37 Water Birds That Live in Wisconsin! (ID Guide)

What kinds of water birds can you find in Wisconsin?

Water birds in Wisconsin

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.

37 water bird species in Wisconsin:


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 Wisconsin

  • 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 Wisconsin!

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 Wisconsin

  • 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 Wisconsin.

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: Wisconsin

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 Wisconsin

  • 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 Wisconsin 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 Wisconsin

  • 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 Wisconsin 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 Wisconsin 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. Redhead

  • Aythya americana

redhead ducks

  • 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 Wisconsin, 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

redhead duck 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

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 Wisconsin. 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.


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


#9. 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 Wisconsin!

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.”


#10. 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 Wisconsin. 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.”


#11. 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 Wisconsin. 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.


#12. 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 Wisconsin 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!


#13. 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 Wisconsin.

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.


#14. 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 Wisconsin. 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.


#15. 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 Wisconsin. 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.


#16. Canvasback

  • Aythya valisineria

canvasback duck male female

  • 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

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.


#17. Ruddy Duck

  • Oxyura jamaicensis

ruddy duck

  • Breeding males are blue-billed and white-cheeked. A stiff black tail is typically erect. Look for the light blue bill.
  • Females are tawny and soft brown, except for the darker cap. Females (and non-breeding males) have a black, scoop-like bill.

Ruddy Ducks are among the most interesting water birds in Wisconsin!

First, the males in their breeding plumage are unmistakable and look like no other duck. It’s hard to miss their bright blue bills and extremely thick necks.

Ruddy Duck Range Map

ruddy duck range map

Ruddy Ducks are much better swimmers than flyers. When they feel threatened by a predator, they much prefer to dive and swim away than take to the air.

Males also have a unique way of attracting females. They will beat their bill against their neck so hard that it forces air through the feathers, which creates a swirl of bubbles in the water. To finish off this display, they emit a belch-like sound!


#18. Snow Goose

  • Anser caerulescens

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 Wisconsin when they migrate south in fall and winter.

Snow Goose Range Map

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 Wisconsin. Their nasally, one-syllable honk can be heard at any time of day or night, at any time of the year!


#19. Tundra Swan

  • Cygnus columbianus

tundra swan

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.


#20. Mute Swan

  • Cygnus olor

mute swans

Mute Swans are among the most elegant and beautiful birds you will see in the water. They are also enormous and are one of the heaviest birds that can fly!

But did you know these water birds are NOT native to Wisconsin?

Due to their beauty, Mute Swans were imported from Europe and released in parks, large estates, and zoos. Unfortunately, these individuals escaped and have established an invasive wild population.

Don’t be fooled by their appearance; these swans can be aggressive, and they regularly attack kayakers and other people who get too close to their nest. They also displace native ecosystems due to their voracious appetite, which requires up to 8 pounds (3.6 kg) of aquatic vegetation daily!

Despite their name, these swans are not mute! While it’s true they are relatively quiet, they make a hoarse trumpet sound when defending their territory. And if they are threatened, expect to hear various barks, hisses, and snorts.


#21. Ross’s Goose

  • Anser rossii

Geese and Swans species

  • Small, stocky goose that is completely white, except for black wingtips. They are slightly larger than a Mallard duck.
  • A stubby red-orange bill that has a gray base.
  • Legs and feet are also red-orange.

Ross’s Goose looks very similar to the Snow Goose, except they are smaller and have a shorter neck and stubbier bill. It’s common for these two species to travel together in the same large flocks!

Ross’s Goose Range Map

ross goose range map

Populations of Ross’s Goose have been increasing due to climate change. As their summer breeding grounds in the Arctic are warming, the snow cover has been reduced, which increases plant growth. More plants mean more food for Ross’s Goose, which leads to more babies being born and surviving!

During the non-breeding season, these water birds migrate south and can be seen in Wisconsin in marshes, lakes, and farm fields, where they enjoy eating leftover crops.

If you see a flock of white geese flying overhead, listen for Ross’s Goose, which gives a distinctive “keekkeek keek” call. It will sound higher in pitch than a Snow Goose.


