21 Types of Water Birds that live in Hawaii (2024)

What kinds of water birds can you find in Hawaii?

Great Frigate Bird - a common water bird in Hawaii

Due to its proximity to the ocean, you are almost certain to see some type of bird near the water. From ducks to herons to gulls, you will learn the most common water birds you might see in Hawaii below.

In addition to the common name of each bird below, you will also find the Hawaiian name in parentheses. 🙂

water birds in Hawaii:


#1. Laysan Albatross (Moli)

  • Phoebastria immutabilis
  • Species is native but not endemic to Hawaii

Laysan Albatross - a common water bird in Hawaii

  • Huge white seabirds with wingspans of approximately 78 inches (2m).
  • They have dark patches in front of each eye. 
  • They have dark wings and dark tips to their large bills. 

Laysan Albatrosses, or “Moli,” are huge seabirds that can travel immense distances. They use air currents and an incredibly dynamic body shape to soar almost effortlessly. 

These beautiful birds range widely across the North Pacific Ocean. Interestingly, more than 90% of the world’s population of Laysan Albatrosses are found in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. They are deemed indigenous by the state of Hawaii. 

The IUCN RedList considers Laysan Albatrosses to be “Near Threatened.” In the early 20th century, humans hunted albatrosses to near extinction for feathers to make hats. Then, in the late 20th century, the driftnet method of commercial fishing caused another steep decline in the recovering population. 

The vast majority of breeding Laysan Albatrosses in Hawaii can be found on Midway Atoll, Laysan Island, and French Frigate shoals.

All these colonies are on very low-lying land masses with little human presence. Sadly, rising sea levels have led to tragic disasters from flooding of the breeding grounds.  

Sea-level rise is predicted to increase and could spell the end of the Laysan Albatross. So, conservationists in Hawaii hope to preserve small, outlying Laysan Albatross colonies on higher ground. On Kauai and Oahu, sparse clifftop colonies and birds settling in human habitations are protected from flooding. However, invasive predators, most notably rats, mongooses, and domestic dogs, pose a very high risk to nesting Albatrosses.


#2. Hawaiian Stilt (Ae’o)

  • Himantopus mexicanus
  • Subspecies H.m.knudseni is native and endemic to Hawaii.

Hawi'ian Black-necked Stilt a common water bird in Hawaii

  • Long, thin, black bills.
  • Black wings, black caps, and black backs with white elsewhere. 
  • They have very long, thin, pink legs. 

Hawaiian Stilts are a type of wading water bird in Hawaii.

They have the second longest legs compared to their body size of any bird. Hawaiian Stilts use their long legs to wade into shallow water and forage for food. They can be spotted foraging in freshwater, marine, or brackish water habitats.

Black-necked Stilts are abundant birds with a huge range across the American continent and various islands. The Stilts found in the Hawaiian Islands are a subspecies called Himantopus mexicanus knudseni. They are commonly known as the Hawaiian Stilt or the Ae’o. 

The subspecies is endemic, so it is not found anywhere else. Ae’o are recognized as indigenous to Hawaii.

Hawaiian Stilts occur to varying degrees on all the main Hawaiian Islands. Maui, Oahu, and Kauai have the largest populations, especially between March and August, as these islands have breeding colonies. Hawaiian Stilts are most likely found in shallow wetlands near the sea. 

Hawaiian Stilts face a whole host of threats. They are directly predated by invasive mammals, including cats, dogs, and rats. Their grazing and breeding habitats also face degradation from development, invasive plants, sea-level rise, and pollutants.  


#3. Great Frigatebird (‘Iwa)

  • Fregata minor
  • Subspecies F.m.palmerstoni is native but not endemic to Hawaii

Male Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor)

  • Black seabirds with large wingspans compared to body size. 
  • Males are smaller and have big red inflatable sacks on their throats.
  • Females are larger and have white throats. 

Great Frigatebirds are large seabirds that fly great distances across the open ocean. They have a large wingspan of around 85 inches (215cm) compared to small, light bodies. This is ideal for soaring effortlessly on air currents. 

