26 Species of Water Birds in North Dakota

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Water birds in North Dakota

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North Dakota’s diverse water habitats, which encompass serene lakes, winding rivers, and expansive wetlands, serve as a haven for water birds. These avian marvels, varying in size, plumage, and behavior, play a pivotal role in the ecological balance of the state’s aquatic ecosystems.

North Dakota water birds

North Dakota, with its numerous wetlands, prairies, and lakes, provides an ideal habitat for a variety of water bird species. Here are some of the most common water birds you may find in North Dakota:

SpeciesFrequencyWhere to Find in North Dakota
American White PelicanCommonChase Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge
Double-Crested CormorantCommonDevils Lake, Lake Sakakawea
Great Blue HeronCommonAlong the Missouri River, Red River Valley
Great EgretCommonRed River Valley, Sheyenne River
Snowy EgretUncommonTewaukon National Wildlife Refuge
Green HeronUncommonWooded areas near water bodies throughout the state
Black-Crowned Night-HeronUncommonJamestown Reservoir, Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge
MallardVery CommonWetlands and water bodies throughout the state
Canada GooseVery CommonWetlands and water bodies throughout the state
Wood DuckCommonTurtle Mountain, Pembina River Valley
Blue-Winged TealVery CommonWetlands throughout the state
Northern PintailCommonPrairie Pothole Region
CanvasbackCommonPrairie Pothole Region
RedheadCommonPrairie Pothole Region
Ring-Necked DuckCommonPrairie Pothole Region
Lesser ScaupCommonPrairie Pothole Region
BuffleheadCommonPrairie Pothole Region
Hooded MerganserUncommonPembina River Valley, Souris River Valley
Common MerganserCommonMissouri River, Red River
Ruddy DuckCommonPrairie Pothole Region
American CootVery CommonWetlands throughout the state
Sandhill CraneCommonSheyenne National Grassland, Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge
American WigeonCommonPrairie Pothole Region
Common LoonUncommonLarger lakes in the northeastern part of the state
Pied-Billed GrebeCommonWetlands throughout the state
American BitternCommonWetlands throughout the state

Water Bird Species Found in North Dakota

Canada Goose

Canada Goose
Canada Goose Scientific Name: Branta canadensis

The Canada Goose is a large, well-known species of waterfowl noted for its distinctive appearance, familiar “honk,” and migratory behavior.

Appearance: Both male and female Canada Geese have a similar appearance, featuring a black head and neck with distinctive white patches on the cheeks and chin. The body is primarily brown with a lighter, often white, underbelly.

Diet: Canada Geese primarily feed on plant matter, including grasses, aquatic vegetation, and grains. They can often be seen grazing in parks, lawns, and fields, as well as dabbling in water bodies.

Reproduction: Canada Geese typically nest on the ground near water bodies, often on islands or other isolated areas to avoid predators. The female lays a clutch of about 4 to 6 eggs, which she incubates alone for around a month.

American White Pelican

FeatureMeasurement
Scientific NamePelecanus erythrorhynchos
Length50–70 in
Wingspan95–120 in
Weight3.5 and 13.6 kg

The American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) is one of North America’s largest birds, distinguished by its brilliant white plumage, elongated orange bill, and massive wingspan, which can extend up to 3 meters. This bird has a unique appearance with its distinctive pouch used for feeding and a “horn” on the upper part of the bill during the breeding season. Though a large bird, it is very graceful in flight, often seen soaring in flocks in a V formation.

American White Pelicans inhabit lakes, marshes, and salt bays, and despite their size, they are excellent swimmers. They feed primarily on fish, using a cooperative hunting strategy where they encircle schools of fish in shallow water and then scoop them up in their bill pouches. Unlike their brown pelican relatives, they do not dive for their food. During the breeding season, these pelicans will nest in colonies on islands in freshwater lakes.

Double-crested cormorant

FeatureMeasurement
Scientific NameNannopterum auritum
Length28–35 in
Wingspan45–48 in
Weight1.2–2.5 kg

The Double-Crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) is a large waterbird known for its long neck, hooked bill, and almost entirely black body. The species gets its name from the two small patches of tufted feathers or “crests” found on the heads of breeding adults, one on each side. These birds are strong swimmers that propel themselves underwater with their webbed feet, their bodies submerged and necks above the water surface, giving them a characteristic snake-like appearance when swimming.

