29 Types of Water Birds in California

Types of Water Birds in California
Photo by Fer Nando

California is home to a wide variety of water birds, from the iconic seagulls to the majestic pelicans.

Whether you’re an avid birdwatcher or just an occasional admirer of these feathered friends, learning more about the types of water birds in California can be a rewarding experience.

California is an amazing state full of diverse wildlife and scenery. From the beaches of the coast to the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, there is something for everyone.

One of the fascinating elements of the California landscape is its variety of water birds. 

These types of water birds in California are found in many different habitats throughout the state and can provide hours of entertainment for bird-watchers and nature lovers alike.

Our guide will look at the different types of water birds in California, their habitats, and how you can spot them.

Read on to learn more about California’s wonderful world of water birds!

1. American Bittern

The American Bittern is first on our list of types of water birds in California. It is a medium-sized wading bird with a long neck, short legs, and a broad wingspan. 

Its back is brown with buff-colored stripes, and its breast is yellowish-brown. It is one of the largest heron species in North America and can be found along the coasts and estuaries of California.

The American Bittern is primarily a fish eater and can be found foraging for food during the day, especially near shallow waters. They nest in marshes, estuaries, and wet meadows, where they build their nest from reeds and grasses. 

They are solitary birds, preferring to hunt alone, and are usually heard rather than seen due to their secretive habits. In the fall and winter months, they migrate south and can be seen roosting in trees or near wetlands.

2. Green Heron

The Green Heron is one of the most well-known types of water birds in California. They are native to the state and can often be found near bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, and ponds. 

These types of water birds in California are mostly brown in color with a greenish hue and have long, pointed beaks. They also have white spots on their wings which can be seen when they are flying. 

Green Herons are omnivorous, meaning they eat plants and animals, mainly feeding small fish, insects, and amphibians. Green Herons are considered shy birds and usually stay out of sight when people or other animals are nearby. This makes them difficult to spot and observe in their natural habitat. 

They are also very vocal and can make various sounds, such as grunts, squawks, and croaks. Green Herons typically breed during the summer when plenty of food is available for them. During this time, they build large nests of twigs and branches near the edge of a body of water.

3. Great Egret

The Great Egret is one of California’s most common types of water birds. It has white plumage and a yellow bill. This type of bird can be seen along the coast, on rivers and ponds, and in marshes. 

Its long legs allow it to wade in shallow waters for food. The Great Egret primarily feeds on small fish, frogs, and aquatic invertebrates like crustaceans and mollusks. It is a medium-sized bird, reaching up to three feet tall and having a wingspan of four feet.

The Great Egret is widely distributed throughout the state, from San Diego to Humboldt County, and can also be found in other western states like Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. In some areas, this species nests in colonies with hundreds of birds. 

They usually build their nests in trees near water sources, where they can easily access food. The Great Egret displays beautiful plumage with bright green and yellow feathers during the breeding season. This species is a great example of the diversity of water birds found in California.

4. Cattle Egret

The Cattle Egret is a medium-sized heron found in California and other parts of the United States. It is easily recognizable by its white plumage, orange-yellow bill and legs, and black lores. 

The Cattle Egret feeds on insects, frogs, fish, lizards, and other small animals, as well as eggs and nestlings of other birds. It is commonly seen near livestock, where it feeds on the insects attracted to the animals. 

Cattle Egrets are often seen in wetlands, ponds, marshes, and lakes. They are also known to roost in trees and shrubs, making them an ideal bird to spot in California’s diverse habitats.

5. Snowy Egret

The Snowy Egret is a beautiful water bird commonly found in California’s wetlands. This bird species has white plumage, a long, curved yellow bill, and black legs. 

The Snowy Egret is one of the most common species of egrets and can be seen near rivers, lakes, marshes, and other wetland areas throughout the state. They usually hunt for fish, frogs, insects, and other small aquatic prey in shallow waters. 

Snowy Egrets build their nests in trees and bushes, making them easy to spot in the summer months. The Snowy Egret is an important part of California’s ecosystem, helping to keep waterways clean and balanced by preying on smaller fish and aquatic creatures.

6. Sandhill Crane

The sandhill crane is a large species of water bird found throughout California. They are migratory birds, wintering in the Central Valley and traveling to northern parts of the state in spring and summer. 

These cranes stand about four feet tall and have a wingspan of over five feet. Sandhill cranes are usually grayish-brown with a bright red patch on the crown of their head. These graceful types of water birds in California are found in shallow wetlands, marshes, and estuaries, where they feed on crustaceans, insects, and other aquatic animals. 

