What kinds of water birds can you find in Alaska?
Visit any lake, river, or wetland, and you are almost certain to see some type of bird in the water, whether it’s a duck searching for food in the shallows or a heron stalking prey along the shore.
25 water bird species in Alaska:
Here is how the below list is organized. Click the link to jump straight to that section!
Ducks, geese, and swans (#1 – #19)
Herons and cranes (#20 – #21)
Ducks, Geese, & Swans:
- Anas platyrhynchos
- Males have a bright green head, thin white collar, dark reddish-brown chest, yellow bill, and a black rump with a white-tipped tail.
- Females are mottled brown with orange and brown bills.
- Both sexes have purple-blue secondary feathers on their wing, which is most visible when standing or flying.
My guess is that almost everyone is familiar with the Mallard. These ducks are the most common water birds in Alaska!
- RELATED: Types of Ducks in Alaska! (ID Guide)
Mallard Range Map
Mallards are extremely comfortable around people, which is why these adaptable ducks are so widespread. They are found in virtually any wetland habitat, no matter where it’s located. We even find these water birds in our swimming pool every summer and must chase them away so they don’t make a mess on our deck! 🙂
When you think of a duck quacking, it is almost inevitably a female Mallard. If there is a better duck sound, we haven’t heard it! Interestingly, males do not quack like females but instead make a raspy call.
#2. Canada Goose
- Branta canadensis
- Large goose with a long black neck and a distinctive white cheek patch.
- Brown body with a pale white chest and underparts.
- Black feet and legs.
Canada Geese are extremely common water birds in Alaska.
I’m sure you probably recognize them, as they are very comfortable living around people and human development. Look for them wherever there are grasses or grains to eat, such as lawns, parks, farm fields, and golf courses. I know I have been guilty of stepping in their “droppings” at least a few times in my own backyard as they come to eat corn from my feeding station. 🙂
- RELATED: Types of Geese & Swans in Alaska!
Canada Goose Range Map
In fact, these geese are now so abundant many people consider them pests for the amount of waste they produce! If you have a manicured lawn maintained to the water’s edge, you have an open invitation for these birds to visit.
So many people, including Canadians, call them Canadian Geese, but they are not. They are Canada Geese!
Listen for a wide variety of loud honks and cackles. They have even hissed at me for accidentally approaching a nest too closely.
#3. American Wigeon
- Mareca americana
- Compact water birds with round heads. Blue-gray bills that are tipped in black.
- Males are mostly brown but have a distinctive green band behind their eyes and a white crown.
- Females have brown bodies overall, with a grayer-colored head.
American Wigeons are numerous, but they prefer quiet lakes and marshes away from people. Their diet consists of more plant matter than other ducks, and they will even go to farm fields to feed, similar to geese. Their short bill provides a lot of power to help pluck vegetation with ease!
American Wigeon Range Map
Since they can scare easily when approached, one of the best ways to see these water birds in Alaska is to listen for them! Males give a 3-part nasal whistle (whew-whew-whew) at any time of the year, which sort of sounds like a kazoo (listen below)! Females don’t whistle, but they do produce a harsh grunt quack.
#4. Northern Pintail
- Anas acuta
- Slender ducks with long tails and necks and a pale black-gray bill.
- Males have cinnamon-brown heads, gray bodies, and a white throat and breast.
- Females have plain tan heads and rufous-brown plumage on their bodies.
Northern Pintails have a long neck that exaggerates their extremely pointy tail (hence the name) when in flight. Even when floating on water, its tail sticks out further from its body than its head. Non-breeding males and all females have shorter but still prominent pintails.
Northern Pintail Range Map
The best place to find these water birds in Alaska is in wetland habitats away from people. Wildlife refuges are perfect places to start. They tend to stick to shallower areas near the edges of lakes and ponds. Interestingly, they are also proficient at walking on land, so you’ll find them cleaning farm fields of barley, wheat, rice, and corn leftovers.
Males have a unique call, which sounds a bit like a train whistle. Females utter low-pitched quacking “kuk” notes.
#5. Northern Shoveler
- Spatula clypeata
- Males have reddish-brown flanks, green heads, a white chest, black backs, and yellow eyes.
- Females are brown, and sometimes, you can see a bluish shoulder patch.
- Both sexes have distinctive bills, which are large and wide!
If you only glance at their green heads, casual observers in Alaska might accidentally think these water birds are Mallards. But upon closer review, you should notice the ENORMOUS spoon-shaped bill, which is how Northern Shovelers got their name.