There are five subspecies of the Great Frigatebird. Fregata minor palmerstoni is a subspecies found on islands throughout the western and central Pacific Ocean.

They come in large numbers to breeding colonies in the Hawaiian archipelago, where they are known as ‘Iwa. ‘The state of Hawaii considers ‘Iwa indigenous. 

Great Frigatebirds build their nests on the tops of trees and bushes on remote islands. In Hawaii, the largest colonies are on the Nihoa and Laysan Islands.

Invasive animal and plant species have reduced the availability of good nesting sites for these water birds in Hawaii. Fortunately, conservation efforts to eradicate rabbits from Frigatebird colonies have had a positive impact in Hawaii. 


#4. Black-crowned Night Heron (‘Auku’u)

  • Nycticorax nycticorax
  • Subspecies N.n.hoactli is native but not endemic to Hawaii

Night Heron - a common water bird in Hawaii

  • Black tops on their heads and backs. 
  • Wings are pale gray, while their bodies are white.
  • They have long legs and straight, narrow black bills. 

Black-crowned Night Herons are wading birds. They usually forage in shallow water at night or dawn. Their normal habitat is fresh or saltwater wetlands. 

N.n.hoactli is a subspecies of Black-Crowned Night Heron found across the American continent from southern Canada to northern Chile. It is also found in the Hawaiian archipelago, where it is considered indigenous by the state. Locally, N.n.hoactli are referred to as ‘Auku’u. 

‘Auku’u are different from other Black-crowned Night Herons because they are diurnal! They hunt in the daytime, which makes them easier to spot. ‘Auku’u can be seen on all major islands in the Hawaiian archipelago. 

The main threat to Black-Crowned Night Herons in Hawaii is habitat degradation. Large areas of wetlands have been lost over the last century. Oil spills also contaminate the ecosystem, and invasive species alter the biome.


#5. Red-footed Booby (‘A)

  • Sula sula
  • Subspecies S.s.rubripes is native but not endemic to Hawaii

Red-footed Booby (Sula sula) - a common water bird in Hawaii

  • Beautiful white birds with black wing edges. 
  • Striking red legs and feet. 
  • They have long blue bills and blue and red markings around their eyes. 

Red-footed Boobies are powerful birds that spend long periods flying across the open sea. They return to land for breeding but otherwise are rarely spotted.

Red-footed Boobies are an abundant species that is distributed through the equatorial region worldwide. The IUCN RedList considers them a species of “Least Concern.”

The subspecies S.s.rubripes is a water bird found in Hawaii, where it is known as ‘A and considered indigenous by the state. 

Interestingly, there are various color morphs of Red-footed Boobies. Elsewhere, they can be white, brown, or even black. However, almost all Hawaiian birds are white!

Red-footed Boobies gather in breeding colonies throughout the remote northwestern Hawaiian Islands. They are rarely spotted in the main Hawaiian Islands, on Kauai and Oahu. 


 

#6. Hawaiian Goose

  • Branta sandvicensis
  • Found on Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island.

Hawai'ian Goose

  • Hawaiian geese have black heads, gold cheeks, white necks, and brown bodies.
  • Their plumage has a distinct barred pattern over the wings and flanks.
  • Females look similar to males but are usually smaller. 

Hawaiian geese are large, beautiful water birds that represent Hawaii as the official state bird. 

These endemic birds are grazers that feed on leaves, seeds, flowers, and fruits. They are very important to the ecosystem, as they disperse plant seeds in their feces. 

Hawaiian geese almost became extinct in the early 20th century. Since that time, numbers have begun to recover. The species is currently classified as “near threatened” on the IUCN RedList.

Today, Hawaiian geese can only be seen on Hawaii Island, Kauai, and Maui. 

In the past, hunting by humans was a major threat to Hawaiian geese. In modern times, hunting by invasive species is the greater issue. As ground-nesting birds, they are very vulnerable to invasive predators, including barn owls, domestic cats, dogs, rats, and mongooses. 


#7. Hawaiian Coot

  • Fulica alai
  • Found on Maui, Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, and the Big Island.

