Inland Water and River Birds.

These birds are fish eaters which catch their prey in fresh water rather than salt water. Inland water bodies can be reservoirs, lagoons, lakes, ponds, saltpans, rivers and streams. Although plunge diving birds do appear on inland water bodies most of the birds reviewed here dive from the water surface.



These birds (5 species) can be considered to be the Northern Hemisphere counterparts of the Penguin. Their ancestors date back to 80 mya but our modern birds probably evolved about 50 mya.

They breed on the fresh water lakes of the Northern Hemisphere, particularly Canada and North America. In the winter they return to the coastal water of the Northern Oceans. They can often be seen placing their head in the water to look for fish prior to diving in pursuit.

Tom G photographed the Great Northern Loon (right) at Fisherman's Wharf when we were in San Francisco. I am still waiting to get a really clear and sharp image of this or indeed any other Loon.


The appearance of the Loons and Grebes is very similar to that of Enaliornis and Hesperornis known from fossils dating back to about 100 mya. They have a long body form, with the legs placed well to the rear and are swimming and diving birds with dagger shaped beaks.


Grebes (21 species) are found in all the main regions of the world including Europe, Africa, Australasia and especially north, middle and south America.

They are not really very keen on flying but readily dive from the water surface to pursue fish under water.

The Great-crested Grebe (left) is readily seen on open water in the UK. It favours lakes with little vegetation and is not at all shy.


The Little Grebe (right) likes shallow fresh waters with fringing vegetation where it can hide.


The Sungrebe belongs to a family called Finfoots (3 species).

Along with the Sunbittern (1 species) these birds are found in tropical forest regions, on rivers and streams with overhanging vegetation. The Finfoots swim like long-legged Grebes.


Robert D photographed the Sungrebe (left) on the Tortuguero Lagoon during a birding trip to Costa Rica.



Coots like large areas of open inland water with plenty of vegetation. They are much more aggressive than other members of the family Rallidae and are the only members of the family that regularly dive for food.

There are 11 species, 6 in South America and 2 in North America. They have frontal shield reminiscent of the Shelduck. The Red-knobbed Coot (right) was photographed in South Africa.

Cormorants and Shags.

Cormorants (20) are found in fresh water habitats whereas Shags (18) favour coastal, rocky areas.

They both dive from the water surface (without the prior under-water surveillance which is seen with the Loons) to catch fish with their long beaks which have a hook at the end of their upper mandible.


The Double-crested Cormorant (left) has a very regal appearance and was photographed at Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco.

Nelson L has taken a superb series of photographs of this bird in action in the bay at Stone Harbor, New Jersey USA. To see some fascinating images please click on []

I was able to photograph the European Shag (below, right), when we took a boat trip with Tom and Jean to visit Inner Farne Island, off the coast of Northhumberland, in the UK.

This bird is usually seen on the water or perched on rocks right at the bottom of coastal cliffs but is very rarely seen over land.




Two species are known; the Anhinga found in the Americas and the Darter in Africa, Asia and Australia. They have longer necks than the Cormorant but no hook to the upper mandible. They favour shaded, slow moving fresh waters where they spear fish with their very sharp beaks. The female Darter (left) was photographed during a boat trip on the Daintree River in Australia.



Rivers and streams which provide convenient, shaded perches along the margins provide a habitat for smaller birds with pointed beaks which plunge dive for fish.

These birds are some of the members of the Kingfisher family found in Europe, North America, South Africa and Australia.

Although they are called Kingfishers many don't actually eat fish. You can see more if you go to my websate called Group Birds by Habitats and Niches. Click on the blue link Kingfishers & Kookaburras.

River Kingfishers fly fast (presumably to avoid predators) along the water either to a new perch or back to their nest which is a burrow in the banks. These two Amazon Kingfishers (above, right) were photographed from a boat on the Tortuguero Lagoon in Costa Rica.


Although they eat crustaceans rather than fish, I have included the Dippers (5 species) here.


The White-throated Dipper (right) was photographed in the UK.

They are one of the groups of birds which one can almost guarantee seeing on fast flowing rivers and streams in areas. If there are bridges to nest under, so much the better. Like the Kingfishers they fly fast keeping low over the water.



Phalaropes (3 species) are found in North America and Europe. They like coastal mudflats, inland waters and lagoons. The nest on bare ground with over-hanging vegetation. They spin in tight circles to sitr up the water so that they can feed on algae which is brought to the surface.

The Wilson's Phalarope in breeding plumage (left) was photographed at Lake Cochise in Arizona.

Concluding remarks.

The birds included here account for just over 1% of the world's species. They can be characterised by the following points:-

  • They favour inland, fresh water bodies, although some winter at sea.
  • They are fish eaters taking their prey with pointed or hooked-tip beaks.
  • The larger birds don't seem to have any particular fear of other birds but the Kingfishers and Dippers fly low and fast presumably to avoid predators.

Note - Not included here are the Osprey and Fish Eagles which snatch fish from just beneath the water surface with their long talons. The characteristics which these birds display are such that I prefer to group them with Birds of Prey.