Northern Shoveler Range Map
They use their large bill to shovel and sift through mud and sand to find tasty tidbits like crustaceans, mollusks, and aquatic insects. Interestingly, their bill has over 100 tiny projections on the edges called lamellae that help filter out the food they want to eat.
Males make a guttural “took-took” sound during courtship when alarmed and in flight. Females make a nasally-sounding quack.
- Aythya americana
- Both sexes have steep foreheads leading down to their black-tipped gray bill.
- Males have a distinctive cinnamon-red head with yellow eyes. Gray body and black chest.
- Females are brownish overall with a paler face. Has dark eyes.
In Alaska, Redheads are among the more sociable water birds you will find, especially in winter. It’s common to see them gathered together in enormous flocks, sometimes thousands strong, in relatively large lakes.
Redhead Range Map
Interestingly, female Redheads practice a bit of brood parasitism, which means they will lay some of their eggs in the nests of other duck species and let them raise those hatchlings! What’s interesting is that they also build their own nests and raise these hatchlings themselves. Talk about playing the odds!
Males make a cat-like “whee-uogh” or “keyair” call when trying to court a female. When threatening another Redhead, the males also emit a low, trilling “rrrrr.”
#7. Common Goldeneye
- Bucephala clangula
- Males have a dark green head, a bright yellow eye, and a distinctive white cheek patch. The body is mostly white, with a black back and rump.
- Females have a brown head, a short dark bill with a yellow tip at the end, and a pale yellow eye. Look for their white neck collar and grayish bodies.
These water birds are expert diving ducks in Alaska. Common Goldeneyes can stay underwater for up to a minute in length as they search for their prey, which includes aquatic invertebrates, fish, and fish eggs, along with seeds and tubers from submerged vegetation.
Common Goldeneye Range Map
Luckily, their population has remained strong and stable. One of their biggest threats is that they are cavity nesters and rely upon forestry practices that don’t cut down dead trees. Many dedicated people have put up nest boxes in their breeding range to help provide more adequate nesting spots.
Many people commonly refer to the Common Goldeneye as the “whistler” because of the distinctive whistling noises their wings make when flying. Both males and females are generally silent ducks except during courtship.
#8. Red-breasted Merganser
- Mergus serrator
- Slim ducks with long bodies and necks and a long, thin bill.
- Breeding males have a dark green head with a spiky-looking crest. Cinnamon-colored chest and red eyes.
- Females and non-breeding males are greyish-brown overall.
Red-breasted Mergansers breed in boreal forests across much of North America, where they can be found on many inland lakes. During winter, these sea ducks migrate south and spend most of their time just off the coast, although it’s possible to find them in just about any large, unfrozen body of water.
Red-breasted Merganser Range Map
Fish are their primary food source, and they need to eat roughly 15-20 per day to supply their energy demands. To catch this amount of fish, it’s estimated they need to make about 250 dives per day! Sometimes, they will help each other out, and individuals will work together to herd minnows to shallower water, which makes the fish easier to catch.
Did you know that birds that primarily eat fish typically taste horrible? Because of this, Red-breasted Mergansers and the other merganser species found in Alaska are not usually hunted. It’s also why you don’t find anyone trying to eat a penguin!
- Mareca strepera
- Males have an intricate pattern of gray, brown, and black feathers, which look like white-fringed “scales.” Brown head and dark grey or black bill. The back is covered with medium and dark brown feathers. Males have a dark bill.
- Females are mottled shades of brown with a dark orange-black bill. They look similar to female Mallards.
Gadwalls are easy water birds to overlook in Alaska!
Unlike most other species, males don’t sport any patches of blue, green, or white plumage. Look for them in small ponds that have lots of vegetation.
Gadwall Range Map
Gadwalls have a funny habit of stealing food from diving ducks upon surfacing, with American Coots being their favorite victim! This behavior is seen more often in the summer, where animal matter can make up to 50% of their diet, whereas it drops to around 5% in winter.
If you hear someone burping and you’re near water, it may be a male Gadwall. Their short, reedy calls are often described as “burps.”
#10. Blue-winged Teal
- Spatula discors
- Males have a head that is bluish with a white band in front of the eye. Black bill and black wings. The body is brown with black spots.
- Females have brown bodies. Look for a dark eyeline and crown on their head.
