31 Types Of WATER BIRDS in Virginia (ID Guide With Photos)
Did you recently spot a water bird in Virginia? In that case you’ll probably want to know what species you saw.
Identifying the water bird species of Virginia is not as easy as you might think, since there are many different types of aquatic birds that live in the Old Dominion State.
To help you identify the bird you saw, we’ll cover the common water birds of Virginia in this article.
What types of water birds are found in Virginia?
There are 31 types of water birds commonly found in Virginia, which are described in full detail below.
Scientific name: Anas platyrhynchos
Mallards are the most common type of duck in Virginia, and actually the most common ducks in the whole of North America for that matter.
These ducks are extremely well adapted to man made habitats, and are often found on ponds and lakes in suburban parks.
Male Mallards can be recognized by their glossy green head and bright yellow beak, while females are uniformly mottled brown.
Scientific name: Anas acuta
The Northern Pintail is relatively easy to identify by its extremely long, pointed tail. It is an overall slender duck with a long neck.
Male Northern Pintails have a predominantly light grey body and a dark brown head with a characteristic white stripe flowing down its neck.
They are winter birds in Virginia, where they occur from October to March, and inhabit a wide range of water habitats including lakes, estuaries and marshes.
Scientific name: Mareca americana
American Wigeons are winter visitors in the state of Virginia, where they can be seen from September through April.
Males can be recognized by their dark green eyepatch and white crown, while females are more inconspicuous and largely brownish gray.
They forage on ponds, lakes, marshes and harvested fields. However, they tend to be very wary, and you’ll need a good spotting scope to observe them from a distance.
Scientific name: Aythya valisineria
The Canvasback is a type of diving duck that feeds by eating tubers and plants from the bottom of ponds and lakes.
The male is easily recognized due to its dark chestnut head with red eyes, light gray body, black chest, and black tail.
Females look similar, but are more muted in their colors. These ducks winter in northern Virginia from October to April.
Scientific name: Bucephala albeola
These small black-and-white diving ducks have a large head, and the male has a characteristic large white patch contrasting with a glossy purplish green face.
Females and juvenile birds, on the other hand, are largely gray and white, with a brown head that has a white cheek patch.
Buffleheads don’t breed in Virginia, but they regularly winter in the state from November through March.
Scientific name: Spatula clypeata
The male Northern Shoveler is one of the most colorful waterfowl found in North America. It has a white chest, green head, chestnut flanks, and dark wings with a light blue patch.
Both sexes are also easily recognized by their oversized, flattened bill, which they use to filter small aquatic invertebrates and plant seeds out of the water.
Northern Shovelers are rare winter visitors along the coast of Virginia, and can be seen in the state from September to April.
Scientific name: Spatula discors
Adult male Blue-winged Tealshave a powdery blue forewing, as well as a dark green rear margin of the wing. This coloration is most clearly seen in flight.
These small ducks prefer marshland and ponds, and can be seen in saltwater and brackish water habitats outside of the breeding season.
They are regular winter visitors in Virginia, but migrate north to Canada and the northern USA during the summer.
Scientific name: Anas crecca
The Green-winged Teal is one of the smallest ducks in North America, and males can be recognized by their chestnut brown head with a broad green stripe that extends from the eye down the neck.
While females are harder to identify than males, both sexes have a bright green wing patch that becomes visible when they take to the wing.
The Green-winged Teal is a winter visitor in Virginia, where it frequents shallow lakes and other wetlands.
Scientific name: Aix sponsa
The Wood Duck is another stunningly colored duck species that breeds in Virginia and is a year-round resident in the Old Dominion State.
Wood Ducks live in wetlands that are adjacent to woodland habitats, as they nest in tree holes.
They also accept nest boxes, which can be used to attract them to areas lacking suitable nest holes.
Scientific name: Anser caerulescens
Similar to Trumpeter Swans, Snow Geese are winter visitors in Virginia, but the number of wintering Snow Geese has rapidly increased in recent years.
While Snow Geese were formerly rare winter visitors in Virginia, these birds are now commonly seen in the winter throughout the state.
Wintering Snow Geese can be seen all over Virginia, but are most commonly found in the eastern part. These birds arrive in October, and most of them leave by March.
Scientific name: Branta canadensis
The Canada Goose is one of the most easily recognizable aquatic birds, due to its white cheeks that contrast with its jet black neck and head.
They are breeding birds in Canada and northern States, and fly south every fall in large V formations that herald the start of the cold season.
Canada Geese are year-round residents in northern Virginia, and sometimes show up as vagrants in other parts of the state.
Great Blue Heron
Scientific name: Ardea herodias
The Great Blue Heron is one of the most common herons found in the Old Dominion State, where it can be seen year round.
With a wingspan of up to 6 feet, this heron is one of Virginia’s big birds. It is almost entirely blue gray, except for a white throat and eye stripe, as well as dark gray wing feathers.
