Aquatic Bird Types

Meet some of the birds that sometimes call the water home.

Many birds rely on the ocean to survive.
Many birds rely on the ocean to survive.

Aquatic birds

Many birds rely on rivers and oceans to survive.

Aquatic birds are as varied as inland bird species. They are any bird that is particularly adapted to life in and around the water. They range from cold-weather loving flightless emperor penguins that glide through the water to whimbrels, which have beaks perfect for finding food in the sand. In North America, we differentiate between the shorebirds that spend most of their time near the water and waterfowl that prefer to spend most of their time actually on or in the water. But the rest of the world generally uses “waterbirds” to refer to both types. Either way, aquatic birds are all highly dependent upon healthy water systems to sustain them.

In short, as the Waterbird Conservation for the Americas, writes:

“The term ‘waterbird’ refers to bird species dependent on aquatic habitats to complete portions of their life cycles. Waterbirds can be further characterized by other non-technical terms relating to where they typically forage.”

For birdwatchers, wetlands and shores can be prime territory. In fact, Elkhorn Slough near Monterey, California currently holds the record for the largest number of bird species sighted from a single site in a 24-hour period. In 1982, watchers spotted no fewer than 117 distinct species and the numbers at Elkhorn Slough have remained fairly stable ever since. But even if Elkhorn Slough is too far to travel, there are great sites for checking out aquatic birds in every state.

If you’re looking for something a little more unique, you might have to travel for some of the coolest waterbirds out there.

blue-footed booby 
Blue-footed boobies have striking feet and beaks that draw tourists to the Galapagos year-round.

Waterbirds in South America

The Galapagos Islands are famous for having some of the most unique species in the world because of their geographic isolation. One of the coolest feathered critters on the islands are the blue-footed boobies. You can see them in other parts of South America as well, but the Galapagos are currently home to about half the world’s blue-footed booby population. Their bright blue feet are their most striking feature, but these birds might also surprise you with their ability they to fly well out to see and their penchant for diving from as far up as 80 feet or as low as from a sitting position.

Other South American Waterbirds:

  • Magellanic Steamerduck
  • Caspian Tern
  • Red-necked Phalarope
  • Bonaparte’s Gull
  • Brown Noddy
  • Flightless Cormorant
  • Rock Shag
  • Peruvian Pelican

Malachite kingfishers
By Birdman1 (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Malachite kingfishers can be found all over sub-Saharan Africa, but that doesn’t make them any less striking to behold.

The Water Birds Of Africa

There are countless striking waterbirds to spot in different parts of Africa, but for a gorgeous bird that you’re also fairly likely to see, we recommend the malachite kingfisher. The love to spend time in reeds around freshwater and while they perch in a variety of places, they prefer to burrow in sandy banks. Malachite kingfishers have huge territories ranging north from South Africa all the way to Eritrea and span from coast-to-coast, so any sub-Saharan country is a solid bet for a sighting.

Other African Aquatic Birds:

  • Black-naped Tern
  • Bank Cormorant
  • Kelp Gull
  • Black-legged Kittiwake
  • Lesser Noddy
  • Black-necked Grebe
  • European Shag
  • Black Noddy
  • Common Scoter
  • Imperial Shag
  • Great White Pelican
  • Red Phalarope

Mandarin Duck
With so much biodiversity over the entire continent of Asia, it’s hard to pick just one, but the Mandarin duck’s appeal makes it a must-see.<

Waterbirds In Asia

Mandarin ducks are closely related to our more-familiar wood duck, but their plumage is distinctly bold. They are native to southern Russia, China, Japan, and Korea, but because they are so striking, there is a significant Mandarin duck population in Britain and a small colony in Northern California. Mandarin ducks are also notable for having colorful personalities that are sure to make watching them a joy.

Other Asian Waterbirds:

  • Greater Scaup
  • King Eider
  • Long-tailed Duck
  • Common Goldeneye
  • Red-breasted Merganser
  • Goosander
  • Yellow-billed Loon
  • Caspian Tern
  • Horned Grebe
  • Red-necked Phalarope
  • Pallas’s Gull
  • Arctic Tern
  • Mediterranean Gull
  • Great Cormorant
  • Red-throated Loon
  • Common Scoter
  • Great White Pelican
  • Red Phalarope
  • Steller’s Eider

Australasian gannets use serrated bills to catch fish, diving from incredible heights for each meal.
By Avenue (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
Australasian gannets use serrated bills to catch fish, diving from incredible heights for each meal.