Double-Crested Cormorants are widely distributed across North America and can be found in a variety of aquatic environments including freshwater lakes, coastal areas, and rivers. Their diet primarily consists of fish, which they catch by diving from the water’s surface. Often seen perched with wings outstretched to dry after fishing, these cormorants nest in trees, on the ground, or on cliff edges, usually in colonies. While they have rebounded from decreases in the mid-20th century due to DDT-related reproductive failures, they face ongoing threats from habitat loss, entanglement in fishing gear, and conflicts with fisheries over their consumption of fish. Protection and careful management of their habitats are key to their ongoing conservation.

Great Blue Heron

FeatureMeasurement
Scientific NameArdea herodias
Length36–54 in
Wingspan66–79 in
Weight1.82–3.6 kgs

Great Blue Herons are the largest heron species in North America, is distinguished by its tall stature and unique blue-gray plumage.

Measuring up to 4.5 feet tall with a wingspan of approximately 6.5 feet, the bird features a long, pointed bill, a white head with a black eye stripe extending to slender black plumes, and robust, elongated legs. Its distinctive flight pattern, forming a tight “S” shape with its neck, sets it apart from similar large birds, like cranes.

Inhabiting various wetland habitats, including marshes, lakes, rivers, and coastal regions throughout much of North and Central America, the Great Blue Heron is a wading bird. Often seen poised statue-like at the water’s edge, these birds are expert hunters, spearing fish and capturing small animals with their sharp bills.

Great Egret

FeatureMeasurement
Scientific NameArdea alba
Length31 to 41 in
Wingspan52 to 67 in
Weight1.5 to 3.3 lbs

The Great Egret (Ardea alba), also known as the Common Egret, is a large, elegant wading bird recognized for its brilliant white plumage, slender black legs, and long, dagger-like yellow bill.

With a height of up to 3.3 feet and a wingspan of 52 to 67 inches, this bird is amongst the largest of the heron species. Its stately appearance and serene comportment have made it a popular symbol in many cultures and an eye-catching sight in its habitats.

Found across all continents except Antarctica, the Great Egret resides in both fresh and saltwater wetlands, including marshes, ponds, and coastal areas. It feeds mainly on fish, but it also hunts amphibians, small mammals, and invertebrates.

Snowy Egret

FeatureMeasurement
Scientific NameEgretta thula
Length22.1–26.0 in
Wingspan39.4 in
Weight370 g

The Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) is a small and active wading bird, celebrated for its delicate beauty. It sports an entirely white plumage that appears to glow against its black bill and legs, and striking yellow feet, which often play a crucial role in luring prey during feeding.

The Snowy Egret is further adorned with fine, plume-like feathers on its head, neck, and back during the breeding season, making it one of the more distinctive heron species.

Inhabiting wetland areas across the Americas, the Snowy Egret can be found in marshes, swamps, shorelines, and tidal flats where it feeds primarily on fish, but also consumes insects, crustaceans, and small reptiles.

Green Heron

FeatureMeasurement
Scientific NameButorides virescens
Length16-18 inches
Wingspan25-27 inches
Weight6-7 ounces

The Green Heron is a small heron found in North America, notable for its deep green back and chestnut body, as well as its unique fishing tactics.

Appearance: Green Herons are dark and compact birds with a glossy, greenish-black cap, a greenish back and wings, and chestnut neck and belly. The bill is long, dark and sharply pointed. Their legs are bright orange or yellow. Young birds are duller in color, with a dark top and streaked brown front.

Diet: The Green Heron’s diet is quite varied, consisting mostly of small fish, but also includes insects, spiders, and sometimes amphibians and small mammals. It’s known for its tool-using behavior where it drops bait onto the water’s surface to attract fish.

Reproduction: Green Herons are solitary birds except during the breeding season, where they form monogamous pairs. Nests are typically built in trees or shrubs near water. Females lay 2 to 5 pale blue-green eggs that both parents incubate.

Black-Crowned Night-Heron

FeatureMeasurement
Scientific NameNycticorax nycticorax
Length22.8-26.0 in
Wingspan45.3-46.5 in
Weight727-1014 g

The Black-Crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) is a medium-sized heron species known for its distinct nocturnal habits and characteristic appearance. The bird displays a stocky silhouette, with a black crown and back, contrasting starkly with its light grey wings and white underparts.

Its eyes are large and red, adapted for its night-time activities, and its legs are relatively short for a heron. The bill is sturdy and black, and during the breeding season, two to three long white plumes extend from the back of the head.

Residing in a wide variety of wetland habitats, from freshwater marshes to coastal regions, the Black-Crowned Night-Heron is found across a large global range, including the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa. The species primarily feeds on fish and invertebrates, but it is known to be opportunistic and will also eat small mammals, birds, and eggs.

Mallard

FeatureMeasurement
Scientific NameAnas platyrhynchos
Length20-26 inches
Wingspan32-39 inches
Weight1.6-3.5 pounds

The Mallard, one of the most recognizable of all ducks, is distinguished by its classic “quack” and its common presence in city parks and wild wetlands.

Appearance: Mallards are large ducks with a hefty body and rounded head. The male is notable for its glossy green head, gray body, and black tail-curl, while the female is mottled brown with an orange-brown bill. Both sexes have a white-bordered, blue “speculum” patch in the wing.

Diet: Mallards are omnivorous, dabbling ducks that eat a wide variety of foods. They are known to feed on aquatic vegetation, insects, worms, and grains. In city parks, they are often seen eating bread, popcorn, and other food provided by humans, although such items are not part of their natural diet.

Reproduction: Mallards nest on the ground on dry land that is close to water, under cover of tall grass or other vegetation. The female typically lays around 8 to 13 eggs and incubates them herself.

Wood Duck

Wood Duck
Wood Duck Aix sponsa
Male and female wood ducks

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Scientific Name: Aix sponsa

Length: 19 to 21 in

Wingspan: 26 to 29 in

Weight: 16.0-30.4 oz

The Wood Duck is an exquisitely colorful waterfowl known for its unique nesting habits and is commonly seen in wooded swamps, marshes, and streams across North America.

Appearance: With their dazzling plumage, Wood Ducks are among the most stunning birds. Males display a multitude of colors, including a green and purple crested head, red eyes, and a white-striped chest, all contrasted with a bronze-colored body. Females, though more subdued with a gray-brown body and white eye-ring, also possess their own charm.

Diet: Wood Ducks have a diverse diet that includes seeds, fruits, and insects, as well as other invertebrates. Their broad diet helps them to adapt to a variety of habitats, whether in the wild or in urban areas with suitable nesting sites.

Reproduction: Unlike most other ducks, Wood Ducks prefer to nest in tree cavities near water, leading to their common name. They will also readily use nest boxes if they’re available. A typical clutch consists of 9 to 14 eggs, which the female incubates alone.

Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal
Blue-winged Teal Scientific Name: Spatula discors

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Scientific Name: Spatula discors

Length: 16 in

Wingspan: 23 in

Weight: 13 oz

The Blue-winged Teal is a small species of dabbling duck known for its striking plumage and its extensive migratory habits.

Appearance: Male Blue-winged Teals are quite colorful, with a slate gray head and neck, a white crescent in front of the eyes, and a predominantly brown body with specks of black. The name “Blue-winged” comes from the patch of blue feathers visible on their wings during flight. Females, in contrast, are primarily brown and subtly mottled to provide camouflage.

Diet: The Blue-winged Teal feeds mainly on plant matter, such as seeds and aquatic vegetation. However, they also supplement their diet with small invertebrates, especially during the breeding season. They are known for their “dabbling” behavior, where they feed at the surface of the water rather than diving.