Great Blue Herons can be found in many wetland habitats. You can find them in both saltwater and freshwater marshes, flooded fields, mangrove swamps, and lake shorelines.
Scientific name: Ardea alba
The Great Egret is one of the most common heron species in Virginia, and outside of the state it has a range that spans nearly the whole planet.
This Virginia bird is largely white, except for its long, black legs and yellow beak.
This heron lives in both fresh and saltwater habitats, and often nests in large colonies on the shores of marshes, lakes, and rivers.
Great Egrets forage in any type of shallow water bodies, including ponds, lakes, rivers, estuaries, as well as rice fields and other flooded areas.
Scientific name: Butorides virescens
The Green Heron is a relatively common water bird in Virginia. It’s a medium-sized heron with an olive-green body and black wings.
These herons tend to live near water, so they’re often seen around lakes, rivers, ponds, or even swimming pools.
They eat fish, frogs, snails, small reptiles, amphibians, and crustaceans. They nest in trees or shrubs but sometimes build their nests on islands.
Little Blue Heron
Scientific name: Egretta caerulea
While adult Little Blue Herons are slate blue, young birds are entirely white during their first year.
These small herons are common breeding birds of Virginia that can be seen year-round.
During winter, their numbers swell in the state, due to birds from further north wintering in Virginia. At this time they are sometimes observed together with reddish egrets.
These herons feed on small fish, mollusks and crustaceans, with crayfish forming a large part of their diet.
They prefer aquatic habitats, where these birds hunt by wading in shallow wetlands, and are only rarely seen away from bodies of water.
Scientific name: Bubulcus ibis
Smaller than Great Egrets, Cattle Egrets have shorter necks and are mostly white with streaks of brownish orange on the head, throat, and back.
The Cattle Egret is a relatively new species in the New World that originated in Europe and Africa.
These water birds are an invasive species in Virginia
Nobody knows how these herons crossed the Atlantic, but they were first discovered breeding in Brazil, and later in Virginia, where these birds first appeared in late 1955.
They inhabit a wide range of wetland ecosystems, ranging from shallow saltwater zones to freshwater ponds, swamps, and lakes.
Scientific name: Egretta thula
The Snowy Egret is another bird with extensive white plumage that has become an increasingly common bird across Virginia.
This bird is found in practically all types of wetland environments, from small ponds to saltwater shorelines and everything in between.
Snowy Egrets feed on fish, crabs, snails, amphibians, and crayfish, which they find in shallow water.
These herons either remain completely still and wait for prey to approach, or they stir up the water with their feet to flush out prey to the surface of the water.
While the Snowy Egret is a breeding bird in Virginia, it is much more common in the state during the winter months, when large numbers can be observed in the coastal areas of Virginia.
Black-crowned Night Heron
Scientific name: Nycticorax nycticorax
The Black-crowned Night-Heron is true to its name, and is most active at dusk and during the night, when it forages for frogs and small fish in Virginia wetlands.
These night-herons are common breeding birds and year-round residents in Virginia, though they can be hard to spot during the day, unless you find their daytime hiding spots.
Another great distinguishing feature of these night birds of Virginia is their loud squawking sounds, which they utter at dusk when they fly out from their roost.
Scientific name: Botaurus lentiginosus
American Bitterns are small herons that live in marshes and swamps, and are extremely well camouflaged to blend in with aquatic vegetation.
They can blend in with the water plants surrounding them thanks to their mottled brown patterning, as well as the way they hold their heads pointed upwards while remaining still amid the reeds.
American Bitterns eat a wide variety of aquatic organisms, including fish, crabs, insects, frogs, and small rodents.
Scientific name: Ixobrychus exilis
The Least Bittern is hard to spot, since it usually remains hidden in dense reed beds. The best way to identify one of these herons is by its coo-coo-coo call.
The best places to see these herons are marshes and wetlands with dense vegetation, where they can be observed hunting at the water’s edge.
Least Bitterns feed on fish, amphibians, molluscs, insects, and even rodents.
They forage by grasping individual reeds with their talons while waiting for small aquatic animals to pass by in the water underneath them.
Scientific name: Eudocimus albus
This species is easy to recognize due to its entirely white plumage and long vividly orange colored beak that is curved downwards.
While it is most commonly found in coastal areas, the White Ibis prefers to forage in freshwater habitats.
This bird feeds on insects, crayfish, crustaceans and small fish. Crayfish form a large part of its diet in areas where they are common.
These birds with long beaks are extremely social, and like to nest in large colonies in forests close to wetlands. In fact, it’s rare to see a solitary White Ibis.
Scientific name: Podilymbus podiceps
This small diving bird in Virginia is easily overlooked, due to its small size and inconspicuous brown coloration.
Pied-billed Grebes are expert divers that hunt fish and other small underwater animals, including small crayfish and insect larvae.