The hawaiian coot an endemic bird in Hawaii

  • Hawaiian coots have shiny black plumage all over.
  • They have bright white bills with tall frontal shields that are white or brown. 
  • They have small, rounded bodies with small heads.

These water birds are endemic to Hawaii!

They usually live in shallow, saline water, such as brackish lagoons and estuaries along the coastline. But they can also be found in freshwater ponds, lakes, and wetlands. 

Maui, Oahu, or Kauai are the best places to see Hawaiian coots.

However, small populations of them can be seen on almost all Hawaiian islands. 

Hawaiian coots are considered “near threatened” by the IUCN RedList in 2023. This is an improvement on their “vulnerable” status in the early 21st century. However, Hawaiian coots still face many threats.

Habitat loss is the primary threat to Hawaiian coots. Coastal plains and wetlands, which make the best breeding sites, have been rapidly lost over the last century. 

Invasive predators also negatively impact Hawaiian coots. Rats and mongooses are prolific egg stealers, and dogs, domestic cats, barn owls, and other introduced predators will predate adult coots, too. 


#8. Hawaiian Duck

  • Anas wyvilliana
  • Pure Hawaiian ducks are only likely to be found on Kauai and Niihau.

The hawaiian duck an endemic bird in Hawaii

  • Hawaiian ducks’ plumage is light and dark brown, with scale-like patterning.  
  • They have a clearly defined patch of shiny blue on both wings. 
  • Males and females look very similar, but females are usually smaller. 

Hawaiian Ducks are endemic to Hawaii.

These water birds look very similar to Mallards and are closely related. However, they are not very social birds. They don’t tend to form flocks. Instead, they are usually observed in pairs or alone. They are fairly wary and discrete.

Hawaiian ducks make a soft and discrete quacking sound. It is very suited to their nature! Listen to them in the video below. 

YouTube video

Historically, Hawaiian ducks lived on all Hawaiian islands except Lanai and Kaho’olawe. However, humans hunted the Hawaiian duck to the edge of extinction in the early 20th century. By 1960, the last remaining ducks lived isolated on Kauai and Niihau. 

Since then, efforts have been made to conserve this species. A wildlife refuge was created on Kauai, and Hawaiian ducks were bred and reintroduced to Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island.

Unfortunately, invasive feral mallard ducks were not removed from these islands before the Hawaiian duck was reintroduced. Mallards breed readily with Hawaiian ducks. They produce viable offspring, leading to the hybridization of the species. 

Today, pure Hawaiian ducks are only likely to be found on Kauai and Niihau. Unfortunately, the success of the mallard hybrid is expected to lead to the disappearance of the pure Hawaiian duck. 


#9. Mallard

  • Anas platyrhynchos
  • Invasive to Hawaii.

Mallard Duck Anas platyrhynchos Male and Female

  • Males have shiny green heads and white neck bands.
  • Females are light and dark brown, with blue wing patches. 
  • Both have orange legs and feet.  

Mallards are extremely abundant worldwide. They are a type of “dabbling duck,” which gets their name from how they lean forward and dabble their bills in the water to collect food. They are very social and gather together in small flocks. 

These water birds were introduced to Hawaii in the late 19th century for farming, sport hunting, and as ornamental pond ducks.

Over time, some of these ducks escaped or were released and became feral. 

Mallards will breed with other species of duck. In repeated examples around the world, Mallards have demonstrated a fascinating ability to produce viable offspring with various species of duck. This has led to Mallards creating hybrid species, leading to the loss of the native species in its pure form. 

In Hawaii, this is happening with the Hawaiian Duck (Anas wyvilliana), known locally as the Koloa Maoli. Fortunately, on the island of Kauai, there are still populations of Hawaiian Ducks with extremely low genetic hybridization from Mallard Ducks. They are mostly found in the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge. This is the result of ongoing efforts to remove feral Mallards and reduce ownership of Mallards on Kauai.


#10. Muscovy Duck

  • Cairina moschata
  • Species is invasive to Hawaii.