Blue-winged Teals are found in shallow wetlands across Alaska. These water birds get their name from the beautiful blue shoulder patch only visible in flight! Just as pretty is the green plumage below the blue on the wing.
Blue-winged Teal Range Map
Believe it or not, these beautiful waterfowl are the second most abundant duck in North America, behind only (you guessed it) the Mallard. Blue-winged Teal are a popular species for hunters, although the number of birds taken per year is monitored closely to ensure the population stays strong.
Males produce a high whistled “tsee-tsee.”
#11. Green-winged Teal
- Anas carolinensis
- Males have chestnut-brown heads and a green ear patch. Beautiful gray-barred bodies with vertical white stripes on each side.
- Females have a dark eye-line and are mottled brown throughout.
- Both sexes have a green patch on their wing, visible in flight and most of the time when resting.
Green-winged Teals are one of the smallest water birds you will find in Alaska. They are only 12-15 inches (31-39 cm) in length and weigh between 5 and 18 ounces (140-510 g).
Green-winged Teal Range Map
These birds often travel and hang out with other species. Look closely for the smallest duck in a mixed flock, and there is a good chance it’s a Green-winged Teal. Even females, which look similar to female Mallards, should stand out because they are noticeably smaller!
Males give a short, clear, repeated whistle, which is a unique sound for a duck if you ask me! Females often give a series of quacks at any time of the year.
- Bucephala albeola
- Small ducks with large heads.
- Males have white chests and flanks and a large white patch on their heads. Dark back. Iridescent purple-green plumage on their face.
- Females are mostly brownish with a darker head. Look for the distinctive white cheek patch.
It’s hard to misidentify these striking water birds when seen in Alaska.
They spend up to half their time foraging underwater, looking for aquatic invertebrates and crustaceans, which they eat while still submerged. When they dive, be patient and keep scanning the area for these small birds to resurface.
Bufflehead Range Map
Buffleheads are picky nesters, and they will ONLY lay eggs inside of a cavity. They almost exclusively use holes excavated by Northern Flickers and Pileated Woodpeckers. They are losing nest sites due to logging, but they do take readily to nest boxes.
Overall, Buffleheads are more silent than other ducks. In late winter to early spring, it’s possible to hear the males make a squeaky whistle.
#13. Hooded Merganser
- Small water bird with a long, slender bill.
- Breeding males have an unmistakable large black crest with a large white patch on each side. Yellow eyes.
- Females have dark eyes and are brown overall with a slightly lighter colored crest, which almost looks like a mohawk.
Appearance-wise, Hooded Mergansers are among my favorite water birds in Alaska. Seeing a breeding male with its large black and white crest erected is a beautiful sight.
Hooded Merganser Range Map
Their long, thin bill is serrated, which helps them catch small fish, crayfish, and aquatic insects. Their food is almost always swallowed whole, regardless of size. They hunt underwater by sight and have vision adaptations that allow them to see quite clearly when submerged.
Females have an interesting behavior where they may lay some of their eggs in other Hooded Mergansers’ nests. While each bird can lay up to a dozen eggs, nests have been found with more than 40 eggs, making one duck work much harder than others.
#14. Common Merganser
- Mergus merganser
- A fairly large duck that has a long, slender orange bill with a black tip and dark eyes.
- Breeding males have a largely white body, a black back, and a mallard-like green head.
- Females and non-breeding males sport a cinnamon-colored head and a grayish-white body.
Due to their thin bill, Common Mergansers stand out fairly easily from most other water birds in Alaska. Their favorite food is fish, which they catch with the help of their serrated bill, but they also indulge in aquatic invertebrates such as crustaceans, mollusks, insects, and worms.
Common Merganser Range Map
Common Mergansers are so good at fishing that other birds try to steal from them when they surface. In fact, it’s common to see flocks of seagulls following them, hoping to snatch an easy meal. Even Bald Eagles have been known to rob them of their hard-earned fish!
Naturally, these ducks nest in tree cavities that woodpeckers have carved out. Interestingly, newborn ducklings are only about a day old when they leap from the entrance to the ground, at which point the mother will lead them to water, and they catch all their own food immediately.
- Aythya valisineria
- A relatively large diving duck with a black breast, black tail, and a pale gray body.
- Males have red-brown heads and red eyes.
- Females are duller overall, with a brown head and black eyes.
Canvasbacks are large diving ducks that rarely ever go to dry land. In fact, they even sleep while floating and build their nests in masses of floating vegetation!
