Virginia Allain) | Source
Blue heron with young
Blue heron with young | Source
Little blue heron with breeding plumage
Little blue heron with breeding plumage | Source

Little Blue Heron

Although this one goes through color stages (white and then mottled when young), usually it is slate blue with a blue/gray beak with black tip. Look for it along the water's edge. It has greenish legs and is much smaller than the great blue heron.

Black-crowned Night-Heron

This one is shorter, and bulkier than the other herons.
This one is shorter, and bulkier than the other herons. | Source

What to Look for - to tell the water birds apart

  1. Great Egret - Look for an all white bird with black legs and a yellow bill. It flies with the neck drawn up.
  2. Snowy Egret - Look for an all white, but smaller bird than the great egret. It has yellow feet, black legs, and a black bill.
  3. White Ibis - Identify this one by the curved bill (bright red during breeding season). It shows black wingtips when flying and has red legs. The immature ibis is brown with white underparts.
  4. Great Blue Heron - Watch for a large, gray-blue bird with a heavy yellow bill. You'll see the neck extended when it takes off, but tucked back against the body in an "S" shape when flying.
  5. Little Blue Heron - Although this one goes through color stages (white and then mottled when young), usually it is slate blue with a blue/gray beak with black tip. Look for it along the water's edge. It has greenish legs and is much smaller than the great blue heron.
  6. Limpkin - Notice a large bird with a brown body with white flecks and long dark olive legs. It has a slow, limping style of walking. It isn't nearly as showy as the egrets or herons.
  7. Anhinga - Notice their long, snakelike neck, straight bill, and a long tail. Females have brownish necks. It swims with the body low in the water, diving often. To take flight, it runs across the top of the water. Often you'll see them with their wings spread to dry.
  8. Cormorant - At first you may think it's an anhinga, as it looks and behaves very similar to those. Note that the cormorant has a curved beak and swims more on the surface of the water. Its neck is not as snakelike.
  9. Common Gallinule - Watch for a duck-like shape and a distinct red shield on its forehead

Male Anhinga Drying Its Wings

This anhinga just caught a good-sized catfish.
This anhinga just caught a good-sized catfish. | Source
Anhinga with breeding plumage. Note the blue ring around its eye that it gets at this time.
Anhinga with breeding plumage. Note the blue ring around its eye that it gets at this time. | Source
Source

Anhinga Diving - at Crystal River, Florida

A Brown Pelican

The large pouch isn't always visible when the beak is held like this.
The large pouch isn't always visible when the beak is held like this. | Source

Brown Pelican

Comparing Anhingas and Cormorants - Click on each photo to see it larger and read the descriptions

Anhinga - Notice their long, snakelike neck, straight bill, and a long tail. Females have brownish necks. It swims with the body low in the water, diving often. To take flight, it runs across the top of the water. Often you'll see them with their win
Anhinga - Notice their long, snakelike neck, straight bill, and a long tail. Females have brownish necks. It swims with the body low in the water, diving often. To take flight, it runs across the top of the water. Often you'll see them with their win | Source
Cormorant - At first you may think it's an anhinga, as it looks and behaves very similar to those. Note that the cormorant has a curved beak and swims more on the surface of the water. Its neck is not as snakelike.
Cormorant - At first you may think it's an anhinga, as it looks and behaves very similar to those. Note that the cormorant has a curved beak and swims more on the surface of the water. Its neck is not as snakelike.
Pointed beak = Anhinga
Pointed beak = Anhinga

Wood Storks

These aren't the prettiest birds around. Wood storks look graceful in flight, but when seen close up, the lack of feathers on the neck and head detract from their appearance.

Wood Storks

The unique beak and head of the wood stork.
The unique beak and head of the wood stork. | Source
The dark wing tips are visible when they fly.
The dark wing tips are visible when they fly. | Source

Wood Stork Video

Limpkin

Look for a large bird with a brown body with white flecks and long dark olive legs. It has a slow, limping style of walking. It isn't nearly as showy as the egrets or herons.

Limpkin - note the spots (photo by Virginia Allain)

Limpkin taking flight
Limpkin taking flight | Source
Limpkin family feeding along the lake shore.
Limpkin family feeding along the lake shore. | Source
The limpkin has white flecks and spots on its neck and body. It eats mussels along the shore.
The limpkin has white flecks and spots on its neck and body. It eats mussels along the shore. | Source

Pinkish Waterbirds - Flamingos And Spoonbills

Flamingos (note arched neck, dark beak)

I don't see these in Central Florida, so took this flamingo photo at Gatorland.
I don't see these in Central Florida, so took this flamingo photo at Gatorland. | Source

Roseate Spoonbill (note broad beak, very different from flamingo)

Note the spoonbill in the middle of a flock of ibis.
Note the spoonbill in the middle of a flock of ibis. | Source

Differences to Tell a Spoonbill from a Flamingo

Notice the wide, flat beak of the spoonbills which helps distinguish these from the flamingo. The spoonbill has a heavier body and thicker neck too.

The flamingo can contort it's neck in many ways.

Visitors Came to This Web Page - from places all over the world

Counter added on March 18, 2012
Counter added on March 18, 2012 | Source

© 2009 Virginia Allain

I Hope You Enjoyed Your Tour of the Water Birds

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    • Virginia Allain profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Allain 

      3 years ago from Central Florida

      I'm in Polk County and having a retention pond adjacent to our lanai allows me to get some dandy bird pictures. Thanks.

