Lakes can provide great bird habitat for those that love the water. They can provide aquatic vegetation, fish, crustaceans and many other food sources. Lakeshores are also great places to nest and hide among tall reeds and sedges. Some of these lake birds have special adaptations that enable them to dive beneath the water’s surface in search of food, while others wade in the shallows. In this article, we’ll look at 11 common lake birds that can be found in North America.
11 Lake birds
If you live near lakes or visit lakes as part of your summer vacation, chances are you’ll spot some of these birds on the water.
Scientific Name: Anas platyrhynchos
Mallards are a very common type of duck that can be found in freshwater habitats with submerged vegetation on several continents, including North America. Mallards remain year-round across most of the United States, and are well known for being one of the most commonly seen duck species at suburban parks, ponds and lakes. They are pretty comfortable around humans, and often readily accept handouts of food. Just make sure you know what’s safe to feed them.
Mallards are “dabble” eaters, meaning they don’t dive, just tip upside down with their feed sticking out of the water to reach seeds and plants below the surface. Males are easy to spot with their emerald green heads and yellow beaks. Females are a mottled brown all over.
2. Eared Grebe
Scientific Name: Podiceps nigricollis
The Eared Grebe, also known as the black-necked grebe, is a small freshwater bird found throughout the world. During the summer, they are dark with reddish sides and long golden feathers that fan out from behind their eye. In the winter they molt into plainer black and white plumage and loose their golden face feathers.
Eared Grebes nest in lakes and wetlands among cattail and sedge. They build a floating platform made from aquatic plants and reeds, and lay 1-8 eggs at a time. Like other species of grebes, they perform elaborate courtship displays that involve calling, diving, and running across the water.
Outside of the breeding season they can be found in huge flocks of hundreds or thousands. In North America, they stop over during migration in large number at salty lakes such as the Salton Sea, Great Salt Lake and Mono Lake.
3. Bald Eagle
Scientific Name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus
The U.S.A’s national bird, the bald eagle, is a fish eating bird-of-prey. Some populations remain in the U.S. year-round, while others head north to Canada and Alaska to breed in the summer, then come back down into the U.S. for the winter. Winter is a great time to see them, as they tend to gather together in areas of non-freezing water such as large lakes, dams, and refuges.
Bald eagles nest in forested areas surrounding large bodies of water. During the summer you can spot them along lakes perching in the tallest trees surveying their territory. Their habitat must include enough available food to support them, including fish such as salmon and herring as well as crabs and small mammals.
4. Common loon
Scientific Name: Gavia immer
In the winter, the common loon can be found along coastal North America with gray and white plumage. They remain off-shore and dive for fish. However in the summer, they transform into stunning black and white plumage and head inland for clear freshwater lakes across Alaska, Canada and the very northern regions of the United States such as the Great Lakes and New England.
Their legs are located at the very back of their body. This makes them fast and powerful swimmers, but unable to support their body weight on land. Therefore they only come ashore to breed and hatch their eggs. They are master divers and chase their prey, fish, underwater.
While they can fly, take-off is a challenge. They need between 30 yards to a quarter-mile of open water to pick up speed before they can take to the sky. If they don’t leave for the ocean soon enough in the winter, they run the risk of the lake freezing around them and not having enough open water to take off, leaving them stranded.
5. Pied-billed Grebe
Scientific Name: Podilymbus podiceps
The Pied-billed Grebe is a small waterbird found across much of North America and parts of South America. They prefer freshwater to slightly brackish lakes and ponds where water movement is fairly flat. This grebe has a stocky brown body with a very short white tail. Breeding adults have a gray beak with a black stripe across the bill. This gives them their “pied-billed” name.
They consumes small fish, crayfish, crabs, snails and aquatic invertebrates such as insects and larvae. Most of their food is caught underwater as they dive and search through aquatic plants. They can dive head-first, or adjust their buoyancy and simply sink below the surface. In fact, they use this ability to avoid predators by submerging their whole body with only their eyes and top of their head remaining above the surface, hiding just below the surface like an alligator. Nests are built on platforms of floating vegetation.
6. Trumpeter swan
Scientific Name: Cygnus buccinator
Trumpeter swans are North America’s largest native waterfowl. Once near extinction, these swans are now making a comeback. They can be found in scattered habitat in Alaska, Canada, the U.S. northwest and Great Lakes Region. These impressive birds have a wingspan of up to ten feet and a weight of up to 28 pounds! Because of their large size, they need about 100-yard “runway” of open water to get airborne.