MUSCOVY DUCK APPEARANCE VARIATION

  • Heavy-set. Males can be double the size of females.  
  • Generally white and black, with dark green plumage around the wing area. 
  • Prominent red wattling is usually present around the beak and face.  

Muscovy Ducks can be found across Hawaii as domestic birds near human habitation.

Some feral birds may also be seen, having escaped from human care. 

Introduced birds always pose an inherent risk to native flora and fauna. Muscovy Ducks are very large and easily capable of driving native birds away from good food sources or taking over bodies of water. 

Muscovy Ducks lay their eggs in tree cavities, which are not plentiful in Hawaiian native forests. Some native Hawaiian birds rely on these cavities for their nesting and reproduction and could be outcompeted by feral Muscovy Ducks. 

There are few to no reports on the impact of Muscovy Ducks as an invasive species in Hawaii. Compared with introduced mammals or the Mallard, Muscovy Ducks do not appear to have a huge negative impact.


#11. Northern Pintail (Koloa Mapu)

  • Anas acuta
  • Native to Hawaii. 

  • Males have brown heads, white breasts, and gray wings. 
  • Males have the long, black, upturned tails for which the species is named.
  • Females have tawny heads and dark brown and white plumage. 

Northern Pintails are abundant and have a vast range across the northern hemisphere and equator. Populations of these small dabbling ducks migrate to the Hawaiian Islands each winter.

Northern Pintails, known locally as Koloa Mapu, are recognized as indigenous by the state. The time that Northern Pintails spend in Hawaii is during their non-breeding phase. 

These water birds are most likely found in shallow freshwater or intertidal wetlands. They mostly graze on plant matter, including seeds, roots, and grains. 

Globally, Northern Pintails are assessed as being of “Least Concern” by the IUCN RedList. In Hawaii, the loss of wetland habitats to urban development, agriculture, and invasive plants has reduced the number of Northern Pintails overwintering on the islands. 


#12. Lesser Scaup

  • Aythya affinis
  • Native to Hawaii

Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis male and female

  • Males have black heads and tails that contrast with white bodies. 
  • Their bills are bluish-gray, and their eyes are yellow. 
  • Females have black bills ringed with white feathers. They are brown elsewhere. 

Lesser Scaups have a large range spreading across Central and North America. In the fall, some populations of these water birds migrate from Alaska and Canada to Hawaii. They stay until February and are considered indigenous by the state. 

Lesser Scaups are likely to be found in freshwater marshlands, lakes, estuaries, and brackish water. However, they can occasionally be spotted in bays and even the open ocean. 

These wading birds face habitat loss in Hawaii. The wetland areas where they overwinter are being lost to development. Oil spills and pollution, as well as invasive plants, also degrade the habitat. 


#13. Northern Shoveler (Koloa Moha)

  • Spatula clypeata
  • Native to Hawaii.

  • Males have large, scoop-like black bills and black heads with green iridescence. 
  • Their chests are white, and their undersides are auburn. 
  • Females have large, scoop-like orange bills, orange legs, and light brown bodies. 

Northern Shovelers are abundant ducks with a huge global range. Some populations of Northern Shovelers travel from Alaska every fall to overwinter on the Hawaiian Islands.

The state recognizes Northern Shovelers as indigenous. They are known locally as Koloa Moha. They arrive around October and leave around April.

Koloa Moha males have plumage that is different during their winters in Hawaii than during the breeding season. They look like females (pictured above) until around February but retain their tell-tale black bills.  

Northern Shovelers can be spotted in fresh or saline waters. They prefer wide, shallow, marshy wetlands with a lot of vegetation. However, they can also be found in ponds and reservoirs.

The population of these water birds in Hawaii is decreasing. The wetland habitats they rely on are being lost to development, pollution, and invasive plants. 


#14. Snow Goose

  • Anser caerulescens
  • Species is an occasional vagrant visitor to Hawaii. 

  • Snow Geese have white plumage with black primary feathers at their wing tips.
  • They have pinkish-orange bills and feet.
  • A secondary color morph, called “blue, ” has white heads and grayish bodies. 

Snow Geese are a species of goose that is indigenous to North America. They are highly migratory birds. 