    • profile image

      BarbaraCasey 

      3 years ago

      We're on a very small lake/retention pond in Pinellas County and, amazingly enough, have seen most of the birds you've featured, Virginia. Finally got a good bird book after a gigantic wood stork peered through the screen of our patio. You got some terrific closeup pics.

    • jptanabe profile image

      Jennifer P Tanabe 

      3 years ago from Red Hook, NY

      These birds are all so beautiful - and great photos!

    • profile image

      ruth-jolly-3 

      4 years ago

      very informative article

    • gottaloveit2 profile image

      gottaloveit2 

      5 years ago

      When I was in college, we went to FL with a professor who was an anhinga specialist. They're still one of my favorite birds. Love the pics, Virginia.

    • Virginia Allain profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Allain 

      5 years ago from Central Florida

      @Loretta L: Your enthusiasm made my day. Thank you!

    • Loretta L profile image

      Loretta Livingstone 

      5 years ago from Chilterns, UK.

      Wow, great lens. And your pictures are fabulous. We have a bird in the UK which is similar to a Cormorant. I believe the only difference is in the number of tail feathers, or something equally difficult to spot. But the two birds, Cormorant and Shag have different types of habitat, which makes it easier to take a guess. I wish I could take such great photos. Yours are the tops.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I love the Blue Herons. We have them in the cottage.

    • gstorrs profile image

      gstorrs 

      5 years ago

      I really like this lens. It has such a lot of great photos, as well as helpful information for birders. Thanks!

    • profile image

      kimmanleyort 

      5 years ago

      Wonderful lens. I love Florida birds and am always wondering which is which.

    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 

      5 years ago

      Beautiful lens. I love water birds and have painted pelicans, cormorants, ducks, swans and so on with gusto. Featured on Blessed by Skiesgreen 2013. Hugs

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 

      5 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      What pretty pictures of birds. It sounds like Florida has quite the variety of water birds.

    • Pat Goltz profile image

      Pat Goltz 

      6 years ago

      Here in Arizona, we have two species of cormorants: Double-crested and Neotropic. Yours is a Double-crested. We have three kinds of egrets, and the Great Blue Heron as well as Green Heron and Black-crowned Night Heron. We had an immature Roseate Spoonbill this year. We have Common Gallinules, but American Coots are more abundant. They have a red jewel on the forehead. The gallinule has a mostly red beak with a yellow tip. I have seen Common Gallinules here nesting. Thank you for an interesting and informative lens.

    • Virginia Allain profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Allain 

      6 years ago from Central Florida

      @Tom Maybrier: I was having that same problem, so putting the descriptions and photos here was actually for my own benefit.

    • Tom Maybrier profile image

      Tom Maybrier 

      6 years ago

      I have a hard time remembering all the different species of Cormorants. Same with grebes. Some are just so similar!

      This is a fun lens, I like it!

    • Virginia Allain profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Allain 

      6 years ago from Central Florida

      @shauna1934: The osprey is around water where it dives for fish, but it is considered a raptor, not a water bird.

    • shauna1934 profile image

      shauna1934 

      6 years ago

      Does the Ospree count as a water bird of Florida?

    • LaraineRoses profile image

      Laraine Sims 

      6 years ago from Lake Country, B.C.

      Splendid lens! Great to be able to identify these birds now. Thank you! Angel blessed!

    • profile image

      SteveKaye 

      6 years ago

      Fantastic photos of birds. Thank you for publishing this lens. I really enjoyed it.

    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 

      6 years ago from So Cal

      We have a flock of egrets that visits the field across the street in the spring. They are such beautiful birds.

    • tvyps profile image

      Teri Villars 

      6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      More bird photos...gotta love 'em! Squid Angel blessed!

    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 

      6 years ago from USA

      I enjoy looking at your photography. You do such a lovely job and get great shots.

    • JeanJohnson LM profile image

      JeanJohnson LM 

      7 years ago

      Beautiful bird photographs, it was enjoyable to view them

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      7 years ago from Colorado

      This lens features so many of my favorites. I was so fortunate when I lived in Corpus Christi on North Padre Island. It was birding heaven! Enjoyed this opportunity to relive some special birding moments. Thanks!

    • VladimirCat profile image

      Vladimir 

      7 years ago from Australia

      I enjoy watching waterbirds too - any birds really.

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 

      7 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      spoonbill is my fav. great collection of water birds. ~blessed~

    • annieangel1 profile image

      Ann 

      7 years ago from Yorkshire, England

      so many how can I pick a favourite? lovely lens, good info and illustrations, just the job Virginia for a sprinkle of green Angel Dust on St Patrick's day. I'll feature it on my Wild Bird lens to be republished shortly.

      Happy St Patrick's Day Virginia.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      7 years ago

      Oh my, this has just been lovely to visit. I love the way that you present this.

      I could almost smell the great outdoors here, very refreshing indeed.

    • GonnaFly profile image

      Jeanette 

      7 years ago from Australia

      What a wonderful collection of water birds. Lovely pictures too.

    • ElizabethJeanAl profile image

      ElizabethJeanAl 

      8 years ago

      I do love my birds.

      Lensrolled to the Snowy Egret, American White Pelican, and the Great Egret.

      Lizzy

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