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How to Identify Florida Waterbirds (With Photos and Videos)

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

A variety of white Florida waterbirds. Can you tell which is which?

A variety of white Florida waterbirds. Can you tell which is which?

Identifying the Waterbirds of Florida

It isn't always easy to tell waterbirds apart. Was that a great egret, snowy egret, or white ibis? Many waterbirds 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, you've come to the right place. Below you'll see photos and videos of each waterbird and a description of identifying characteristics.

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

In This Article

  • Waterbird identification cheat sheet
  • Photos and videos
  • Recommended birding guides
Large waterbird identification guide

Large waterbird identification guide

Waterbird Identification Cheat Sheet

  • Great Egret - Look for an all-white bird with black legs and a yellow bill. It flies with the neck drawn up.
  • Snowy Egret - Look for an all-white but smaller bird than the great egret. It has yellow feet, black legs, and a black bill.
  • 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.
  • 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 - 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.
  • Black-Crowned Night Heron - This bird is shorter and bulkier than the other herons.
  • 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.
  • Anhinga - Notice their long, snakelike neck, straight bill, and 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.
  • 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.
  • Wood Stork - They look graceful in flight, but when seen close up you will note the lack of feathers on the neck and head.
  • Pelican - You might initially mistake a white pelican for a swan. The very large beak, however, alerts you that these big birds are white pelicans.
  • Roseate Spoonbill - Pinkish waterbird with a broad, spatula-like beak.
  • Flamingo - Pinkish waterbird with a very flexible neck that can contort in all directions, long spindly legs, and a bulky beak with black tip.
  • Common Gallinule - Watch for a duck-like shape and a distinct red shield on its forehead.

Black-Crowned Night Heron Photo

The black-crowned night heron is shorter and bulkier than the other herons.

The black-crowned night heron is shorter and bulkier than the other herons.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

Anhinga Diving: Crystal River, Florida

Pink Flamingo Photo

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

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

Spoonbill vs. Flamingo: How to Tell the Difference

  • Spoonbill: Wide, flat, spatula-like beak. Has a heavier body and a thicker neck than the flamingo.
  • Flamingo: Can contort its neck in many ways. The underside of the wings have dark markings.

Common Gallinule Photo

Gallinule at Everglades National Park, Florida

Gallinule at Everglades National Park, Florida

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 while you're out in the field.

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)

Further Reading

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~

annieangel1 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

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