Snow Geese form strong pair bonds with their partners when they are around two years old and will stay together for life. When they are three, they will begin to reproduce. 

For the spring migration, the pair will fly north to northern Canada or Alaska and return to the nesting site where the female was born. The female builds a nest in a scrape on high ground and lines it with twigs and down. 

Snow Geese are commonly spotted outside of their natural range.

In recent years, these water birds have been recorded often on the Island of Hawaii (Big Island) and occasionally on Kauai. A few Snow Geese in Hawaii appear to have taken up permanent residency year-round. 


#15. Wandering Tattler (‘Ulili)

  • Tringa incana
  • Native to Hawaii.

Wandering Tattler Tringa incana

  • Long bills and long legs.
  • Their heads, backs, and wings are a soft gray-brown.
  • Their chests are mottled brown and white. 

Wandering Tattlers have a massive range that covers much of the Pacific Ocean’s islands and coastlines. In summer, they travel to northeastern Russia and northwestern America to breed. From late summer through to spring, Wandering Tattlers return to Hawaii. 

These water birds are considered indigenous to Hawaii and are known locally as Ulili. They can be spotted on most islands throughout the Hawaiian archipelago. Look for them along the shoreline or on nearby mudflats and wetlands.  

Wandering Tattlers are primarily threatened by climate degradation. Wetlands are being rapidly lost to development and the effect of invasive plants. Foraging near the shore also puts Wandering Tattlers in contact with pollutants such as oil spills and plastic waste. 


#16. White-tailed Tropicbird (Koa’e kea)

  • Phaethon lepturus
  • Native to Hawaii. 

White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus

  • Yellow, pointed, slightly downturned beaks. 
  • Mostly white plumage, with long, white, slender tails. 
  • They have black markings over their eyes, shoulders, and wingtips. 

White-tailed Tropicbirds are extremely eye-catching, graceful, and slender seabirds in Hawaii. They spend long periods over the open ocean.

These water birds are hard to track when they’re not breeding, as they are solitary and fly long distances. However, their range extends almost entirely around the circumference of the equator.

White-tailed Tropicbirds tend to gather in Hawaii between March and October to breed. They are considered indigenous to Hawaii and are known locally as Koa’e kea. 

There are breeding colonies in Hawaii on Kauai, Molokai, Lanai, and Hawaii Island (Big Island). Smaller groups can be found in Oahu, as well as some islets. 

Invasive predators threaten White-tailed Tropicbirds in Hawaii. Rats target eggs, and feral cats can catch birds. 


#17. Hawaiian Gallinule (‘Alae ‘Ula)

  • Gallinula galeata
  • Subspecies G. g. sandvicensis is native and endemic to Hawaii. 

Common Gallinule

  • Black plumage with some white feathers in the tail. 
  • Bills and frontal shields are bright red, with a yellow tip on the bill. 
  • Their legs are bright yellow, with red bands where they join the body. 

Hawaiian Gallinules are waterbirds and one of many subspecies of the Common Gallinule. They look similar to the Hawaiian Coot, which is black with a tall white frontal shield. 

Hawaiian Gallinules are shy birds. They are often disguised under the foliage of aquatic plants while swimming and feeding. Occasionally, they can be spotted swimming in the open but quickly duck for cover when disturbed. 

Hawaiian Gallinules are indigenous and endemic water birds to Hawaii and are therefore not found anywhere else. They are locally known as ‘Alae ‘Ula. 

Historically, Hawaiian Gallinules could be found on almost all the Hawaiian Islands. In modern times, they live in low-elevation wetland habitats on Kauai and Oahu. They have also been sighted on Oahu and Maui. 

Hawaiian Gallinules face many threats and are considered endangered by the state. They are very susceptible to predation, both from natural, native predators and from invasive predators. Mongooses, rats, feral dogs, and cats can all target Gallinules and their nests. 


#18. White Tern (Manu-o-Ku)

  • Gygis alba
  • Native to Hawaii.

White Tern or Fairy Tern (Gygis alba)

  • Small birds with all-white plumage.
  • They have black-blue legs and bills. 
  • Their eyes are large and black.  