Aquatic Birds Of Australia

Australia is known for having unique species of all kinds, and the birds do not disappoint. While there are 851 known bird species in Australia, the Australasian gannets stand out for their understated characteristics including beautiful yellow heads and sharp black wing tips. Apart from being gorgeous birds, Australasian gannets are fun to watch, since they dive into the water from more than 10 meters (about 32 feet) and come up just a few seconds later with their bills filled with fish. While these birds tend to stick to the shore around southern and southeastern Australia, occasionally small flocks are seen well out to sea.

Other Australian Birds:

  • Black-naped Tern
  • Red-necked Phalarope
  • Pacific Gull
  • Brown Noddy
  • Great Crested Grebe
  • Little Pied Cormorant
  • Campbell Shag
  • Black Noddy
  • Imperial Shag

Ruff
Flickr: Ruff by Jo Garbutt is licensed under CC by 2.0.
Birds often grow special plumage for mating season, and the ruff is no exception.

European Waterbirds

Europe usually doesn’t come to mind when we think of interesting and exotic birds, but the ruff is not one to forget! It’s native to the far north, often spotted in Norway. During the spring mating season male ruffs grow mane-like plumage around their heads and necks and come in a wide range of colors. These birds might not be as bold as, say, the Gouldian finch, but the sheer number of shades of brown, grey, and white they sport is stunning. Ruffs are closely related to the sandpiper and true to form, they prefer to stick to the mudflats and marsh lands near the shore rather than venturing to the seashore.

European Waterbirds:

  • Greater Scaup
  • King Eider
  • Roseate Tern
  • Long-tailed Duck
  • Common Goldeneye
  • Red-breasted Merganser
  • Goosander
  • Yellow-billed Loon
  • European Herring Gull
  • Horned Grebe
  • Red-necked Phalarope
  • Black-legged Kittiwake
  • Arctic Tern
  • Black-necked Grebe
  • Great Cormorant
  • European Shag
  • Common Eider
  • Common Scoter
  • Great White Pelican

roseate spoonbills
With their wide bills, roseate spoonbills are perfectly adapted to foraging for food in the swampy everglades.

North American Aquatic Birds

When we think of pink birds, flamingos are usually the first to come to mind, but the roseate spoonbill is a similar pink color for the same reason — diet! These birds feed off of krill, small fish and anything else they can forage from the swampy water around the mangroves in southern Florida. In addition to preferring mangrove trees to the marshy grasslands preferred by flamingos, roseate spoonbills have wide spoon-shaped beaks that allow them to sift through the soft bottom to find prey. Like Gouldian finches the roseate spoonbills are threatened by disappearing habitat, but they have made a comeback before. In the 1800s these birds were nearly hunted to extinction for their plumage, but came back strong in the 20th century.

You can find unique aquatic birds worthy of attention on every continent. Whether it’s a brilliant adaptation, a quirky mating ritual, or stunning plumage, birds that love water can provide hours of enjoyment. Unfortunately, rising water temperatures, shrinking habitat, and declining aquatic ecosystems threaten a lot of aquatic birds, but many of these birds have been threatened before and have made huge comebacks, so it’s not too late to ensure their continued survival.

North American Aquatic Birds:

  • Red-legged Kittiwake
  • Greater Scaup
  • King Eider
  • Roseate Tern
  • Labrador Duck
  • Surf Scoter
  • Common Goldeneye
  • Red-breasted Merganser
  • Goosander
  • Yellow-billed Loon
  • Horned Grebe
  • Red-necked Phalarope
  • Heermann’s Gull
  • Brown Noddy
  • Black-necked Grebe
  • Thayer’s Gull
  • Brandt’s Cormorant
  • Red-throated Loon
  • Black Noddy
  • Brown Pelican
  • Red Phalarope

Which aquatic birds are your favorites? Which do you think should have been included on this list?

Article Categories:
Birds · Lifestyle

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *