13 Beautiful Wading Birds You Should Know

Great egret standing in tall grass along the shoreline with its image reflecting in the water

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The charisma of wading birds is often overlooked or underestimated when it comes to the wide swath of singing birds, raptors, and other engaging species. But the long-legged birds that mill about in marshes, mudflats, and mangroves have much to offer in diversity and sheer beauty.

From tiny turnstones to flamingos standing several feet tall, learn about some of the amazing species of birds found at the water's edge.

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American Avocet

With a bright orange head and white and brown streaked body and wings, an American avocet walks in shallow water

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The American avocet looks like a typical shorebird. However, this bird has several stand-out features. During much of the year, the avocet has white, black, and pale gray plumage. But during breeding season, the bird gains vibrant apricot or peach-colored feathers on its head and neck.

Found in shallow fresh and saltwater wetlands throughout much of North America, the American avocet is less common in eastern portions of the U.S. The avocet feeds by swinging the upturned end of its long, delicate bill back and forth in shallow water, catching invertebrates as it walks.

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Roseate Spoonbill

Two roseate spoonbills standing in shallow water, one with its bright pink wings outstreatched

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The only spoonbill species with vivid pink and red plumage, the roseate spoonbill is often mistaken for a flamingo. The bird forages by swinging its bill from side to side in the water, snagging food as it moves. The wide bill allows the bird to filter more water as it travels along, with the bill snapping shut when it comes into contact with small fish and invertebrates.

Once hunted for their feathers, the birds were nearly eliminated from the United States by plume hunters. Though threatened in parts of their range, roseate spoonbills can be spotted in coastal areas of Florida, Louisiana, and Texas.

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Black-necked Stilt

Two black-necked stilts with long pink legs and black and white plumage standing on a small patch of land near shallow water

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The black-necked stilt stands out for its impressively long pink legs. Second only to flamingos, these small birds have the longest legs in proportion to their bodies of any bird.

Found in shallow lakes and ponds in the western United States and in Central and South America, black-necked stilts are able to wade into deeper water than other similarly sized birds in search of insects and crustaceans.

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Long-billed Curlew

Side view of a long-billed curlew with it's impressively long beak standing in blue water

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The long-billed curlew is known for its impressively lengthy bill. This species is the largest shorebird in North America, and its bill rivals the larger Far Eastern curlew as the longest bill of any shorebird. The bird uses its enormous bill to snag beetles, caterpillars, spiders, and other prey on the grasslands, and to catch crabs, mollusks, and other large invertebrates while feeding along the coasts.

Also known as the sicklebird and the candlestick bird, the long-billed curlew breeds in the summer months in the grasslands of the Great Plains and Great Basin. During migration and the winter season, the long-billed curlew can be found on the coasts.

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Eurasian Oystercatcher

Two black and white Eurasian oystercatchers with bright orange beaks and red eyes sitting on a large brown rock next to the ocean

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There are several species of oystercatcher, and while they vary slightly in coloration and location, they are all easily identified by their carrot-colored orange bill. This signature bill is used for pulling earthworms from the ground and probing shorelines for mussels and other mollusks. American oystercatchers are one of the few birds capable of opening an oyster at all, so the moniker is fitting.

Eurasian oystercatchers are found in coastal areas of the UK and the European continent. Because of its seaside range, the oystercatcher is a good indicator species of the quality of coastal habitats.

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Red Phalarope

Red phalerope with striking orange beak and orange/red plumage floating on a small body of water

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These sparrow-sized wading birds breed in the high Arctic. The red phalarope measures an average of eight inches in length and weighs a mere two ounces. Unlike many wading birds, it spends a large part of the year out at sea, coming to land only during breeding season.

Unlike most other birds, female phalaropes are larger and more colorful than their male counterparts. They also take the lead in courtship, and leave males to incubate the eggs and care for the hatchlings.

