What kinds of water birds can you find in Montana?
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.
Today, you are going to learn 27 water bird species that are COMMON in Montana!
Here is how the below list is organized. Click the link to jump straight to that section!
Ducks, geese, and swans (#1 – #13)
Herons, ibises, and cranes (#14 – #21)
Grebes, loons, and other water birds (#22 – #27)
Ducks, Geese, & Swans:
How to identify:
- 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 they are standing or flying.
My guess is that almost everyone is familiar with the Mallard. These ducks are definitely the most common water birds in Montana!
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 have to 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. American Wigeon
How to identify:
- 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 a higher proportion of plant matter than other ducks and 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 Montana 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.
#3. Northern Pintail
How to identify:
- Slender ducks with long tails and necks and a pale black-gray bill.
- Males have a cinnamon-brown head, 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 Montana is wetland habitat 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.
Northern Pintails only migrate at night and are incredible flyers! During migration, they reach speeds up to 48 mph (77 kph), and the record for longest non-stop flight is 1,800 miles (2,900 km)!
#4. Northern Shoveler
How to identify:
- 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 the green head, casual observers in Montana might accidentally think these ducks are Mallards. But one look up close at these water birds, and 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.
An interesting behavior observed with Northern Shovelers is their ability to “team-up” to find something to eat. Flocks of them will sometimes swim in circles together to help stir up food!
#5. Blue-winged Teal
How to identify:
- Males have a head that is bluish with a white band in front of the eye. Black bill and black wings. 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 Montana. These water birds get their name from the beautiful blue shoulder patch that is 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.”
#6. Green-winged Teal
How to identify:
- 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, which is visible in flight and most of the time when resting.
Green-winged Teals are one of the smallest water birds you will find in Montana. 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.
#7. Wood Duck
How to identify:
- Males have very intricate plumage. Look for the green crested head, red eyes, and chestnut breast with white flecks.
- Females have brown bodies with a grayish head, which is also slightly crested. White teardrop eye patch and a blue patch on the wing.
Walt Disney used to say that “the world is a carousel of color,” and few waterfowl have taken this more to heart than the male Wood Duck. In fact, it looks like an artist used every color to paint a duck that has green, red, orange, lime, yellow, buff, rose, brown, tan, black, white, gray, purple, and blue coloring.
Wood Duck Range Map
This is one of the few water bird species in Montana you may see in a tree! Wood Ducks use abandoned tree cavities for nesting, but they also readily take to elevated nesting boxes.
When hatchlings leave the nest for the first time, they often have to make a giant leap of faith (up to 50 feet) to the ground below! You have to watch the video below to believe it. 🙂
Interestingly, Wood Ducks are perfectly evolved for their life spent in trees. Their claws are powerful, which allows them to perch and grasp onto branches!
The most common sound heard from Wood Ducks is when they are disturbed. I’ve often accidentally come upon them only to hear them flying away saying “ooeek-ooeek” loudly!
How to identify:
- 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 Montana. 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 around 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 that were excavated by Northern Flickers, and on occasion, Pileated Woodpeckers. They are losing nest sites due to logging, but they do take readily to properly installed 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.
#9. Hooded Merganser
How to identify:
- Small water bird with a long, slender bill.
- Breeding males have an unmistakable large black crest that has 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. Nonbreeding males look similar to females, except they have yellow eyes.
Appearance-wise, Hooded Merganser’s are one of my favorite water birds. Seeing a breeding male with its large black and white crest erected is a beautiful sight. Look for these ducks in shallow ponds and rivers in summer, while in winter, they move to unfrozen lakes or bays.
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 in them, making one duck work a lot harder than several others.
#10. Common Merganser
How to identify:
- 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 Montana. 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.
#11. Canada Goose
- 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 in Montana.
I’m sure you probably recognize these water birds, as they are very comfortable living around people and 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. 🙂
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 that is maintained all the way to the water’s edge, you have an open invitation for these birds to visit.