Canvasback Range Map
Canvasbacks are omnivores that eat everything from insects and mussels to plant tubers and seeds. They can dive up to 7 feet (2.1 m) deep, looking for aquatic vegetation, which they rip off with their strong bills.
These mostly silent water birds have had their populations fluctuate over the last 100 years. The loss of massive amounts of wetland habitat to development caused a decline in numbers, along with the loss of their primary food source (wild celery) disappearing in many places. But overall, their population has remained steady since the 1980s.
#16. Snow Goose
- Anser caerulescens
- Most Snow Geese are all white with black tail feathers. But some individuals display a “blue morph,” whose heads are still white but bodies are sooty gray.
- Pink legs.
- Pink bill, which has a black patch on each side.
Snow Geese spend their time in the continent’s northernmost areas during the breeding season, away from human civilization. Most people only get the pleasure of seeing this abundant goose in Alaska when they migrate south in fall and winter.
Snow Goose Range Map
Look for these water birds in large fields and bodies of water. If they are around, it’s usually not hard to find them, as they are almost always seen in huge flocks accompanied by a lot of honking!
In fact, one of the most impressive things you will watch today is the video below, which shows an ENORMOUS flock of Snow Geese. It’s hard to fathom how many birds are traveling together!
As you can probably hear from the video above, Snow Geese are one of the noisiest waterfowl you will encounter in Alaska. Their nasally, one-syllable honk can be heard at any time of day or night, at any time of the year!
#17. Tundra Swan
- Cygnus columbianus
During summer, you will not see Tundra Swans near people, as they spend the breeding season in the remote Arctic. Look for them in winter and migration, where they are visitors to many large bodies of water. They also visit farm fields in large flocks, looking for food.
Tundra Swans form long-term, dedicated relationships. Typically, by the time they are 2 or 3, they have found a partner. Once that happens, these two birds will breed, feed, roost, and travel together year-round.
The most common sound these birds make is a “hoo-ho-ho” bugle, with the second syllable being emphasized. (Listen below)
Another typical sound associated with Tundra Swans is the whistling of their wings. Lewis and Clark initially called them “whistling swans” when they first encountered them, and many people still use this name today.
#18. Trumpeter Swan
- Cygnus buccinator
Trumpeter Swans are the largest bird by weight in Alaska!
They have a wingspan of almost 6 feet (1.8 m) and weigh around 25 pounds (11.3 kg), which is about twice the amount of a Tundra Swan. In fact, they are so big that about 100 yards of open water is needed for them to get enough speed to take off!
Trumpeter Swans were once endangered due to overhunting, but luckily, their population has recovered, and they are increasing their numbers. Unlike Tundra Swans, this species doesn’t travel to the Arctic in summer to nest and breed. Look for them near ponds, lakes, rivers, and marshes, and the farther from people, the better!
These large birds typically nest on an existing structure surrounded by water, such as beaver dams, muskrat dens, small islands, floating masses of vegetation, and artificial platforms. Trumpeter Swans are very sensitive when breeding and will commonly abandon their nest sites and babies due to human disturbance.
#19. Greater White-fronted Goose
- Anser albifrons
These birds breed in the arctic tundra but then migrate south for winter. Look for these large geese in Alaska in large flocks in wetlands, lakes, and farm fields.
Greater White-fronted Goose Range Map
Greater White-fronted Geese have INCREDIBLY strong family bonds. Mated pairs migrate with each other and stay together for many years. Their offspring even stick around for longer than most other species, and it’s not unusual to see the young with their parents through the next breeding season.
Their flight call is relatively easy to identify. Listen for a two to three-syllable sound that resembles laughing.
Herons and Cranes:
#20. Great Blue Heron
- Ardea herodias
These water birds are typically seen in Alaska along the edges of rivers, lakes, and wetlands.
Great Blue Herons appear majestic in flight, and once you know what to look for, it is pretty easy to spot them. Watch the skies for a LARGE bird that folds its neck into an “s” shape and has its legs trailing straight behind.
Great Blue Heron Range Map
Most of the time, they will either be motionless or slowly moving through the water, looking for their prey. But watch them closely because when an opportunity presents itself, these herons will strike quickly and ferociously to grab something to eat. Common foods include fish, frogs, reptiles, small mammals, and other birds.
Believe it or not, Great Blue Herons mostly build their nests, which are made out of sticks, very high up in trees. In addition, they almost always nest in large colonies that can include up to 500 different breeding pairs. And unbelievably, nearly all the breeding pairs nest in the same few trees!