#22. Trumpeter Swan

  • Cygnus buccinator

trumpeter swan

Trumpeter Swans are the largest bird by weight in Wisconsin!

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.


#23. Greater White-fronted Goose

  • Anser albifrons

greater white fronted goose

These birds breed in the arctic tundra but then migrate south for winter. Look for these large geese in Wisconsin in large flocks in wetlands, lakes, and farm fields.

Greater White-fronted Goose Range Map

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, Ibises, and Cranes:


#24. Great Blue Heron

  • Ardea herodias

great blue heron

These water birds are typically seen in Wisconsin 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!


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


#26. 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 Wisconsin 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.


#27. Great Egret

  • Ardea alba

great egret

Great Egrets are large water birds found in Wisconsin. 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.


#28. Black-crowned Night Heron

  • Nycticorax nycticorax

black crowned night heron

  • A relatively small, stocky, compact heron.
  • Appears a bit hunchbacked, as it often tucks its neck into its body.
  • Black head and back, which contrast against its white belly and gray wings.

Black-crowned Night Herons are common in wetlands across Wisconsin. In fact, they are the most widespread heron in the world, but they are often hard to actually locate and see!

Black-crowned Night Heron Range Map

black crowned night heron range map

As their name suggests, these herons are most active at dusk and during the evening. While the sun is out, they spend the day hiding amongst brush and vegetation near the water’s edge. By foraging at night, these birds avoid competition from other heron species!

When surprised or under duress, Black-crowned Night Herons give a loud, barking “quawk. While at their nesting colonies, you can hear a variety of other croaks, barks, hisses, screams, clucks, and rattles.


#29. Sandhill Crane

  • Antigone canadensis

sandhill crane

If you go to the right habitat, Sandhill Cranes are easy to spot in Wisconsin. 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 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!


#30. Least Bittern

  • Ixobrychus exilis

least bittern

  • A small heron with a hunchbacked appearance and a long pointed yellow bill.
  • Unlike most other heron species, male and female Least Bitterns look different.
    • Males: Extremely dark green back and crown.
    • Females: Dark brown back and crown.

Least Bitterns are the smallest heron you will find in Wisconsin!

Not only are these water birds small, but they can be tough to see. Least Bitterns blend in perfectly to their wetland environments and seem to appear out of the reeds or cattails. To find one, you will need lots of patience and a bit of luck. 🙂

Least Bittern Range Map

least bittern range map

Surprisingly, Least Bitterns can be found searching for food in fairly deep water. Unlike other herons that wade through the water, these birds are light enough to grasp onto reeds, which allows them to hunt while being suspended in midair! You can see this behavior in the video below:


Loons, grebes, and other water birds:


#31. 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 Wisconsin.

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!


#32. 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 Wisconsin. 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.


#33. 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 Wisconsin, 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.


#34. American Coot

  • Fulica americana

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 abundant in Wisconsin.

At first glance, they appear quite like a duck, but they are actually more related to Sandhill Cranes!

American Coot Range Map

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 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.


#35. 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 Wisconsin 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!


#36. 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 Wisconsin. 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.


#37. American White Pelican

  • Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

white pelican

  • It is a GIANT white water bird with a long neck and 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. In fact, they are one of the largest birds in Wisconsin. 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

white pelican range map

Despite what you might think, American White Pelicans don’t dive underwater to catch fish. Instead, they use their giant neck pouches to scoop up fish. Individuals commonly work together to herd fish to shallow areas to make them easier to catch.

Their bill can hold several gallons of water, so before swallowing, they tilt their bill upward to drain out the water!

Interestingly, chicks still INSIDE the egg can squawk to convey discomfort if conditions become too hot or too cold! Otherwise, adults are generally silent.


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


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

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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One Comment

  1. We have Buffleheads here in Central Wisconsin for a very short time in the Spring. I just adore them. Great divers, stay under a long time. Is this characteristic or have I made and identification mistake? Black and white with a lustrious blue gree
    n black throat. I just love theem!