These water birds are often heard in Montana.
Listen for a wide variety of loud honks and cackles. Listen above! I have even been hissed at by them for accidentally approaching a nest too closely.
#12. Snow Goose
- 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 Montana 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 below video, which shows an ENORMOUS flock of Snow Geese. It’s hard to fathom how many birds are traveling together!
And as you can probably hear from the video above, Snow Geese are one of the noisiest waterfowl you will encounter in Montana. Their nasally, one-syllable honk can be heard at any time of day or night, at any time of the year!
And lastly, here is a fun fact that my kids loved to learn. Snow Geese are prolific at pooping, and they defecate between 6 – 15 times per hour. 🙂
#13. Tundra Swan
- Large, entirely white water bird with a long white neck.
- Entirely black bill.
- Look for a yellow patch on their black facial skin, located just below the eye, to correctly identify.
- Smaller than Trumpeter Swans.
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-hoo” bugle, with the second syllable being emphasized. (Listen below)
Another typical sound associated with Tundra Swans is the whistling of their wings. In fact, Lewis and Clark initially called them “whistling swans” when they first encountered them, and many people still use this name today.
Herons, Ibises, and Cranes:
#14. Great Blue Heron
- A very tall and large water bird, with a long neck and a wide black stripe over its eye.
- As the name suggests, they are a grayish-blue color.
- Long feather plumes on their head, neck, and back.
Great Blue Heron Range Map
Great Blue Herons are typically seen in Montana along the edges of rivers, lakes, and wetlands.
Most of the time, they will either be motionless or moving very slowly 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 even other birds.
Great Blue Herons appear majestic in flight, and once you know what to look for, it’s pretty easy to spot them. Watch the skies in Montana for a LARGE water bird that folds its neck into an “S” shape and has its legs trailing straight behind.
When disturbed, these large birds make a loud “kraak” or “fraunk” sound, which can also be heard when in flight. Listen below!
#15. American Bittern
- A medium-sized, stout water bird that is a buffy brown color.
- Underparts are white with brown streaks.
Consider yourself lucky if you can spot an American Bittern in Montana!
These herons live in freshwater marshes and are extremely secretive and perfectly camouflaged for their habitat.
American Bittern Range Map
American Bitterns are most often seen standing motionless, waiting for a fish, invertebrate, amphibian, or reptile to wander near. Once their prey gets close enough, their head darts quickly to grab the victim to swallow headfirst. Interestingly, indigestible parts don’t pass through their digestive system but instead are regurgitated as pellets!
Sound is one of the best ways to find these water birds in Montana! During the breeding season, listen for a loud, odd-sounding “oong-KA-chunk” call, which has a liquid sound. (Listen below)
#16. Green Heron
- Small heron with a long, dagger-like bill.
- Their back is gray-green. Head and neck are chestnut-brown, except for the green-black cap on the head.
- The neck is commonly drawn into their body.
Green Heron Range Map
This small water bird is found in Montana in any wet habitat that includes lots of vegetation, which provides places for them to stay hidden. You will most often see them foraging at dawn or dusk, as they prefer to stay out of sight during most of the day.
The first time I heard the “skeow” call of an alarmed Green Heron in the marsh behind my house, I had no idea what I heard because it was so unique. But luckily, these sounds are easy to learn, and now I can easily identify these herons when I’m visiting most wetlands.
#17. Great Egret
- Large, white bird with long, black legs.
- S-curved neck and a daggerlike yellow bill. Look for a greenish area between their eyes and the base of the bill.
- While they fly, their neck is tucked in, and their long legs trail behind.
Appearance-wise, Great Egrets are one of the most stunning water birds found in Montana. They especially put on a show during breeding season when they grow long feathery plumes, called aigrettes, which are held up during courtship displays.