Reproduction: Blue-winged Teals prefer to nest on the ground in grassy areas near water. The female typically lays a clutch of 9 to 13 eggs, which she incubates alone for about three weeks. After hatching, the ducklings can feed themselves but remain under the mother’s protection until they are capable of flying.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail
Northern Pintail Scientific Name: Anas acuta

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Scientific Name: Anas acuta

Length: 23–30 in

Wingspan: 31–37 in

Weight: 1 –3 lb

The Northern Pintail is a graceful species of duck recognized for their elegance in flight and their sleek bodies and long tails which is pin-shaped.

Male Northern Pintails are celebrated for their distinctive appearance, featuring a chocolate brown head, a white neck, and a grayish body. The most notable characteristic is the long, pointed tail feathers, which give this species its name. Females are more understated in color, sporting a mottled brown plumage.

Diet: Consists primarily of plant matter, including seeds and aquatic vegetation. They are also known to eat insects, especially during the breeding season. The Northern Pintail is often seen dabbling and upending in water bodies to forage for food.

Reproduction: Northern Pintails usually nest on the ground, near water bodies. The female lays a clutch of 7 to 9 eggs and is solely responsible for their incubation, which lasts for about three weeks.

Canvasback

Canvasback Scientific Name: Aythya valisineria

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Canvasback

Scientific Name: Aythya valisineria

Length: 19–22 in

Wingspan: 31–35 in

Weight: 1.900–3.527 lb

The Canvasback is a large diving duck species known for its sloping forehead and long, robust bill. These distinctive birds are primarily found in the wetlands and open water bodies across the United States.

Appearance: Male Canvasbacks are easily recognized by their reddish heads, black chests, and white bodies, which gives the impression of a canvas-like texture, hence their name. Females, on the other hand, have light brown feathers and a slightly paler belly. Both genders have dark gray bills and red eyes.

Diet: Canvasbacks are primarily vegetarian, feeding on aquatic plants like wild celery, pondweeds, and algae. They also occasionally consume small aquatic animals, such as snails, insects, and crustaceans.

Reproduction: Canvasbacks typically nest over water, using marsh plants to construct their nests. The female usually lays a clutch of 5 to 11 eggs which she alone incubates for about a month.

Redhead

Redhead Scientific Name: Aythya americana

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Scientific Name: Aythya americana

Length: 15 in

Wingspan: 33 in

Weight: 2.0 to 2.5 lbs

The Redhead is a medium-sized diving duck species recognized by its rounded head and broad blue bill. This bird is frequently found in wetlands, ponds, and open water bodies across the United States.

Appearance: The male Redhead is particularly striking, characterized by a coppery red head, black breast, and a gray body. The female is less colorful, featuring a brownish body and a duller, brownish-red head. Both sexes have a prominent blue bill with a black tip.

Diet: Redheads feed on a variety of items, including aquatic plants, seeds, and tubers. They also consume aquatic invertebrates, particularly during the breeding season.

Reproduction: Redheads often nest in marshes and ponds with dense vegetation.Females often lay their eggs in the nests of other ducks, a phenomenon known as brood parasitism. When nesting themselves, the female typically lays a clutch of 7 to 10 eggs and incubates them for about three weeks.

Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris)

Ring-necked Duck Scientific Name: Aythya collaris

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Scientific Name: Aythya collaris

Length: 15.3-18.1 in

Wingspan: 24.4-24.8 in

Weight: 17.3-32.1 oz

The Ring-Necked Duck is a small to medium-sized diving duck known for its distinctive markings and agile diving abilities.

Appearance: Male Ring-Necked Ducks are characterized by their bold black-and-white coloration, with a glossy black back, a striking white ring around the base of the bill, and two white “rings” on their flanks. Despite their name, the chestnut-colored ring around their neck is often hard to see. Females are more subtly colored with a gray-brown body and a white eye-ring.

Diet: These ducks have a varied diet that includes aquatic plants, seeds, and invertebrates, which they obtain by diving underwater in both shallow and deep water bodies.

Reproduction: The Ring-Necked Duck nests near water, often in densely vegetated areas. The female typically lays between 8 to 10 eggs, which she incubates alone, but both parents will care for the ducklings once they hatch.

