23 Water Birds That Live in Nova Scotia! (ID Guide)

What kinds of water birds can you find in Nova Scotia?

Water birds in Nova Scotia

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.

23 water bird species in Nova Scotia:


Here is how the below list is organized. Click the link to jump straight to that section!


Ducks, Geese, & Swans:


#1. Mallard

  • Anas platyrhynchos

Water birds in Nova Scotia

  • 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 Nova Scotia!

Mallard Range Map

mallard duck 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

Water birds in Nova Scotia

  • 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 Nova Scotia.

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. 🙂

Canada Goose Range Map

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

Water birds in Nova Scotia

  • 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

american wigeon range map

Since they can scare easily when approached, one of the best ways to see these water birds in Nova Scotia 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

Water birds in Nova Scotia

  • 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

northern pintail range map

The best place to find these water birds in Nova Scotia 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

northern shovelers male female

  • 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 Nova Scotia 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

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.


#6. Common Goldeneye

  • Bucephala clangula

common goldeneyes

  • 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 Nova Scotia. 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

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.


#7. Red-breasted Merganser

  • Mergus serrator

red breasted mergansers male female

  • 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

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 Nova Scotia are not usually hunted. It’s also why you don’t find anyone trying to eat a penguin!


#8. Gadwall

  • Mareca strepera

Kinds of ducks

  • 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 Nova Scotia!

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

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.”


#9. Blue-winged Teal

  • Spatula discors

blue winged teal male and female

  • 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 Nova Scotia. 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

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.”


#10. Green-winged Teal

  • Anas carolinensis

green winged teal

  • 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 Nova Scotia. 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

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.


#11. Wood Duck

  • Aix sponsa

wood ducks

  • 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 with green, red, orange, lime, yellow, buff, rose, brown, tan, black, white, gray, purple, and blue coloring.

Wood Duck Range Map

wood duck range map

This is one of the few water bird species in Nova Scotia 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 / 15m) 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!


#12. Bufflehead

  • Bucephala albeola

bufflehead male female

  • 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 Nova Scotia.

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

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

  • Lophodytes cucullatus

hooded merganser male and female

  • 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 Nova Scotia. Seeing a breeding male with its large black and white crest erected is a beautiful sight.

Hooded Merganser Range Map

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

common mergansers

  • 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 Nova Scotia. 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 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.


Herons, Ibises, and Cranes:


#15. Great Blue Heron

  • Ardea herodias

great blue heron

These water birds are typically seen in Nova Scotia 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

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!


#16. American Bittern

  • Botaurus lentiginosus

american bittern

  • A medium-sized, stout water bird that is a buffy brown color.
  • The underparts are white with brown streaks.

Consider yourself lucky if you can spot an American Bittern!

These herons live in freshwater marshes and are extremely secretive and perfectly camouflaged for their habitat.

American Bittern Range Map

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 Nova Scotia! During the breeding season, listen for a loud, odd-sounding “oong-KA-chunk” call, which has a liquid sound. (Listen below)


#17. Green Heron

  • Butorides virescens

green heron

  • Small heron with a long, dagger-like bill.
  • Their back is gray-green. The head and neck are chestnut-brown, except for the green-black cap on the head.
  • The neck is commonly drawn into their body.

This small water bird is found in Nova Scotia 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 keep out of sight during most of the day.

Green Heron Range Map

green heron range map

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 visiting most wetlands.


#18. Great Egret

  • Ardea alba

great egret

Great Egrets are large water birds found in Nova Scotia. These herons are stunning and 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

great egret range map

In fact, these aigrettes are so beautiful that 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 formed in response to help protect these birds from being slaughtered. To this day, the Great Egret serves as the organization’s symbol.

Slightly smaller than a Great Blue Heron, this species eats almost anything that may be in the water. The list includes reptiles, birds, amphibians, small mammals, and countless invertebrates.


Loons, grebes, and other water birds:


#19. Common Loon

  • Gavia immer

common loon

  • 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 Nova Scotia.

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

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!


#20. Herring Gull

  • Larus argentatus

types of gulls

  • 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 Nova Scotia. 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.


#21. 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 Nova Scotia, 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.


#22. Double-crested Cormorant

  • Nannopterum auritum

double crested cormorant

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

double crested cormorant range map

One of the BEST ways to find these water birds in Nova Scotia 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!


#23. Pied-billed Grebe

  • Podilymbus podiceps

pied bill 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 Nova Scotia. 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 grebe range map

Pied-billed Grebes are excellent divers who eat 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 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 its distinct sounds. The most common call is a loud, wailing “kuk-kuk-kuk-kaow-kaow,” which slows down at the end.


To learn more about birds in Nova Scotia, check out these other guides!


Which of these water birds have you seen before in Nova Scotia?

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!

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