Great Egret Range Map
In fact, these aigrettes are so beautiful, Great Egrets were almost hunted to extinction in the 19th century because these feathers made such nice decorations on ladies’ hats. The National Audubon Society was actually formed in response to help protect these birds from being slaughtered. To this day, the Great Egret serves as the symbol for the organization.
Great Egrets don’t get any awards for their beautiful songs. Listen for a loud sound that is best described as a croak (“kraak).” When surprised, you may hear a fast “cuk-cuk-cuk” alarm call. LISTEN BELOW!
#18. Cattle Egret
- Smaller heron with a yellow bill that often perches with its neck drawn in.
- Nonbreeding adults are entirely white with black legs.
- Breeding adults are white but have yellow legs and golden feathers on their head, back, and breast.
Cattle Egret Range Map
Cattle Egrets are a bit unique when compared to other water birds in Montana. Instead of spending their time near water, these birds typically live in fields, where they forage for invertebrates that have been kicked up at the feet of grazing livestock. It’s also common to see them looking for ticks on the backs of cattle!
Interestingly, Cattle Egrets are not native to North America. These herons are originally from Africa but found their way here in the 1950s and have since spread across the country. Their range keeps slowly expanding as people convert land for farming and livestock.
At any time of the year, listen for repeated, raspy “rick-rack” calls.
#19. Snowy Egret
- A completely white, medium-sized water bird with a black dagger-like bill.
- Black legs, but their feet are yellow.
- A yellow patch of skin beneath their eye.
Snowy Egret Range Map
These beautiful herons will often use their yellow feet to stir up water or mud to help them uncover hiding invertebrates, amphibians, or fish. Once their prey has been found, Snowy Egrets have no problem running their food down to finish the job!
Interestingly, these water birds will breed with other heron species, such as other similarly sized birds like Tricolored Herons, Little Blue Herons, and Cattle Egrets. So if you see a heron that you can’t seem to identify, it may be a hybrid!
#20. Sandhill Crane
- Tall, gray bird with a long neck and long legs.
- White throat. Red patch on the forehead.
- Flies with its neck stretched out and legs trailing behind.
If you go to the right habitat, Sandhill Cranes are easy to spot in Montana. 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!
#21. White-faced Ibis
- Maroon water birds with a long curved bill. Wings appear metallic green and bronze in the right light.
- At the base of the bill, breeding adults have a bare patch of pink skin surrounded by a white border. Red legs.
- Nonbreeding adults lack the skin patch and white border on the face. Greenish-black legs.
At first glance, these beautiful wading birds appear black. But upon closer inspection, you will see a beautiful mixture of green, bronze, and purple plumage. White-faced Ibises are found in marshes in Montana, where they can be found digging their long bill into mud looking for earthworms, insects, and crayfish.
White-faced Ibis Range Map
These birds sometimes use human-made objects in their nests. Everything from lighters to dolls to shotgun shells have been found!
While they are feeding or flying, you may hear a soft “oink,” which is often repeated.
Loons, grebes, and other water birds:
#22. Common Loon
- Long bodies with a strong, thick dagger-like bill. They sit low in the water.
- Breeding adults have a black head and a black and white checkerboard back.
- Nonbreeding adults are much duller and have a uniformly grayish back and head.
Common Loons are one of my FAVORITE water birds found in Montana.
These gorgeous birds are insanely strong and fast swimmers and routinely catch fish in high-speed underwater chases. In fact, 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!
For example, their tremolo calls are used when alarmed. Yodeling is given by males to announce their territories. And their famous haunting wail calls help mated pairs locate each other.
#23. American Coot
- Entirely black, except for a white sloping bill.
- Red eyes.
- Toes are NOT webbed, but instead, they are long and lobed.
American Coots are unique water birds that are quite abundant in Montana. At first glance, they appear quite like a duck, but they are actually more related to Sandhill Cranes!
American Coot Range Map
Because they don’t have webbed feet, American Coots can walk quite well on land. But don’t let this fact fool you into thinking they can’t swim, because they are EXCELLENT swimmers. Each one of their long toes has lobes of skin that help them propel through the water.