They can also be seen in nearby open fields and meadows, where they eat waste grain or scavenge for food. Sandhill cranes are among the most vocal of all water birds, and their unique trilling calls can be heard echoing across the wetlands of California.

7. White-Faced Ibis

The White-faced Ibis is a medium-sized wading bird found in California and other parts of the western United States. It is identifiable by its white face, dark brown body, and reddish legs. 

They are most commonly seen in wetland habitats such as marshes, lakes, ponds, and lagoons. These types of water birds in California forage insects, frogs, and small fish by probing their long bills into mud or shallow water. They also feed on worms, crustaceans, and mollusks.

In California, White-faced Ibises nest in colonies near marshes, rivers, and wetlands. They construct cup-shaped nests made of reeds and grasses that are placed on the ground or close to the water’s edge. 

The females lay a clutch of three to five pale green eggs which hatch in approximately three weeks. During nesting season, these types of water birds in California can be observed performing intricate courtship displays, such as bobbing their heads and displaying their bright red eyes.

8. Common Loon

The Common Loon, also known as the Great Northern Diver, is a large, iconic water bird that can be found in California. It is most easily recognized by its striking black-and-white plumage, red eyes, and eerie call. 

This loon species prefers to inhabit shallow lakes and ponds with abundant aquatic vegetation and plenty of room for diving and swimming. They feed primarily on fish, amphibians, insects, and crustaceans, using their long bill to search the bottom of the lake for food. The breeding season for this species is generally from late April through August. 

During this period, they will lay one or two eggs in a shallow nest located near the water’s edge. Common Loons typically mate for life and stay together even after the chicks have left the nest. The Common Loon is an important water bird species in California and is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

9. American Coot

American Coots, also known as mud hens, are small water birds in California commonly found in the freshwater wetlands of California. These types of water birds in California have dark gray plumage and red eyes and can be easily distinguished from other water birds by their white-tipped bills. 

American Coots prefer shallow water habitats like ponds, marshes, and lakes. They can be seen foraging for food in these areas and often swim together in small flocks. When it comes to nesting, American Coots create nests of aquatic vegetation, laying up to 8 eggs at a time. 

American Coots are quite vocal birds, making various calls ranging from soft clucks to loud honks. All in all, American Coots are beautiful and interesting birds that can be found throughout California.

10. American White Pelican

The American White Pelican is one of California’s most iconic types of water birds. These majestic birds have a wingspan that can reach nine feet wide, making them a majestic sight as they soar through the sky. 

They are quite a unique species as they often feed by dipping their large beaks into the water and scooping up fish. American White Pelicans typically migrate south during the colder winter months but can still be spotted in some parts of California throughout the year. 

These magnificent types of water birds in California can be seen near lakes, rivers, wetlands, and estuaries, where they congregate in large flocks. They are known for their cooperative fishing habits, working together to drive small fish into shallow waters. 

Their long curved necks make them easy to spot, and their striking white plumage can even be seen glinting in the sunlight from a distance. American White Pelicans are an important part of California’s ecosystem, helping to maintain healthy fish populations and providing stunning visuals for people lucky enough to see them in person.

11. Brown Pelican

The Brown Pelican is a large water bird found in California and throughout the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic. They usually live along the coast and feed by plunging headfirst from heights of over 60 feet. 

Brown Pelicans are light brown with white bellies and have long necks and beaks reaching up to 12 inches long. The longest-living Brown Pelican on record was estimated to be at least 35 years old. 

Brown Pelicans can often be seen soaring above the ocean’s surface, flapping their wings in wide circles as they search for fish. In the winter months, they form large flocks and migrate south, searching for warmer climates.

12. Eared Grebe

The Eared Grebe is a medium-sized water bird that is native to California. It has a black crown and nape, with a white face, breast, and belly. It also has yellow eyes and red legs. 

The Eared Grebe feeds on insects, small crustaceans, and aquatic plants. It can often be seen foraging for food in shallow waters or along the shoreline of ponds, lakes, and rivers. During the breeding season, these birds form large colonies and can be seen nesting in marshes, lakes, and ponds. 

They also perform elaborate courtship displays and rituals. Eared Grebes are an important part of the local ecosystem in California, providing essential nutrients to the surrounding environment.