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A male ruff sitting in tall grass exhibiting an impressive display of neck plumage

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There aren't many wading birds with as impressive of a courtship display as the male ruff. During the breeding season, the males flash large collars of ornamental neck feathers—the origin of their name—and try to attract the attention of females. About 1% of male ruffs mimic the appearance of females to attract a mate.

Ruffs gather in grassy mudflats, lagoons, and salt marshes. They breed in northern Eurasia and migrate to Africa, India, and Southeast Asia for the winter. Occasionally, the birds migrate to coastal areas of North America.

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White-faced Ibis

White-faced ibis in the air preparing to land on the water

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The white-faced ibis's feathers are aglow with iridescent green, deep maroon, and purple hues. Their name comes from the strip of white that occurs between the bill and the rest of the face of adult birds.

The birds gather most of their food by wading in shallow wetlands and probing the soft ground. Found year-round in southern portion of California as well as coastal areas of Texas, Louisiana, and South America, the white-faced ibis is migratory elsewhere in its range.

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Scarlet Ibis

a vividly scarlet colored scarlet ibis standing in water to the top of its legs

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Looking something like a miniature flamingo, the scarlet ibis is an easily identified bird—especially since it likes to live and socialize in large flocks of 30 or more. The scarlet ibis is found in marshy habitats in tropical South America and some islands in the Caribbean.

A member of the same family as spoonbills, the scarlet ibis's bright pink, orange, and red coloration is the result of its diet of carotenoid-containing shrimp and crabs.

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Ruddy Turnstone

a small and stocky white, brown, and black ruddy turnstone standing in shallow water near green seagrasses

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The coloration of the ruddy turnstone—its breeding plumage is tortoiseshell—is intended to help this little wading bird blend in with its environment. The bold pattern helps it camouflage into the grassy areas where it nests. Always found near the sea, the bird migrates from its breeding area in the Arctic north to the coasts of North America, South America, Eurasia, Africa, and Australia.

This small and stocky wading bird is an opportunistic eater. The ruddy turnstone will seek out everything from insect larvae and spiders to worms and crustaceans to berries and plants, and will even raid nests of other birds for the eggs.

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Side profile of an Indian stone-curlew with long yellow legs standing on small rocks

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There are 10 species of stone-curlew, including the Indian stone-curlew pictured, but none are actually related to true curlews. They're named curlew because of their call, which sounds very similar to true curlews.

Stone-curlew species are also known as thick-knee curlews because of their somewhat stocky legs, but their standout feature is the size of their eyes. These birds are mostly nocturnal, and their large eyes help them to see better in dim light when they hunt for insects, lizards, or even small mammals. Though they are wading birds, they are found in a wide array of habitats, including arid or semi-arid scrublands, forests, grassy plains, and riverbeds.

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Great Egret

One great white egret standing in the Everglades wetlands with a pink hue to the sky and water at sunrise

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The great egret is a much larger cousin of the snowy egret, standing about 37 to 40 inches tall with an impressive wingspan averaging 52 to 57 inches. It is certainly easily noticed when a birdwatcher scans calm pools, tidal flats, and marshes. The great egret feeds on small fish, reptiles, and invertebrates on land or in the salt and freshwater wetlands it frequently calls home.

The species was hunted to near extinction for the plume trade. The delicate feathers it displays during courtship were once in high demand for hats.

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Andean flamingo with long black, yellow, and white legs and a long pink neck standing in shallow water

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These iconic tropical birds are well known for their vivid pink plumage and bold black bills. Standing tall on one or both of their stilt-like legs, flamingos forage in large alkaline or saline lakes or estuarine lagoons, filter-feeding on brine shrimp and blue-green algae. Their pink coloration comes from the carotenoids in their diet: The more carotenoids they consume, the more brilliantly colored their feathers.

There are six flamingo species spread across the world. They can be spotted in shallow saltwater and brackish water in the Caribbean, South America, Africa, southern Europe, and southern Asia.