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Identify the Water Birds

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

A Variety of White Florida Waterbirds.

Which is which?

Which is which?

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).


Identifying White Water Birds

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.

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.

What's on My Bookshelf?

  • Florida's Fabulous Waterbirds: Their Stories by Winston Williams
  • Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of Florida
  • Birds of Florida by Bill Pranty
  • Birds of Florida's Gulf Coast: Folding Guide
  • Earth Sky & Water Poster - Coastal & Wetland Birds of Florida (not a book)

Great Blue Heron

Close up of the blue heron's head

Close up of the blue heron's head

Blue heron in flight

Blue heron in flight

waterbirds
waterbirds

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)

waterbirds
Blue heron with young

Blue heron with young

Little blue heron with breeding plumage

Little blue heron with breeding plumage

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 a black tip. Look for it along the water's edge. It has greenish legs and is much smaller than the great blue heron.

Rookery Photos of Little Blue Heron

I'm privileged to go past a rookery of Little Blue Herons when I'm heading from the second to the third hole of the golf course. The 'little' is part of their name, not just their description. Most people think of the Great Blue Heron and don't give

Black-crowned Night-Heron

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

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

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

Anhinga Diving - at Crystal River, Florida

Photos of Anhingas in Florida

This anhinga just caught a good-sized catfish.

This anhinga just caught a good-sized catfish.

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.

The neck is snake-like. The beak is pointed for spearing fish.

The neck is snake-like. The beak is pointed for spearing fish.

Sometimes the anhingas are more brown and not as black.

Sometimes the anhingas are more brown and not as black.

Telling an Anhinga From a Cormorant - Video Tutorial

Comparing Anhingas and Cormorants

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

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

The Pelicans: White and Brown

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

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

Not swans. The very large beak alerts you that these big birds are white pelicans.

Not swans. The very large beak alerts you that these big birds are white pelicans.

Different view of a brown pelican.

Different view of a brown pelican.

Video of a Brown Pelican

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.

The dark wing tips are visible when they fly or stretch out the wing like this one is doing.

The dark wing tips are visible when they fly or stretch out the wing like this one is doing.

A wood stork in Florida.

A wood stork in Florida.

It's not uncommon to see wood storks hanging out together.

It's not uncommon to see wood storks hanging out together.

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 (photos by Virginia Allain)

Limpkin taking flight

Limpkin taking flight

Limpkin family feeding along the lake shore.

Limpkin family feeding along the lake shore.

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.

A limpkin dunking for a meal along the lake shore.

A limpkin dunking for a meal along the lake shore.

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

Note the spoonbill in the middle of a flock of ibis. At first glance, one might overlook it, but it is larger than the ibis and a light pink. The ibis are white. The broad, spatula-like beak is its most distinct feature.

Note the spoonbill in the middle of a flock of ibis. At first glance, one might overlook it, but it is larger than the ibis and a light pink. The ibis are white. The broad, spatula-like beak is its most distinct feature.

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.

Pink Flamingos

You don't usually see these in Central Florida, but this batch are living happily in Gatorland in Kissimmee. Note the very flexible necks, the long spindly legs, the black tip on the bulky beak.

You don't usually see these in Central Florida, but this batch are living happily in Gatorland in Kissimmee. Note the very flexible necks, the long spindly legs, the black tip on the bulky beak.

Notice in This Video That the Dark Underside of the Flamingo's Wings

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

Counter added on March 18, 2012

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Virginia Allain

I Hope You Enjoyed Your Tour of the Water Birds

Virginia Allain (author) from Central Florida on July 29, 2015:

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

BarbaraCasey on July 29, 2015:

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.

Jennifer P Tanabe from Red Hook, NY on February 23, 2015:

These birds are all so beautiful - and great photos!

ruth-jolly-3 on January 25, 2014:

very informative article

gottaloveit2 on November 04, 2013:

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 (author) from Central Florida on March 26, 2013:

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

Loretta Livingstone from Chilterns, UK. on March 26, 2013:

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.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on March 24, 2013:

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

gstorrs on February 20, 2013:

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

kimmanleyort on February 20, 2013:

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

norma-holt on February 14, 2013:

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

Peggy Hazelwood from Desert Southwest, U.S.A. on January 14, 2013:

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

Pat Goltz on October 12, 2012:

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 (author) from Central Florida on October 04, 2012:

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

Tom Maybrier on October 04, 2012:

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 (author) from Central Florida on September 20, 2012:

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

shauna1934 on September 20, 2012:

Does the Ospree count as a water bird of Florida?

Laraine Sims from Lake Country, B.C. on September 20, 2012:

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

SteveKaye on April 04, 2012:

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

Ann Hinds from So Cal on April 01, 2012:

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

Teri Villars from Phoenix, Arizona on March 24, 2012:

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

Fay Favored from USA on March 20, 2012:

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

JeanJohnson LM on July 01, 2011:

Beautiful bird photographs, it was enjoyable to view them

Renaissance Woman from Colorado on May 12, 2011:

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!

Vladimir from Australia on May 01, 2011:

I enjoy watching waterbirds too - any birds really.

sukkran trichy from Trichy/Tamil Nadu on April 01, 2011:

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

Ann from Yorkshire, England on March 17, 2011:

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.

anonymous on December 19, 2010:

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.

Jeanette from Australia on November 30, 2010:

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

ElizabethJeanAl on December 28, 2009:

I do love my birds.

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

Lizzy