White Terns have a huge range covering much of the equator’s circumference and as far south as New Zealand. They are pelagic, flying over the open ocean when not breeding on small islands and coastlines. 

White Terns visit Hawaii to breed throughout the year. However, most individuals arrive between February and June. They are known locally as Manu-o-Ku.

In Hawaii, these water birds can be seen throughout the northwestern Hawaiian Islands and on Oahu. They gather loosely in woodlands near the sea and on rocky cliff faces. 

Invasive predators, including cats, dogs, and rats, threaten white Terns. However, the precarious way they lay their eggs on high branches gives them protection from rat attacks.   

YouTube video

#19. Brown Booby (‘A)

  • Sula leucogaster
  • Subspecies S.l.plotus is native but not endemic to Hawaii.

Brown Booby Sula leucogaster

  • Brown heads, necks, back, and upper wings.
  • They are white on the belly and underwing. 
  • Males have blue markings ringing their heads around the eyes. Females have yellow. 

Brown Boobies are large seabirds with distinctive and endearing sexual dimorphism. Males have blue on their faces and legs. Females are bright lemon yellow on their faces and legs instead. 

They are excellent plunge divers and hunt for fish by diving into the water from a height.

YouTube video

Brown Boobies have a huge range, stretching most of the circumference of the equator. They are considered indigenous in Hawaii and are referred to as ‘A locally, the same name used for Red-footed Boobies. 

Brown Boobies gather in colonies to breed on the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. They also inhabit small islets throughout the archipelago and potentially on Oahu island itself. 

Brown Boobies are very sensitive to human presence. They may abandon their nests if humans approach within 20 meters. Nesting seabirds are also in danger of predation. Fortunately, these water birds mostly nest on remote islands with minimal to no invasive mammals. 


#20. Western Cattle Egret

  • Bubulcus ibis
  • Invasive to Hawaii.

Western cattle heron (Bubulcus ibis)

  • Tall, slender, white birds.
  • They have fairly long, pointed orange beaks.
  • They have long golden feathers on their heads, backs, and chests in summer. 

Following rapid expansion over the last century, Western Cattle Egrets have a huge global range covering tropical and temperate zones on all continents except Antarctica. 

Western Cattle Egrets were intentionally introduced to Hawaii in the 1950s. The intention was to reduce the fly swarms that harassed cattle on farms and ranches. 

Unfortunately, Western Cattle Egrets became a more significant issue than flies. They are opportunistic feeders and have adapted quickly to a new food source: the chicks of native birds. 

Now, invasive Western Cattle Egrets are commonly found on most Hawaiian Islands. They have become a significant threat to the breeding success of the Hawaiian Duck, Hawaiian Gallinule, Hawaiian Coot, and Hawaiian Stilts.


#21. Black Noddy (Noio)

  • Anous minutus
  • Subspecies A. m. marcusi is native but not endemic to Hawaii
  • Subspecies A. m. melanogenys is native and endemic to Hawaii

  • Black plumage, graduating to pale tones at their heads. 
  • Slender, pointed black beaks.
  • They have darker black markings over their eyes.  

Black Noddies are seabirds found over the open ocean, usually within 80km (50m) of land, or nesting on tropical islands. 

In Hawaii, there are two subspecies of Black Noddy.

  • A. m. melanogenys is endemic to Hawaii, which means it’s not found elsewhere. They breed in the southeastern Hawaiian islands. They are distinctive because of their orange legs and feet.
  1. A. m. marcusi is not endemic to Hawaii and is widespread in the Pacific. They have black legs and feet. In Hawaii, they can be found breeding in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. 

The two subspecies have been found together in some specific locations: Kaʻula Rock, Lehua Islet, Nihoa, and Necker. 

Black Noddies are fairly common and successful in Hawaii. However, they face threats similar to those of other seabirds. Namely, predation by invasive predators, habitat loss, and reduction in food availability from overfishing. 


Do you want to learn about MORE birds in Hawaii?

Check out these ID Guides. Each one is specific to birds found here!


Which of these water birds have you seen before in Hawaii?

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