13. Pied-Billed Grebe

The Pied-billed Grebe is a small water bird native to California. It is easily identifiable by its unique, black-and-white striped bill. Pied-billed Grebes are generally found near bodies of fresh or saltwater, including lakes, ponds, marshes, and estuaries. They feed mainly on small fish, crustaceans, mollusks, aquatic insects, and other invertebrates. 

During the breeding season, pairs of Pied-billed Grebes can be seen building a floating nest in the shallows of wetlands. This species is a relatively common sight in California and can often be spotted at San Francisco Bay and many inland wetlands. 

Pied-billed Grebes are well-adapted to their aquatic environment, with excellent diving abilities and webbed feet that help them swim quickly. They also have excellent camouflage abilities, making them difficult to spot when resting or swimming on the water’s surface. 

With their short legs and wide wingspan, they can fly swiftly and gracefully over the water. Overall, the Pied-billed Grebe is a valuable member of the California avifauna, making it an important species to protect and conserve.

14. Double-Crested Cormorant

The Double-crested Cormorant is a type of water bird that can be found in California. These water birds in California are large, with adults reaching up to 25 inches in length and a wingspan of up to 50 inches. 

They are easily recognizable by their black feathers and a yellow patch on the throat. Double-crested cormorants are typically found near lakes, rivers, and other large bodies of water, where they feed on fish, crustaceans, and other aquatic animals. They are strong swimmers and divers and have been known to dive as deep as 40 feet in search of food. 

In addition to being good swimmers, they are also good flyers, so they often travel in flocks to other areas in search of food. The Double-crested Cormorant is an important part of California’s water bird population and contributes to the overall ecological health of the state’s wetlands.

15. Northern Pintail

The Northern Pintail is next on our list of types of water birds in California. This beautiful duck has a brown head, a grayish-brown body, and a black tail with white sides. 

The bill is gray with a black tip. The male has an elongated tail which makes it easy to identify him. They tend to inhabit marshes, ponds, and lakes, typically gathering in large flocks during winter. 

They are also often seen along the Pacific coast from Washington to California. They feed on aquatic plants and insects, usually by dabbling in shallow water or mudflats. During their breeding season, they can be seen in pairs, nesting along the water’s edge. 

The Northern Pintail is an amazing sight to behold, and it’s no wonder they have become so popular among bird watchers in California. Overall, the Northern Pintail is an important species of waterfowl in California, and its presence has been noted since the early 1800s. 

It’s one of the most common ducks you’ll find here, particularly during the winter when many migrate south. As long as wetlands and water sources remain available, this species should continue to thrive in California for years to come.

16. American Wigeon

The American Wigeon is also on our list of types of water birds in California. These types of water birds in California have bright white and gray feathers, as well as a distinctive white crown on their head. 

They can often be seen flying in flocks near marshes and lakes or around fields and pastures where they search for food. They are also quite social, often congregating with other waterfowl species. American Wigeon typically feeds on small invertebrates and seeds, making them a great addition to any birdwatcher’s list.

The American Wigeon is a beautiful sight in California and is also important to the local ecology. They are an integral part of the food chain, providing sustenance to larger predators such as eagles, hawks, and owls. 

In addition, their droppings add nitrogen to the soil, making it more fertile and providing a nutrient-rich environment for plants to grow. This helps maintain a healthy ecosystem and makes them an important part of California’s natural landscape.

17. Mallard

The Mallard is one of California’s most common and widespread types of water birds. It is a large duck with a gray body and green head. 

The Mallard is often seen swimming in lakes, rivers, marshes, and other wetland areas. During breeding, males are distinguished by their bright blue-green heads and iridescent bronze and black feathers. 

Females have mottled brown plumage with a dull blue-gray head and chest. The female’s call is a low, guttural quack, while the male makes a high-pitched whistle.

Mallards feed on aquatic insects, small fish, and plant matter. They build nests near water and will migrate south when the temperatures drop. While they can be found year-round in some areas of California, they are more likely to be spotted during the winter months. If you are lucky enough to see a Mallard, you can appreciate its beautiful colors and graceful flight.

18. Northern Shoveler

The Northern Shoveler is a medium-sized duck with a large, spoon-shaped bill that is easily distinguishable from other duck species. It has a light gray body, a dark greenish head, bright yellow eyes, and feet. 

The male has a black chest and rump, while the female has a brown chest and white rump. These types of water birds in California are commonly seen in wetlands such as lakes, ponds, and rivers throughout California. They feed mainly on aquatic insects and small fish, but they will also eat seeds and vegetation.