Lesser Scaup

Lesser Scaup
Lesser Scaup Scientific Name: Aythya affinis

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Scientific Name: Aythya affinis

Length: 16.4–16.9 in

Wingspan: 27–31 in

Weight: 1–2.4 lb

The Lesser Scaup is a small diving duck species commonly found in North America, particularly in the lakes, ponds, and coastal bays of the United States.

Appearance: Male Lesser Scaups are characterized by their glossy black heads and necks, bright yellow eyes, and pale bluish-gray backs. They also feature a distinguished black chest and tail-end. Females, on the other hand, are primarily brown with white bands near the bill and a slightly lighter brown color on their heads and necks.

Diet: Lesser Scaups are divers, and their diet mainly consists of aquatic invertebrates, including insects, mollusks, and crustaceans. They are also known to eat aquatic plants and seeds, particularly during the non-breeding season.

Reproduction: Lesser Scaups nest on the ground, generally close to water bodies. The female lays a clutch of around 9 to 11 eggs and is solely responsible for their incubation, which lasts for about three to four weeks.

Bufflehead

Bufflehead
Bufflehead Scientific Name: Bucephala albeola

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Scientific Name: Bucephala albeola

Length: 13–16 in

Wingspan: 21.6 in -23.2 in

Weight: 9.5–19.4 oz

The Bufflehead is a small, compact species of diving duck known for its striking appearance and large heads and unique nesting habits.

Appearance: Male Buffleheads are easily recognized by their large, bulbous head with a green-purple iridescent sheen, a large white patch across the back of the head, and a predominantly black and white body. Females are more subtly colored, primarily in gray-brown tones with a smaller white cheek patch.

Diet: As diving ducks, Buffleheads feed by diving beneath the water’s surface. Their diet consists largely of aquatic invertebrates, such as insects, crustaceans, and mollusks, as well as some plant matter.

Reproduction: Uniquely among ducks, Buffleheads often nest in tree cavities, especially those made by Northern Flickers, a type of woodpecker. The female lays a clutch of about 6 to 11 eggs, which she incubates alone for roughly a month.

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser
Hooded Merganser Scientific Name: Lophodytes cucullatus

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Scientific Name: Lophodytes cucullatus

Length: 15.8-19.3 in

Wingspan: 23.6-26.0 in

Weight: 16.0-31.0 oz

The Hooded Merganser is a distinctive species of diving duck known for its showy crest and its excellent diving skills.

Appearance: Male Hooded Mergansers are especially striking with a large, fan-shaped, black and white crest, which can be expanded or contracted. They have bright yellow eyes, a dark back, and a white chest. The females have a more understated appearance with a brownish body, a smaller, reddish-brown crest, and dark eyes.

Diet: Consists of small fish, aquatic insects, and crustaceans. Their eyes are specially adapted for underwater vision, allowing them to spot and catch prey while diving.

Reproduction: Similar to Buffleheads, Hooded Mergansers often nest in tree cavities near water bodies. The female lays a clutch of about 10 to 12 eggs and incubates them alone for about a month.

Common Merganser

Common Merganser
Common Merganser Scientific Name: Mergus merganser
Male & Female Common Merganser

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Scientific Name: Mergus merganser

Length: 23–28 in

Wingspan: 30 – 38 in

Weight: 2 lb 0 oz – 4 lb 10 oz

The Common Merganser is a large and elegant diving duck, famous for its unique fishing abilities and seen often in the lakes, rivers, and coastal areas across North America.

Appearance: The male Common Merganser is quite striking with its dark green, almost black, crested head, bright red bill, and white body tinged with salmon-pink. The females have a reddish-brown crested head, a white neck, and a grayish body, but share the same red bill as the males.

Diet: True to their diving duck status, Common Mergansers are exceptional hunters, primarily feeding on fish. They’re also known to consume aquatic invertebrates and, on occasion, small mammals and birds. Their serrated bills are specialized to hold slippery fish tightly.

Reproduction: Like the Wood Duck, Common Mergansers also nest in tree cavities or nest boxes close to water bodies, but can also use rock crevices or holes in the ground. A clutch usually contains 9 to 12 eggs, incubated solely by the female.