These small waterbirds are widespread and common throughout Virginia, where they can be encountered year-round on lakes and ponds with generous vegetation.
Scientific name: Lophodytes cucullatus
The Hooded Merganser is a small merganser with a large head. They breed throughout the eastern United States, as well as the Pacific Northwest.
Males can be recognized by their black and white crest, as well as a black and white body with chestnut brown flanks.
These mergansers are year-round residents in Virginia, where they can be encountered on small lakes, rivers, and other aquatic habitats.
They forage by diving for small fish and aquatic invertebrates.
Scientific name: Gavia immer
If you spotted a black waterbird with white dots, it is most likely the Common Loon (also known as the Great Northern Diver).
These large water birds breed in northern areas of North America and can be seen along the coastline of Virginia during the winter.
The common loon is a fantastic diver and is super stealthy when it hunts underwater, allowing it to sneak up on fish without even a splash. It can dive to depths of up to two-hundred fifty feet.
To top that off, these birds can stay submerged for up to five minutes and even swallow their prey while they are still underwater.
Scientific name: Fulica americana
American Coots are regularly observed congregating in huge flocks on open water (especially during migration).
While American Coots are water birds, they don’t have webbed feet like ducks, but instead have broad, lobed toes.
In addition to their ability to swim on top of the water, Coots are also strong divers, and often forage for food on the bottom of shallow lakes and ponds.
American Bald Eagles like to prey on Coots, and will try to tire out an individual by repeatedly forcing it to dive until it is too exhausted and gives up
These black Virginia birds may be found in a variety of aquatic habitats, including urban park ponds, reservoirs, marshes, and lake shores.
Scientific name: Gallinula galeata
The Common Gallinule is a medium-sized marsh bird with relatively long legs and toes.
Both the male and female have a charcoal body color with a white stripe running down the side, and their outer tail feathers are also white.
Common Gallinules can swim in the water like ducks or geese, and are also able to walk on top of floating plants.
These rails usually remain in close proximity to the protection offered by marsh plants, although they sometimes swim in open water.
Scientific name: Phalacrocorax auritus
The Double-crested Cormorant is a large, dark waterbird with a long neck and blue eyes. It is a year-round resident in Virginia, and is commonly found on coastal waters.
This cormorant likes to gather in large flocks that roost on trees close to water. It is a skilled diver and hunts fish with its large, black bill.
When a group of cormorants flies together, they like to form up in V shaped formations, which can be seen in the evening, when the birds fly to their roosting spots in Virginia.
Scientific name: Pelecanus occidentalis
Brown Pelicans are the only pelicans found in Virginia, where they dive for fish by plunging head-first into the water.
Adult Brown Pelicans are grayish brown with a dark belly, and can be easily recognized by their massive bill.
While this pelican species was endangered a few decades ago due to pesticide poisoning, it has now recovered and is once more a common breeding bird and year-round resident in the state.
Scientific name: Megaceryle alcyon
Adult Belted Kingfishers are almost entirely teal blue on top, except for a white collar that separates the cap from the rest of the body.
The Belted Kingfisher prefers habitats directly adjacent to lakes and rivers, where it hunts for fish in shallow water by diving headfirst in to catch them.
This water bird species is a partial migratory bird, but can be seen year round in southern parts of its range, including Virginia.
This blue-colored bird of Virginia feeds almost exclusively on small fish, and is therefore rarely seen far away from water.
Scientific name: Pandion haliaetus
The Osprey has a wingspan of up to 69 in (5.5 ft), and resembles an eagle in size.
Ospreys are easy to identify, due to their white underparts and blackish gray upperparts, as well as black wrist patches on their lower wings.
This large Virginia raptor is the only bird of prey that plunges into water to catch fish, often becoming entirely submerged in the water as it attempts to grab a fish with its feet.
Due to this style of hunting, Ospreys are almost always found close to water, except during migration, when they will cross areas without water.
The Osprey is a regular though not very common breeding bird throughout the state of Virginia.
In summary, here are the 31 different types of water birds found in Virginia:
- Northern Pintail
- American Wigeon
- Northern Shoveler
- Blue-winged Teal
- Green-winged Teal
- Wood Duck
- Snow Goose
- Canada Goose
- Great Blue Heron
- Great Egret
- Green Heron
- Little Blue Heron
- Cattle Egret
- Snowy Egret
- Black-crowned Night Heron
- American Bittern
- Least Bittern
- White Ibis
- Pied-billed Grebe
- Common Loon
- Hooded Merganser
- American Coot
- Common Gallinule
- Double-crested Cormorant
- Brown Pelican
- Belted Kingfisher
If you’ve spotted one of these while bird watching in Virginia, but aren’t sure which species of bird it was, check our detailed bird identification guide above with photos.
If you enjoyed this article, check out our guide to the yellow birds of Virginia.