The Northern Shoveler breeds in California in the springtime and often nests in trees or shrubs along the shorelines of wetlands. The males are highly territorial during the breeding season and aggressively chase away competitors. 

These types of water birds in California are also migratory, traveling south in the winter months to warmer climates. While they may not be as flashy as some of their feathered counterparts, the Northern Shoveler is a beloved species in California’s wetlands.

19. Blue-Winged Teal

The Blue-winged Teal is one of California’s more common types of water birds. This species is most easily identified by its bright blue wings, chestnut flanks, and white barring on the sides of its head. 

The Blue-winged Teal is a medium-sized duck, usually measuring around 17 inches long and weighing approximately 16 ounces. It can be found in shallow wetlands and marshes during summer, feeding on invertebrates, grains, and seeds. During the winter months, this species migrates south to Mexico and Central America in search of warmer temperatures. 

The Blue-winged Teal is a beautiful species that add color and life to California’s wetlands. This species nests in thick marsh vegetation and builds floating nests lined with down. 

They form large flocks during their winter migration and roost in large numbers in wetlands throughout the state. It is important to protect the wetlands where these birds nest and feed so they will continue to provide us with beautiful views of these types of water birds in California.

20. Green-Winged Teal

The Green-winged Teal is a common type of waterfowl that can be found in California. These water birds in California are migratory and can often be seen around rivers, lakes, marshes, wetlands, and estuaries. 

They tend to flock in large numbers and are well known for their brilliant coloring. The males are especially eye-catching with their greenish-brown heads and gray bodies, while the females are duller and browner in color. This species feeds mostly on insects, crustaceans, and plant material. 

During the winter months, they may also feed on seeds and grain. Regarding nesting, Green-winged Teals prefer shallow water areas near marshlands or wetlands. They build their nests using vegetation that they find on the shoreline. 

In California, they can be seen from mid-May through mid-September, though they may stay in the area longer if food supplies remain abundant. These types of water birds in California provide a stunning sight to behold, so take some time to enjoy them if you get the chance!

21. Wood Duck

The Wood Duck is a unique water bird native to California and other parts of the western United States. It is a small duck with a mottled gray and brownish-black plumage, with white stripes down its neck and face. 

Wood Ducks have an unmistakable call that sounds like they are laughing. They prefer shallow wetlands with plenty of vegetation, where they can find their favorite food, aquatic insects, and crustaceans. 

These types of water birds in California can often be found near lakes and ponds, but they will also use rivers, streams, or estuaries. In California, the Wood Duck can be seen in the northern part of the state, along the Central Valley, and in the Sierra Nevada mountains. 

Wood Ducks can usually be spotted in pairs or small groups during the spring and summer months. During the winter, they migrate to warmer climates. With a wingspan of around 22 inches, they can fly at high speeds and make long migratory journeys. If you’re lucky enough to spot one of these majestic creatures in California, take a moment to appreciate the beauty of these special birds.

22. Bufflehead

The Bufflehead is one of the most striking types of water birds in California. They are small, stocky ducks with blackheads and back, white sides and chests, and white feathers on their neck. 

Buffleheads are usually found in shallow lakes and ponds throughout California. They feed primarily on aquatic invertebrates and plant matter but will also take some small fish. Bufflehead ducks are generally quite shy and solitary, so they tend to stay away from humans. 

However, they are very vocal birds and can often be heard making low “churr” sounds. During the breeding season, they can be seen in pairs or small flocks, with the male displaying the female loud “burp-burp” calls. 

Bufflehead ducks are an important part of the California ecosystem as they are a major predator of aquatic invertebrates. They also provide food for animals such as mink, raccoons, ospreys, and bald eagles. 

If you’re lucky enough to spot a Bufflehead in the wild, you’ll likely find them bobbing along the water’s surface in search of food. Keep your eyes peeled for these beautiful birds when visiting any lake or pond in California!

23. Hooded Merganser

The Hooded Merganser is a unique water bird that can be found in California. It is one of the smallest of the diving ducks, with a length of up to 16 inches and a wingspan of up to 27 inches. 

The head and neck are black, with a white patch on the side of the head. The rest of the body is brownish-gray with white patches on the wings and tail. They can be found in many aquatic habitats, such as rivers, streams, and marshes. 

They mainly feed on insects and small fish and occasionally frogs, crayfish, and aquatic plants. This species is considered to be uncommon in California and is best observed during the winter months when they gather in larger groups.