Ruddy Duck

Ruddy Duck
Ruddy Duck Scientific Name: Oxyura jamaicensis

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Scientific Name: Oxyura jamaicensis

Length: 13.8-16.9 in

Wingspan: 22.1-24.4 in

Weight: 10.6-30.0 o

The Ruddy Duck is a compact diving duck species recognized for its bright blue bill and stiff tail that is often held upright. These small, agile birds are found in wetlands and ponds across the United States.

Appearance: Ruddy Ducks are characterized by their distinct reddish-brown plumage, a blackish cap and nape, and a strikingly blue bill in males. The females are less vibrant, with gray-brown feathers and a dark bill. Both genders display a unique, spiky tail that often sticks upright, especially during courtship displays.

Diet: Ruddy Ducks primarily feed on a diet of aquatic invertebrates such as insects, crustaceans, and mollusks. They also consume a variety of aquatic plants and seeds. Their specialized bill allows them to sift through the water and mud to find food.

Reproduction: Ruddy Ducks nest in marshes and ponds with dense vegetation. The female typically lays a clutch of 6 to 10 eggs in a well-concealed nest built from plant material and down.

American Coot

American Coot Scientific Name: Fulica americana
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Scientific Name: Fulica americana

Length: 13–17 in

Wingspan: 23 to 28 in

Weight: 1.270 to 1.870 lb

The American Coot is a ubiquitous water bird commonly seen in the wetlands, lakes, and ponds of North America, recognized for its adaptability and striking features.

Appearance: American Coots are easily identifiable by their slate-gray bodies, offset by a white, chicken-like bill and a red eye. Their legs are also distinctive, equipped with lobed toes, as opposed to the webbed feet seen in ducks, which assist them in navigating both land and water adeptly.

Diet: While aquatic plants form the bulk of an American Coot’s diet, they aren’t strictly herbivores. These versatile birds also consume small invertebrates and fish, demonstrating their ability to adapt and survive in a variety of habitats.

Reproduction: Nesting for the American Coot usually happens in shallow water bodies, where they construct a floating nest hidden among the vegetation. A clutch can contain between 8 to 12 eggs, all of which are incubated by both parents.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane Scientific Name: Antigone canadensis
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Scientific Name: Antigone canadensis

Length: 2 ft 7-4 ft 6 in

Wingspan: 16.5–23.6 in

Weight: 4 – 4.5 kg

The Sandhill Crane is a tall, elegant bird known for its impressive size and striking appearance. They are found across North America, in habitats ranging from wetlands to grasslands.

Appearance: Sandhill Cranes are recognized for their tall stature, gray body, long legs, and long neck. Their most distinctive feature is a red forehead, which contrasts with their otherwise primarily gray plumage. During the breeding season, their gray feathers often take on a rusty-brown hue due to them rubbing iron-rich mud onto their feathers.

Diet: Sandhill Cranes are omnivorous birds and their diet is quite diverse, consisting of seeds, grains, berries, insects, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. They are known to forage while walking in shallow water or in fields.

Reproduction: Sandhill Cranes mate for life and their complex courtship dance is a sight to behold. They nest in marshy areas and the female typically lays two eggs.

American Wigeon

American Wigeon
American Wigeon Scientific Name :Mareca americana

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Scientific Name: Mareca americana

Length: 17–23 in

Wingspan: 30–36 in

Weight: 1 –3 lb

The American Wigeon is a medium-sized duck species that is a popular sight in wetlands, ponds, and lakes and is often seen in mixed flocks with other ducks.

Males of the species are recognized by their distinctive appearance. They sport a unique white forehead and crown, coupled with a green band stretching from the eye to the back of the head. The body is mainly gray with a pinkish hue on the chest. Females are more subdued in color, with primarily gray and brown tones.

Diet: comprising mainly plant material like aquatic vegetation and grasses, but it also includes insects and other small invertebrates. They are known for a feeding behavior called “kleptoparasitism,” where they often snatch food from other ducks.

American Wigeons usually breed in the northernmost parts of North America. The females create their nests on the ground, often hidden in tall grass near water bodies. They lay a clutch of 6 to 11 eggs which they incubate for about three to four weeks and the ducklings feed on small aquatic invertebrates and aquatic insects.