They’re entirely white, with black feet and bills. Young trumpeter swans, on the other hand, typically develop light to dark gray feathers first before turning whiter as they mature. They prefer to nest on top of muskrat and beaver dens, so their success in the wild is often tied to the population of those species. Trumpeter swans will also nest on small islands, and they prefer freshwater areas no more than six feet deep. They have a mainly plant-based diet of aquatic grasses, sedges, pondweeds and algae. In the winter they eat more land based foods including berries, grain crops and tubers.
7. American Coot
Scientific Name: Fulica americana
American Coots are a common type of waterfowl found in North American freshwater lakes. You’ll often spot them in mixed groups of ducks. They have a chunky body, large greenish-yellow feet, red eyes and a distinctive white beak. While they hang out with and swim similar to ducks, they don’t have webbed feet. Rather, they have large, lobed toes that can fan out and aid in swimming, but also make it easier for coots to walk on land without waddling like a duck. In the winter coots flock together in large groups that can number in the thousands.
American Coots look for shorelines with aquatic vegetation in standing water. They occasionally eat insects, snails and tadpoles, but mainly stick with algae and aquatic plants like sedges, eelgrass, cattails and duckweed. They nest in areas of dense vegetation on floating platforms that are anchored to upright stalks and remain well hidden.
8. Great Blue Heron
Scientific Name: Ardea herodias
The Great Blue Heron is a large, long-legged bird that can walk and hunt for food in shallow water without getting wet. This common heron species is found throughout North and Central America. They’re the largest herons in North America, standing about 4.5 feet tall. Their long legs trail behind them while in flight, making them an easy silhouette to identify in the sky.
They have grayish-blue feathers, a white face and large yellow beak. Great Blue Herons inhabit many types of freshwater and saltwater habitats including lakeshores. Great Blue Herons stalk their prey, walking slowly they standing still until the time is right to strike with their sharp beak. Their diet is varied and includes fish, frogs, reptiles and even small birds and mammals. Despite their size they mainly nest in trees, building nests of large sticks lined with pine needles, reeds and grasses.
9. American Wigeon
Scientific Name: Mareca americana
The American Wigeon is a medium-sized bird found across North America. They typically live in vegetation-rich lakes or wetlands. The body of these dabbling ducks is a warm brown with a grayish-brown head, and pale bill tipped in black. Males have an iridescent green patch that extends from their eye down their neck, and sport a white cap.
They breed in Alaska, western Canada and parts of the northwestern U.S., then spend winters in the western U.S., along the east coast, Mexico and the Caribbean. Lakes are good places to find them both during summer and winter. They are also known to hang out in suburban parks and golf courses. They are mainly plant eaters, so prefer waterbodies with ample aquatic vegetation. Despite spending so much time in the water, they make their nests on dry ground up to 1,000 feet away from the waters edge.
10. Wood Duck
Scientific Name: Aix sponsa
The Wood Duck is a handsome and colorful duck found in North America. It gets its name from its preference for living in wooded areas and nesting in tree holes, particularly near lakes and streams.
Males are brightly colored, with a mix of iridescent colors, a red beak and large colorful crest. On the other hand, females are less colorful in shades of gray and brown, but have a distinctive white teardrop around their eye.
Their diet is mainly plant-based material, but they will forage for a wide variety of foods that include both aquatic plants and seeds to acorns, nuts, grains and insects. You’ll find them foraging in the water along shorelines with lots of vegetation as well as on wooded land near water. Good nesting holes can be hard to come by as wood ducks aren’t able to create their own tree cavity. They often use places where branches have broken off and the interior wood had rotten. They will also use man-made nest boxes.
11. Black-crowned night heron
Scientific Name: Nycticorax nycticorax
The Black-crowned night heron is a medium-sized heron species found across the Americas. They live in various wetlands, including lake edges, swamps, rivers, and mudflats with abundant vegetation like rushes and cattails. They have light gray underparts and wings, with a black cap and back. While they don’t have as long a neck as some larger herons, they tend to keep their neck tucked giving them an even more compact appearance.
Their name comes in part from their tendency to be more active at dusk and dark. During the day they roost in trees along the waters edge. These herons nest together in colonies, usually in trees that overhang water. Their beak is sharp but they tend to grab prey rather than stab it. They are opportunistic eaters and will eat just about anything they can find from aquatic prey like fish, clams and turtles to land animals like rodents, small birds and bird eggs.