24. Common Merganser

The Common Merganser is a large, elegant, and somewhat secretive duck that can be found in California’s waters. These types of water birds in California are easily identifiable by their long, serrated bill, glossy green heads, and white bodies. 

The male is distinct with a chestnut head and white throat, while the female is gray-brown all over. They often gather in small flocks, and they mainly feed on fish and aquatic insects. 

These types of water birds in California nest in tree cavities, usually near water. They are generally seen in wooded wetlands, reservoirs, and other slow-moving streams. 

The Common Merganser is an important part of California’s avian population and plays a vital role in the ecosystem. This species helps to keep waterways clean by eating large amounts of fish, helping to maintain a natural balance in local waterways. In addition, these birds provide excellent bird-watching opportunities for residents and visitors alike. 

Birders can view them from shore or take them to the water to watch the birds in their natural habitat. Whether you’re looking for the best spots for birdwatching or want to appreciate the beauty of these magnificent birds, Common Mergansers should not be missed.

25. Canada Goose

The Canada Goose is also on our list of types of water birds in California, easily recognized by its black head, white cheek patches, and long, curved neck. It has a large body and wingspan and can often be seen flying in flocks over bodies of water. 

It prefers wetlands, lakes, and marshes but will also inhabit agricultural fields, parks, golf courses, and even urban areas. The Canada Goose feeds on grasses, grains, berries, insects, and aquatic plants, making them one of the region’s most versatile foraging water birds. They are considered game birds in some parts of the country, but in California, they are a protected species.

26. Snow Goose

The Snow Goose, also known as the blue goose, is a species of water bird native to California and parts of North America. This medium-sized goose is typically found along coastal areas, ponds, lakes, and wetlands. 

It has a white body with black wing tips, making it easy to identify. The Snow Goose’s diet consists mainly of grasses and grains, making it an important species in California’s ecosystem. It is also an important species for birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts due to its unique coloration and ability to move through large flocks.

27. Tundra Swan

The Tundra Swan is one of California’s most iconic types of water birds. This white swan with an orange bill can be seen in many bodies of water throughout the state. 

The Tundra Swan breeds in Alaska and northern Canada, but in winter, they can be seen as far south as central California, usually staying within the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. These types of water birds in California prefer shallow wetlands such as marshes, lakes, and rivers and often fly in flocks of up to a few hundred individuals. They mostly feed on aquatic plants and small invertebrates, including insects, crustaceans, and snails.

The Tundra Swan is a protected species in California and is listed as threatened on the federal endangered species list. It is also classified as a migratory bird and should be observed from a distance without any disturbance. 

It is important to take steps to protect these birds by reducing human interference with their natural habitats. Providing suitable areas for foraging and nesting, protecting them from predation, and controlling pollution are all important steps that need to be taken to ensure the survival of this species.

28. Mute Swan

The Mute Swan is one of California’s most recognizable types of water birds, with its large size and elegant white feathers. The Mute Swan is often found in lakes, ponds, rivers, and other freshwater bodies throughout the state. 

It has a long, S-shaped neck that often holds at an angle when swimming. This species has a distinctive orange bill with a black knob at the base. The Mute Swan is an omnivore, feeding on aquatic vegetation, small fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and insects. 

During the breeding season, the Mute Swan builds a large nest of aquatic plants in shallow water or marshy areas near the shore. They are fiercely territorial during this time and will chase away any intruders from their nesting site.

29. Great Blue Heron

Lastly, The Great Blue Heron is a large wading bird native to California. It has a long neck, gray-blue body, long yellow legs, and a wingspan of up to 6.5 feet. 

These types of water birds in California can often be seen along the coastline and in wetlands, where they feed on fish, amphibians, and small rodents. Great Blue Herons are highly social, often found in groups, and have been known to inhabit a wide variety of habitats, including rivers, lakes, marshes, and wooded swamps. 

They are also often seen nesting in colonies of trees near water bodies. With its distinct appearance, the Great Blue Heron is one of the most recognizable types of water birds in California.


California is home to a wide variety of water birds, each with unique characteristics and behaviors. From the majestic American White Pelican to the smaller Pied-billed Grebe, these types of water birds in California offer much beauty and grace to California’s shorelines and wetlands. 

With so wide varieties of water birds in California, there are endless opportunities to witness these amazing creatures in their natural habitats. If you’re a birdwatcher, nature lover, or just someone who loves the outdoors, California is the perfect place to explore!

Our guide has provided an overview of the different types of water birds in California, from swans and ducks to shorebirds and more.

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