#21. Sandhill Crane
- Antigone canadensis
If you go to the right habitat, Sandhill Cranes are easy to spot in Alaska. These water birds are large, elegant, and put on some fancy dancing while trying to attract a mate! It’s common to see a breeding male pump their wings, bow, stretch their wings, and jump into the air, all in the name of love. 🙂
Sandhill Crane Range Map
Sandhill Cranes are well known for their LOUD bugling calls.
In fact, these sounds can be heard over 2 miles away and are given both on the ground or while flying. They have adapted extremely long windpipes that actually coil into the sternum, which helps produce the low, loud pitch.
One thing that amazes me about Sandhill Cranes is how long they live. The oldest one on record was at least 36 years old, as it was banded originally in 1973 and then found again in 2010!
Loons, grebes, and other water birds:
#22. Common Loon
- Gavia immer
- Long bodies with strong, thick, dagger-like bills. They sit low in the water.
- Breeding adults have a black head and a black and white checkerboard back.
- Non-breeding adults are much duller and have a uniformly grayish back and head.
Common Loons are one of my FAVORITE water birds in Alaska.
These gorgeous birds are strong and fast swimmers who catch fish in high-speed underwater chases. They have even adapted solid bones (most bird bones are hollow), which makes it easier to dive since they are less buoyant.
Common Loon Range Map
To help prevent other birds from stealing their food, Common Loons typically swallow their prize while still underwater. And to ensure the slippery fish doesn’t escape once caught, loons have rear-facing projections inside their mouth that sink in and provide a tight grip.
One of my favorite things about these birds is the wonderful, eerie sounds they make. Listen for a repertoire of vocalizations, which all signify something. LISTEN BELOW!
#23. Herring Gull
- Larus argentatus
- Breeding adults have light gray backs, white heads, white undersides, and black wingtips and may have dusky marks on their heads during the winter.
- They have yellow eyes, dull pink legs, hefty bills, and barrel chests.
Herring Gulls are the familiar, quintessential “seagull” in Alaska. They occupy farmland, coasts, bays, beaches, lakes, piers, and landfills. They’re most abundant on the coast and surrounding large lakes and river systems.
If you spend time at the beach, you’ve probably noticed Herring Gulls waiting for you to drop your snack! In addition to popcorn and chips from humans, they consume fish, crustaceans, mollusks, sea urchins, marine worms, smaller birds, eggs, carrion, and insects.
The population of Herring Gulls declined steeply during the 19th century because of overhunting. While their range and population recovered during the 20th century, overfishing, oil spills, and pesticide contamination have reduced some populations.
#24. Spotted Sandpiper
- Actitis macularius
- Adults have a grayish-brown back, plain white breast, and pale yellow bill in winter.
- Breeding adults develop dark brown speckles all over their bodies.
Spotted Sandpipers are active foragers and have a distinctive hunting style. They walk in meandering paths, suddenly darting at prey such as insects and small crabs. They bob their tail ends in a smooth motion almost constantly.
Unlike most shorebirds in Alaska, female Spotted Sandpipers perform courtship displays and defend territories.
Females are sometimes polyandrous and mate with more than one male. The males will form their own smaller territories within the female’s territory and defend them from one another.
While it is still a common species, Spotted Sandpiper populations have declined in the last several decades. The decline is primarily caused by compromised water quality due to herbicides, pesticides, and other run-off pollution.
#25. Double-crested Cormorant
- Nannopterum auritum
Double-crested Cormorants look incredibly unique, with many people thinking they appear to be a cross between a loon and a goose. These expert divers eat almost exclusively fish, which they catch underwater with their perfectly adapted hooked bills.
Double-crested Cormorant Range Map
One of the BEST ways to find these water birds in Alaska is to look for them on land with their wings spread out. Double-crested Cormorants don’t have waterproof feathers, so after swimming, they have to dry them.
Large colonies of these birds gather in trees near water, where they all build their nests in a small cluster of trees. Unfortunately, there can be so many birds so close together that their poop ends up killing the trees!
Double-crested Cormorants emit unique, deep guttural grunts, which I think sound more like a large walrus than a bird. Listen below!
To learn more about birds in Alaska, check out these other guides!
Which of these water birds have you seen before in Alaska?
Leave a comment below!
Some range maps below were generously shared with permission from The Birds of The World, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I use their site OFTEN to learn new information about birds!