These water birds are quite vocal. Listen for a variety of squawks, croaks, and grunts.
#24. Double-crested Cormorant
- Gangly water birds with a long tail and neck.
- Completely black except for yellow-orange skin around the base of the bill.
- Long, hooked bill. Eyes are a pretty turquoise color.
Double-crested Cormorants are incredibly unique looking, with many people thinking they appear to be a cross between a loon and goose. These expert divers eat almost exclusively fish, which they catch underwater with their perfectly adapted hooked bill.
Double-crested Cormorant Range Map
One of the BEST ways to find these water birds in Montana 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 tend to 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, I mean guano, 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!
#25. Pied-billed Grebe
- Small, chunky water bird with a short, thick bill and almost no tail.
- Mostly brown. Breeding adults have a vertical black stripe on their beak.
These common water birds are found in freshwater marshes, lakes, and slow-moving rivers across Montana. They appear similar to a duck from a distance, but upon closer investigation, you will see a short, chunky bill and a blocky-looking head.
Pied-billed Grebe Range Map
Pied-billed Grebes are excellent divers and eat various crustaceans, amphibians, fish, and insects. They are almost perfectly adapted for life in the water, and you will seldom see them out of it. But their aquatic skills come at a price, as they are extremely awkward walking on land and fairly slow flyers.
Pied-billed Grebes don’t even lay their eggs on land! Instead, they typically construct a bowl-shaped nest out of dead plants that sit directly on floating vegetation. On a side note, they have ADORABLE babies, which have cute black and white faces.
It can be hard to spot one of these grebes, as they often hide among dense vegetation. Many times, it’s easier to locate one by listening for their distinct sounds. The most common call is a loud, wailing “kuk-kuk-kuk-kaow-kaow,” which slows down at the end.
#26. Eared Grebe
- Small grebe with a thin, straight, black bill. Bright red eyes.
- Breeding adults are mostly black but have beautiful golden feathers behind their eyes.
- Nonbreeding adults lack golden feathers. Mostly black with a grayish neck, white cheek patches, and white sides.
Eared Grebes are not only common water birds in Montana, but they are actually the most abundant grebe in the entire world!
Eared Grebe Range Map
Interestingly, every year when they molt, they are entirely flightless for around two months! But they are such poor fliers, it doesn’t really matter much, as they prefer to swim to get away from predators anyways.
For a bird that doesn’t like to fly and isn’t very good at it, they sure do migrate a long way! They travel as much as 3,700 miles (6000 km) to reach their wintering feeding grounds. Interestingly, on their way south, the entire population of Eared Grebes stops in one of a few salt lakes (Great Salt Lake, Mono Lake) to fatten up on brine shrimp and alkali flies before migrating farther south.
These water birds are generally quiet, except for during the breeding season, where it’s possible to hear a rising whistle that ends with a hiccup (ooEEK).
#27. American White Pelican
- GIANT white water bird with a long neck and long bill.
- Yellow patch at the base of the bill that wraps around their eyes.
- Breeding adults have an odd plate that sticks up from the end of the bill.
American White Pelicans are hard to miss due to their massive size, and they are one of the largest water birds in Montana. They typically weigh between 11 – 20 pounds (5.0 – 9.1 kg), but it’s their wingspan that is most impressive. When fully spread, the wings measure over 9 feet (2.7 m) from tip to tip, which is the second widest in North America, behind the California Condor.
American White Pelican Range Map
These pelicans don’t dive like many other birds to catch fish but instead use their giant neck pouches to scoop up fish. In fact, individuals commonly work together to herd fish to shallow areas to make them easier to catch.
Interestingly, chicks that are still INSIDE the egg can squawk to convey discomfort if conditions become too hot or too cold! Otherwise, adults are generally silent.
To learn even more, check out these other guides!
Some of the 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!
Which of these water birds have you seen before in Montana?
Leave a comment below!