California Water Bird Identification

California Water Bird Identification
The California Birds Record Committee currently lists more than 600 bird species in the state. Only the most experienced birdwatcher could identify every one. However, by narrowing it down to the aquatic species and keeping an eye open for distinct characteristics, it is more than possible for the amateur to point out a few of California's incredible water birds.


Difficulty: Moderate

Step 1
Look at the feet. One of the best ways to narrow down the possibilities when it comes to identifying aquatic birds is to look at how their feet are specialized. In general, water birds fall into three foot categories: paddlers, waders and semi-aquatic. Paddlers, have broad feet with full webbing. This category includes ducks, geese, swan and more exotic species, such as the active diver Brandt's cormorant. Waders are typically found along the shoreline and can be differentiated by their long, spindly legs and toes. Waders include sand-pipers, herons and cranes. Semi-aquatic feet can be found on sea-gulls and ocean predators, such as osprey.
Step 2
Check size and shape. Often the best clue to a bird's identity is its silhouette. Length, girth and tail shape all contribute to a composite shape that holds true for most individuals of a species. Everyone would probably recognize the distinct shape of a pelican. Other birds with distinct shapes include darters, who have very long necks they often hold high over the water before diving. Albatross can be recognized by their immense wingspans, while storm-petrels are identifiable by the exact opposite: their small size (they are often mistaken for bats).
Step 3
Keep an eye out for distinct coloration. Because the aquatic habitat is so diverse, including every type of bird from ocean hunters to shore diggers, many species have wildly different color schemes. Killdeer and plovers may be mostly black and white, but the pattern, a series of black rings on white, make them stand out. The puffin's red beak and yellow feathers above the eyes make for a distinctive face that's hard to miss.
Step 4
Try to identify the beak's use. Bird beaks are divided into several categories, depending upon a beak's specialized design. Water birds often have strainers, spears or probes. Strainers are broad and flat, designed to skim stuff off the water's surface. They can be found on ducks and other paddling birds. Spears are long and sharp and useful to predatory waders, such as egrets. Probes are also long, but narrow. Probes are often found on shore waders such as plovers and killdeer, which use their beaks to pick tiny creatures from the sand.
Step 5
Remember features and check the guide book. The previous steps are unlikely to provide a specific species identification in every situation. Instead, they are designed to give you exceptional observational criteria to aid in remembering distinct features. These features are the same that dedicated bird-watchers use and will help you find a proper identification later.

Tips & Warnings

Bring binoculars along to help you get a closer look at beaks and feet

Article Written By Louie Doverspike

Based in Seattle, Louie Doverspike has been a professional writer since 2004. His work has appeared in various publications, including "AntiqueWeek" magazine, the "Prague Post" and "Seattle Represent!" Doverspike holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Hamilton College.

Don't Miss a Thing!

All our latest outdoor content delivered to your inbox once a week.



We promise to keep your email address safe and secure.