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

Osprey
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Scientific Name: Pandion haliaetus

Length: 50–66 cm (19+1⁄2–26 in)

Wingspan: 127–180 cm (50–71 in)

Weight: 0.9–2.1 kg (2 lb 0 oz – 4 lb 10 oz)

The Osprey, a fascinating bird of prey, is universally known for its exceptional hunting prowess and striking physical characteristics. Osprey are dark brown hawks on the upperparts, contrasting beautifully with the predominantly white underparts, and a distinctive dark band that stretches across the eyes towards the sides of its head.

Equipped with specialized talons and a reversible outer toe, the Osprey’s hunting strategy involves a spectacular plunge-dive into bodies of water, often emerging with a fish securely gripped in its claws.

Found on every continent except Antarctica, the Osprey is a cosmopolitan species favoring habitats near water bodies such as lakes, rivers, and coastal areas, reflecting its piscivorous diet. This bird has a diet almost exclusively of fish, making it a unique member of the raptor family and often referred to as the sea hawk or fish hawk. They locate their prey from the air, often hovering before plunging feet-first to capture a fish. When it comes to breeding, Ospreys are monogamous, often mating for life.

They construct large, bulky nests made of sticks, lined with softer materials, and prefer elevated or isolated areas such as treetops or artificial structures like utility poles. Both parents share the responsibility of incubating the eggs and rearing the chicks.

Common Loon

Common Loon Scientific Name: Gavia immer

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Scientific Name: Gavia immer

Length: 24-39 in

Wingspan: 50-56 in

Weight: 6.4-13.6 lbs

The Common Loon is a large, iconic water bird that can be found in many parts of North America. It is known for its haunting calls, often heard in the early morning or late evening across the region’s lakes and ponds.

Appearance: The Common Loon is celebrated for its striking black-and-white breeding plumage, a red eye, and a robust, black bill. In winter, its plumage turns to a more subdued gray, but its large, sturdy body and pointed bill remain distinctive.

Diet: Common Loons primarily feed on fish, but also consume crustaceans, frogs, and aquatic insects. They are expert divers, capable of plunging deep underwater to catch their prey, and are often observed popping their heads above water before diving for their next meal.

Reproduction: The Common Loon nests near water, typically on lakes and larger ponds in the northern parts of North America. The female generally lays 1-2 eggs per year in a nest made from vegetation on the ground. Both parents share the responsibility of incubating the eggs and feeding the young.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe Scientific Name: Podilymbus podiceps
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Scientific Name: Podilymbus podiceps

Length: 12–15 in

Wingspan: 18–24 in

Weight: 8.9–20.0 oz

The Pied-billed Grebe is a small, elusive water bird well-known for its unique ability to adjust its buoyancy and often “sink” out of sight. It can be found in a wide variety of wetland habitats across the United States.

Appearance: Pied-billed Grebes have a stocky build with a short neck and a chicken-like bill that is conspicuously ringed in black during the breeding season – hence the name “pied-billed”. Their plumage is primarily a muted brown, which can vary in tone depending on the season.

Diet: Their diet consists predominantly of aquatic invertebrates, small fish, and amphibians. Pied-billed Grebes are adept divers and can stay underwater for impressive lengths of time to catch their prey.

Reproduction: Pied-billed Grebes usually nest in dense marsh vegetation, where the female lays 5 to 7 eggs. Both parents share responsibilities for incubation. After hatching, the chicks are often seen riding on their parents’ backs while they learn to navigate their aquatic world.

American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus)

American Bittern Scientific Name: Botaurus lentiginosus
American Bittern range map credit https://www.allaboutbirds.org/

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credit https://xeno-canto.org/408485

Scientific Name: Botaurus lentiginosus

Length: 23–33 in

Wingspan: 36–45 in

Weight: 0.816–2.363 lb

The American Bittern is a wading bird, often seen in North American wetlands, known for its exceptional camouflage and unique booming call.

Appearance: American Bitterns are medium-sized birds, with a stocky body, a thick neck, and relatively long legs. Their plumage is brown and heavily streaked with a variety of shades, making it an excellent camouflage against marshy vegetation. Their eyes are yellow, and they have a pointed yellow bill.

Diet: These secretive birds are carnivorous, feeding mostly on fish, but also on insects, amphibians, and small mammals. They hunt by standing still and waiting for prey to come within striking distance, then rapidly lunging forward with their long necks to seize the prey.

Reproduction: American Bitterns nest in dense wetland vegetation, often quite close to the water. The female lays a clutch of 2 to 7 eggs, and she is solely responsible for incubation and caring for the young.

Green-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal Scientific Name: Anas crecca

Listen to Green-winged Teal

credit https://xeno-canto.org/538745

Scientific Name: Anas crecca

Length: 12.2-15.3 in

Wingspan: 20.5-23.2 in

Weight: 14.9-17.6 oz

The Green-winged Teal is a small species of dabbling duck known for its vibrant coloration and quick, agile flight.

Appearance: Male Green-winged Teals are particularly striking with a chestnut head, a broad green streak running from the eye down the neck, and a speckled chest. The name “Green-winged” originates from the patch of iridescent green feathers visible on their wings. Females are more subtly colored, primarily in mottled brown tones that provide excellent camouflage.

Diet: The Green-winged Teal’s diet consists largely of plant matter such as seeds and aquatic vegetation. They also eat small invertebrates, particularly during the breeding season. These birds are ‘dabblers.’

Reproduction: Green-winged Teals typically nest on the ground, often concealed in dense vegetation near water bodies. The female lays a clutch of about 6 to 9 eggs, which she incubates alone for roughly three weeks.

Where to Spot North Dakota’s Water Birds

North Dakota boasts a range of habitats that attract numerous water bird species. If you’re looking to spot these birds, here are some key locations:

Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge: One of the oldest refuges in the United States, this area is a nesting site for large colonies of white pelicans and is also home to various other species of water birds.

Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, Kenmare: This refuge consists of mixed-grass prairie and wetlands, making it an ideal habitat for species like the Mallard, American Avocet, and the Black-necked Stilt.

Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge, Pingree: Spread over 16,000 acres, this refuge features a blend of wetlands, prairie, and woodland where large birds like the Snowy Egret, Great Egret, and Northern Pintail can be seen. You can also spot Snow Geese here (spot them by their pink legs).

Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Moffit: Known for hosting one of the largest colonies of nesting Western Grebes in North America, it is also home to many other water birds including the Bufflehead and the Greater Scaup.

J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge, Upham: As the largest wildlife refuge in North Dakota, it offers diverse habitats for numerous bird species like the American Coot, Sandhill Crane, and Red-breasted Merganser and a stop over for many migrating waterfowl on their way to central and south america.

Audubon National Wildlife Refuge: This refuge is situated along the Missouri River and is renowned for its high concentration of waterfowl, particularly during migration seasons.

Lake Sakakawea: This large, man-made reservoir on the Missouri River is a good spot for sighting pelicans, terns, gulls, and a variety of ducks.

Devils Lake: As the largest natural body of water in North Dakota, it serves as an important habitat for a multitude of water bird species.

The Prairie Pothole Region is a unique area of North America, characterized by thousands of shallow wetlands known as potholes. These were formed by the glacial activity during the last Ice Age over 10,000 years ago.

Spanning across parts of five U.S. states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Montana) and three Southern Canada provinces (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba), the region covers approximately 300,000 square miles.

These “potholes” fill with water in the spring and early summer and provide important breeding habitats for a wide variety of wildlife, particularly waterfowl. Around half of North America’s migratory waterfowl use the region for breeding, and you will always find breeding adults in the season. It’s a critical area for North American bird species including ducks, geese, and other bird species, as well as being vital for many grassland birds.

Neighboring StateBest Spots for Birdwatching
South Dakota Water BirdsWaubay National Wildlife Refuge, Bear Butte State Park, Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Montana Water BirdsNinepipe National Wildlife Refuge, Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Minnesota Water BirdsAgassiz National Wildlife Refuge, Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge, Sax-Zim Bog

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